Tag Archives: Carlos

004.028

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Juliana awoke with a start, eyes stinging as a few droplets of sweat fell.

Another nightmare, she thought, lifting her head from where it rested on her mother’s bed. At least this one had something more than just her mother dying in various horrifying ways. It had been a reminder about something she had forgotten.

Something she couldn’t allow to remain forgotten.

“This is not a long-term care ward.”

The light in the infirmary was set as low as it could possibly go without actually being off. Still plenty bright to see, but it did give contrast to the bright light shining through a crack in Nurse Post’s office door.

“With your wife stabilized, I’m going to have to ask you to move her. We can handle the finer details, but we still need your approval.”

Juliana glanced down at her mother and got the impression of peace. Her sleeping face appeared at rest, compared to the contortion of pain she was in back in Hell. A remarkable state considering her sternum had shattered, several ribs were broken, and several internal organs and blood vessels were raw and fresh.

A machine was hooked up to her chest, acting entirely as her heart. That particular organ would need to be regrown entirely.

And yet, her face was calm as if she were resting on a sunny beach.

Painkillers worked wonders.

“I understand,” Carlos’ voice drifted through the office door. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“Of course. Happy I could help. Now, if you’ll just take a seat, we can go over a few things.”

Juliana tuned them out. It sounded like they would be busy for a while and she didn’t want to disturb them. After scrawling a quick note on a tablet on the bedside table, Juliana left Brakket Academy’s main infirmary.

And promptly ran into a small entourage. Her breath hitched as she watched the members go by. Dean Turner led the group, followed closely by a man in a long dark coat. At his side was a primary source of Juliana’s consternation.

Zagan.

The devil moved with the group yet he felt distant from it all. The man in the dark coat was speaking to him, but if Zagan was listening, he gave no indication. He did not, however, miss Juliana standing stock still. Flashing his white teeth, Zagan gave a casual wave in her direction.

Which only brought everyone’s attention down on her.

Dean Turner was the first to angle towards Juliana. Zagan followed without hesitation, forcing the man in the coat and a fourth member–the secretary, if Juliana remembered right–to head over as well.

“Miss Rivas,” Dean Turner said in greeting. “Is your mother..?”

“Stabilized and resting. My dad is discussing what hospital to move her to for longer-term observation and treatment.”

“That is good to hear.”

Juliana nodded, leaving her head aimed at their feet after her nod; Zagan was looking at her as if expecting her to ask something of him and Juliana had no idea what. He had already made it clear that asking for additional assistance was grounds for termination. She was still a student and he was presumably still under contract, so he probably wasn’t expecting a comment about that.

Unless he wasn’t expecting her to ask for something. Looking up to meet his golden eyes, a response formed in Juliana’s mind. “Thank you,” she said, “for getting us out of there.”

His eyes widened a tiny fraction, giving Juliana the impression that he had been expecting something else entirely. Which was probably a good thing. He had said, upon being summoned, that the only reason she wasn’t dead was because of the novelty of a situation he had never experienced before.

So surprises were one of his weaknesses. She’d have to go and think up a bunch if she wanted to be in good standing with the devil who so casually dispatched the demon her mother, Arachne, Eva, and herself had all failed to inflict meaningful damage upon.

After his brief surprise passed, he gave a slight bow in return, saying nothing.

Both the secretary at his side and the man in the coat gave him something of an evil glare.

“If there’s nothing else,” Juliana said, “I was just on my way to my dorm room…”

“Oh, don’t let us hold you,” Dean Turner said. “You should be with your mother, family, and friends in times like these.”

Juliana nodded and slipped around them, ignoring the quiet remarks at her back. She wasn’t much interested in conversation with any of them.

Power-walking back to her dorm room, Juliana sang out a string of curses under her breath. All of them were directed at herself. Five days. Five whole days passed and she had let herself forget one of the most important things.

She was in an all out run by the time she reached the third floor.

Throwing the door open and flying into the room, Juliana skidded to a stop in front of her desk. It took mere seconds of rifling through her drawers to find the object of her current ire.

A small glass eye, fit for a doll.

Gripping the loathsome object in her hand, Juliana threw it with all her might.

It shattered against the floor, sending pieces every which way.

Not willing to take a single chance, Juliana pulled out the dustpan and brush from underneath the sink and set to work. Everywhere had to be checked. Under her bed, under her desk, Eva and Shalise’s beds and desks. Her meticulous sweep of the room reached everywhere even a speck of glass could have gone.

It wasn’t a short job. A full broom might have made it go faster, or at least easier on her back, but Juliana was somewhat glad she had to make do with the mini broom. It was just another sort of penance for screwing everything up.

With the pan full of glass dust, Juliana dumped it all into a plastic bag. She then embedded the bag into her armor, forming the metal around it to keep every last bit sealed off.

Now she just needed to find a fire mage capable of creating enough heat to melt glass. Professor Lurcher should do. He would probably be happy to get rid of a potentially dangerous object.

Back creaking as she stood, Juliana turned and promptly froze. Again. Second time in as many hours.

Ylva ducked into the room. Not quite fitting with her height, she had to keep slouched over. With a frown marring her sharp features and speaking volumes of her displeasure with the height situation, a pillar of fog enveloped the giant.

From the fog emerged a tiny version of Ylva that came roughly up to Juliana’s chest. Tiny-Ylva took one glance around the room, looking significantly more satisfied, before she focused on Juliana.

“Y-Ylva?” Juliana tried not to stutter, but having the demon just show up had all sorts of thoughts running through her mind. Especially given recent experiences with demons whom she thought were friendly. “What are you doing here?”

“We had little chance to speak after your ordeal and wished to ensure your wellbeing.”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Juliana shook her head, slumping back and finding purchase on the edge of her bed. “No, I’m not okay. I’m angry. I’m upset. Every time I shut my eyes, I see my mother lying on the ground, dying in various ways. Sometimes someone is standing over her, blood dripping from their hands. Willie, Arachne, Zagan, even Eva and you.

“But most of the time, it’s me over her body.”

Ylva stood still for a moment in thought. With a slight frown touching the edges of her lips, she strolled forwards. Eva’s bed sank slightly as Ylva hopped on top. Too short to reach the ground, her legs swung in the air.

“Blaming yourself will lead to misery. Willie should be the subject of your anger. He set up the situation and forced the others into it. Perhaps Zagan as well, for dropping you into Hell to begin with. Though We cannot agree with his methods, his discovery may have been well worth your sacrifice.”

Juliana shuddered, remembering his words to Eva back in Willie’s domain. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about that.”

“Perhaps nothing can be done. Time will tell.”

Frowning, Juliana nodded. Though it was evident that her attentions were well meant, it didn’t quite provide the comfort Ylva’s tone implied it should. None of her words did.

After sitting in silence for a long moment, Juliana looked tiny-Ylva in the eyes. “Can I trust you?”

“Have we given you cause to distrust Us?”

“No,” Juliana said after a moment of consideration, “but neither had Willie when he decided killing everyone was a good idea.”

Tiny-Ylva closed her eyes and crossed her tiny arms over her tiny chest, her tiny head nodded once. “Then We shall strive to not repeat his mistakes.”

Juliana supposed that was the best she would get. It wasn’t like Ylva couldn’t kill her just by reaching out a hand and touching her.

Lifting her ring finger into the air, she asked a single question. “What is this?”

“Our gift to you for services rendered.”

“Do I belong to you?”

“In a sense. Demons are selfish beings and possess ways of claiming property. Rest assured that We do not consider you as such. You are free to remove the ring and, should you so choose, never lay eyes upon Ourself again.”

For a moment, Juliana looked at the ring and considered removing the light devouring band. She ended up dropping her hand back to her lap with a shake of her head. Ylva hadn’t given a reason to distrust her. Not only that, but she had also helped Zoe, Eva, and her mother to find Shalise and herself.

Although…

“Why did you not come yourself? Willie was scared of you.”

Ylva closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “We consider Ourself a ruler. Prior to our interactions with Eva, We have not had chance to exercise Our majesty. Delegation is key for one in power and We believed that your mother, Eva, and Arachne were sufficient for the task of reclaiming you.”

Juliana started to open her mouth to say how wrong that was, but Ylva was not finished.

“In addition, We lacked knowledge of Great King Zagan’s motivations. He would not have missed the ring on your finger. We considered his actions an attack on Our person. Extended absences from Our domain could see its connection to reality severed without a fight.”

“He still dropped us into Hell, you don’t consider it an attack anymore?”

“Perhaps. As We spoke of earlier, the knowledge he gained may afford him amnesty, such is the importance of the information. Even should it have resulted in your sacrifice.”

Juliana pulled her eyes off of Ylva, looking down at her hands. Of course, she thought, what measure does a mere mortal hold next to ‘Great King Zagan’ and Hell? Oddly enough, she didn’t think in a sarcastic tone.

“We say as much not to disparage or detract from your personal importance. We merely wish to impress the gravity of the situation.”

“I know,” Juliana said with a nod. That didn’t make her feel better. Though…

Juliana looked up, determination filling her eyes. “To confirm, you can’t heal my mom?”

“Our abilities take lives, not repair them. Were she mortally injured, We might hold Death at bay for a time. Eva has already performed that task most admirably.”

That was what she had expected to hear, so Juliana gave a short nod. “Then, perhaps you might be willing to assist me in a little side project that I’ve decided to take up.”

Ylva tilted her head to one side.

“I know it might not matter with the Hell thing, but there are books I’ve decided to collect. Or their pages, specifically. Anything related to talkina or Willie.”

— — —

“Do you understand why I am angry with you?”

“I hurt your mortal friend’s mother.”

“Wrong.” Eva stared at Arachne, waiting for any response. Eight red eyes stared back without wavering.

When she realized no response was coming, Eva shook her head. “You cheated. You liked fighting Genoa. Genoa liked fighting you. I’m sure she would have been happy to die in a real battle with you. But you cheated. Worse, you used me. You made her think that you were going to kill me. And she jumped in to save me, getting hurt in the process.”

Eva shook her head. “I thought you were going to kill me. Or attack me, at the very least.”

“I wasn’t going–”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to do. When you turned your head in my direction, my heart just about jumped out of my chest. And then you started charging at me.”

Eva pressed a sharp claw against Arachne’s chest. “What if Genoa hadn’t jumped in the way? Would you have stopped? Kept going? Maybe you would have barreled over me like a rag on the floor.”

“That was not my intention. I was merely exploiting a flaw in humans to allow us to escape from the demon per his rules of engagement.”

The finger poking into Arachne’s chest remained there for a moment as Eva stared into Arachne’s eyes. Eventually, she let her arm drop with a sigh. “The worst part is that I don’t know if you can even be held responsible for your actions.”

That got a slight head-tilt from Arachne, causing her hair tendrils to slide off to one side.

“While we were all fighting,” Eva explained, “I got very wrapped up in the illusion. To the point where I was practically crying over one of things that passed as a minion. After they were all dead, it still took a few minutes before I snapped out of it. I don’t know if the same was true for Genoa or not, but you had a lot of minions still alive.”

Arachne opened her mouth. Only a sliver. Just enough to see the sharp tips of her teeth between the strips of carapace that passed for her lips. She closed her mouth without saying a word.

“Even beyond that, I hear voices down here. Or a voice, at least.”

“Void.”

Eva nodded. “You know what He tells me?” At Arachne’s slight shake of her head, Eva continued. “Promises of power, destined for greatness. Garbage like that. Shalise,” Eva pointed her thumb somewhere over her shoulder, “said that she gets ‘complained about.’ I have yet to ask Juliana, but while rambling at Genoa’s side, she mumbled out something about a voice helping her. What do you get told, Arachne?”

Arachne’s stiff lips opened in a sort of grimace. Her interlocking teeth grit together. “Complained about. That fits His words for me well enough. Typically, they’re single words. Pathetic. Imbecile. Fool. Disgrace. So on and so forth.”

“No whispers to attack the rest of us?”

Eva had to back slightly away. Arachne started shaking her head back and forth with gusto. “No, nothing like that. They’re always directed at me.”

“Well,” Eva said after a moment. “I suppose that’s good. That still leaves us with the problem of what happened to Genoa. I don’t know if you were affected by whatever affected me, I don’t know if you know whether or not you were affected. And I’m not going to try to figure it out. I’m going to assume you were, and I do not wish to hear anything more about it.

“Since I know you well enough to know that you would never even consider this, I’ll just tell you. Apologize to Genoa–”

This time, Arachne’s mouth opened wide. Some noise started to come out before Eva held up her hand.

“I’m not finished. Apologize to Genoa and Juliana–”

“She stole your book. Got us into this mess in the first place.”

