Tag Archives: Des

007.014

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The field wasn’t any different in person. Not that Eva had expected it to be. Her ritual gave her a perfect picture of exactly what Sawyer saw and felt. She had already known how the place would look, feel, and smell. Looking at it with her own eyes didn’t matter in the slightest.

In fact, she was actually feeling better than any time that she had visited through Sawyer’s eyes.

The ritual was fading away. In an hour, maybe two, it would have run its course, leaving Eva all by her self. She could still see Sawyer at the moment, but the sounds were slightly muffled and the colors were muted.

If there was one thing that was different about the real field versus seeing it from Sawyer, it was having Nel and Serena at her side as they looked down at the valley filled with caskets and coffins.

Serena was imitating Catherine at the moment. Her cellphone was out and she was tapping away. Coordinating with the vampires was a full-time job, apparently. Six of them were dotted around the field, keeping themselves out of sight of the many skeletons and enigmas. Two more were just behind Eva.

The ‘Lord’ Kuvon had decided not to grace them with his illustrious presence for the night, sending a portion of his minions instead.

Frankly, Eva wasn’t expecting much from any of them. Sawyer was expecting vampires to attack. Aside from the Elysium Order, Sawyer being prepared to fight vampires would probably be the worst thing that could happen to them.

Eva really didn’t care what happened to any vampire that wasn’t named Serena. In fact, if Sawyer killed them all, she wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over it. That would leave Kuvon and maybe two other vampires that also hadn’t joined in their little escapade. It wouldn’t be difficult to reclaim her blood from them.

And Eva was less than enthused about gifting them a case filled with vials of her blood.

Besides, killing off the vampires would make Nel happy.

At the moment, Nel looked like she could use all the happiness that she could get her hands on.

The summer air was warm, even in the dead of night. Eva wouldn’t have been able to tell that just from looking at Nel. Or from feeling her as she grasped on to Eva’s arm.

It was strange to think that she had been holding back on the trembling. Eva could barely see straight with how much the vibrations traveling up her arm wound up shaking her around. Every single slight noise in the wilderness around them was received with a jump from Nel followed by the girl whipping her head around to find out just what was attacking them.

Nothing. Nothing attacked them.

“Calm down,” Eva said, patting the augur’s non-withered arm. “The vampires are staring.”

“I’m not supposed to be out in the field,” she hissed back. “I can’t fight!”

“Would you rather be back at the hotel? All by yourself? The hotel that the vampires run?”

“Yes! No! I don’t know.” She looked around twice, trying not to be obvious about staring at the vampires. Eva would have to say that she failed, but at least they were being polite about it. Her hysterical voice dropped to a whisper as she leaned her trembling body closer to Eva.

“What am I doing here? I can’t use my magic. All the vampires will know what I am. Even if I had all the frankincense in the world, I can’t catch a glimpse of anything. We’re right in the middle of the dead zone from that stupid little girl.”

“Use your magic if you need to,” Eva said, her voice even quieter than Nel’s. “All the vampires here drank the blood. If they try to bother you, I’ll deal with them.” A little louder, Eva said, “I think you’ll want to be here anyway. Up close and personal, front row seats to Sawyer’s demise.”

Turning to face Serena and the two vampires—she hadn’t bothered to learn their names—Eva clapped her hands together.

Serena started, glancing at the two vampires as if they were about to explode. With good reason. However, Eva hadn’t been channeling any magic into exploding the blood in their stomachs. Not at the moment anyway.

“Sawyer is still in his warehouse,” Eva said. “I don’t think he plans on leaving tonight. Let us see if we can’t change his plans. We’re here to make noise. I refuse to believe that he has no alarms set up to warn him that his precious ritual circle is being destroyed.”

Igniting her hand, Eva gathered up flames into a tight ball. Not quite to the point of the explosive blasts that she used to explode enigmas or blow open the door in her domain. It would need to survive a trip through the air.

Tossing the fireball with all her might, Eva aimed for one of the caskets in the center ring of the ritual circle. With a gleeful smile, she watched as it sailed down into the field.

It missed.

The fireball fell short of the casket by a good distance. Because of the way the caskets were arranged, it didn’t even hit one of the ones in the next ring out. Some grass and brush caught fire between two caskets, but the foliage wasn’t dry enough to spread quickly. Maybe with time, it would spread and engulf the caskets.

Eva didn’t have time.

The skeletons meandering about in the field took note of the fire. Worse, they took note of the direction the fireball had come from.

Eva threw another fireball, this one actually managing to hit one of the closer caskets. Unfortunately, it was a newer casket. One made out of metal of some kind. The flames splashed off, igniting some of the surrounding brush but doing no damage to the casket or the body sealed inside.

Using some of her own blood—demon blood was still being reserved for when Sawyer arrived and she really needed it—Eva created a shield around herself and Nel. Just in time to catch a few arrows that were arching through the air.

Nel let out a short shriek as the arrows pinged against the shield, drawing more attention and more arrows.

Even though the shield was powered with her blood, the arrows weren’t doing enough damage to worry Eva. She could last a good half hour at the current rate before needing to refill the shield’s reserves.

Of course, that would leave her stuck in one spot. Being immobilized would probably not be a good thing once Sawyer showed up.

“Nel,” Eva said as the vampires ran off towards the ritual circle. Their job was to take out the enigmas. And skeletons, if they came across them. The enigmas could burrow and they needed to be taken down before the field became a mine field of monsters. “How well can you aim your lightning?”

“What happened to use it if you need to?”

“I could get us out of this, either with blood or through waiting for the vampires to kill the skeletons. I’d rather be proactive.” Eva raised one of her long claws, pointing at a skeleton that had his bow drawn and aimed towards them. “If I open up a hole, can you hit that one?”

“But the vampires…”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Nel, if you want me to, I’ll explode all of the vampires right now. Except for Serena. Of course, then it will be just us against Sawyer and whatever undead he brings, but I’m sure we can take them.”

Pausing for a moment, Eva took her eyes off the ritual circle to look over Nel. “We’re not friends,” Eva said. “I don’t think so, anyway. But if it is between you and them, I’ll pick you. Mostly because I know you better. Nothing to do with Ylva or how useful you are. In fact, it is definitely not because of how useful you are. You’re absolutely useless if you can’t hit that skeleton.”

Balling her good hand into a fist, Nel glared at Eva. “Fine,” she shouted. “I’ll do it. If those vampires kill me… or the skeletons–”

“Yeah, yeah,” Eva waved a hand, “I promise to feel bad for a few minutes. Now get ready, as soon as the next arrow hits, I’m dropping the shield for a second or two.”

Nel closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, they were burning with white light. With her arm outstretched, she waited.

Eva dropped her shield.

A thunderous crack in the air accompanied a blinding flash of light. With her sudden lack of vision, Eva immediately brought up her shield. She didn’t want to risk either one of them getting hit by an arrow because she couldn’t see them coming.

As Eva blinked away the spots in her eyes and the ringing in her ears faded, she looked down at the ritual field.

The vampires had taken notice, but none of them were actually approaching. After they got through their momentary stupor, they continued tearing through the enigmas on the field. Given just how bright and loud it was, it would have been a surprise had they not noticed.

Brush and grass had blackened and charred around where the skeleton had stood. The skeleton itself was still there, though it was no longer standing. The pile of bones sat in the center of the scorch marks, unmoving.

“Excellent,” Eva said. “Though perhaps tone it down for the next one? Your magic eats other magic, so I don’t think you need to put quite so much power behind it.”

“I was nervous,” Nel said. Her voice was weak. She stumbled forward slightly. There was no fire in her eyes as she grabbed hold of Eva for support.

“Are you alright?”

“I tend to get overwhelmed with information when I connect. I’ll shake it off in a moment. In the mean time, I think I know what all the corpses are for.”

Eva raised an eyebrow as she waited for Nel to get steady on her feet again.

“He’s trying to make a Death Stick.”

“You’re going to have to elaborate.”

“It’s a…” Nel winced, rubbing at her forehead with her good hand. “It’s said to call down Death himself to strike down a single living being. That’s not true, but it does kill something. Then it binds their soul to the stick, though the Death Stick doesn’t have to be a literal stick. It can be anything.

“The body continues to be animated and controlled by the bound soul—which is under the control of the necromancer. Essentially, it creates a lich. But one under control of someone else. And, unless he makes the Death Stick out of gold, it will wear away after a few weeks and crumble to dust. The soul will be released and the body killed for good.”

Nel shook her head. Pulling away from Eva, she stood on her own just at the edge of their shield. “Something is wrong though,” she said as she looked down at the field. “You can make a Death Stick with nine corpses. There are far too many bodies down here.”

Eva shrugged her shoulders. “All the more reason to destroy this place. I don’t even know what you would use such a thing for.”

“Typically, gaining access to a mage’s personal vault. Or other things that can only be acquired by one specific person. Mind control is almost impossible with thaumaturgy. Most non-thaumaturgical methods can and will be checked for at any respectable bank.”

Waving Nel off before she could continue further, Eva pointed at two skeletons that were still launching arrows in their direction.

“Do you think you can take care of both of them at once?”

“Maybe with a little less flash this time as well.”

Nel nodded as a small amount of blood rushed to her ears and cheeks.

“On three,” Eva said.

Once she began her countdown, Nel prepared herself. Fire again burst from her eyes. She held out both hands this time, her good one and the whithered arm covered in a glove. Each pointed at a different skeleton.

“Three,” Eva said as she brought down the shield.

Two bolts of crackling white light speared off into the distance. The moment they connected with the skeletons, the skeletons dropped into unmoving heaps of bones.

Catching Nel before she could fall over, Eva helped her keep on her feet.

“We need to move. I can fire bomb these coffins, but I need to get closer if I want to do any real damage.”

“Bomb them? That’s desecrating the dead.”

“I think Sawyer is way ahead of us on that front,” Eva said as she dragged Nel down the hill towards the caskets.

Around them, vampires were still darting in and out of the place. They seemed to be having more trouble with the enigmas than Eva had expected. Given her experiences fighting them inside her domain, Eva had been hoping that they would tear through them and move on to the skeletons in a few minutes. She hadn’t heard any of the whining and explosion noises that they made. The vampires were keeping them too busy for that at least, thankfully.

Sawyer might have done something to make them stronger. Or, perhaps, they had grown stronger on their own. None of the enigmas that Eva encountered had ever survived for as long as these had. For given values of survival; the creatures couldn’t technically die.

Stopping at the nearest coffin, Eva prepared to destroy the entire thing. She considered opening the lid and setting fire to the contents. That should be more than enough to destroy the corpse.

Experiencing everything that Sawyer had for the past two days was more than enough for Eva to never wish to open a casket again.

After compressing flames into an explosive marble, Eva tossed it at the casket. She reactivated her shield the moment the marble left her hands.