Eva’s frown deepened. “Maybe true, maybe not. Zagan needed to pick someone and it probably would have been them anyway just because of their relation to us. Besides, I did the same thing. Remember me setting an imp on Master before he decided to sit me down and actually teach me a little about diablery?”

A small smile flittered across Eva’s face at the memories. A wistful sigh escaped her lips. “Good times. Of course, I had begged him several times to teach me things and he refused until I stole his book and set the imp on him, so there might be some difference there.”

“You’re not upset that she lied to you?”

“Somewhat, but I think Juliana is punishing herself more than I ever could.” Eva cracked her knuckles, though her exoskeleton lacked the typical sound. “I might have to impress upon her some proper demon handling knowledge in the future.”

Eva shook her head. “You’re getting me off topic. Apologize. To both of them. Maybe Carlos too. Get on your hands and knees and sincerely apologize. You heard what Zagan said. We don’t need Genoa coming after you for revenge.”

“She–”

“I don’t know if she will forgive you. I wouldn’t, in her position. She has every right to be angry. You’ve broken the trust she put in you.” As Arachne opened her mouth to protest, Eva spoke over her. “And don’t say she didn’t trust you. She fought mostly friendly spars with you. You said yourself that you two fought as a team against the monsters that attacked Brakket. And, most obvious of all, she let you near her daughter.

“So go, apologize. Maybe regain some trust, maybe to just keep her from killing you in a moment of weakness out of spite.”

Eva locked her gaze onto Arachne. She kept from blinking, focusing all of her attention on the demon in front of her.

Arachne stared back.

As the seconds turned to minutes, Arachne’s gaze started to waver. Eventually, she tipped her head to glance at the floor.

“Alright.”

It was almost too quiet to hear by normal means. Within her domain, Eva quickly found she could hear and see anything that happened.

“Good.

“We’ve talked about trust before; several times over the years, but I’m specifically thinking of the last time we were in Hell together. When you tricked me into exchanging hands.” Eva waved one of those hands around for a little extra emphasis. “This time, this one time, I will choose to wallow in ignorance. I will choose to believe that harming me never crossed your mind. That the talkina was controlling your actions, at least to an extent. All so we can maintain some trust between us.”

With a smile slowly forming on her face, Eva reached up and gave Arachne’s shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“You’ve been my friend for a long time, Arachne. Ever since that night you killed those bastards. Even if you saw me as nothing other than a pathetic mortal for a few years after that, I liked you. I want to keep liking you. So don’t, please don’t do anything to betray my trust.”

Arachne glanced up, sharp eyes boring into Eva. “I won’t.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

Giving Arachne one final squeeze of her shoulder, Eva turned away. Walking around the large couch in the room, she moved up to the window and looked out.

So long as she kept her eyes off the sky, everything looked just like the women’s ward courtyard. The sandstone walls and path, the dirt and weed covered ground, a few long dead rose bushes beneath the windows, it was all there.

Inside was even less distinguishable from the real world. The couch even had some dried patches of Zoe’s blood from when her home was attacked. With the ceiling overhead, the pitch black, starless void of a sky wasn’t visible.

Shalise lay on a clear patch of dirt with her hands clasped over her stomach, looking serene as she gazed up at the emptiness.

Opening the door from the fake-women’s ward, Eva walked out.

Arachne followed a few feet behind until she reached the doorway. There she stopped.

Upon reaching Shalise, Eva lay down on the ground next to her. For a few moments, no one said anything. Eva simply stared up at the sky alongside her friend and roommate.

The all-encompassing void was just so empty. There was nothing to look at. At the same time, it felt like it could reach down and swallow her whole. Not exactly a pleasant sensation.

As the silence dragged on, the shrinking feeling passed. Boredom replaced it soon enough. There was nothing to look at. At least a regular sky had stars or clouds. The sky in her domain was like staring at a wall. A very uninteresting wall.

And Shalise had been out here staring for at least an hour now. Then again, she had someone in her head to talk with. Something Eva both lacked and was quite glad she lacked. Though that lack did not help with the growing sense of boredom.

So Eva broke the silence first.

“Doing alright?”

In her peripheral vision, Eva watched as Shalise tilted her head to look at Eva. “I suppose,” she said. “Prax has stopped making a fuss for the most part. I told him that I would go back to the prison and figure out a way to get him back in his cell. He might have been lying to me when he said it in the prison, but seeing the world through my eyes for a few decades can’t be worse than staring at a hellhound every day.”

Eva gave a short, almost forced laugh. “I can see that being a pain. But it might be for the best if we tried anyway.”

“Still no plan?”

“Not a clue. Arachne doesn’t think that summoning Prax will work because you aren’t Prax. At the same time, you carry Prax so Ylva can’t let him pass through her domain into the real world. Not without going to the Keeper’s prison herself, that is.”

Stretching her arm into the air above them, Shalise started to fill it out with muscles. Her arm rapidly went back to normal before the tips of her fingers started being affected.

“That’s kind of disturbing,” Eva said.

“You have Arachne’s hands and legs.”

“Point,” Eva said as she lifted her own arm up into the air alongside Shalise’s arm. Despite moving it around in the dirt, not a speck of dust stuck to it. Thank you strange Domain magic, she thought.

They both let their arms fall at the same time. Shalise released a small sigh as hers hit the ground.

“It’s probably for the best. At least down here I don’t have to see the look on Sister Cross’ face when she finds out.”

Eva snorted. “At least you only have to worry about a look. She’ll try to kill me when she finds out about Prax, and again when she realizes you went to Hell, and yet again when she finds out you’re still here.”

That got a short laugh out of Shalise, though it died off with another sigh.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Eva said. “Or maybe it won’t even matter much in the future.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just something Zagan said.”

Shalise let out a short huff.

“When he dropped the two of you into Hell, I don’t think you went straight to that prison. From what you told me, there was about a week’s worth of time that just went missing. I don’t know what he did with you two or your souls–and I am very glad you have them back–but he used them to figure out something disturbing.”

“More disturbing than losing our souls in the first place?”

“Maybe. Though, as disturbing as it is, it might mean a way home for you.

“Zagan said that someone or something is trying to bring Void–the Power that essentially runs Hell–and all of this,” Eva swept her hand across the sky, “into the mortal plane.”

>>Author’s Note 004<<

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004.016

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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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.008

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Zoe was not enjoying her assignment.

It was new magic–new to her, at least. Exactly the kind of magic she liked getting her hands on.

But it was all wrong.

Zoe had always been a firm proponent of the idea that magic was inherently neutral. Magic that other mages might consider ‘white’ could be used for nefarious purposes while ‘black’ magic was just as suited towards helping people as it was to hurting people.

Magic was a tool. Nothing more. What someone did with that tool was entirely up to the individual and did not reflect on the magic itself.

The project that Ylva had assigned her was slowly yet surely sending that idea down the drain.

Zoe sighed as she turned away from the dagger. The small side chamber to the library did not have enough air. Something about the dagger just made her sick.

While Ylva had managed to stop the curse afflicting Eva from progressing, she hadn’t been able to reverse the effects that had already taken hold. Eva was still unconscious. After almost a week and a half, she had shown no improvement.

Finding out why and coming up with a solution was her job. It was everything she had asked for. It was something she could do to help out. And yet…

Zoe ran her fingers through her hair, brushing back a few stray strands.

“I am out of my depth.”

In thaumaturgy, there was no spell that could accurately fit into the category of curse. There were spells that could be used to harm. They could be used in a similar fashion by enchanting objects. Lightning weaved with order and chaos on a rod could electrocute anyone who touches it.

The dagger before her was different. Even feeding pure chaos magic into something wouldn’t get anywhere as hostile as the dagger was.

It was made of bone. A human femur. Based on the jagged edge, it had probably been broken at some point before being filed down and sharpened. Zoe had yet to determine whether or not the dagger being made of bone affected the enchantment in any way.

The enchantment–the curse was entirely contained on the edge of the blade. She couldn’t detect any signs of magic anywhere else.

Anything that touched the edge of the dagger died on a cellular level. It didn’t even need to cut something. Just resting it on the tail of one of the rats Ylva had supplied resulted in the death of the surface cells.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the dead cells would start attacking neighboring cells and eventually kill them. The newly dead cells would continue attacking like some sort of miniature zombie infection. It would spread faster as more and more cells were converted.

The only saving grace of the curse was that it did not create zombies. A dead rat stayed dead. Even exposing a healthy rat to a cursed rat, either in whole or by mixing their fluids, did not spread the curse.

The curse knew what organism was supposed to be cursed.

Ylva stopped the memetic effect in Eva. But the dead cells were still dead. There was no healing going on, no new cells replaced the dead ones.

The curse was still there.

Arthfael’s passive healing aura kept the rest of Eva healthy, but the area around the cut was blackened and dead. The only reason she hadn’t bled out from the hole in her back was thanks to what she did with her blood magic prior to passing out.

Zoe slid her chair over to the rat cages.

A good half of the rats were completely dead. They were dead, but even the oldest hadn’t begun to rot. That small oddity was something Zoe had yet to solve. She suspected it was caused by the same thing that prevented new cell generation. Once the cells died, that was it. They just stopped. The bodies never went into the bloat state of decomposition.

Inorganic matter was another story altogether. Despite rigor mortis never setting in on the rats, Zoe’s first pair of gloves were as hard as stone. A near perfect half-sphere of dirt turned to incredibly dense stone near where Eva had been stabbed. The spot where the dagger had fallen.

Ylva hadn’t needed to stop that. It stopped on its own roughly five feet from the dagger’s tip.

After turning a desk to stone, Ylva brought in a pair of clamps to hold the dagger so that the edge never touched anything. Zoe used a strong wall of solid air around the blade to keep any accidents from happening while she wasn’t testing it.

She slid straight past the deceased and the control group to the group on which Ylva had stopped the memetic effect.

Some were unconscious, others were moving around. It depended on where they were cut and for how long the curse had to act before Ylva stopped it.

“Hello, Charlie,” Zoe said with a sad smile. “How are you doing today?”

The rat squeaked once before running towards the little cave in his container.

Zoe immobilized it before it could hide by enveloping it in solid air. She left a little hole for it to breathe through.

Naming them had been a terrible idea in retrospect. After killing Gin, Ron, and Freddie, the rest had all been numbered. Charlie was one of those from when she still named them.

Zoe spent a moment of time building up the magic for a measurement spell.

“Fifteen point nine-seven centimeters,” Zoe said as she marked down the numbers on a chart attached to his cage. The same number as the last six entries.

Before cutting his tail, it had been eighteen point three-one centimeters. Using the cursed dagger, she had made a paper-thin cut at sixteen centimeters. Ylva had stopped the curse’s memetic effect less than a second later.

With a non-magical knife, Zoe had severed the tail at fourteen centimeters. Charlie’s tail had been regrown using purely potions.

Or rather, Charlie regrew one point nine-seven centimeters of his tail. It hadn’t changed in two days despite his continued potion treatment.

The stupid curse knew where it had left off.

Arthur underwent a similar experiment with the exception of Ylva’s intervention. He had lived just fine for a day or two while he underwent healing. As soon as his tail grew back to where the curse had spread, the curse took hold again and continued attacking the rat.

So far, Zoe had a decent idea of the effects and limitations of the curse. Yet she felt no closer to a cure than before she started.

One by one, Zoe checked over the other experiments. None of them were showing any real progress. Overpowering the curse with any kind of healing magic had so far been met with nothing but failure. They’d need to find a way to remove the curse.

The pressure in the room changed as someone opened the door. Zoe leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes as the footsteps approached.

“How long has it been since you last took a break?”

“An hour,” Zoe said as she spun her chair around to face the newcomer. “Maybe two.”

“Uh huh,” Carlos said. “I haven’t seen you since this morning.”

This morning? Zoe shook her head. “What time is it?”

“Eight. In the evening.”

“Ah. Maybe more than two hours then.”

“When did you last eat?”

Zoe put on a shallow smile. “An hour ago. Maybe two.”

Carlos adjusted his glasses with a single finger to the rim. “You’re as bad as Genoa.”

“Can’t have that,” Zoe said as she stood and stretched. There was a kink in her neck that wouldn’t quite go away. Twelve hours of sitting hunched over notes and experiments would do that. “How is Genoa? She hasn’t found any more alcohol, has she?”

“Not so far. She spent the day fighting Arachne.”

“That’s better than a few days ago.” Zoe raised an eyebrow. “She actually managed to coax Arachne out of Eva’s room?”