The ball of bright yellow flames touched the side of the casket, shattering the thin layer of stability that Eva had formed as a shell. Noise and a bright flash quickly followed. Neither were as bright as the initial lightning bolt that Nel had cast, but they were enough to momentarily blind Eva.

Shrapnel and body parts went flying through the air. Because the explosion had occurred between the casket and Eva, most parts were directed away from her position.

One large chunk of the metal casket had other ideas. It crashed into Eva’s shield at high speeds, draining almost every last drop of her blood. The remaining bits of bone and steel that hit finished off the shield. The protective bubble around Eva and Nel dropped away.

With a groan, Eva unsheathed her dagger and jammed it into her arm. She drained almost twice the amount of blood. Not enough for her to feel anemic, but she wouldn’t be able to keep up a permanent shield without lethargy creeping up on her.

“I wish Arachne were here,” Eva sighed. And not just because of the powers of her blood. That was useful, but Arachne made for far better company than Nel. It had been nearly two months since Arachne died and Eva was still not used to the lack of her presence.

Aside from that, Arachne’s largest form could easily have trodden over caskets, enigmas, and skeletons alike.

Pushing the thoughts of her lost friend out of her mind for the moment, Eva conjured up another three exploding fireballs. Each one went to a different casket around her.

Again, Eva put up her shield. Again, debris hit it. Nothing quite so hard as the first casket, but a good chunk of her shield’s blood still drained away.

Eva was about to continue. There were a lot of caskets that needed exploding and only so many hours of darkness remaining.

But she paused. Through her gradually dimming connection to Sawyer, she saw something.

Sawyer bolted upright from being hunched over a soon-to-be animated skeleton. He turned his head from one side of the room to the other, slowly looking over every little thing. From all of his tools, the empty caskets piled up at the far end of the room, the unarmed skeletons waiting in a corner for their bows and arrows, all the way to Des and her nearly finished skeleton.

For just a moment, Eva thought that he might just be imagining things. Or at least, she thought that he thought that he was just imagining things.

The whole point of blowing up the ritual site was to draw him out. Well, and to stop the ritual. Him thinking it was his imagination couldn’t be allowed.

Moving forward a few steps, Eva found herself in range of another few caskets. Explosions at each of them had Sawyer dropping his tools.

“The field,” he hissed. Sawyer ran up to a tool shelf and pulled off a small whistle that looked as if it had been carved from bone. “Des, honey, meet me at the field with as many skeletons as you can gather that can fight. We have a vampire infestation.”

Placing the whistle against his lips, Sawyer gave a sharp blow. Eva couldn’t hear anything through his ears. The same was not true for the enigmas in the room. The second he blew the whistle, they perked up and ran over to him, stopping just at his feet.

They followed at his heels, nipping at each other with their vacuous maws and intertwining their tentacles.

Apart from the occasional glance back, Sawyer ignored them. As soon as he got outside, he blew the whistle again.

Nothing happened.

Sawyer didn’t seem too worried by the lack of any action. He walked right past his sports car, stopping at a larger truck around the backside of the warehouse. The truck was hooked up to a long metal trailer with plenty of holes in the sides for air.

Eva heard it before she saw it. The scampering of footsteps as enigmas charged towards him. Three, five, ten… there had to be at least thirty.

It didn’t take long to herd them into the back of the trailer. Either they were well-trained or Sawyer had more control over them than a simple whistle would imply.

They didn’t all fit. Each enigma was roughly the size of a large dog. A few of them might have been able to pass as smaller horses. Very tentacly horses. With wide mouths and sharp teeth. The larger enigmas climbed over and on top of the smaller ones. They all bit at each other, but not enough to do damage, sadly.

Once Sawyer had kicked the last enigma aboard, he closed the back of the trailer and went around to the driver’s seat of the truck.

The field wasn’t far from the warehouse. A fifteen minute drive at most. And Sawyer would be in a hurry.

“Serena!” Eva shouted out, hoping that the vampire could hear her above all the droning thunder of the enigmas around the field.

She dropped out of mid-air in front of Eva just a second or two after shouting.

“Little busy at the moment,” Serena said, baring her fangs in Eva’s direction.

Nel started shaking at the look, again, but Eva paid her no mind.

She was glad to see that Serena had listened to her request of not drinking the enigmas’ blood. Her fangs were shiny white and not stained purple. Eva still hadn’t seen any proof of corrupting effects, but who was she to doubt Ylva’s words on the matter. She didn’t know if the other vampires had listened, but really, she didn’t care.

“You’re about to be a whole lot busier,” Eva said. “Sawyer noticed. He’s on his way with about thirty more enigmas.”

“Thirty! There were only ten here and we are barely dealing with them. What are we supposed to do about thirty?”

“He has a whistle that he’s using to control them. Inside his shirt pocket on the left side,” Eva said, patting her chest in the spot. “Get it and we might not have to deal with them.”

“If I’m that close to him, I might as well tear out his heart while I’m at it.”

Eva slumped slightly. “I won’t say you can’t, but that wouldn’t get rid of the enigmas. Besides, I’d rather he lives. I’d hate to resort to necromancy just to torture him.”

Nel hissed at Eva’s side, but again, Eva ignored her.

“Alright,” Serena said, “I’ll let the other vampires know that we have incoming enemies.”

“Great. I’m going to explode as many of these coffins as I can before he arrives.”

Serena jumped away into the night with barely a nod of acknowledgment.

Eva turned to face Nel with a frown. “Walking with you is slowing me down. We need to move fast if we want to make any progress before Sawyer arrives.”

“What?” Nel shrieked. “B-but, you can’t leave me alone. You promised.”

“I know,” Eva said. She was mostly certain that she hadn’t actually promised anything, but she didn’t intend to leave Nel behind anyway. Ducking to the ground, Eva faced away from Nel. “Climb onto my back.”

“What.” This time, her voice was flat.

“No time to argue. Climb on and shoot lighting at anything that moves. And try not to fall off.”

“I can’t–”

No time to argue,” Eva repeated slowly. “My legs are strong enough to carry you, just hold on tight.”

Her legs were definitely strong enough, but Eva was more concerned about her back. Nel wasn’t overweight or even all that large. If anything, she was malnourished. Eva didn’t think that she had been eating much since the start of their trip. Still, carrying around a human body for any length of time wasn’t easy. She had learned that much from carrying Irene’s unconscious body around when Sawyer had attacked Brakket the second time. And Irene was smaller than Nel.

“Hurry,” Eva said as Nel continued to hesitate.

That seemed to snap her out of it.

Nel climbed on, wrapping her legs around Eva’s waist and gripping Eva’s shoulder with her good hand. Her withered hand was far too weak to keep any real hold of Eva.

Eva had to place one of her hands around Nel’s bottom to stabilize them both enough to move.

With her free hand, Eva lit up another few fireballs.

“Alright, lightning at anything that moves,” Eva said as she took off in a run. “Well, aside from the vampires,” she added.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Catherine’s heels clicked in a steady rhythm as she walked down the empty hallway of Brakket Academy.

She considered running. The quicker she made it home, the sooner she could join in on her clan’s planned raid against those pathetic humans and elves. Well, they were all humans–probably–including her own team. But her team had chosen the demonic race, so their hearts were in the right place.

As it was, she was already a full half hour late because of ‘secretarial duties’ that she had been purposefully neglecting.

Thanks, Martina, she thought. Because of course Martina would choose today of all days to check up on my work.

Filing paperwork in its proper place had cost her dearly.

She wanted to teleport. It would have been so much simpler. Not to mention faster.

Again, Martina was standing in her way. The paranoid woman had banned everything that could potentially hint towards demonic activity around Brakket Academy. That, naturally, included the method of teleportation that both Martina and Catherine employed.

The one consolation Catherine had was that Martina had condemned herself to walking about like a common plebeian.

What she was afraid of, Catherine couldn’t even begin to fathom. Demon hunters were ruthless, no arguing that. However, Martina had Zagan on call. If he wasn’t around to swat annoying flies away with the back of his hand, what good was he?

Surely he wasn’t being kept around for his teaching skills.

Catherine shook her head. The idea was laughable.

Mid-head shake, Catherine stopped. Just in time to avoid three people coming around the corner.

“Ca–Professor Catherine,” Irene’s twin said as she jumped back. “What are you doing here?”

Ignoring the improper title–Catherine was not a professor, the diablery class did not count–Catherine eyed her student. Irene’s sister looked… worried. Perhaps just shocked at meeting someone in the hallway, but probably not. Moving on to the spawn of Governor Anderson, Catherine’s frown deepened. He was calm, but still had jitters.

Something must have happened that rattled them.

And then they ran off to get a professor. Wayne Lurcher didn’t look worried so much as he looked annoyed. So either he hadn’t seen whatever had startled the children, or he didn’t care.

Possibly both, it was hard to tell with him.

“I,” Catherine said, turning her gaze back to the sister, “happen to work here. I am allowed to be within the school after hours. You two lack that excuse.”

“We–”

“Something is wrong with their dorm,” Wayne said, interrupting the girl. He continued with a sneer. “In fact, probably something more suited to a secretary than a professor. You would know how to contact the proper custodial or maintenance personnel.”

Catherine’s heel clicked as she stepped forwards. “You’re not foisting more garbage off on me. I’ve got to get home and–and do important things.”

That got a scoff from the professor.

“As I was saying,” the Anderson spawn cut in, “I don’t think it is that kind of issue.” He glanced up to Catherine. “We’re heading to Eva’s room. Irene is keeping an eye on it.”

“An enigma?” Catherine frowned as no recognition lit up in the kids’ eyes.

Though that made sense after a moment of thinking about it. Irene wouldn’t be able to say anything about them without violating her contract.

“Where is Eva?”

“She doesn’t stay in her dorm much these days. Less than once a week, I’d say.”

Wayne pulled out his phone and started tapping away. A moment later, he dropped it back into his pocket. “Zoe will check her other residence,” he grunted. “In the meantime, let’s take a look at whatever mess the menace has caused this time.”

Catherine stood still as they all started to move. For a moment, she considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems had a tendency to resolve themselves or just go away if they were ignored long enough.

Unfortunately, she doubted that she would hear the end of it if Martina found out. And besides, it was a good opportunity to see her student and how she handled herself. Considering Irene’s performance against the other enigma, it would be something of a wonder if the girl hadn’t killed herself.

It didn’t take long to get to the dorms. They were, after all, just a stone’s throw from the school building itself.

All the while, the kids and the professor were talking quite animatedly amongst themselves. Arguing over some mortal problems, Catherine assumed. She really didn’t care enough to listen in.

The moment they reached the third floor of the Rickenbacker dormitory, a wave of nausea hit Catherine. She doubled over, one hand braced against the wall to keep her up. She couldn’t recall ever even imagining the sensation that caused mortals to vomit, but this had to have come close.

Brushing off a suddenly concerned group of mortals, Catherine pulled out her cellphone.

Rickenbacker. Third floor. You’ll know it when you feel it.

She sent the message off to Zagan as she shoved the Anderson boy off of her.

“I’m fine,” Catherine snarled.

The feeling had been growing since entering the stairwell, but she was caught entirely unawares by just how pungent the very air felt on the top floor. It was similar to the feeling she had felt upon first seeing the enigma that Irene had summoned, so she hadn’t paid it much mind while it was a minor effect. She had already assumed that there would be an enigma around anyway.

Catherine’s heels clicked against the floor, unsteady as she half-stumbled her way to the source of the feeling.

One of the dormitory rooms had its door wide open. At least, she thought it was one of the rooms. The number outside listed the door as three-thirteen, though part of the lettering had worn off.

Moving to check the adjacent doorways, Catherine found that they were regular dorm rooms. Logic held that three-thirteen was supposed to be a room as well.

Or at least a broom closet of some sort.

She stepped into the room, heels mushing against the sand covered flooring. The sharp spikes making up the heels of her stilettoed boots barely encountered any resistance for the first few inches from the surface. Even with sand over the floor, they shouldn’t have sunk in so far. The solid floor beneath should have held firm.

But, other than a light stumble, Catherine barely noted her feet. Her attentions were drawn straight up. There was no roof. No ceiling. No lights, wiring, or structural support for the building.

There was nothing. A pitch black lot of familiar nothingness.

Forcing her gaze off of the emptiness, Catherine glanced around. There were no waters. In fact, there was nothing but a slice of the beach. It cut off sharply where the walls of the room were–for they were in their normal spot.

Irene stood a few steps forward, enraptured by the void overhead.

“You shouldn’t stare.” Catherine placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Or even be inside. There are enigmas somewhere in here.”

Blinking three times, Irene shook her head. The glazed look over her eyes subsided. “Wha–what happened?”

“I guess that you came inside, a stupid move, and proceeded to look up for far too long. Another stupid move. Get out of the room and draw the highest tier shackles you can remember how to draw correctly just in front of the doorway.”

“What about you?”

What about her? There were enigmas somewhere around. Perhaps on the other side of the walls, or underground. Sticking around didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

Catherine shrugged. She had already sent a text to Zagan, this seemed more like his job anyway.

“Probably go home. I have other things to do.”

— — —

“For the last time, she didn’t attack me, dad.”

Juliana wanted to slam her head against the window of their tiny car. Every clank of her father’s cellphone as it knocked back and forth in the cup holder only increased her irritation. A cloudless starry sky hung cheerily overhead in stark contrast to her current mood.

Brakket City was slowly shrinking into the background. Along with it went her school and her friends.

She didn’t even get a chance to visit Shalise before her father ushered her off into the car.

“And she didn’t attack you either,” Juliana said, sticking a finger in Erich’s arm.

Calling him up had been a mistake. She had thought that he would be worried about their mother. Turns out that was wrong.

Basically, it was the opposite. Erich had barely said two words to their mother. Even taking into account her few periods of wakefulness during the first few months, that was far too few in Juliana’s opinion.

Instead, he had spent all of his time babysitting her, complaining about her parents when they weren’t in the room, and making things awkward when they were in the room. Juliana knew that he had poor relations with their mother, but there was a point where it got ridiculous.

He could at least pretend for her sake.

“It doesn’t matter what Eva did or did not do, Juli. I finalized my initial report and sent it off to her. I sent a copy to Zoe and the Dean as well. My job was done, it was time to leave.”

“You mailed them. You could have at least given them in person.”

Juliana crossed her arms in a huff. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get back to her mother. She did. Even though her mother had doctors to keep her healthy, they didn’t exactly keep her company.

But she also wanted to say goodbye at the very least.

“You know,” Erich said as he moved to rest a hand on her shoulder, “when I went to school here… it was a calming center of learning and research. No zombies or monsters attacked the school.”

“Sounds boring.”

The point,” he said, “is that you should be learning in a safe environment.

“You’re a powerful mage and Genoa has taught you well. But you are still a child. You’re inexperienced and still learning. There will be plenty of time for danger and adventure later. When you are better equipped to handle it.”

Juliana shrugged off his hand and went back to leaning her forehead against the cool window. Yeah, right, she thought. Not if the world ends soon.

That was the one thing that she hadn’t told anyone. Her mother might know, depending on how conscious she had been while Zagan was talking to Eva in Willie’s domain. If she did know, she hadn’t said a word.

Juliana was leaning towards her not knowing. She hadn’t started up an extensive training regimen. Neither had she insisted on bulking up their already massive food storage. Bedridden or not, Juliana knew her mother and her mother would not just lie down and not prepare.

Getting her own training in had become a daily routine for Juliana. She tried to think up what her mother would have her do and then double it. It probably wasn’t close to what her mother actually would do, but it kept her from becoming rusty. Unfortunately, Juliana doubted that thaumaturgy would be enough.

Her excursions with Ylva served a dual purpose. It was true that she was searching for references to Willie and talkina in general, but if Hell merged, it probably wouldn’t matter much. A good portion of her time went into seeking out weapons. Anything that could be used effectively against demons.

Her findings weren’t the most heartening of things. Shackles were easily the most prevalent defenses against demons. But there must be more. Demon hunters had to have proper tools for actually hunting them.

Juliana thought that they would be more publicized.

And then there was the ‘domination’ that Devon apparently used. Juliana had never seen it in person, but Eva had mentioned it on occasion. How to do so was not listed in a single book.

“The classes and professors that have come on since I graduated are less than reassuring as well,” Erich said, bringing Juliana’s attentions off of the fast-moving scenery. She turned just in time to watch his face darken considerably. “That’s to say nothing of your… friend.”

“Don’t you dare. I would be dead several times over if not for her.”

“And that,” Carlos said from the front seat, “is exactly why we’re looking into alternate schools. I’m thankful to Eva, I really am, but you should never have almost been dead even once. If Scotland is too far, why not Charmbridge? The dean there is a strict woman and would never allow all of this,” he paused to wave one hand in the vague direction of Brakket Academy.

Rolling her eyes, Juliana kept silent. Protesting would lead to another argument. Agreeing was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do.

Though, Erich and dad are in agreement. The world really is ending.

As she was staring out the window, Juliana gave a start. The normal sky wasn’t quite so normal any longer.

Streaks of purple cut through the sky like jagged clouds. The purple pulsed lightly to some unheard beat. Every pulse spread the streaks out like lightning made of molasses.

“Um, dad?”

“I see it.”

Though her eyes were glued on the heavens, Juliana’s peripheral vision caught the ground moving much faster beneath their car.

“We’re not stopping?”

“The sky is clear up ahead.”

“But what about–”

“Juliana,” her father said, voice firmer than she had ever heard it. “This city has come so close to taking away everything I hold dear. I’m not giving it another chance.”

“But my friends… Zoe…” Juliana bit her lip. The way Zagan and Eva had talked about Hell being brought to the mortal realm sounded much farther off than now. It hadn’t even been half a year. But if that was what was happening, driving away likely wouldn’t save them.

Her lip-biting turned to grinding her teeth as anger welled up within her. She was running away.

“Mom would go back.”

“Genoa isn’t here,” Carlos said softly, his speed only increasing.

Gripping the door handle with white knuckles, Juliana watched the speedometer pass one hundred. It won’t matter what’s going on behind us if we crash into a mountain.

Shaking her head, Juliana reached forward and pulled her father’s cellphone from the holder.

At the very least, she could warn Zoe and Wayne, both of whom were in his contacts list. To her surprise, the dean and Catherine were entered in as well. One of them had probably seen the sky and already alerted the others, but Juliana sent off a group text anyway. If they were asleep, maybe, just maybe her text could save someone’s life.

Turning in her seat, Juliana watched helplessly as the purple lightning-streaked sky shrank behind her in the rear window.

“This city is cursed,” Erich mumbled under his breath.

— — —

Staring at the inky blackness of nothing became tedious after a while.

Actually, it got tedious after a matter of seconds. There was no one to speak with, nothing to look at, nothing to do save for wander her own mind. Unfortunately, Nel felt that she was reaching the limits of even her own thoughts.

There were only so many things she could think about. After weeks and months of nothing but blackness for most of every day, Nel was starting to worry for her own sanity. She had already thought about everything she could think of.

Other augurs didn’t have to deal with an empty target under normal circumstances. There weren’t many things that could block out the scrying of an augur. In fact, apart from Ylva’s domain and a few higher-ups in the Elysium Order like Sister Cross, whatever Sawyer had done with her eyes was the only thing that she had ever encountered that could block her sight.

There were probably more things. Nel had only been an augur for a year prior to entering into Ylva’s service. The more experienced sisters had probably encountered at least a handful of things that could block out their sight.

For a moment, Nel wondered what the nuns did to occupy their time.

Shaking her head, she realized that she knew the probable answer.

Any long-term observation would have multiple augurs assigned to the task. They didn’t have to deal with such things.

Unfortunately for Nel, she lacked any companions to foist the responsibility off to. Any breaks she took to sleep, eat, or just stretch her legs would gnaw at the back of her mind until she returned to the altar.

What Sawyer did might have been permanent. In which case, she was entirely wasting her time. But there was a chance that he had to consume the remaining eyes that he had stolen to power whatever he had done. Or that it couldn’t be moved easily.

All she needed was a sliver. A slight glimmer of where he was. Even if he occluded himself immediately after, it would give Nel a starting point. A point where she could look around, find street signs or other landmarks. Maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to follow the disturbance around. If she got a good enough sense for what the disturbance was, Nel was hoping that she might be able to lock onto that. Even if she couldn’t see what he was doing, seeing where he was could have infinite value.

Of course, none of those thoughts were things that Nel hadn’t already thought before, furthering her own opinion that she was slowly going crazy. Her thoughts were just cycling around themselves, never going far in one direction or the other.

“Eva really needs to finish her project with his blood,” Nel mumbled to herself for what had to be the hundredth time.

Originally, Nel had wanted to be the one to locate Sawyer. Partially out of pure revenge, but also because she had a feeling that it would be her only real contribution to bringing him down.

She wasn’t much of a fighter and she knew it.

Nel nearly fell from her seat as a sudden image filled her vision. A quick burst of fear-filled adrenaline was all that gave her the reflexes to catch herself on the altar.

She did not want to miss out on what could possibly be the sliver she had been waiting for by falling and losing concentration.

Her vision came into focus. Blurry at first, but it slowly sharpened as time dragged on.