“I think they both needed to work out their frustrations,” he said with a nod. “It can’t be easy for Arachne with how Eva is, even though she is physically here…” He trailed off with a glance to the side.

“How are you doing, Carlos?”

Zoe regretted opening her mouth the moment she finished speaking.

He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, scrunching his eyes shut. After resetting them on his face, he turned to face Zoe and smiled. “I don’t know how to answer that without either lying or being depressive.”

“I–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No,” he waved his hand as if dismissing her comment. “It shows you care. Let’s go eat.”

“A break might be good. I’ve been meaning to find Devon and share some of my research. Given his background, he might be able to do more with it than I.”

Carlos played the proper gentleman and held open the door. “I saw him walking out of Ylva’s eye-stalk room not long ago. Well, not so much walking as stalking out while muttering under his breath.”

“I hope he hasn’t gone far.”

Zoe grabbed her cane from its spot against the door on her way out. More out of habit than any real need. Some mages that actually needed the things turned their canes into foci, either for backup or for their primary focus. Zoe had considered and dismissed the idea.

A cane was far too large and unwieldy compared to a dagger or wand. If she was going to do that, a full staff would serve far better. As an air mage, she did not need the extra magic storage capacity. Most of her spells had a low enough cost that most of a staff would end up as dead weight.

The spells that did need more, well…

She’d need far more than a staff to perform the large-scale weather manipulation that Ylva had so casually used to hide the sun.

Walking alongside Carlos was relaxing, in a manner of speaking. Zoe could let her guard down around him. She found him to be the most normal resident of the prison; he wasn’t a demon or a diabolist and he wasn’t Genoa.

Ylva’s mess hall had every kind of food imaginable, and plenty Zoe never thought to imagine. It looked good and smelled great, but it was a bit too much. Normally, she stuck with something simple. Peanut butter and jelly had never steered her wrong so far.

Today, Zoe had an itch for something more. Hunger had a funny way of asserting itself when faced with food after not eating for a day.

Going around the table, Zoe loaded up potatoes, salad, some kind of purple meat–it tasted good, but she’d been afraid to ask what it was.

She started over towards the table covered in fountains pouring all sorts of drinks.

Carlos was behind her, gathering up food for himself.

Someone in a black suit stood against the table with a goblet in hand.

Zoe dropped her cane and her plate of food in the rush to draw her dagger only to freeze as the man turned to face her.

“What? You forget me already?”

The dagger fell to the floor with a loud clatter, joining the plate and cane.

Zoe put one foot in front of the other. And soon she was across the floor. Her arms snaked around him as she wrapped him in a hug.

There were a few gentle pats on Zoe’s back as he tried to squirm out of her arms.

Somewhere in the background, Carlos said, “forgot to mention, there was someone here asking after you.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate this,” Wayne said, “but my nerves are still itching.”

Zoe released him. “I’m sorry. It was–I was going to pick you up. I forgot about–There’s just been so much going on.”

“So I gather,” he said with a glance around the dining hall. “You’ve been eating all this fancy food while I’ve been gone?”

“More or less,” Zoe said with a genuine smile. “You’re looking… good. When Arachne described you as, what was it? Oh yes, ‘a charbroiled steak with emphasis on the char’, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Definitely not hair.”

Wayne ran a hand over his short, buzz cut hair with a slight frown.

His skin really wasn’t bad at all. There were some red scars covering almost the entire right side of his face, but they weren’t especially pronounced. His ear was gone on that side of his head. Merely a hole into his skull.

“What can I say,” he said after letting her look, “the elves know their medicine. I’ll have to send my doctor a bucket of flowers.”

Zoe laughed. A real, honest laugh.

She cut herself off with an awkward glance towards Carlos.

“Oh, don’t let me interrupt your reunion,” he said with a small smile. “In fact, I think I’ll go eat with the gargoyles. I think they like having someone around.”

Zoe and Wayne watched him wander out of the dining hall.

“Gargoyles?” Wayne asked.

“Later,” Zoe said. “I’ll show you around. Before that, when did you get back?”

“Stopped by Brakket this afternoon. Talked to the dean. Found out that you went and got a substitute and weren’t in your apartment.”

“I can’t teach right now. It’s hurting the kids for a failure on my part. I’m too… busy. Too worried about Eva, Juliana, and Shalise.”

“I caught a brief summary from Turner. Fill me in?”

“Let me just get some food and we’ll talk while I eat.”

Zoe turned and picked her dagger and cane off the floor. She left the plate and food, opting instead to get a clean plate and fresh food.

Messes had a habit of vanishing in Ylva’s domain. If the food wasn’t gone by the time she finished eating, she’d clean it up. The floor was probably clean enough to eat off of for that reason, but there was no reason to take the chance when new food just popped up on the table.

After finding a table, Zoe filled Wayne in on everything that had gone on since his hospitalization, going through the aftermath of the attack on her home, Ylva living in her apartment as a trap, the mass attack on both Brakket and the prison.

And on her missing and injured students.

“Sawyer? That’s the necromancer that originally kidnapped Spencer?”

“I didn’t see him, but that was the last word I saw Eva spell out.”

Wayne hummed as he drank from his goblet. “And the troublemaker has been unconscious since?”

“I’m working on fixing that, haven’t had much progress. The dagger that cursed her in the first place is a horrible thing. I’ll show you later on.

“Enough about me for the moment. You look good, but how is it really? Anything… problematic?”

“Nothing debilitating.” He flexed his hand on top of their table. “My hands, neck, and face are sensitive. It is supposed to subside eventually.”

“And your cane?”

“Just in case,” Wayne said. “I noticed you had one as well. None of your story explained why.”

“I don’t need it so much anymore. A nun got me in the chest and all down one leg with that lightning of theirs.”

“Nasty stuff. Got hit in both legs last year.”

“When–Oh, when Sister Cross attacked Eva.” Zoe leaned back in her chair as she thought back. “You never went around with a cane or anything. I might have needed a wheelchair for a few weeks had I been hit in both legs.”

“It was painful for a few days. I think she was going easy on me.” He muttered something under his breath about ‘being taken lightly.’ “Took a day or two before I could heal no matter what I tried.”

“A day or two? Ha. It’s been two weeks and my injuries are still breaking down healing attempts. Taken lightly indeed.”

“Breaking down?”

At Wayne’s perplexed look, Zoe started to explain. “The nuns’ lightning has a very interesting property in that–”

Wait.

Zoe slid her chair back and half stumbled to her feet.

“Zoe?” Wayne rose from his own seat and put his hand on her arm. “Are you–”

“Quiet for a moment. I need to think.”

Could it be that easy? How could she have missed it before.

“I need to find Ylva,” Zoe said as she ran from the room, foregoing her cane entirely.

“Zoe, wait!”

Wayne started hobbling after her, but she barely paid him any attention.

Outside the dining room, Zoe stopped and looked around. Ylva wasn’t sitting on her throne. She eyed the alcoves. What were the most likely room Ylva would be in? The torture chamber? The prison? The bath?

Zoe couldn’t recall her ever entering the bath, but that didn’t mean she never went.

She started off with the prison. It was the most important room at the moment, after all. Though, stopping to think about it, she wasn’t entirely certain that their guest had spent any time inside after the first day. At least, Zoe hadn’t seen her leave the torture chamber.

Still, no harm in checking.

Ylva’s prison was almost an exact replica of the other cell houses found outside. It might have even been the original space for cell house two that Ylva had decided to shove off to the side.

The barred windows let in what appeared to be real sunlight, though they did not look out into the real world. On the other side of the glass was a massive beach.

A very wrong beach.

All of the sand had a dark-gray hue to it. The sunlight, while normal looking inside the prison, did not warm the solid gray sand or the black water. It was just a white orb hanging in the sky like some featureless moon.

One of the other archways connected to the beach, but all of the mortals had been forbidden from entering without Ylva’s explicit permission.

But, Zoe wasn’t here for the view.

She ran up and down each of the three floors. No Ylva.

Worse, no prisoner.

Zoe turned to head back down the stairs.

Wayne was hobbling up those stairs with his cane, panting for breath. “You’re sure in a rush,” he said between breaths.

“Sorry. You didn’t need to follow me all the way up here.”

“You ran off looking for a demon like you just got possessed by one.”

Zoe opened her mouth to tell him what she was doing. She changed her mind at the last-minute. “Do demons actually possess people?”

Wayne shrugged. “Ask the diabolist.”

“Anyway,” Zoe said with a shake of her head, “just had an idea that could solve at least one problem.”

She started down the stairs at a more sedate pace for Wayne’s sake. A difficult task. She was itching to run–to find Ylva as soon as possible.

As they headed towards the torture chamber, Zoe explained Eva’s condition. A summary. There wasn’t time to get into the finer details.

The torture chamber was directly adjacent to the prison. Considering the size, the chamber should have been visible from the prison windows if not completely obstructing them.

Should being the key word.

Zoe had long given up trying to make sense of how the layout worked in Ylva’s domain. She was half convinced that the archways were portals to their respective rooms, given how much overlap there should be between some of the larger rooms. Especially the bedroom and the bathroom. Both of those rooms could fit almost the entirety of Zoe’s old house.

For as much wonder and awe that Ylva’s domain elicited, the torture chamber only brought up feelings of disgust. Even the eye-stalk room was more strange than disturbing.

It wasn’t the rusted iron cages lined with small spikes. Nor was it the wooden wheel slowly rotating through a trough of boiling water. The racks, and iron maidens, and tools that she couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of didn’t bother Zoe.

Just the very presence of the room implied its use.

What purpose could such a place serve to one who could induce kneeling with a mere word?

Zoe wrinkled her nose. The constant scent of urine and feces did not help.

And yet Zoe knew that their prisoner had spent time within. Almost all of her time, in fact.

Unfortunately for Zoe, the nun wasn’t in today. The racks lay empty, the cages wide open.

No torturer either.

Wayne limped up to her side, staring at the room with narrowed eyes.

Not waiting to answer the questions he was sure to ask, Zoe turned to leave.

She stopped short. Another step would have had her running into Ylva.

The demon’s dead eyes turned first to Zoe then to Wayne. Her ice blue lips parted as she began to speak.

“We observed your entrance.”

“Ylva,” Zoe said, “I was looking for you.”

Her gaze remained steady on Wayne.

“Oh, this is Wayne Lurcher. A colleague. He was hospitalized until today. I think I’ve mentioned him.” Zoe turned to Wayne. “This is Ylva. A, ah, demon.”

“Yeah,” Wayne said with a grunt. “We’ve met.”

Zoe felt her eyebrows rise as she turned back to Ylva.

“Your impropriety in failing to greet Ourself upon entering Our domain has been noted.”

Only after Wayne gave a light shrug did Ylva turn her gaze to Zoe.

“You required something of Us?”

Zoe blinked. It took a moment to remember what she wanted in the first place. “The nun, the prisoner. I need her for an experiment. Possibly a solution.”

“Regrettable. Ali has escaped as planned.”

“That’s…” Zoe’s shoulders slumped. “Is it too late to recall her?”

“Should Ali’s former companions notice her return here, she will become compromised. We will recover her when We recover Nel. Are you unable to enact this solution on your own.”

Zoe frowned. “I’d have to create a whole new spell to emulate their lightning. It is possible, but it would take a lot more time.”

Plans for a few variations of nun lightning flashed through her mind. It helped that she had thought about the topic in the past. There would be complications.

Zoe glanced to her side. Wayne would be able to help. He knew a good amount of non-standard magic.

“I’ll get started,” Zoe said, “but it may be faster to recover Nel. Do we have a time frame for that?”

Blue lips curled into a smile.

“Soon.”

The theory was sound.

Elysium lightning would work. Either Ylva had to undo her halting of the curse or Zoe’s counter-curse would break the effect. But the lightning should overpower and consume the curse before it could spread further.

Zoe sighed.

Poor Charlie.

Watching yet another rat slide down into the incinerator weighed on Zoe’s conscience. Charlie, being one of the oldest of her experiments, especially hurt.

Zoe’s attempts at replicating the white lightning still needed work.

She had selected him specifically because Zoe had thought that she might be able to save him had anything gone wrong by severing his tail. It had been going so well too, but she had underestimated the tenacity of the curse.

After applying her counter-curse, it started off working exactly as intended. Her magic sought out and destroyed all magic within the rat. Simultaneously healing Charlie had his tail growing back beyond the point of the cut, though the healing efforts were stymied by her counter-curse before too much could happen.

The moment Zoe had smiled to herself and relaxed back in her chair, things started going wrong.

Her counter-curse ended up eating itself before it could completely eradicate the entirety of the curse.