As it cleared up, Nel tried to glean as many details as was possible. There was a lot of red. Blood, Nel decided. It would fit with the more fleshy tones surrounding the red. Violet was another predominant color, though Nel couldn’t tell what that was. Perhaps a cloth draped over a table–she was fairly certain there were tables.

While everything cleared up, Nel moved her vision outside of the building. It was a large warehouse built out of rusted metal. Or rather, it had probably been built out of regular metal that had rusted through time and disuse. Either way, there were no large signs indicating what the structure had been originally intended for.

Everything outside was clear instantly, so she wasted no time in maneuvering her view to the nearest crossroads. Nel scrambled for a pad of paper and proceeded to write down the road names.

She would be able to come back to those later to find the state or country, if he had left the states. The signs looked like they were from the United States, but Nel hadn’t been to every country.

For the moment, Nel moved back inside. On her way back to the original point, she scoped out some of the rest of the warehouse. A good number of those creatures he was so fond of creating stood locked up in a makeshift cage. Skeletons patrolled the catwalks overhead, most armed with bows and arrows. One appeared to have a revolver bolted onto its hand.

Nel shook her head. Wouldn’t the kick of firing just send the whole arm flying off the body?

Then again, those skeletons could draw the string of a bow, and that wasn’t supposed to be easy.

A sick feeling welled up in Nel’s stomach as she spotted piles of bones. The piles formed four distinct pillars, each capped with a human skull, all positioned around a circular table. A sacrificial dagger lay between two basins. An assortment of rings rested on one side of the table.

It was something that all augurs had been trained to recognize. Bones dug from a graveyard built up to form the soul binding altar. One of the easiest signs to recognize budding necromancers with. They would use the altar to call and bind ghosts to anchors.

And, since moving in with Ylva, Nel had discovered that soul binding was the greatest affront to Death. Even moreso than sealing ones own soul away into an immortal object made of gold. The souls to create ghosts were stolen directly from his plane of existence.

Yet it was one of the easiest branches of necromancy to start off with. All it really required was digging up a graveyard. Even the more squeamish of necromancers could do it. No killing required.

Back at the origin point of the scrying, Nel couldn’t help but frown at what she saw.

Sawyer was lying flat on his back between two operating tables. His wide smile was missing from his face.

While covered in blood, he didn’t actually appear injured. Nel couldn’t spot a single injury. There was, however, a pulsing lump of violet fused with his hand.

That probably had something to do with his condition.

Nel almost wanted to cry out in frustration. He couldn’t just die. Not without being killed first. And made to suffer.

A slight movement of the collar on his button-up shirt quashed Nel’s rage. Moving her view closer, she could see that he was breathing.

Satisfied for the moment, Nel looked around the rest of the operating theater. One of those enigma creatures was dismembered on top of one table, mostly unmoving.

The other table held a far more gruesome sight.

The little girl who Sawyer referred to as ‘honey’ or ‘Des’ had her chest carved open. Eyes wide with panic, she was in the middle of swinging her ribcage shut. The bones appeared to be attached to the rest of her with hinges of some sort. As soon as she snapped it into place, the girl pulled a needle and thread off the side of the table and started stitching herself together with skilled fingers.

She had obviously done it more than once.

Before she managed to seal up her skin, Nel spotted something. She did not, in any manner of the word, profess to being an expert in anatomy. However, she was relatively certain that eyes did not belong on the inside of the chest. Whatever rapidly pulsating organ that they were connected to was probably not supposed to be there either.

It looked like a miniature brain.

Even for an augur, that would be strange.

Nel grit her teeth. Those are my eyes.

She must be the one preventing augurs from finding them. Her panic must have caused a lapse of concentration. Or perhaps Sawyer severed something he shouldn’t have when he fell–there was a bloodied scalpel on the floor near his hand.

Once Des finished sewing herself up, she jumped off the operating table and started fretting over Sawyer. An action that boggled Nel’s mind. Des had been as much a victim of Sawyer as she had been during her brief stay in his care.

After watching a bit longer–Des had apparently decided that amputating Sawyer’s hand was the best course of action–Nel pulled herself out of her scrying and got up from her seat.

It didn’t look like whatever was preventing her augur abilities would get itself fixed soon. If Sawyer regained consciousness, he would also have to realize that Des’ brain-eye thing was broken. That should buy time on its own. Even if he did notice, Nel had a good idea of the location. A sign welcoming visitors to Nevada had been a short way along one of the roads.

For now, Nel needed to find Eva.

Swapping fetters to the long strand of black hair, Nel frowned. More of the inky nothingness. A different inky nothingness, though no less familiar than that of Sawyer’s scrying protection.

Eva was somewhere in Hell.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.019

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Irene sat in her seat, shifting back and forth.

Her first day back in diablery class had her feeling intensely nervous. She had been the one to cause the brief intermission in their lessons.

Surprisingly enough, the rest of the class wasn’t staring at her in one way or another. She had expected a glare or two at least. She did almost cause them injury–from their perspective. Or worse.

Perhaps those that were the type to glare had already been kicked out of class.

Those that were left tended to all sit on their own. Few spoke with one-another. In fact, only two were whispering amongst themselves. Susie Bobo and Rachael Davis. Everyone else was either writing in notebooks, reading, or staring towards the front of the classroom.

It wasn’t hard to guess what they were staring at. Catherine was back to her demonic form–sans clothes and all.

Irene was trying to ignore her as much as possible. Catherine, Irene had decided, was pure trouble.

At least Eva was present this time. She was far more sensible than Catherine.

“Mind if I sit here?”

Irene glanced up. She only managed to suppress a groan through biting her tongue.

Randal.

She wasn’t sure how to feel about the white-haired boy. On one hand, he was obviously an idiot. What with wanting to ‘spruce up’ a summoning circle. On the other hand, he had saved her from Drew.

Anyone who didn’t like Drew had to be a good person, right?

The question was a matter of whether or not he could overcome his idiocy and learn from his mistakes.

“Sure,” Irene said. Might as well give him a chance.

At the first sign of him causing unnecessary danger with his antics, Irene would be speaking with Eva.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?”

Randal took his seat and pulled out a book. “Still have a good three minutes,” he said, flashing a smile. “Plenty of time to get some emergency studying in before tomorrow’s test.”

Irene shook her head. How irresponsible. Leaning forward, she tried to catch a glimpse of what subject he had a test in by the cover of the book. None of her professors had mentioned any tests, but Randal was a full two years ahead of her. What subjects would an older diablery student be taking?

Printed in a floral manuscript on the cover of the tome were the words Enchanting and Warding, the Entwined Arts.

“You’re taking enchanting and warding?”

“Just warding, though I took enchanting intro last year. Interested?”

Irene shifted. “I was interested in them. Now I’m reconsidering just how respectable they are if someone like you is taking them.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“You strike me as the sort of person who is lazy to the extreme and who insists on doing things their own way. Someone who would succeed in more free-form artistic subjects.”

Harrumphing, he said, “I’ll have you know, warding requires plenty of artistry and imagination. If you just follow the book, any two-bit ward breaker can unravel your wards in seconds. Out in the real world, nothing is more respectable than a good warder. Except, perhaps, a ward breaker.”

“Ward breakers are respected?” That didn’t sound right. Criminals breaking into places they shouldn’t had to be on the opposite end of the respect spectrum. But then, anyone in diablery class had to have their perspectives skewed.

Irene had a brief thought about whether or not that applied to herself as well.

“Of course,” Randal said, oblivious to her thoughts. “Someone dies and their family can’t get into their home, or room, or safe. Who gets called? Ward breakers. Can’t sell a house with half the property warded off, can you? Or think about the villainous hideouts, ancient crypts, and other such areas that regular mage-knights can’t break into easily. They’ll hire on a breaker to get them in.

“But don’t take my word for it. Sign up for warding next year. It’s a blast. And the professor is completely insane.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good quality for a professor to have,” Irene said with a frown.

Randal shrugged. “Oh, she’s good at her job. Don’t doubt that. Just don’t be surprised when you walk into class and find her standing on the ceiling. Or wind up going through class backwards.”

Irene blinked. “How does–”

“Alright,” Eva said, interrupting their conversation. “I heard you all had an interesting class last time.”

You could say that again.

“Unfortunately, I was off being attacked by an insane nun of the Elysium Order. But don’t worry, I, and a few experts, had a chance to examine the thing. I thought I’d give you a little update on the creature that we’re calling an enigma.”

Irene blinked. Again. Elysium Order? What?

“You can’t just say that and expect us to ignore it,” someone said, echoing Irene’s thoughts.

Eva had the audacity to look confused. Clarity lit up in her eyes after a moment of thought. “Oh, sorry. It was a tautology, I know. What member of the Elysium Order isn’t insane?

“Anyway, that creature is something that has been infesting Hell as of late. They are not demons and, in fact, share more in common with zombies than actual living creature. They don’t have a virus that will infect you upon contact with their blood, but they’re almost impossible to kill permanently. Their organs will keep working even after their apparent death and they’ll slowly regenerate. Freezing it solid was probably the best choice, so good job to whoever thought of that.”

Irene had to agree there. While she was sure that Catherine could have done something more than get held up by its tentacles, locking it in a block of ice tidied everything up without much mess.

A dislocated shoulder was comparatively easy to explain away to the nurse and anyone she could have passed by in the halls. Being covered in blood was not.

Catherine set her phone down for the first time since she walked into the room. Looking out over the classroom, her eyes narrowed.

Until her gaze crossed Irene. Then, she smiled.

Irene shuddered.

“From now on,” the succubus said, “anytime we do any summoning in class, you must use what your books call tier three shackles. Those should hold the ‘enigmas’ without issue. At least long enough for us to deal with it.”

Eva clapped her hands together. “Now, since your summoning was interrupted last time, I’d feel bad if the rest of you didn’t get to at least make an attempt.”

Irene groaned. Eva was supposed to be the sensible one. The one who says that they still need more studying before any more attempts.

The class really needed proper supervision.

— — —

Martina Turner sat at her desk. The reports coming in were all positive. Not a one had her feeling down.

Average student attendance was up. Either the professors were being more interesting than normal or there was less reason to skip class.

Some of it might be related to the fact that zero teachers were on leave for any reason. No illnesses or worse. Less substitutes meant the students were less likely to skip. The regular teachers held more authority in that they could easily see who was absent and give them penalties.

No one wanted to flunk out of what was commonly seen as one of the worst magic academies on the continent. If they couldn’t succeed here, they couldn’t succeed anywhere.

The only substitute who managed to retain her students was Catherine. That was something of an interesting data point, though not wholly unexpected. Succubi simply had that certain allure that drew people to them.

Perhaps it would be a wise idea to order Catherine to sit in on classes randomly. Students would attend more in hopes of being in her presence.

Had to keep the numbers up, after all.

Especially with all the troubles plaguing the academy in the last two years.