Zoe snapped her gloves off and dropped them into the incinerator along with poor Charlie. Shutting the lid, Zoe watched and waited as the magic did its work. Soon enough, nothing but ashes remained.

Well, she thought as she slid her chair back to her work desk, back to revising.

She had crossed out no more than three errant lines in her theory before the door slammed into the wall as it opened.

Zoe gave a light start. Her dagger was in her hands in an instant.

She didn’t attack. “Devon?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

The trench-coated man took two steps into the room. One of his arms writhed and squirmed beneath the coat. The small bit that poked out looked like something from a giant squid.

Zoe suppressed a shudder as he glanced at the still warm incinerator.

“No success?”

“Getting there. Any fascinating insights from you today?”

His suggestion that all of her work might fail on account of Eva’s ‘quasi-demonic nature’ had almost caused Zoe to toss out all of her work with the rats. She would have to retest everything on demons anyway.

Aside from Arachne–she had immediately volunteered for testing–demons were in a distressingly short supply. Apparently she couldn’t just summon up some to start experimenting on. If she failed to convince a demon to submit to experimentation, she would have to dominate it. Tricking a demon into a false sense of security was against some ‘rules’ that Zoe had yet to come across in any of the books that Eva had loaned her.

Needless to say, Zoe was far from confident in her ability to dominate a demon’s will.

A short snort escaped him. “When you are ready to test on a demon, let me know. In the mean time… Ylva wishes to speak with us.”

“Us?”

“Everyone.”

That got Zoe to perk up. “Has something happened with Nel or Alicia?” Her pulse jumped as another thought occurred to her. “Or Juliana and Shalise? Are they alright? Nothing happened to th–”

Devon held up a hand–a tentacle. “Why don’t we head over and find out straight from the horse’s mouth? It didn’t sound mad or upset, but who can tell with that thing anyhow.”

Nodding, Zoe stacked her notebooks and dropped them into a drawer.

Devon and Zoe walked side-by-side as they moved to the conference room. Carlos, Genoa–soaked in sweat–and Arachne–covered in dirt–joined them partway there.

Arachne, Zoe noted, glared at her. The demon had taken it as a personal affront when Zoe had said that she wasn’t going to use Arachne as a test subject in a potentially lethal experiment. It had taken an entire afternoon for the demon to see reason and agree that waiting until the kinks had been ironed out as much as possible was the better choice.

If Zoe had it her way, she would only be using non-sentient demons in her tests, though she would defer to Devon’s advice on the matter.

Above all else, Zoe did not want to cure Eva only to have her wake up to find Arachne deceased–or whatever happened to demons when they died.

The conference room was almost a mirror image of the dining hall. The only real difference was the lack of food scattered around the massive tables.

Ylva had already taken a seat at the center of the table, facing the room’s entrance. She made eye contact and gave a brief nod with each person who entered the room.

Devon slouched down in the seat furthest from Ylva. He dipped his hands into his trench coat pockets and pointedly avoided eye contact with the hel. Arachne moved to stand a short distance behind him. Carlos and Genoa took their seats, leaving the final two open spots for Zoe.

Wayne had yet to stop by for the day. He had mentioned that he might head out and visit young Mr. Anderson and Mr. Weston, as well as a handful of other students of his.

I really need to get back in school, Zoe thought, before they make my substitute permanent. Even if there would be few complaints about Catherine reprising her position for a longer length of time, Zoe did not find the idea of any of Martina’s demons being left around the students appealing in the slightest.

Ylva waited until after Zoe had taken her seat to begin the meeting. She gave one last look at everyone.

“The Elysium Order is preparing to deal with Nel. Tonight.”

Genoa leaned forward, placing a sweaty arm on the table. “And you are certain that Nel will be able to find Juliana?”

“Our servant will assist. We have reason to desire the safety of Our subject.”

A short grunt came from Genoa. She looked to Carlos. For a moment, the two simply stared at one another. Then, Genoa nodded and turned back to Ylva. “What do we do?”

Ylva’s icy lips parted in a regal smile.

“We interfere.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.002

<– Back | Index | Next –>

It was surprising how normal everything seemed.

Not seemed.

Everything was normal.

Just like after Halloween, people’s lives went on. School went on. Learning went on. Everyone just ignored the empty table where her students usually sat.

And there was nothing Zoe Baxter could do about it.

The students who had come to class were not paying any sort of attention. Not surprising. Zoe was only going through the motions of her lesson. No personal touch, no emphasis or animation in her actions. Nothing to keep their attention.

She even had the students read aloud from the textbook. That was a first for her and her students. Normally, Zoe expected the children to read beforehand and discuss the contents during class. They would have their books open for reference, but not much else.

Reading during class was nothing more than time-eating busywork. Something a professor would do if they had nothing to contribute to bettering the future. Words on the board could tell children to read, a professor shouldn’t be assigning it.

Her students’ inattention was entirely her fault. And it was a thing that she could do something about.

But Zoe didn’t want to. She couldn’t work up the energy. It was a miracle she got out of bed every day.

This is depression, Zoe thought.

She looked up as Mr. Anderson finished reading his passage. Zoe still could not understand how he had caught onto the things he did. He hadn’t elected to share his methods, even with Ylva. Zoe had been quite certain that there was no one in the hallway save for herself and Zagan during their talk.

A frown crossed her lips at the thought of the missing devil. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since Zoe crossed his path in the hallway. His class had a substitute–a regular human, thankfully.

Both Devon and Ylva suspected that he had returned to his domain. Something to do with her missing students. Neither had puzzled out the reasons for his actions, though Devon had suggested pure boredom as the primary motivator.

Rather than call on the next person to read the next passage, Zoe let out a soft sigh.

“Class dismissed.”

A good half of the class didn’t need any explanation. They didn’t need time to pack up, having been ready to go since the moment they walked in the door.

“But we still have an hour left of class,” said a voice speaking for the other half of the students.

“Finish reading the chapter on your own. I’m certain it will consume less of your time than finishing it in class.” And less of my time, Zoe did not say.

With that said, Zoe waited for the students to file out. It didn’t take long for her to be left alone. Alone apart from Mr. Anderson and the Coggins twins.

“Something I can do for you?”

Shelby Coggins stepped forwards. “Are you alright, Professor?”

Her first instinct was to give a single word affirmative. ‘Fine’ was on the tip of her tongue before Zoe stopped and thought. With a barely constrained sigh, Zoe said, “as alright as I can be with our missing students, I think.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Not unless you are able to locate those students, Mr. Anderson. And, to be clear, I do not wish you to try. There are enough angry people without adding your parents.”

Mr. Anderson frowned, but nodded. “If you think of anything we can do…”

“Then I will contact your parents and you will be hearing from them.”

“One more thing,” he said after a moment of mutual silence, “any update on Professor Lurcher’s situation?”

Zoe smiled. It wasn’t even forced. Wayne was her one bright spot in all this mess. “He’s been cleared for release and will be in town by the end of the week, though he won’t resume teaching until next semester. I’ll arrange a meeting for you after he has had a chance to settle in.”

The smile slipped from Zoe’s face as she watched the three leave her classroom. She waited an extra minute before locking the door.

Zoe turned her dagger over in her hand, looking over the somewhat grimy blade. It needed a good clean and polish. It had for a few days. She just hadn’t felt up to digging out her cleaning kit and actually doing it.

The filth did not stop it from working. Not yet at least. Zoe picked up her cane in one hand. With a thought and some channeled magic, the walls of her classroom fell to between and the walls of the women’s ward appeared in their place.

Despite being relatively untouched by the battle with the nuns, the women’s ward had turned into something of a pigsty. Both Genoa and Carlos had been living in one of the spare cell rooms and neither seemed motivated enough to clean up after themselves.

With a sigh, Zoe used a little telekinesis to gather up the half eaten remains of a pizza and several empty bottles. She crushed the floating trash and dropped it all into a garbage bin.

A few sweeps of air cleaned up the scattered crumbs. It did nothing for the beer stain in Eva’s couch, but that was out of the purview of her abilities.

Cleaning wasn’t a big thing, but it gave a small amount of satisfaction. More than staying for the rest of her class would have given.

Zoe walked up to the door with Eva’s name and rapped the handle of her cane against the door.

There was the sound of a brief scuffle before the door swung open.

“Oh. You.” Eight red eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “You’re early today.”

“I canceled class,” Zoe said as she peered around Arachne.

Lying in the middle of a sweat soaked bed was Eva. Long black hair twisted and tangled into a matted rat’s nest. A bowl of water and a bathing sponge had been haphazardly placed on an end table. It teetered on the edge.

A subtle flick of her dagger later and the bowl slid backwards, resting fully on the table.

The massive black and white cat curled up at the foot of the bed lifted up his head and gave a slow nod. Whether in a greeting or acknowledgment of her saving the bowl, Zoe couldn’t tell.

Devon and Arachne both talked to the cat–the cait si–as if it could understand them. What’s more, they would respond to it as if it spoke to them.

It probably could. There was a glimmer of intelligence in the cat’s eye that set the hairs on Zoe’s neck standing on end. There wasn’t a good reason for it either. The cait si wasn’t even a demon. It was an unseelie fairy.

That was only marginally better. According to Carlos, most species of unseelie fae ranged from ‘ill tempered’ to actively malicious.

“How is she?” Zoe asked. There wasn’t much point. It was clear to see that nothing had changed.

“Better than yesterday.”

“Are you sure you don’t want someone else to take a look at her? Nurse East and Nurse Post are both very good at their jobs. And I doubt either would object to you sitting at her side.”

Arachne growled a low, threatening growl. “Devon wants her here.”

“Devon is not a doctor.”

“He knows more about her biology than any other mortal.”

Zoe frowned. Both Devon and Arachne were of the opinion that Eva’s demonic limbs made her inhuman enough that regular medicine wouldn’t work. And they might be right, for all Zoe knew.

“That doesn’t make him any more of a doctor. I know that I would feel better if a proper doctor at least examined her. You care about Eva, I know you do. Why not do everything that has even a chance of helping?”

Arachne stared. She opened her mouth. For a moment, Zoe thought she was about to agree.

The door slammed in her face.

“Hiding out isn’t helping, Arachne! You’re not the only one who cares about Eva.”

There was no response from behind the door.

There was a response from behind Zoe.

“No one cares about Juliana though.”

Zoe closed her eyes and let out a slow sigh. She opened her eyes, steeled herself, and spun around, slapping the idiotic woman as she did so.

Genoa teetered back and forth before falling on her butt, eliciting another sigh from Zoe.

“Of course I care about Juliana,” Zoe said in a quiet voice. “Don’t suggest that I do not.” She knelt down and pried a brown bottle out of her friend’s fingers. “You need to stop drinking. Remember what you were like just after she went missing? You were ready to jump into Hell itself to find your daughter.”

Zoe stood up, looking down on the woman. “Now look at you. You’re no help to anyone. Even if we did find out something about Juliana, you’d be useless. Completely and totally worthless.”

Genoa flopped down, spreading her arms flat against the cement floor of the women’s ward.

She hadn’t ever been this bad. The closest was after two of Zoe’s classmates had died during the guild’s trials. Genoa had blamed herself for not preparing them properly.

It was misplaced, of course. Neither of them had taken anything seriously. It was their own fault.

Part of the older woman’s depression then may have been due to Zoe deciding to leave the guild at the same time.

“Come on,” Zoe said. She made a cushion of air to help move Genoa back to her bed. “Where is Carlos?”

“Having an affair.”

Zoe raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think Carlos would do that to you.”

“He is. I smell Ylva’s death on him when he comes back.”

Zoe opened her mouth to respond. And then closed it. “You… I don’t…” Zoe shook her head side to side. There was no way he was sleeping with Ylva.

She decided to simply ignore that part.

“I’m surprised you can smell anything at all. You reek of alcohol.” Zoe released her spell, dropping Genoa onto her bed. “I’ll be right back, just going to go through Eva’s potion closet. Maybe if you’re good, I’ll find something that will help.”

Eva’s potion room was set up to brew most common potions. Nothing that required any kind of specialized equipment. Simple, but it worked.

Unfortunately, nothing was labeled. Some were identifiable due to their coloration, such as the light blue general remedy potion, but Zoe couldn’t name most of them. Wayne could have identified more had he been there.

One that Zoe knew, though she rarely took, was missing completely. It took Zoe a minute to figure out why.

Of course Eva would be missing an alcohol dissolver or hangover cure. She was far too young to be drinking.

Zoe pulled a light blue remedy potion from the shelf. It cured headaches, so maybe it would do something for Genoa.

“Alright,” Zoe said as she reentered Genoa’s room. She uncorked the vial and held it up to Genoa’s lips. “Drink this and then try to get some sleep.”

Helping someone else drink a potion, or anything really, always felt awkward to Zoe. There was just something clumsy about it that never sat right with her. Doubly so if the person was so out of it that they ended up drooling half the potion out of their mouth.

Luckily, Genoa did not drool. Zoe only had a single dose of awkwardness that Genoa probably wouldn’t even remember.

As Genoa laid back to get some rest, Zoe did a quick search through the room. There were only four bottles that had some liquid in them. More that were empty. Zoe gathered them up and dumped the contents down the drain in the kitchen.

She’d probably missed a few, but that might help a little.

With nothing left to do in the women’s ward–unless she wanted to shout at Arachne through the door for a few hours, which she didn’t–Zoe headed out into the prison proper.

If the women’s ward was a pigsty, the rest of the prison was a thing out of nightmares. Rocks and boulders littered the ground. While they had cleaned up the bodies, a few dried splotches of blood still lingered here and there. Mostly around where Genoa had fought the inquisitors.

Walking with a cane across the disturbed terrain was not fun.

Zoe made a beeline towards Ylva’s domain. She had no desire to take in more of the scenery.

The interior was much the same as it always had been. For the most part. The storm clouds overhead might be leaning more towards the storm aspect of their name. No ring of light illuminated the throne in the center of the chamber. The pinhole in the clouds had vanished.

Zoe stopped at the entryway and frowned.

The throne was empty. Ylva wasn’t in her usual place.

Carlos, on the other hand, sat on a chair fashioned from marble just outside one of the alcoves. Zoe wasted no time in walking up to him.

He didn’t even look up.

It was difficult to see through his coke bottle glasses, but his eyes were certainly closed.

From the way his head was slumped into his chest, he was either dead or asleep. Given his snores, Zoe was leaning towards sleep.

She reluctantly rubbed his shoulder. It was almost cruel to wake him. Carlos looked peaceful while he slept.

Just when Zoe decided to leave him to his nap and go find Ylva on her own, Carlos stirred. He pulled his glasses off, gripping the lens between the palm of his hand and his fingers.

Zoe shuddered. She had worn glasses when she was younger. Back before she could use air magic to augment her sight. Even the slightest speck of dust drove her insane.

After rubbing his eyes, Carlos replaced his glasses without even wiping them off.

“Have you seen Ylva?” Zoe asked, pointedly ignoring his poor glasses handling.

“She is,” he paused to yawn. His eyes went wide behind his glasses. “Oh. She’s um, talking to the prisoner. In the uh, torture room.”

“I see.”

For a moment, they simply stared at one another. Genoa, while she was lucid, had no issues with the current treatment of their guest. Carlos had been more outspoken against using the torture chamber.

Treating another human to the machines within Ylva’s torture chamber should elicit feelings of disgust or sickness. Zoe was finding it hard to care. Besides the fact that the nuns had attacked, she was all cared out between Eva, Juliana, and Shalise. Des and Hugo’s absence as well, though to a slightly lesser degree.

Hugo was dead. Ylva had confirmed that both with her mother and through her eyes on Nel. Des had been present during Hugo’s untimely demise, tied up like Nel. Since she’d been untied and had started working with Nel’s captor, Ylva no longer saw a distinction between her and their enemy.

“How long have they been in there?”

“What time is it?”

“Nearly three o’clock.”

“About two hours then. We were discussing possible places Zagan might have sent Juliana before she decided to uh, talk with the prisoner.”

“Any progress on Juliana and Shalise?”

Carlos looked down at his lap, slowly shaking his head. “S-she confirmed with her mother that Juliana’s soul is not in Death’s Domain. Juli is alive, somewhere. Since Nel is apparently in immediate danger, Ylva decided to focus on her.”

“I’m sorry,” Zoe said as she gave his shoulder a hopefully reassuring squeeze. “We’ll find her. If we rescue Nel, maybe her ability will help in finding Juliana and Shalise.”

“Yeah. Silver lining or whatever, I guess.”

Zoe went silent for a few moments. What to say to reassure someone depressed and unable to do anything?

Nothing.

Zoe was in much the same position. None of the girls were her daughters, but the situation was the same. Pretty words given as some sort of placebo would be exactly the opposite of what she would want to hear.

“I gave your wife a general remedy potion, put her to bed, and then took away as much alcohol as I could find.”

“She’s going to be angry.”

“Good. Let her get angry. She should be angry, not moping about at the bottom of a bottle.”

“You don’t have to live with her when she’s like… how she is.”

“If you can’t handle it then tell her to come talk to me.”

Carlos sighed, but nodded. Zoe was fairly certain that it was only her imagination, but she could have sworn she had heard his bones creak as he rose to his feet. “I’d better go sit with her. She shouldn’t be alone and it isn’t like I’m doing anything productive here.”

Zoe nodded and stepped to one side. Watching him leave brought up whole new feelings of despair. He had his shoulders hunched and drawn close together, making him look even smaller than he normally was.

She slapped her own cheeks once he was out of sight. There was no room to be depressed. Zoe had to hold her head high or there would be no one left.

The only person–the only human not affected by the atmosphere at the prison was Devon. In his own words, he cared nothing for Shalise or Juliana and was only going to assist due to an agreement with Ylva. Though she had no idea what, exactly, he was doing for Ylva.

Speak of the devil, Zoe thought as she turned to the archway.

Ylva stood there, staring. Her blue lips pressed together for a brief moment.

“Good day, Ylva,” Zoe said. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No. We have finished speaking with the Elysium Nun.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Unlike Nel, Ali did not enter Our service willingly. We are merely convincing her of, as mortals term it, greener pastures.”

That didn’t answer my question, Zoe almost spoke aloud. She let it slide. Whatever Ylva did to the woman, she did not want to know about. Both because it could be very disturbing but also because she liked to think somewhat highly of Ylva.

“How does having her as a servant help Shalise and Juliana?”

“Information is key in any engagement. Ali will escape and return to her order. We will receive information from a specialized skull We intend to implant within her chest.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Your ring serves only to warn others that its bearer is under Our protection. The skull adorning Nel’s necklace serves a similar function, though through it, We are able to perceive what Nel perceives. The skull within Eva’s domain allows Us to view everything within the surrounding area.

“The skull destined for Ali allows that and more. Because of the relative low power of Nel’s necklace, Elysium augurs possess superior tracking methods.”

“And you’ll locate Nel through them?”

Ylva smiled. It wasn’t a murderous smile that Arachne might have upon locating her enemies.

It was polite and regal. Just seeing it made Zoe feel accomplished. She had to suppress her own smile. Understanding Ylva’s plan wasn’t worthy of feeling fulfilled.

“Is there anything I can do, Ylva? I don’t care what it is. I just need to be doing something. Anything that will help Juliana and Shalise. And Nel, I suppose.”

Ylva turned her head, staring off towards her throne.

After a minute of her staring, Zoe said, “I know Genoa feels the same way.” Or she would if she were sober. “We need to be able to see progress and assist in that progress ourselves.”

“We will require her power upon locating Nel. Your strengths lie outside of combat.” Dead eyes turned their gaze down toward Zoe. “There may be one task you are able to perform at this moment. You may not enjoy it.”

“I said anything, so long as it will help.”

“Excellent,” Ylva said with another smile. “Follow.”

For a moment, Ylva looked like she was going to return to the torture chamber. Zoe was pleasantly surprised when the library turned out to be her final destination.

That meant research of some sort. She could do research. Zoe was good at research. If it helped out Juliana and Shalise, all the better.

And in Ylva’s massive library. She couldn’t read most of the books, but perhaps Ylva had a way around that.

Zoe had a feeling she might actually enjoy this assignment.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.027

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Has she woken up yet?”

Shelby stirred at the soft voice. She pulled herself out of the puddle of drool that had gathered on her sister’s bed. Wiping off her cheek, she looked towards the doorway.

“I don’t think so. What–” An involuntary yawn drowned out her words. “What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning,” Jordan said as he pulled up a chair. “I was just talking with Nurse East. He said that she should be waking up anytime now.”

“That would be nice,” Shelby said as she looked back down to her sleeping twin.

For the first time in weeks, Irene lacked the furrowed brow. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning either. She seemed… peaceful.

“She’s going to be alright, right?”

“He said it was just a concussion. A bad one, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few potions.”

“She’s not going to be like, possessed, is she?”

“Those weren’t demons,” Jordan said. His features darkened, looking like he wanted to spit. A look of pure disgust. “Just parts of them.”

His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.

Shelby shook her head. “And you knew about that Ylva girl? And Professor Za–”

A finger pressed to her lips. She felt her face heat up even as Jordan shook his head.

“Don’t say his name. There are ways to find out if someone talks about oneself. I don’t know if he is doing that, but I’d rather not give any excuses to draw his attention.”

He sighed, pulling his finger away as he glanced off towards Irene. “I knew about Ylva. She wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding herself. When you’ve got a family like mine, you notice things like that.”

“A family like yours,” Shelby said with a half-suppressed yawn. She didn’t know what time she had finally fallen asleep the night before, but it was clearly too late.

As she thought over what he said, Shelby slowly put her head back down on her sister’s bed. She had to wiggle a little in her chair to avoid the damp patch of her own drool. “You’re like Eva then? All into demons or something?”

“Well,” he said. His voice had an audible smile in it. “I like to think I can keep a secret much better than she can.”

Shelby snorted into the blankets. “I’ve known you my whole life. I’ve only known Eva for a year and a half. It’s clear who the secret keeping winner is.”

That got a small laugh from Jordan. “But my family values knowledge and an open mind, I guess you could say.”

“Irene knew, didn’t she. That’s why she freaked out about Eva last year and kept her at an arm’s length since then. She asked you, or you just told her.”

Jordan took in and let out a deep breath. “She stumbled upon me in a fairly compromising position a few years ago.”

Shelby snorted again. It came out slightly pained. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

“Not like that,” he said. “She just walked in on me manipulating shadows like I did yesterday. My family Swore her to secrecy. That’s Swore with a capital ‘S’ otherwise we would have told you too.”

“That doesn’t seem like something Mr. Anderson would do.” Shelby frowned as a though occurred to her. “Are you going to do the same to me?”

“We’re older now. I’ll have to tell my parents, of course, but that was mostly so that Irene couldn’t talk about it. Kids are known to talk about things they shouldn’t, after all.

“I actually wrote to them last night about Eva, all the demon-things, and Juliana and Shalise. I completely forgot to mention you.”

Shelby reached out and jabbed him in the stomach, eliciting a small grunt. That had to be one of the most offensive things she’d ever heard.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can tell my dad yourself. I got a call this morning. He said five words: ‘I am on my way.’ I don’t think he is very happy.”

“That’s not the point, Jordan Anderson. You’re not supposed to forget about your gi–” Shelby cut herself off with a barely disguised cough, “–your childhood friend.”

They weren’t officially going out. They hadn’t even been on a date. He didn’t pay extra attention to her. Their entire relationship felt entirely one-sided.

It was entirely one-sided. They were friends and nothing more.

Shelby sighed. He’d probably prefer going out with someone like Eva anyway.

“I couldn’t help it. So much went on yesterday. I decided to e-mail it instead of texting it because it was so long.”

“That’s just–”

Shelby froze as a light groan came from the sleeping patient.

“Wha–”

Irene didn’t get any further than that before Shelby wrapped her arms around her. Carefully, of course–Irene wasn’t supposed to move or be moved much until the nurse signed her off.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shelby said when she finally pulled herself away. She had to wipe something away from her eyes. Her vision had gone all blurry. It certainly wasn’t tears.

“What happened?”

“Long story,” Jordan said. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll go let Nurse East know you’re awake.”

Shelby watched Jordan’s backside as he walked out of the room. She shook her head and looked back to her sister. “What do you remember?”

“I was–” Irene’s half-lidded eyes burst wide open. Her face heated up to the point where Shelby was wondering if some of the old Irish blood wasn’t showing itself.

“Are you okay?”

“Nothing!” Irene squeaked. She shook her head and immediately winced. “I was just in the hot springs with Eva.”

Shelby frowned and quirked her head to one side. “We don’t have bathing suits.”

Irene’s already red face turned roughly the color of an overripe tomato.

“Oh,” Shelby said with a nod. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“That’s not–It wasn’t–” Irene devolved into sputtering while Shelby tried to keep her face straight. “There were monsters! I was running and then… I don’t know. What happened?”

“Nurse East said one of the security force people brought you in. You’d have to get the full story from them, but I guess Eva was fending off the monsters until the security guard got to you.”