There hadn’t been an incident in almost four months.

A record, Martina thought with a sarcastic tone.

Despite that long stretch of relative peace, word had definitely spread. Especially regarding the zombie incident under Dean Halsey’s tenure and the more recent demon-hybrid attack.

Established families, even those that couldn’t afford it, were looking at other academies to send their children to. Safer academies.

Pathetic.

The magical side of the world was a dangerous side of the world. Maybe that wasn’t true, and it was just that mages were more aware of the dangers that existed, but there was no reason to coddle children. Best expose them to it while in a relatively safe environment. Smash any preconceived notions about their safety as a mage early on.

Based on her security team’s handling of the hybrid incident, Martina felt confident in saying that Brakket Magical Academy was safe.

Relatively.

There were a handful of families that were not afraid. At least, not more afraid than they were interested. Her strategically leaked information about the diablery class was drawing in a few new student applications for next year, even a few prospective transfers for the later years.

Martina set her reports down on her desk and leaned back in her chair. She took out a bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk. Pouring herself a small glass of Hellfire, she pondered just what to do about school attendance.

They didn’t need money. The school governors had ensured that much. As such, families with a good amount of disposable money were not required.

But they did need fresh young bodies.

The parties interested because of the diablery were not enough to outweigh those leaving. Just enough to mitigate the damage, somewhat.

They still needed more.

Those extra bodies would have to come from first generation mages inducted as freshmen.

Martina scrawled a note down to ensure that the professors were well aware of their targets before the next round of student-hunting.

Not a hard task. Many first generation mages slipped through the cracks every year, condemned to go through their lives ignorant of the fact that they could be one of those rumored magic users.

Of course, having first generation mages wasn’t a bad thing. They would come into the magical world with open minds.

And would be far less prejudiced than their more magical-lineage-inclined counterparts.

No parents to tell them what magics were good and what were bad. No stories passed down to ‘warn’ them of certain types of magical creatures.

In other words, first generation mages would be far easier to induct into diabolical methods of magic.

Of course, it was dangerous. Not so much because of the demons, but because of fellow humans. Too noisy, and they would attract the attentions of demon hunters.

Eventually, such a thing wouldn’t be a concern. They would become powerful enough to defend themselves. A handful of students, all able to order multiple demons into battle, would wipe the floor with most assailing forces.

Unfortunately, that would be far off, relatively speaking. There were–Martina glanced down at one of the reports–a mere eight students remaining in the current class. None of them had formed any kind of proper contract yet.

For the time being, Martina would have to rely on herself, Catherine, the security force, and Zagan. And Zagan was far from reliable.

After his antics involving the missing students, Martina was almost doubling the priority of finding a way to dismiss him without winding up killed herself.

Aside from them, Eva had a small contingent of demons following her. A force that she might be inclined to use to help out the academy in the face of danger. But, like Zagan, Martina did not find the young diabolist reliable in the slightest.

Martina started as her door opened with a click.

Catherine hadn’t said a word.

Slacking again?

Martina shook her head, shaking off both the unexpected arrival and the missing Catherine.

Obviously she was off tending to her class, thereby allowing Anderson to walk in unannounced.

There goes my good mood for the day.

Anderson never brought good news.

“Something I can do for you, Mr. Anderson?”

He took a moment to dally about the entrance of her room. Removing his coat and hat, placing them on the rack, and then straightening out his suit gave him plenty of time to change up what he wanted to say based on who was in the room. He had a markedly different personality whenever Zagan was present.

It also meant that he was planning on staying for some time.

With a barely concealed groan, Martina reached down into her desk and withdrew a second glass. She tipped it in his direction, a silent question.

He, thankfully, shook his head. “No thank you, Martina. I’m here on business. Afterwards, I must depart for a meeting with the other governors.”

“Suit yourself,” she said as she replaced the glass. The less Hellfire liquor she had to waste on others, the better. “This business?”

He didn’t appear outwardly angry with her. That was good at least. Ever since he had shown up talking about two missing students, they hadn’t been on the best of terms.

Or rather, Martina was fairly certain that she only managed to keep her job through being the one holding Zagan’s contract.

“Unpleasant,” he said.

Of course it is, Martina thought.

“The Elysium Order has suspended operations in North America.”

Martina winced. “The entire continent? I was unaware that we had such a large impact on them.”

“One of our other ‘test runs’ down south may have had a brief run in with them as well. But this has two direct implications, neither pleasant and both affecting Brakket.

“First and most obvious, the pressure on everything they hunt will be off.”

“And that includes necromancers. Including the one that attacked the academy twice.” Martina reached out to her glass and took a long drink. “Why did they have to announce it? This is only going to make their job harder when they restart their crusade. Vampires will be out of control. Liches too. Even ones that aren’t here already will be looking to move to where the Elysium Order is not.”

“As of this time, the Elysium Order has submitted several bounties to the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. Time will tell how effective the guild is in keeping undead under control.

“More importantly, they explicitly cited demonic interference as their reason for suspending operations.”

Martina froze mid drink.

That was… bad.

Downing the rest of her Hellfire in a single gulp, Martina slammed the glass on the desk, shattering it. She swept the shards off of her desk, ignoring the small cuts she got on her hand.

“Any two-bit hunter will easily be able to glance at recent Elysium deployments and make guesses at what they are talking about.”

“Indeed,” he said. “Keep your head down. Act like everything is normal. Gather students as usual and continue with the program. The others have agreed, given Zagan’s revelation, the program must continue. A handful of hunters aren’t going to save us from an apocalypse.”

Martina grit her teeth.

Anderson had stood up, but she was only scarcely paying attention.

The stooges of the board of governors now thought diablery lessons were a good idea? Just a few months ago, they were considering terminating the project.

Saving the world? Is that what they expect of me? Even ten thousand diabolists wouldn’t be capable of stopping an uncountable number of demons. And she had eight? Assuming no more dropped out, that is.

Well, it will certainly get me in the history books, Martina thought. If there’s anyone left to write them, that is.

Martina shook her head. Problems for later. For now, she had more immediate problems.

Hunters.

As if sensing her thoughts, Anderson glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ve put in motion a handful of projects that should keep the hunters off your back for a time. Hunters will find pockets of demons suddenly popping up all around the country. But don’t count on it occupying them for long. Sooner or later, someone will look into Brakket.” He plucked his bowler from the rack and placed it on his head, adjusting it side to side, slightly. “Be prepared.”

Martina scoffed as he walked out the door. “Be prepared,” she mocked.

Easy to say.

But what to do?

Pulling her spare glass from her desk, Martina started to pour herself a new glass. Halfway through, she stopped.

She drank straight from the bottle until it was half empty.

“I think I need more security personnel.”

— — —

Laughter.

Maniacal laughter.

It was about all she had heard in the recent weeks. Enough to drive her insane.

“It’s a gift,” her father shouted. Fingers stained purple, her father held up what she would guess was a heart. She had seen plenty of hearts in her life. Most came from humans, but she had dissected animals under the strict guidance of her father numerous times before moving on to humans.

The blob of meat held in her father’s hand was far too smooth and spherical to be a proper heart. The only imperfections that she could see from the neighboring table were the arteries and veins that jutted from the orb.

“A genuine boon from a Power,” her father continued, grin stretching from ear to ear.

Des wanted to ask just what he was talking about, but her father had yet to see fit to remove the stitchings binding her mouth closed. Left only to watch and speculate, Des spent most of her time waiting for the next outburst of a discovery to help fill in what exactly he was so excited about.

She didn’t have to wait for long. If there was one thing her father loved, it was talking while working.

“Look,” he shoved the heart straight over her face.

Up close, Des could see the pulsating flesh as the heart beat in his hand. As experienced as she was, she didn’t feel the need to count the heartbeats. It should have already stilled based on how long her father had held it in his hands.

Yet it wasn’t even slowing.

“The magic does not merely animate the whole, as is the case with zombies, skeletons, and such. It animates everything. And I can not stop it.

He spun back around to face the body lying on the other table, laughing as he turned.

“Watch the panel, honey.”

Des strained her neck. A panel of lights sat at the head of the table. Her father had designed it to connect to a subject’s brain through wires and monitor activity. In this case, however, the creature’s brain was no longer attached to the creature’s body. It sat on a small shelf, wires running into it.

The rows of blinking lights weren’t too surprising. The human body maintained some level of activity for a handful of minutes after death. There were more lights blinking than normal for a human brain five minutes postmortem, but that didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a human brain. They had no benchmark for creatures like this.

As she was watching the blinking lights, her father grabbed a scalpel, spun it between his fingers a few times, and jammed it straight into the severed heart.

Des’ eyes widened of their own accord. A spike of red lights lit up the entire panel.

“Not only is the creature still alive–even demons die upon removing their hearts and brains–but it still feels pain. It is still connected.” He waved his hands around the heart, as if double checking that there weren’t any strands of flesh connecting the organ to the brain.

Satisfied with whatever he found, he turned again to face Des.

“And then it starts healing itself. Slowly, perhaps not as fast as the healing ability most demons possess, but steadily.”

Her father’s eyes caught a glint of the operating theater’s lights, giving them a sinister look. Her father’s too-wide grin widened further as he looked down at her bare, stitch-covered chest.

Des’ heart sank as she watched him lift up his scalpel.

“Time for another installation, honey.”

She had the strangest feeling that her heart wouldn’t be hers for much longer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Abominations this, sacrifice for the people that. Does Brother Maynard never tire of hearing himself speak?

Standing at attention while listening to speeches about the glory of a combat death in the service of fellow men was possibly one of the most tedious things Ali had ever experienced.

Especially when, despite the necromancer being present, their primary goal was the hunting of one of their own. The rogue augur Nel Stirling would surely be comforted by the false sorrow projected by Brother Maynard in having to terminate her.

“Go, my sisters, and do your best endeavors.”

It took real willpower not to roll her eyes. As it was, Ali still glanced up to the overcast night sky and let out a small sigh through her nose.

There hadn’t been any big speeches prior to assaulting Ylva’s compound. No time.

Apparently, there was time now.

Ali much preferred it without. The speeches might have been intended to motivate, but they had the opposite effect. Brother Maynard had to know how it sent her fellow sisters’ hearts into their boots. There were only so many times one could hear about the heroes of the grave before adopting a fatalistic outlook.

Maybe that was the intention. Maybe not.

Either way, it didn’t matter to Ali. She didn’t have any plans to stick around.

When she turned her eyes back to Brother Maynard, he wasn’t talking. His eyes were locked on Ali.

She licked her lips and swallowed.

After a moment, he finished what he had been saying. “…we’ll sever. But your foes will be fierce and ruthless. Most importantly, they’ll be unknowns. The Source will be analyzing the necromancer’s constructs. We currently believe that they will behave as regular flesh golems, but be prepared to use your own judgment.”

At least it isn’t raining, Ali thought as her mind wandered away from the speech once again.

She felt her before she saw her. A warm, comforting feeling centered around the skull implanted within her chest. Ali started to smile before she caught herself.

Brother Maynard cut off his speech a moment later. As one, he and the nuns turned to look down the street.

A giant stood out, silhouetted against the dark alley.

As one, the inquisitorial squad’s eyes burned white. All of them raised their arms.

All except for Ali. She hadn’t even connected. There was no point. Nothing they did would be able to harm Lady Ylva.

Ylva proved that by raising an open palm. She clenched her grip and tugged.

As one, the burning eyes died out.

Gasps echoed around the assembled inquisitors. Two fell to their knees. One, a certain Sister Beck, actually threw up.

Only two were unaffected. Brother Maynard did not possess the necessary implants to connect. Ali did not connect in the first place.

“Your magic was a gift. A privilege. Privileges can be revoked.”

Ali watched out of the corner of her eye as Brother Maynard’s crystal thaumaturgical focus slipped down his sleeve and into his hand. He twisted the crystal and pointed it at the demon.

Water formed around Ylva, encapsulating her.

He intends to drown her? Ali actually started laughing, drawing a few looks from the nuns. Several of them had pulled out their spare foci, but none moved to attack.

The outside of the water capsule frosted over with ice.

From within the water, Ali could see nothing had changed about Ylva save for a slight quirk of her head.

Brother Maynard was not finished. He conjured several sharpened rods of ice and plunged them into the sphere.

One pierced through Ylva’s arm. Another entered her stomach and exited her back. Both legs were pinned to the ground by two more.

All-the-while, Ylva did nothing. The only movement was at the corners of her mouth. They tipped downwards.

Ali shivered, barely noticing that several of the nuns had followed Brother Maynard’s lead in piercing the snow globe. No fire or lightning, they weren’t taking chances with melting the shell. They stuck with stone and extra ice.

Ylva could escape. Ali knew she could. This was a daughter of Hel for God’s sake! Ali had done her research since returning to the Elysium Order. She knew what those touched by Death could accomplish. If Ylva possessed even a sliver of her mother’s power, she should be able to wade through the assembled chapter of inquisitors without a scratch.

So why didn’t she?

Was she actually that weak?

Or… no. Ylva had turned her eyes to Ali.

They stared. A wordless communication passed between the two.

And Ali realized the truth. That probably wasn’t even the real Ylva. Some effigy in her likeness was trapped in that bubble.

No. This was a test. For her.

Ali broke eye contact with Ylva to look at Brother Maynard.

And she hesitated.

She held no particular love for Brother Maynard. He had all but admitted that there were no plans to rescue her after she was captured. She had been left for dead. Or worse.

But that wasn’t unexpected. Ali held no special position. A new internal affairs inquisitor could be trained as her replacement. They had probably already started before Ali returned; a few others had died in that failed assault and would have needed replacing. What was one more?

Ali’s eyes twitched back to Ylva.

Just in time to watch a rock enter the front of her skull and exit the back of her neck. Her eyes never wavered from their position on Ali.

The nuns and Brother Maynard continued pelting her with projectiles.

The demon–for she was, without a doubt, a demon–had tortured her.

Brother Maynard had never done that. At least not so obviously. Some of the punishments for various transgressions in the order skirted the lines.

If Ali considered for a moment, Ylva hadn’t actually hurt her. Ylva’s presence had always been a comfort. She stopped the turning, and the clicking. So long as Ali remained cordial, Ylva gave her a reprieve from the wheel.

Really, all the torture was her own fault. Ali had to be restrained. She was a danger to others and herself. All the time she spent refusing Ylva or otherwise annoying her–which inadvertently led to the wheel starting up–had been entirely her fault. She was still berating herself about the time she spat in Ylva’s face.

And wasn’t the situation now the exact same thing in reverse? Ylva was taking a beating. Being punished–no, punishing herself for what Ali forced her to do inside the torture chamber.

Within the ice-covered sphere, Ylva smiled. A kind and understanding smile.

Ali smiled back.

Ylva wanted her to be happy. Whatever choice she made.

A few giggles escaped Ali’s smile as she turned her eyes towards Brother Maynard.

With a thought, Ali connected to the source. Power and information flooded through her veins.

There it was. The information about her target. “Subject: Brother Rudolph Maynard,” she said.

Several of the nearby nuns turned her way with wide eyes. A few realized that she had connected and attempted to connect on their own, if their clutching at their chest and falling to their knees was any indication.

Ali paid them no mind as she continued to read aloud from the source. “Crime: Transgressions against the property of Lady Ylva, daughter of Hel. Response: Termination.”

Brother Maynard, so concentrated on attacking Ylva, turned to Ali only after she had finished her announcement. His eyes started narrow. They widened as he raised his focus in her direction.

It was too late.

The holy flames that Ali had conjured were upon the Elysium monk in an instant.

His screams resonated with Ali’s uncontrollable giggles.

Ylva wanted Ali to be happy. She made her choice.

She wanted Ylva to be happy too.

— — —

“So,” Catherine said, breaking the ice.

She allowed herself to smile at her own internal joke.

On the streets beneath them, Ylva’s ice ball shattered. A mostly whole and healthy Ylva joined up with the mad nun in mowing down the inquisition. The show was somewhat fascinating to watch. The way the nun continued to laugh while killing her former comrades… she was beyond broken.

Whatever tricks Ylva had done to avoid having her skull crushed had piqued Catherine’s interest.

She quickly squashed her curiosity. As a succubus–and not even a ‘real’ one at that–there was nothing Catherine could do to match something like Ylva’s power.

Again, her mind wandered back to that question Eva had asked.

What options are available for you gaining ‘power?’

The girl didn’t know what she was talking about. A lesser succubus didn’t just become a real succubus. Learning the paltry magic tricks used by mortals wouldn’t change her into a higher tier of being. Nothing she ever learned could ever compare to something like Zagan and his ridiculous ability to alter reality itself.

The only thing that was within her reach that might surpass Zagan was her being touched by Void himself. And that was so far out of her reach that thinking about it was nothing more than wasted time.

There were rumors that Zagan, along with several others among the royalty, were gods and goddesses of Void, but Catherine did not believe that if only because they weren’t powerful enough.

Shaking the thought from her mind, Catherine realized that she hadn’t followed up on her little icebreaker.

She glanced up at her–ugh–partner. Not a partner partner. The thought of that made her want to vomit. And vomiting was something demons simply did not do.

“Why are we here?”

Golden eyes flicked over, meeting hers.

Catherine went very still until Zagan turned back to the battle below.

As soon as he did, she let out a soft sigh of relief and withdrew her cellphone from her pocket.

She had made the most amazing discovery not five days prior. A most fascinating method of distracting oneself from any ongoing duties–such as being dragged out to some no-name city to watch a few nuns die.

Games had been around in some form or another since ancient times, but nothing from her last visit to the mortal plane could match up to electronic games. She could only hit a hoop with a stick so many times before going insane.

It took only a handful of hours to discover games on her work computer that allowed her to play with real humans in real time. Her demonic nature gave her several advantages in terms of reflexes and dexterity and Catherine ensured those pathetic mortals knew of her superiority at every available moment through liberal use of her computer’s microphone.

“We are here,” Zagan said, startling Catherine enough that she nearly dropped her phone, “because something has been happening down in Hell. Something strange. Violent tremors tear through domains heedless of the owner’s desires. Just the other day, there were about five or so very close to one another.”

Catherine frowned. “You were in Hell the other day?”

“Every day, for two weeks now. I have a sort of experiment that I am running to determine the–”

“You’ve been in Hell? Martina has been flipping her lid!”

Zagan turned to her with one eyebrow raised.

Clearing her throat, Catherine revised her statement. “I mean, she has been concerned about your absence. It is ruining some plans for some new club of hers.”

“Ah yes, the demonology club. Would you believe that she wanted to hire the embryonic girl’s master to teach children a few nuances of diablery? Now she wants me to do it.”

“Sounds like a terrible idea. Or great. Depends on how much you care about mortal children.”

“Oh, I’m not opposed to it in concept. I have no desire to be the instructor. Seems like a waste of my time, yeah?” He paused and turned to Catherine with a golden glint in his eye. With a silver voice, he said, “you might make a good–”

“Suggest me to Martina and I’ll–”

“What? Hurt me?”

He laughed.

Catherine turned away with a bad feeling about the future. In a mad effort to change the subject, she said, “but that doesn’t answer the question. Why are we here, now, watching this massacre?”

He turned back to face the streets. “The hel seems odd to me. Why is she here? Interacting with mortals on a daily basis? Protecting them?”

Frowning, Catherine looked down at the streets herself. Only six of the nuns were alive. It looked like they might stay that way. None of them had a weapon in their hands and all of them were cowering together.

Ylva was holding the half-crying half-laughing nun against her very voluptuous chest. Catherine crushed the flicker of envy with a disgusted shake of her head.

“And then she goes and does that. Kills a good fourteen Death worshipers.”

Catherine frowned as she glanced around. “Probably not very good ones then. Or this is sanctioned. Someone would be hunting her down by now. The Baron himself maybe.”

“Possibly,” Zagan hummed. “I’ve never heard of a rogue Hel. And these were human hunters rather than undead hunters. Despite being part of the same organization, they may not count for much.

“Either way, I’m not certain that Ylva is related in the slightest to what is occurring with Void.”

“Wait… Void? As in, our Power, Void?”

“I said that there were tremors–earthquakes, if you will–in Hell. And Hell…”

“Is Void,” Catherine said softly. Her breath caught in her throat as she made the connection. “Someone is attacking Void Himself?”

Zagan shrugged. “Maybe He just came down with a little illness.” He turned away from the sight of Ylva ordering the six survivors to deliver a message to their superiors. “Come,” he said. “We shall stop by Martina’s office. I’ll check in before returning to hell. And maybe remind her about your upcoming position as head demonologist.”

Catherine sighed, but did not protest. Her mind was too busy racing over what Zagan had said.

— — —

Arachne swung out of the elevator shaft, landing in front of the two humans. Both backed up partially down the hallway they had just come from.

She kept her eyes locked on the widely grinning male, Sawyer.

The little girl with the stitched shut mouth did not even register as a threat.

“Look who we have here, Des.” There was a subtle twitch of his fingers, disguised by waving his hand as he spoke.

Arachne did not miss it. She reacted immediately, jumping to the side. As she jumped, the extra legs jutting from her back swiped through the air she had just vacated.

Ethereal mist scattered. It reformed into an old man at Sawyer’s side. He hovered half a foot off the ground. All of him–clothes, skin, and hair–glowed pale white and semi-translucent. With vacant eyes, he stared into empty space.