“Oh.” Irene went silent for a moment. “Where is she?”

“The security guard–”

“Eva.”

“I don’t know. I heard Professor Baxter herself say that Eva had been stabbed with a cursed knife, but I haven’t seen her. It’s only been a day.” Shelby paused, but decided to add, “Juliana and Shalise are missing.”

She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to reveal where they went missing. Juliana’s mother was a scary woman and Shelby wasn’t about to disobey, even to her sister.

“One of the school nurses died. A different security guard is in critical condition, I guess.”

“Start at the beginning.”

Shelby shifted to be more comfortable in her chair before speaking. It could take a while.

— — —

The amount of paperwork involved with the recent incident was beyond staggering. Every form that Martina filled out and filed was replaced by three new ones. Catherine just kept digging out more.

While she wasn’t about to complain about her secretary’s new-found work ethic, Martina couldn’t help but think that it was yet another method of getting under her skin. Half the forms were only tangentially relevant. Half of the remainder were so out of date, Martina couldn’t see how they applied to the modern school.

Still, Martina filled them out. The attack was a large incident that had occurred on Brakket property. She wasn’t going to get herself fired over a misplaced RF-Two-Three-Three form.

It helped matters that Gregory had finally delivered his personal report over the incident. Martina Turner set the report down on her desk. It wasn’t everything she had hoped it might be.

While unexpected, the incident proved to be an effective test. Only Daenir, the elf, had been injured among the security team. Gregory’s claim that the addition of several unaffiliated allies had ‘saved the day’ was unneeded.

She’d be sure to leave that bit out when the time came to make a report to the administrators and whatever they ended up telling the public.

The specialists performed their task most admirably. Neither had been on either end of a friendly-fire ‘accident’ which, if Martina was being entirely honest with herself, was a concern she had had. Lucy even dragged that delinquent that had skipped class to an infirmary.

Without eating her. That was a success all on its own.

If it hadn’t been for that nurse, the day would have been almost perfect.

That was the biggest disappointment of all. If only Lisa Naranga had found a proper place to hide or simply escaped…

Nothing to do about it now. Catherine had already notified the next of kin.

The door to Martina’s office burst open, slamming into the wall.

A man wrapped in a black winter coat walked in. He stood in the doorway, taking in the room with a slow sweep of his head from one side to the other. Every inch his head moved only served to deepen the man’s frown.

Martina caught sight of Catherine. The succubus was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp points. As if feeling eyes on her, Catherine looked up and threw a glance in Martina’s direction with a nasty smile. The secretary’s eyes flashed red for a brief instant before the closing door cut off Martina’s view.

“Governor Anderson,” Martina said. She kept a scowl off her face and even managed to turn it into something of a mournful smile. “You should have sent word that you were coming, I would have arranged–”

“Spare me your pleasantries,” he snapped. “The administrators did not put you in charge so that you could run Brakket’s name further into the ground.”

Martina felt her smile slip. “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” she said slowly. “The new security team I assembled defended the academy against an overwhelming force with only one loss and no major student injuries.”

Governor Anderson shook his head. He folded his hands behind his back. “Have you done a headcount on your students?”

“Not as such,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I know that there are three students not currently at Brakket Academy. All three are known to… disappear at times.”

“Irresponsible. After an incident such as this, the first action you should have taken was to ascertain the location of all students. I don’t care where you think they are. If a student took a week off to visit relatives in Europe, you find out for sure that that student is actually there.”

Martina thought for a moment about calling in Zoe Baxter. That woman would have information about the girls. She stopped before her hand had even twitched towards the phone.

Something was wrong about the whole situation. A member of the board of administrators doesn’t just show up and start talking about missing students after a hundred hostile monsters show up on the school’s front porch. Perhaps the conversation would lead there, but he immediately went into the students.

“I take it you know something.”

“Two of those students are no longer on the mortal plane.”

Martina nodded. “One of those students is only human by the loosest definitions. It is somewhat alarming that she left our plane of existence, more so in that she took a friend with her. Their actions are not the business of Brakket Academy.”

Governor Anderson’s eyes turned dark. “I backed your plan. Convinced the others that there was merit in broadening the scope of magical curriculum. You assured me that you could keep your minions in line.”

“I’m not–”

“Find Zagan. Ask him about your missing students.” He turned on his heel and opened the door. It slammed into the wall with as much force as he had entered with.

Catherine did not look the slightest bit perturbed as he stalked by with his shadow curling up the wall. Rather, she looked interested. Her eyes turned a unique shade of red before she reined herself in.

“Find Zagan,” Martina repeated to herself as the outer door to the offices slammed shut with Governor Anderson on the other side.

“Ah,” Catherine said. She stood from her desk, grabbed a sheet of paper off the top, and tottered over through Martina’s open door. “Zagan stopped by last night, wanting you to have this. Slipped my mind until now.”

“A leave of absence?”

“He is taking a few days off, citing the traumatic incident as the cause.”

Martina tore the sheet of paper in two. She tore it again and again before scattering the pieces in Catherine’s face.

“Find him. And find all residents of Rickenbacker three-one-three.”

The lascivious grin on Catherine’s face died. “Is that an order?”

“Don’t try my patience.” Something had gone on. Something that the governor knew about despite not even living within Brakket city.

Something that involved a king of hell.

— — —

“If the immediate family would gather around for the final prayer and rites.”

A husband, a father, a mother, two older brothers, and a little sister all stood from their seats and approached the closed casket. Before a single word could be spoken, the mother broke down into sobs. The father pulled her into a tight hug while the eldest brother placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The other brother stood off to one side with an unreadable expression. Boredom? Perhaps shock. The reality of the situation might not have hit yet.

The sister stood back with her brother. Her face was twisted in an expression of confusion as she watched her mother. She had to be in elementary school. Probably too young to understand everything that was going on.

Especially since the casket had been kept closed. The body was in no state to be displayed. Only the parents and the husband had been allowed to look.

The husband stood apart from the family. Silent tears streamed down his face as he waited patiently for everyone to collect themselves.

Zoe Baxter watched the proceedings from the back of the room. She hadn’t gone up an introduced herself. None of Lisa’s family knew her and she’d only met Lisa’s husband once at their marriage nearly six years ago.

She’d considered pleading to Ylva. What about, she wasn’t certain. Restoring her to life or a last chance to talk, maybe. In the end, she decided against it. Even if Ylva could do something–and Zoe wasn’t sure she could–it didn’t feel right.

Lisa and her family were highly religious. Even if it could return her to life, Zoe doubted that they would accept it if it came through a bargain with a demon. Would Lisa herself accept it?

Zoe shook her head. She couldn’t get caught in that loop of thinking again. There was nothing to be done about death.

The family prayer had gone on while Zoe was distracted with her thoughts. She only realized that fact when the undertaker and pallbearers started taking the casket out to the hearse. The family followed and soon after, so did the rest of the congregation of Lisa’s friends.

Zoe remained in her seat until the last person had filed out of the funeral home. She pulled out her dagger.

Dirt and grime coated the blade. Normally, it would have easily caught and reflected the dim light in the funeral home. She hadn’t had the time to clean it after everything.

Or rather, she forgot. There was so much going on.

Still so much going on.

Zoe ran her thumb over the flat of the blade. Most of the dust was crusted onto the blade. It would need the full works when she found the time.

She took a deep breath, wincing at the jolt of pain in her side. Break over.

Rising to her feet, Zoe picked up her cane. She wouldn’t need it in a few weeks–she barely needed it now–but it was nice to have something to lean on during long hours of standing. The nun’s lightning was problematic to heal.

It actively undid any magical attempts to heal the affected area. The magic simply fell apart. Trying to remove the lingering magic from it had suffered similar failures.

Devon had said it would disperse on its own after a week or two and then magic-assisted healing could begin. He spoke from personal experience, apparently.

The effect was something that she’d normally be overjoyed to experience, in a manner of speaking. Figuring out how such a spell worked, especially given that it wasn’t thaumaturgical in nature, would have made an excellent project.

She’d only had time to do a cursory analysis. A theory had almost immediately popped into her head about how to replicate the effect using thaumaturgical chaos magic, but not without also unraveling the spell itself. She had yet to even write down her theories let alone solve the issue.

With a sigh, Zoe teleported through between to the prison.

The place still looked like a battlefield. Half-scorched body parts were still scattered around. All belonged to the minions of the ‘Lord of Slaves’ that no one had bothered to pick up. No one cared, not with their other worries.

Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.

Ylva and Arachne were one thing. Arachne was a psychopath, plain and simple. Plenty of humans were psychopaths, and plenty more were worse than she was. Ylva was more of an enigma. While she did somewhat enslave Nel, it wasn’t the same thing.

The very concept of the Lord of Slaves was fundamentally disgusting. She would be all too happy if Devon never felt the need to summon such a creature again.

A shout echoing through the empty compound pulled her attention away from her thoughts.

“Why can’t you send me?”

Zoe turned and stalked off in the direction of the noise. She tried not to look like she was hobbling, an endeavor she wasn’t sure was entirely successful. Every step sent pain up her leg and around her chest.

Teleporting was, unfortunately, not an option. Genoa had been on a hair-trigger temper since she had been informed about her daughter’s status. Teleporting around her was liable to result in injury at best.

Both Devon and Ylva had advised them not to confront Zagan or Martina over the matter, or even let on that they knew. Not until they could recover the girls.

That irked Zoe more than anything. She was once again considering resigning in protest. And once again coming up with a lack of results that resigning would achieve.

Zagan would have to go.

Later. And with a lot of planning.

Zoe rounded the corner of Devon’s cell house. Genoa, Devon, and Carlos all stood outside. The latter was in the process of trying to calm the two down.

Carlos was looking thinner than normal. He looked far more weary behind his coke bottle glasses. An older look. The lines on his face were pronounced and deep.

It had only been a few days and he was already looking ill.

Her daughter’s absence took a different sort of toll on Genoa. In addition to her hair-trigger temper, she’d become irritated with everyone at the prison. She was eating healthy and took proper care of herself, all in the name of mounting some kind of rescue mission.

Even when the attitude turned in her direction, Zoe couldn’t fault the woman. They weren’t her children, but they were her students. Leaving them in Hell was not an option.

Zoe at least possessed the ability to acknowledge that she was so far out of her element that she wouldn’t be much use. She was willing to heed the advice of Devon and Ylva.

“I didn’t say can’t, woman, I said won’t.” He thrust a sheet of paper at her. The drawing, or a copy, of the transference circle Zoe had taken a picture of. “Draw it yourself if you’re so desperate. But you’re throwing yourself away.”

Genoa snatched the paper from his hands. “I won’t abandon my child.”

“You’ll be abandoning them no matter what you do. You might as well use the connection in Ylva’s domain. That circle has no destination sigil. You could wind up anywhere. Hell is a big damn place. The odds that you’d wind up with your kid are astronomical.

“Then we have to figure out how to get you back, potentially delaying the rescue of your daughter. What a pain. Damn Ylva and its damn payment. I don’t have the time for this shit. It was going to save Eva anyway, I could tell.” Devon devolved into muttering under his breath.

Zoe stepped forwards, ensuring that Genoa saw her before she spoke. She didn’t want to wind up attacked on accident again. “Is Ylva still gone?”

Both Devon and Genoa turned to glare at Zoe. Carlos was the one to finally respond. “Still gone. Is she really going to help get our daughter back?”

“I think so,” Zoe said. And she honestly believed it. Ylva had been protective of her ‘things’ if nothing else. “How is Eva?”

“Unchanged.”

“No one is watching over her?”

“Arachne was with her when we left.”

No one responsible then, Zoe thought with a small sigh.

Genoa crumpled the paper into a ball and turned away. Without a word, she stalked off towards Ylva’s building.

Carlos started after her, but paused and looked back. “I-I better keep her from doing anything rash.”

“Is that true? About the destination thing,” Zoe said as soon as Carlos and Genoa were safely out of earshot.

“I consider myself an expert in these kinds of things. Demons and such. Frankly, that circle shouldn’t work. It’s like a mirror of a proper summoning circle. But if it does work, it will work the way I said it does.”

“You haven’t tested it?”

“Of course not. I don’t want to tip anything off and I definitely do not want to have anything to do with any of the seventy-two. I warned Eva.” He descended once again into mumbling complaints about seemingly everything he could think of as he turned and walked away.

Zoe stood there in the prison courtyard, leaning on her cane, wondering just what she could be doing to help her students.

— — —

Des sat in her chair without moving. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, but struggling would only make things worse.

She did glance over towards Hugo. Unlike Des, he wasn’t strapped down. He even had clothes on. Hugo simply sat and stared with his usual vacant look.

A second chair sat in the room, though it was facing the wrong way. The back was tall enough that she couldn’t see anyone, but it was probably there for a reason. A new test subject for her father, perhaps.

“You disappoint me, Des.”

Her father was smiling. Not at her and not because he was happy. In fact, that was one of the worst smiles she’d seen.

“Don’t worry, we can fix that. But first, let’s discuss why you disappoint me.”

Everything had gone so wrong. Des couldn’t even point out where things failed. Eva wasn’t supposed to have gotten away. She wasn’t supposed to have been an enemy in the first place.

Des was willing to admit that she had let her anger get the best of her. But it wasn’t her fault. If Eva had just played nice, none of this would have happened.

They were supposed to have been friends. Two outcasts joining together against mutual enemies.

That was what her father had said anyway.

“You took our little friends, Des, and got all of them killed. You didn’t tell me first. There was no plan.” Sawyer hung his head in mock sadness. “Worst of all, you ran. You got scared. They were held off by six people and a demon or two because no one was controlling them.”

His voice was soft. Calm. Completely unlike what happened when other people got mad. That was the fifth scariest part of the whole situation.

“That was the whole point in making them. Demons have far too much agency, but they’re strong. With us controlling our demon-golems…” he trailed off with another shake of his head.

“And Hugo helped you.”

Hugo blinked and glanced up to Sawyer. His eyes focused for a brief moment.

Her father snapped his fingers.

Hugo slumped forwards, falling out of his seat. He collapsed to the floor without attempting to catch himself.

Des tried to scream out. She struggled against the chair’s restraints.

They didn’t budge.

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll build you a new toy. A better one!

“But that is the price he had to pay. Don’t disappoint me again, Des.”

The restraints didn’t even allow Des to slump back in her chair. She didn’t want a new toy. Hugo was hers.

“Not all was lost. I noticed your errant actions fast enough to act myself. I caught us a little souvenir.”

He spun the spare chair around.

There was a woman sitting in it with wide eyes and short, messy hair. Milky white eyes were inset in her body everywhere Des could see. At least, between the straps. Some of the spots shouldn’t even be possible. There was definitely not enough meat on her wrist to support an eye and have a functional bone structure.

A small spot on her other arm had dried blood crusted over a hole that might have held an eye at one point in time.

“I’m going to have to change my original plan. There were unexpected complications, but all will be well. We might have to move quickly over the next few days until I figure out how to hide us from the other nuns. Their inquisitorial squad is reeling from losing half the members and one other augur, but they’ll be back.”

As she tore her eyes from the woman’s eyes, Des noticed one odd thing. When her father strapped in subjects, he stripped them to ensure they had no hidden items on their person.

The woman had a choker around her neck. A small, obsidian black skull dangled from the front end. It was highly detailed. For all Des knew, it was fashioned from a real skull. A real tiny skull, but a real one nonetheless. All the teeth were perfectly detailed, the cheekbones had all the proper shapes, and the eyes…

It drew her eyes in. She couldn’t look away even if she tried.

And she tried. She wanted nothing more than to not have to look at the necklace.

Two tiny white pricks were set so far back in the eye sockets that they could be on the opposite end of the universe.

Two tiny white stars, fueling their burning with sheer anger.

>>Author’s Note 003<<

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

An earthquake tore through the prison. Potion vials rattled, dust shook free from the walls, one of the runes providing light failed.

Eva snapped the treatise on necromancy shut with a barely restrained sigh. That’s the fifth time in the last hour. She glanced over at Juliana, Shalise, and Devon, all of whom were glued to the window.

“Any sign of them stopping for the night?” Eva asked. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep like this.”

“I think they’re trying to kill each other.” Juliana just shook her head. Apparently, this was business as usual. “‘Accidentally,'” she added in air quotes.

“You don’t sound too concerned about it, girl.”

“Please,” Juliana said with a laugh. “My mom was kicking Arachne’s ass with Eva’s distractions.”

Eva shook her head. “Arachne was gaining ground. She’s got the stamina and strength to continue even under a barrage of rock.”

“Even if she got close, mom could have just blinked away. Arachne can’t win.”

“That would only last until Arachne figured out a tell. Then she’d chuck a rock in the path and your mom would be down and out.”

Devon hummed while scratching his beard. “She steps backwards. Without looking. It might be difficult to tell for sure.”

“The difference between blinking and stepping?”

He shrugged. “Damned if I know. I didn’t have a fancy school teaching me the proper ways of things. But the endurance issue is more pressing for the mom than any sudden attacks. Arachne could wear her down until she can’t keep up. Endurance isn’t even a concept to it.”

Juliana turned to Devon with a sad shake of her head. “My mother’s been a fighter for a long time. She keeps herself in shape. I mean, look at her–”

“Trust me, girl. I am.”

An elbow found its way into Devon’s side. Or tried to anyway. He slipped off to one side. Juliana’s elbow passed harmlessly through his empty sleeve.

“Hey, you’re the one who told me to watch her.”

“That’s my mother and she is happily married.”

“Now you’re jumping to conclusions.”

“What I was trying to say,” Juliana said with a huff, “is that she’s strong. They’ve been fighting nonstop for five hours and they’re still going. More than that, she knows her limits. She’ll disengage and blink away if she thinks she’s getting tired.”

Devon opened his mouth to argue further, but Shalise cut him off.

“Well, I think they’re having fun.”

Everyone looked at her. Slowly, Eva glanced at Devon and Juliana. They returned the look.

A moment later and the women’s ward was full of laughter.

“W-what are you laughing at? Look, they’re smiling!”

Eva set her book on the table and stepped straight to the freshly repaired window. Genoa had the decency to repair the women’s ward with her earth magic. Someone of her caliber could apparently manipulate glass.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than a giant hole in the building. She said she would spend some time reinforcing the entire structure over the course of her stay.

Being able to step again was like a breath of cool, fresh air. It was such a pleasant feeling. Eva couldn’t believe she made do without stepping for so long. Of course, she was a bit rusty. She had tried to step as soon as their little meeting with Genoa ended.

While her step had succeeded in that it moved her from where she was to where she wanted to be, it failed in other ways. Namely, she had left behind all of her clothes. Right in front of Juliana’s parents. Eva didn’t care half as much about being naked in front of them as she did about failing her stepping in front of them.

Eva shook her head and focused. Blink failures were in the past. Besides, she had figured out what went wrong quick enough. It was like riding a bicycle.

The battle raged on outside. Two titans fought, tearing the land to shreds.

If Genoa hadn’t promised to not only fix the ground but also reinforce the walls and buildings, Eva would have activated the wards again.

Arachne had adopted a new strategy for dealing with Genoa. Rather than brute forcing all the debris, she opted for the avoidance method. Her extra limbs wrapped around her chest as she danced and weaved over sand traps, holes, and flying rocks. A leg would dart out to catch her if Genoa managed to knock her unsteady or catch her over a hole.

Occasionally, a fireball would come in her direction, but Arachne headbutted those away like they were balloons.

Genoa adapted to deal with Arachne’s increased mobility by doing exactly as Juliana said. She blinked here, there, and everywhere. The rate at which she managed attacks was enviable on its own. Blinking every few seconds between the attacks just gave Eva a sick feeling in her stomach.

If Eva tried the same, she’d wind up vomiting everything within seconds.

The two combatants had one thing in common. That was their near identical smiles.

Under no circumstances would Eva ever describe their smiles as ‘friendly’ or ‘fun.’

Eva shook her head and patted Shalise on the back. “It’s okay. We’re all a little crazy.”

Shalise stuck out her tongue.

“What are we going to do about Ylva’s place?”

Eva turned to give Juliana a shrug. “I asked Ylva to seal off some of the more problematic rooms. The torture chamber and that eye stalk room, for instance. The sealing didn’t leave a door, just a flat wall. Everything else will be explained away as space expansion, I guess.”

“My mother will never buy that.”

“Well, we could just stay here. Or one of the other buildings, though none of them are very habitable.”

“We already told her that we’re not staying here. She’d think it was suspicious. I’m actually surprised that she hasn’t insisted on a full inspection of the place.”

“Arachne is good for something I guess.”

“But what are we going to tell her when she does go inside? There’s a pit that doesn’t have a bottom and clouds. How are we supposed to explain away clouds?”

“Vertical space expansion,” Eva answered with a shrug. “There isn’t much we can do about it at this point.”

“Not going to help.”

“Might as well get it over with now. We need to stop the earthquakes to get some sleep soon anyway. I’ve got to be up early to meet with Martina Turner. We all have to be up early because Arachne is giving us a ride.”

“That’s kind of weird,” Shalise said. “Once or twice I could see, but every day?” She looked up to Devon. “Can’t we get a ride in the truck?”

He sneered at Shalise. “Steal your own ride, kid.”

“You stole it?”

“Do I look like I’m made out of money?”

Anyway, I need sleep. You all need sleep. They’ve been ‘sparring’ for long enough.” Eva turned back to the window. Another tremor shook the women’s ward. “Now, how do we stop them without getting killed.”

“Don’t ask me,” Devon said. “I’d have left hours ago if I thought it was safe.”

Juliana and Shalise looked at each other with a shrug.

Eva let out a short sigh. “I’ll be right back.”

“You’re not doing that pain thing again, are you?”

“No. Just getting something.”

Eva left the three and headed towards the potion room. Luck had kept most of the vials from breaking during the earlier assault and the constant earthquakes. Most being the key word. It probably wasn’t safe to stay inside.

The jug that Eva needed was right next to the door. She hefted it up without stepping foot into the room.

“What is that?”

“Blood.”

“Really? It’s black.”

“It’s mine.”

“Yours? How much is in that thing.”

“Two, maybe three gallons? Somewhere around there.” Eva dropped the jug in front of the door. She pulled open the door just a crack.

“T-three gallons?”

“It is all worthless. Several mixtures from different states of myself, stored for several months in a container that is not properly enchanted. It isn’t good for attacks, it isn’t good for defenses. I’m lucky it is still usable at all.”

“But, why?”

“Going to make a big sign that says ‘STOP’ in between them.”

Juliana and Shalise glanced at one another. Devon let out a laugh.

“That’s it?” he said. “I thought you were going to blow it all up or something exciting.”

“That’s plan B.”

“Arachne, you’re filthy. Shower now. I’ll not have you track dirt around my home.”

The spider-demon gave a happy nod of her head.

“Genoa, I can’t order you around, but you’re disgusting too. Arachne can show you how to work the showers.”

“Awfully cocky, aren’t you.”

Eva shrugged. “Like I said, my home. You’re not allowed to touch any of my furniture. Or walls. Or floors. Or anything, really.”

Genoa let out a loud laugh. She clapped her sweaty hand onto Eva’s shoulder and gave a firm squeeze. “Alright, I get it.”

I should have added myself in that list, Eva thought with a mental sigh.

She turned and walked off to follow after Arachne.

Her smile was exactly as wide as Arachne’s smile. It was somewhat disconcerting. Eva half expected Genoa to suddenly have sharp teeth as well.

The fight had both of them in a much different mood than they had been in earlier. Shalise might have been on to something with her comment.

No. There was no way.

And with that thought, Eva called out after them. “I swear, if my showers turn into a warzone, I’ll remove both of you from the wards and you’ll wish I was letting your heads explode just to end the pain.”

That earned a bout of laughter. From both of them. It cut off quick enough, but not so quick as to avoid a raised eyebrow from Eva.

“Something weird is going on here,” Eva mumbled to herself.

“You wouldn’t actually do that, right?” Juliana said as she walked up next to Eva.

“No,” Eva said. “Maybe. You don’t think Shalise was right, do you?”

Juliana just laughed.

“I’m right here, you know.” Shalise crossed her arms and huffed. “Didn’t you send them off together because you wanted them to get closer?”

“I figured they’d hate each other and take less time in the interest of getting away from one another.”

Shalise sighed with a disappointed shake of her head.

Eva felt somewhat vindicated when both of them returned in less than five minutes. Genoa, however, emerged with nothing but a towel wrapped around her and two knives in her hands.

“Carlos back with my suitcase yet?”

“I have clothes if you need something to wear.”

Genoa looked Eva up and down with a grin. “You might be my height, but you don’t have half the core I’ve got. I’d tear through anything you try to put on me.”

“I’m sure I’ve got some loose-fitting clothes,” Eva said as she marched to her room. Arachne followed close behind.

“So?” Eva asked as she shut the door.