Sawyer clicked his tongue without letting his smile slide. “Distasteful beings. Weilks was always better at commanding them. Much faster.”

Again, Arachne was forced to spin to the side. Her legs acted as scythes as they disrupted another ghost.

“But if being possessed is your weakness, well, let’s just say that I have been expecting you.”

A chill penetrated her legs. All of them. Arachne twisted out of her spot and slashed through a whole batch of ghosts.

One of her legs didn’t react in time with the other three. It pulled back before plunging straight through her exoskeleton.

With a growl, Arachne reached behind herself and tore the offending limb from her back at the joint.

Sawyer let out a small chuckle. “Self mutilation? I hope you are prepared to tear the rest off.”

Arachne was moving before Sawyer finished a single word, running straight at him. Whatever he was using to control and tether the ghosts had to be on his person. Nothing big and obvious. He was a slim man wearing slim clothing. There were no bulging pockets on his jacket or his pants.

Something smaller then.

He had a gold ring around his ring finger and a silver necklace with a pendant on the end. Both were possibilities. Unfortunately, the ghosts could be tied to a flat card in his pocket as well.

A wall of ghosts appearing in front of Arachne had her skidding to a stop. While she could disrupt them, charging through that many would be foolish.

“Des, my sweet honey, be a dear and collect that leg for me.”

Through the hazy wall of ghosts, the little girl’s eyes went wide. With slow, jerky movements, she stumbled forwards.

Possessed as well? And fighting it by the looks of things.

She felt a sudden pressure to her left. With a snarl, Arachne jumped to the side.

An expanding gust of air caught her at the edge of its blast, sending her off-balance.

Arachne flailed her limbs around her to disrupt any ghosts that might take the opportunity to invade as she regained her balance.

In the short moment her eyes had wandered to Des, Sawyer had pulled out a… spinal cord? He had it aimed straight at Arachne’s chest.

A glowing ball of electricity crackled on the end.

Normally, Arachne would ignore such a pathetic threat. The nuns’ lightning was far worse and she had been hit by that without much trouble.

Arachne dove out of the way, rolling on the floor before jumping to her feet. Her limbs whirled around her to keep the ghosts at bay.

The lightning thundered past a split second too late.

If her limbs started spasming, it could provide opportunities for the ghosts.

Arachne wasted no time in planning her next move. The wall of ghosts still surrounded Sawyer.

They weren’t around the little girl.

Moving, Arachne gripped her arm and yanked her back.

A light snap came from the girl’s shoulder as Arachne flung her through the wall of ghosts. Whatever had been holding the arm to the rest of her body had broken. Arachne found herself the proud owner of a freshly unstitched arm.

Not what she had intended. Still, it was the perfect thing to swing around without risking any possession.

Following in the wake of the girl, Arachne charged in. She batted away ghosts with the girl’s arm while bobbing and dodging the various air-based attacks Sawyer sent her way.

His smile slipped. It didn’t quite make it to a frown or even a neutral expression, but it definitely lost some of its wideness.

Arachne’s own grin appeared on her face, mirroring his former smile. If there was any contest in their grins, she was beyond certain that her best would beat his. Her teeth were just too perfect.

She clamped down on his ring hand. Her sharp claws shredded the meat and bone. With a tug, the whole hand tore apart.

The ghosts did not stop. Rather, they increased tenfold. They shook and jittered as they lurched towards her.

Taking the scrap of flesh from Sawyer with her in one hand and the girl’s arm in the other, Arachne used her mighty legs to catapult herself to the edge of the elevator landing.

Arachne lowered the makeshift club, assessing the situation. The limbs on her back kept in constant motion to protect from any unseen ghosts from behind.

There were too many. Just too many. Arachne found herself wishing that she had dragged some backup up the elevator shaft. They would have just gotten possessed, but tossing their possessed body at Sawyer might have disrupted the ghosts long enough for her to dive in and tear out the man’s throat.

For a moment, she actually entertained the idea of taking a step backwards and falling thirteen stories to the ground. She had seen the demon-golems and had no desire to become one–even if her actual consciousness was off in the Void.

But she couldn’t do that. Nel was the thing that would save Eva. If she backed off, Sawyer would collect Nel and undoubtedly escape before anyone could catch up to him.

No. She had to hold out long enough for the others to put the pressure on Sawyer. To force him to flee without reclaiming Nel.

Arachne gripped the detached arm in her hand. A thin strand of thread wove itself around the arm’s wrist. Her thread. Thin as it was, Arachne was beyond confident in its durability.

With a swing of her own arm, the arm flew through the air. The strand of her own webbing slid through a gap between her fingers. Her thread would be too thin to disrupt any ghosts it passed through.

The arm, however, was not. It punched through the face of one of the ghosts, scattering it into a puff of mist.

Swinging her arm around sent the arm at the end of the thread moving in a quick arc, scattering another set of ghosts.

Arachne charged forward. Her own arm dispersed a ghost on her way as she yanked the arm back to her.

She was forced into something of a dance as the ghosts circled around her. Her makeshift club swung around on its rope, darting this way and that. She interposed her own body between the thread, catching the it on the tips of her limbs to alter the arm’s direction and to keep its momentum moving.

The flurry with which it moved kept the ghosts at bay. The few that did slip past were so infrequent that it was barely a concern to swipe at them with one of her legs.

A lightning bolt crackled past her. Not dodged out of any real intention, it simply missed because of her erratic motions.

All the while, she continued her slow yet inexorable march forwards.

Until Sawyer changed tactics.

A cold tingle spread out through the bottom of her feet.

Arachne jumped off the floor just in time to watch a pale form float up through the tiles. She landed heavily a few feet forward, cracking tiles.

Thanks to her sudden movement, the arm smacked her across the face.

Growling, she tossed the arm again, setting it in motion.

More started to rise through the floor while others descended from the ceiling.

This had to end, and soon. She could feel ever more chills at her back as her limbs lashed out to strike at them.

Lightning crackled across her chest. As expected, it was more like a tickle than any real pain. The distraction was enough to cause the chills to gain a stronger hold.

Arachne tossed the arm straight forward, running behind it. She dropped the thread attached to the arm and stretched–stretched her arms to their limits in order to reach Sawyer that much sooner. Her body went almost horizontal, kept up by her extra legs marching forward, in her attempts to glean a slight extension.

She stretched her fingers to their limit.

The tip of her pointed black finger snapped the necklace from Sawyer’s neck, cracking the gem in the center.

That did the trick. The eyes of the ghosts gained awareness for a split second before all of them turned to fog. Even the little girl was getting to her feet after vomiting out a pale mist.

Arachne knocked the spine-focus out of his other hand as she pulled herself back to her full height. Her maniacal grin widened to touch both sides of her head as she locked eyes with Sawyer.

“I win.”

And she stared. Her eight eyes bathed his face in a faint red glow. The pathetic meat sack would cower before her.

For a moment, Sawyer almost looked like he was going to frown.

The moment didn’t last. A defiant grin spread across his face.

Arachne spun just in time to receive a knife in her stomach. It sunk in right through where her leg had carved a hole earlier.

The little girl stepped backwards, leaving the knife where it was.

Unsheathing the knife from her belly, Arachne took a step forward to return it to its owner.

She faltered. A chill ran through her carapace.

“I’ve been experimenting on demons lately,” Sawyer said.

Arachne tried to reach out, but her arm just wouldn’t move. She tipped forward and hit the ground like a statue toppled over.

“I don’t expect that to hold you for long, but it will be a decent test anyway. Des, we are leaving.”

There was a bit of motion in her peripheral vision as the little girl bent down to pick up her arm.

“Unfortunately, we have been prevented once again from testing out our little toys to their full potential. But I must take care of my hand before I bleed out. Farewell for now, Arachne. I’ll be practicing my ghost control for next time.”

With that said, two sets of footsteps petered off towards the elevator.

All the while, Arachne was thrashing about within her own skin, trying to get herself moving.

As her carapace started to unfreeze, Arachne managed to tilt her head just enough to look back at where Sawyer had been.

If she had the capability to laugh, the deranged bout of laughter she would have erupted into would have landed her in Bedlam.

Now, all she had to do was find Nel alive. For her Eva and for her Eva’s revenge.

Clenched in her off-hand, Sawyer had left behind his fingers and his ring.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.011

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“This is it?”

Zoe nodded along with Devon’s words. She had to double-check the address to be certain, but this was the building.

There were certain places that certain people tended to gravitate towards. A doctor might be found in a hospital or a well-to-do home. Police stations generally housed officers. If she were looking for a grave robber, Zoe would start at a cemetery at night.

A brightly lit five-star hotel in the center of a moderately sized town was the last place she would have looked for a necromancer. In fact, the lair near Brakket had been a dank cave. That was a far more reasonable place for a necromancer. A crypt would have been better, but according to Devon, Sawyer had had one of those as well.

The lights blinked out; the entire hotel went dark from bottom to top. They stood for a moment and watched. None of the windows lit up by any flashlights or emergency lights.

“Well,” Devon said with a sigh, “that’s our cue. Might as well get to it, if they’re even in there.”

Arachne stepped up to his side, looking rather like she wanted to tear down the building with her bare hands.

Zoe steeled herself with a repetition of something that had become a sort of mantra. Getting Nel back will help Eva, Juliana, and Shalise, all at once.

“Ready.”

Arachne dashed forward, tearing the doors off their hinges in one swift move. She barely made it three steps into the lobby before an arrow chinked off her chitin.

Skeletons stood upon a balcony overlooking the entryway. Most looked… fresh. Fetid meat clung to the bones. One had an eye dangling from its socket. Some had enough flesh remaining that they could have doubled as zombies.

The only reason Zoe decided they weren’t zombies was because actual zombies were rummaging around the ground floor. All of whom turned at the noise of Arachne’s entrance.

Then the smell hit her. Zoe doubled over, gagging. There were few stenches worse than that of rotting corpses. At least no worse smells among those she had experienced.

But the smell might have saved her life. Through her acute sense of air, Zoe felt an arrow’s wake right through where she had been standing.

Forcing her disgust down, Zoe moved around the edge of the doorway and started forming a solid wall of compressed air. She slipped in a few motions to try to freshen the air, but doubted it would help much once they got inside.

“Careful,” Devon said from the opposite side of door. “Get hit by an arrow and you might be wearing one of these.” His arm squiggled around in the sort of wave an octopus might do.

“Indeed.” Zoe nodded and doubled up on her air walls before peeking around the corner.

Vaulting up to the skeletons in a single bound, Arachne started tearing the skeletons apart. They weren’t even a match.

“Seems like the nuns were correct,” Zoe said, “I doubt anyone is still living in here.”

“If we aren’t careful,” Devon said, “we won’t be living much longer either.”