“Oh, she’s fun. Every once in a while, I’d come very close to being damaged. Almost like she was going easy on me to get me to let my guard down. A sharp rock would fly straight at my forehead, or perhaps a boulder trying to take off my head altogether.” Arachne let out an almost content sigh. “Can I keep her?”

Eva turned away from her dresser and locked eyes with the demon. “No.”

“But–”

“No ‘keeping’ my friend’s mother. You’re free to spar, but no keeping and no killing either. Even if she’s trying to kill you.”

Eva ignored the pouting Arachne. A skirt might work. They might need pins or something. As Genoa said, the former mage-knight had far more muscles than Eva.

In the end, Eva decided on her largest skirt and a button up shirt. Even if Genoa couldn’t button it up all the way, it would probably end up being more than she normally wore.

With as many scars as she had, it was a wonder that Genoa hadn’t gone the Juliana route. A hefty layer of metal covering her entire body would do wonders at keeping additional scars away. Then again, she seemed the type to take pride in scars.

That mindset always seemed odd to Eva. Advertising that you get injured on a regular basis did not appeal to her. Unless the purpose was to advertise that you survived grievous injuries. Wouldn’t that make an opponent try to put you down even harder?

Then there was the fact that she was covered in scars in the first place. Did she purposefully avoid healing them? Were all of them cursed? That seemed unlikely.

Eva shook her head as she opened her room door.

Carlos and Zoe sat on the couch next to Juliana and Shalise. Before Eva could greet the two, the door opposite from Eva’s room opened. Genoa stood there, wearing nothing but a tube-top and shorts with the top button undone. “Ready,” she said.

She came out of the library, Eva noted with a repressed frown. Few rooms were more damning. Though she couldn’t have spent much time in there. It hadn’t taken Eva more than three minutes to find clothes–clothes she tossed over her shoulder back into her room–and Carlos hadn’t returned before she entered her room. Not enough time to get dressed and to snoop around too much.

“You’re taking them to cell house two, Eva?”

Eva nodded to Zoe. “Might as well get it over with,” Eva said as she walked towards the women’s ward door. “Well, come on. It’s on the other side of the prison.”

“What do you mean by ‘get it over with’?” Genoa asked from Eva’s side. She started fingering one of the daggers at her hip.

“Nothing bad,” Eva said quickly. “But the place we’ll be staying at is one of the few places here that is not mine. You’ll need to be vetted before you’ll be allowed to stay there.”

“And what does vetting consist of?”

“Introducing yourself, being extremely polite, and not agreeing to anything, or offering anything. At all.”

“I think I see where this is going,” Genoa said without removing her hand from her dagger. “I don’t think I like it.”

“Probably not. I will say that it is the safest spot to be, probably on the entire continent.” Even if it isn’t technically in our reality. “So long as you’ve got the favor of the owner.”

“And you’ve got it?”

We have it. We were already ready to stay there.”

“I see.”

“Ylva,” Zoe said, “will be there tonight. After tonight she will be living with me back in Brakket. We decided that the best course of action was to keep the children safe. I’ll be out in the open. Ylva will be there to help fend off anything that might attack me again.”

“Your plan was to leave the kids alone while you went off as bait? What’s stopping your assailants from hitting the softer, undefended target?”

“Assuming they made it past my wards, myself, and Arachne–”

Genoa scoffed at that.

“–they’d have to get into cell house two. She’s something of an expert on wards.” Eva stopped in front of the door to Ylva’s domain and pulled it open. “Especially space expansion ones.”

Genoa walked into the domain, mouth agape. Carlos wasn’t far behind her. Even Eva took a moment to stare.

Ylva must have been excited to host a few guests.

The throne platform was back in its proper place with all four chains properly attached. A waterfall of fog poured out of the overhead clouds, collecting in some sort of receptacle behind the throne before billowing out to spread across the platform. The floor of the platform couldn’t be seen through the fog.

The relatively small waterfall to the throne somehow spread out enough to fall off the entire platform and into the pit. There wasn’t a single spot of marble visible through the fog.

Ylva had changed the clouds as well. Rather than the overcast yet calm layer of clouds, there was now a raging thunderstorm. Without the thunder. Lightning illuminated the entire ceiling as it arced from cloud to cloud.

“Wow.”

“Understatement of the century, dear,” said Genoa.

Eva didn’t think it was that impressive, but she had already seen the rest of Ylva’s domain plenty of times. Genoa and Carlos had much more to take in.

Genoa walked right up to the edge of the pit with her hands on her hips–very near her foci. Not even a hint of fear showed as she leaned over the edge to look down. “How deep is it?”

“Indefinite.”

Eva blinked. That sounded like Ylva’s commanding tone, even in the single word, but it didn’t sound like her voice. She glanced off to the side.

Nel stood there in her red and white dress with her black robes.

A little kid stood next to her. She kept her back straight and her head held high as she looked over Genoa with dead eyes. Her lips were the same ice blue. The kid wore a miniature version of Ylva’s navel-cut dress despite the lack of cleavage necessary to pull it off. The blood in her veins failed to flow properly.

The death god Hel had children. Being one of those children, Ylva was known as a hel. Would one of Ylva’s children be called a hel or a ylva?

Eva wiped the smile off her face with a shake of her head. “Ylva?”

The kid gave a regal nod of her head. “We have disguised Ourself. This form will be unassuming.”

“Are you going to dress like that?” Zoe asked.

Juliana nodded and said, “and talk like that?”

Ylva quirked her head to one side before glancing down at herself. Her eyes snapped back up to Juliana and Zoe. “Our form is unassuming.”

“She’s so cute,” Shalise said. “Don’t bully her.” Before anyone could stop her, she had her arms wrapped around the tiny form of Ylva.

Zoe, Nel, and Genoa all drew in a gasp that went completely unnoticed by the brunette.

Shalise actually tried to pick up Ylva. And failed. “Kind of heavy though.”

“Our weight remains unchanged.”

“Oh.” Shalise let go of Ylva and took a step back. “Are you not normally this small?”

Ylva shook her head. Gray fog billowed up into a tall pillar around her. An intangible wind dispersed the fog as quick as it came. An eight foot high Ylva stood in its wake.

Shalise quickly backpedaled away from the giant woman. “I-I see.”

“Why don’t you stay like that for now. Maybe tomorrow too. You don’t want to introduce yourself as a child, do you?”

“Our form does not alter Ourself.”

“It isn’t so much about you as it is about how others will perceive you. A child would leave a disappointing impression compared to your usual, regal self.”

Ylva frowned.

The frown wasn’t hostile nor directed towards Eva. It sent chills down her spine nonetheless. Eva almost started some verbal backpedaling of her own.

It occasionally slipped her mind that Ylva was one of the more powerful entities she knew. One that took great offense at personal slights. The demon’s general deference to Eva on account of ‘renting’ the cell house combined with her odd mannerisms often had Eva acting far higher than her standing would otherwise dictate.

Ylva’s nod stopped Eva’s thoughts. “We acknowledge your perspective. Our unassuming form will wait.”

“Good,” Eva said with a strained smile. “Anyway, this is Genoa and Carlos Rivas.” She gestured towards each in turn.

Genoa had moved away from the pit the moment Ylva appeared. She had her back to a wall and had dragged Carlos and Juliana near to her. Upon being addressed, Carlos gave a light wave while his wife kept a hand firmly on her dagger.

“They’re Juliana’s parents,” Eva continued. “Genoa has requested to stay with us to provide an additional layer of security.”

“You trust them?”

Eva was about to answer until she noticed Ylva’s gaze had turned towards Juliana.

It took the blond a moment to realize she was being addressed. When she finally did, Juliana looked offended. “Of course I trust them. They’re my parents.”

“We have no objections. Nel will provide a tour.”

“What, just like that?” Genoa said.

“You disagree with your own daughter?”

“No. Not that. You just let me in here without confirming that I’m an ally. What if I took control of her mind and made her say yes?”

Ylva glanced down at Juliana and stared. “Unlikely,” she said after a minute.

“How can you know that?”

“We have spoken with Juliana in the past. Her mental facilities are unaltered.”

Genoa shot a frown towards Juliana. She quickly rounded back on Ylva. “This place is dangerous. Even aside from the bottomless pit of doom. What happens if the outside walls are damaged? The entire place could explosively collapse.”

“Our domain is under Our control. We will not allow such an event. Have you more complaints?”

“Mom, you need to calm down a little.”

An uneasy silence settled over the group. Juliana moved up to take her mother’s hand.

“We have further preparations.” Ylva turned, gave a nod at Nel, and walked straight through one of the sealed off walls.

“Well, as Lady Ylva said, I’m Nel.” She clapped her hands together and smiled an incredibly shaky smile.

“‘Lady Ylva?’ What is with the majestic plural anyway?”

Eva shrugged. “She’s the daughter of Hel. Granddaughter of Loki. If she wants to talk funny, let her.”

“A-anyway,” Nel said, “the tour?”

It took the group a moment to get moving, but eventually Nel managed to herd them around the pit.

Genoa had fallen to the back of the group and started a heated conversation in whispers with Zoe.

“First off, the most important place.” Nel walked open armed into one of the chambers. “The bath.”

The steam-covered pool before Eva was nearly as large as the entirety of the women’s ward building. Absolutely superfluous. And impractical. So much of the basin likely never saw use.

But that was the nature of domains. It didn’t cost Ylva anything.

“The statues serve as faucets and–”

“Gargoyles.”

Nel blinked at Carlos’ interruption. “Yeah,” she said with a blank look. “They’re activated by distance. Just walk close and water comes out.”

“Activated isn’t the right word. They’re living creatures. Gen, gargoyles!” Carlos had a stupid grin on his face as he ran up to the one standing over a shallower basin. He didn’t seem to notice getting soaked as the gargoyle opened its maw and started a shower.

“I can see them, dear,” Genoa said with a sigh.

“This one is pregnant!”

Eva blinked. The obsidian woman didn’t look pregnant. She had chiseled abs. Literally.

“They’re all pregnant, dear.”

Eva blinked again. None of them looked any different from the one whose pedestal Carlos was hugging.

“Technically,” he said, “but this one is close.”

“Are we missing something?” Shalise asked.

Thank you Shalise.

“Gargoyles are powerful hydroturges. Somewhere in the top five of all magical creatures that can manipulate water. But they’re incredibly rare. Almost extinct. I’ve never seen one before. And there’s four here?

“The reason they’re near extinct is because of an incredibly slow reproductive cycle combined with people hunting them. The stone has tons of magical properties that aren’t found elsewhere, especially relating to water magic.

“The pedestal,” he said, patting the gargoyle’s pedestal, “is this gargoyle’s young. The stone slowly absorbs ambient magic over the years. Not sure on how many years, exactly. It could be upwards of a thousand.

“The stone starts out the size of my fist and grows to this massive pillar. When it is ready, the gargoyle will hop off and use its sharp talons to carve out a new gargoyle–born completely adult. Both will take a shaving of the stone to raise as their new young.”

“Take a moment to breathe, dear.”

Despite her earlier hostility against Ylva, Genoa’s smile had grown to match Carlos’ grin.

“Um,” Nel said. She had started looking somewhat sick partway through Carlos’ deluge. “So, they’re living things?”

“Of course. I wonder if I can be here when… I mean, it could be decades away still.” His eyes slowly turned over towards Eva.

Eva gave him a shrug. “You need to ask Ylva about that. I don’t know when and I’m not in charge of this place.”

“Of course, of course. I’ll be sure to,” his eyes flicked over to his wife as he stumbled over a few words. “That is to say, I’ll just–”

Genoa let out a long sigh. “Do what you want.”

His smile returned to full brightness in the blink of an eye. “I’m sorry,” he said to Nel, “I interrupted your tour. Shall I stay here? I’m all wet and I’d love to talk–do they talk?–or examine them.”

“Um, sure.” Nel turned and half sprinted from the room. She led the remaining members of their group straight to the bedroom. “The sleeping quarters. I don’t think there are any secretly living statues in here,” she added with a nervous laugh.

Genoa raised an eyebrow. “One bed?”

“It’s gigantic,” Eva said. “I’ve seen large swimming pools before, but this is as big as the stupid bath. Have you ever seen a bed even half this size?”

Shalise just gaped open-mouthed.

“That’s a problem though,” Juliana said. “You sleep naked.”

“I do.”

“And Arachne will be sleeping next to you.”

“Most likely.”

“Nel will be here too?”

“Don’t ask me.”

“My mother?”

Eva shrugged and glanced at Genoa.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on Arachne. Ylva and Nel too.”

“Yes, Juliana,” Eva said, “your mother as well.”

The blond girl let out a long sigh. “Our little camp out got really awkward somewhere along the way.”

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