Glass breaking around the outside of the hotel stole both their attentions. Kicking up her hearing a few notches, Zoe heard the distinctive sound of shuffling feet and vague moaning.

“Zombies. I’ll clear the lobby, you watch our backs.”

Ignoring his grunt of a response, Zoe sent blades of wind through her air wall.

Experience during the previous year had taught Zoe that zombies were relatively resistant to electrical shock. They were, however, squishy. A strong enough blade of air to the throat would have their head rolling on the floor and the rest of the zombie redead much quicker than anything else she had tried.

A burst of heat at her back broke her concentration.

She spun around to find three shrinking zombies and three growing piles of ash. All of it was engulfed in eerie green fire.

Zoe shook her head and went back to clearing out zombies from the lobby. There weren’t all that many left. Occasionally, one would stumble out of a doorway or crawl out from behind the front desk, but their numbers were dwindling fast.

“Clear,” Zoe said as the last head rolled off its shoulders. “At least, as clear as it is going to get. More could show up any second.”

Devon shrugged. “Good enough for me.”

The wall of air expanded enough to allow passage. Both of them slipped through. With another wave of her dagger, Zoe resealed the exit. No sense getting caught in the back with a horde of zombies that might have made it out of the building.

“Arachne,” Devon shouted out. He flicked out his wrist in front of him. Green flames flowed out of his rings to form a small orb in his hand. He held his hand up as if it were a torch.

Green light stretched far further than regular fire of that size should be able to provide. It irked the researcher within Zoe, but she forced the feeling down. She could ask later.

Zoe looked over the lobby as she increased the sensitivity of her eyes. Arachne had managed to dismantle all the skeletons up on the balcony and Zoe didn’t see any movement on the ground floor. No spider-demon in sight either.

The flame shot past her face.

Zoe jumped back and brought her dagger up, ready to fend off anything.

A zombie just exiting a doorway was engulfed within the green flames. He was already crumbling to ash before Zoe could think about what spell she wanted to cast. That green fire worked fast.

She upped the priority of asking about it a few notches.

“Missed one,” Devon said.

“Probably more than one. Be on your guard.” Zoe sealed up the doorway with a wall of air. Her walls wouldn’t last long and they’d fall faster if something was hammering away at them, but the plan didn’t call for them to remain in the lobby for any length of time.

“Arachne!”

“Must you shout?”

He started swearing under his breath as Arachne failed to respond. “I knew bringing her was a bad idea.”

“You said bringing yourself was a bad idea.”

“It is,” he snapped. “I could have summoned a demon and stayed at home, or at least far away. Lady Ylva insisted that I come in person. Then she had the gall to insist that I not dominate demons.”

“Sounds rough,” Zoe said, only half paying attention–it wasn’t the first time he had complained about that little argument. She was far more focused on not being ambushed by zombies or skeletons as they walked towards the stairwell. “But I told Arachne that finding Nel would help Eva. She wouldn’t endanger the mission, would she?”

Devon went silent.

Well that isn’t foreboding at all, Zoe thought as she solidified the air in a custodial closet doorway. Arachne was their group’s heavy hitter and hit taker. If she was off running amok, Zoe and Devon were going to have to slow down and take care going around every single corner.

As they approached the stairwell door, a loud crash came from the other side.

Devon held up his tentacle in what might have been a gesture to stop. Instead it just flopped around.

Zoe got the message despite his disability. She pressed herself up against the wall while Devon wrapped his tentacle around the door’s handle.

He brought up his human hand and counted down from three.

At one, he pulled open the door. Zoe slipped her dagger around the corner and created a cross of razor wind.

A squelch came from within followed by a few thud and a few slopping noises. When no other sound reached her enhanced ears, Zoe peeked her head around the corner.

Pieces of a zombie lay in a pile on the floor, faintly illuminated by the green flame in Devon’s hand.

“Good thing that wasn’t Nel,” Devon said as he walked around the corner. “Or Arachne.”

“Nel wouldn’t be here. And Arachne… well, she could take it, right?”

“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “Depends on how much force you put behind those.”

Zoe glanced down at the zombie. She hadn’t been holding back at all. Despite the zombies being squishy, their bones were still bones. Zoe had cut clean through the ribcage and spine with enough force left over to make a mark in the wall.

“Of course, if you did not kill Arachne, she would likely be upset. I don’t know how attached to your heart you are, but I know that I don’t want mine torn out of my chest.”

“She wouldn’t,” Zoe started with a frown. “Would she?”

“Depends on how clearly she is thinking at the moment.”

If she had just had a cross cut into her chest, Zoe doubted she would be thinking straight. “I think I will exercise caution in the future.”

“Whatever,” he said, leaning back to look up the stairwell. “Thirteenth floor, right?” He sighed and looked Zoe straight in the eyes for probably the first time since she met him. “If I survive this, I am going to lie down on Ylva’s bed and I’m not going to get up for a damn year. At least.”

Before Zoe could formulate a response, he turned and started trudging up the staircase. His grumblings about cutting the power and elevators did not slip by her enhanced hearing.

With a sigh of her own, she followed him up. The thirteenth floor was up there, but at least she had stopped needing the cane. Teleporting was impossible thanks to the nuns. But so long as their warding kept Sawyer and Nel inside, Zoe wasn’t about to complain.

As Devon incinerated a zombie at the next floor, Zoe glanced up and murmured to herself, “I wonder how Wayne is doing?”

— — —

Wayne gripped the collar of his coat and pulled it tight around his neck. Even with a few heat enchantments in place, his face was still exposed to the early December air. Being on top of a thirty story building in the middle of the night did not help matters.

In contrast, Genoa Rivas stood at his side wearing clothing that Wayne might have felt a chill in while standing in the middle of a volcano. She didn’t have any spells keeping her warm that Wayne could detect. She didn’t even huddle up on herself.

Genoa stood with her feet apart–most of her weight centered over one leg–and one hand on her hip while her other hand flipped a dagger around. She tossed it up in the air, caught it, spun it around in the palm of her hand, and twirled it between her fingers.

Frowning, Wayne looked out over the edge of the hotel. Not at anything in particular, he just gazed into the distance.

His partner hadn’t stopped fidgeting since they arrived. Either because she was nervous or she was itching to get a move on. Wayne had a suspicion that it was the latter. He just hoped she wasn’t going to be too reckless once things started.

Wayne sighed, wishing he had a cigarette–wishing he hadn’t stopped smoking years ago.

Raiding the lair of a necromancer was not in his job description. He was supposed to teach alchemy and recruit kids. Maybe help them out if they got in a little trouble.

This was beyond a little trouble.

It was only tangentially related to a student–and not one of his at that–if he considered Zoe’s theory that the nun’s magic could help Spencer. Possibly Spencer’s roommates as well.

But Zoe had asked. He wasn’t about to turn her down. Besides, he thought as he turned back to Genoa, zombies will make for good exercise after my hospitalization.

“You’re not going to slow me down are you, old man?”

“I’m forty-seven. I’m more worried about you.”

“Don’t. I’m not much older than you. They won’t know what hit them.”

“That,” Wayne said with a sigh, “is what I’m afraid of. I heard about what happened to your daughter, but this is here and now, that isn’t. Are you going to be stable in there? Are you going to keep your head?”

“I will get the job done,” Genoa snapped. “If Nel can find my daughter, I will move mountains to recover her.”

That didn’t give Wayne any peace of mind.

The lights on the roof blacked out before he could say as much.

“Try to keep up.”

Genoa pressed her hand against the rooftop access door. It melted to a puddle of flowing metal in seconds.

She strode through without a glance back. The metal trailed after her heels.

With one last look at the cloudy night sky, Wayne followed.

He pulled out his heavy tome and started filling it with magic. Pages full of spells charged to a faint glow, each ready to cast a complex spell that might otherwise require multiple mages. He performed the first spell upon himself.

Time appeared to slow as his mind burned through magic. Information flooded into his brain, was processed, and stored or discarded as unimportant. It happened far quicker than any regular human could hope to achieve. He didn’t accelerate his thinking to his limits. Experiencing one minute as ten was tedious and unnecessary for walking about.

But he wanted the edge of faster reactions. Wayne would be the first to admit that he was rusty. Not only because of the hospital stay. Teaching was a safe and relaxing job. Normally.

Being brought down by that jezebeth was an embarrassment that wouldn’t have happened in his prime.

Genoa’s hasty strides down the staircase turned to a casual walk in his perception, though her face lost none of the intensity. A scrap of flesh hung from a railing. One of the doors was dented inwards with bloody handprints.

A corpse lay still in front of the door. One hand still reached up, gripping the door’s handle.

No. Not a corpse.

Its eye twisted up to the rooftop access doorway.

Genoa’s head didn’t move towards the corpse. Wayne couldn’t see her eyes, but he doubted they were focused on it. She hadn’t made any move to destroy the corpse.

In fact, her focus wasn’t in her hand. It spun through the air in slow-motion while her hand moved to catch it.

For a brief moment, Wayne had half a mind to wait. To test his partner in this exercise and see if she was everything he had been told about her.

By the time his foot touched down on the first step, Wayne was ready for his second spell.

A ball of flames gathered between the pages of his tome. It took off down the staircase at a speed that appeared normal even to his heightened perception.

The zombie didn’t stand a chance.

Zombies were too dangerous to be used as a test. While their fluids lost potency to propagate the magical virus within seconds of being removed from the body, a single bite or scratch from a ‘live’ zombie could spell doom for their mission.

And he had never got a straight answer out of Spencer as to how she cured Ward.

While his thoughts flashed along, Genoa had turned her head. Understanding her slowed speech wasn’t easy, but this wasn’t Wayne’s first rodeo.

“I had it handled,” she said.

Wayne had to drop his accelerated thoughts just long enough to speak. “I handled it first.” He paused, then smiled. “Try to keep up.”

He accelerated his thoughts again.

They continued down the stairs at a sedate pace–from his perspective–occasionally having to destroy zombies or skeletons. None posed much of a threat to his flames or her macroferrokinesis.

Wayne grudgingly admitted that she was good. Most earth mages skipped ferrokinesis entirely. Those that learned it tended to only be able to do so by touch. When she dropped half a door on a zombie like some sort of guillotine from a whole floor above, Wayne only managed to keep his face straight thanks to processing through the shock in an instant.

“Are they going to send anything hard at us? I mean, those half-demon flesh golems would have put up a better fight than this.”

“I don’t think they’re sending anything at us,” Wayne said after an instant of thought. “These zombies and skeletons seem to be lying around. Probably have been for a while.”

“If we get through this place and don’t come across any necromancers or Nel, I’ll knock the building down. And then I’ll knock Ylva’s cell block down.”

“Ylva seemed to think they would be here.”

Genoa turned her head with a glare even as Wayne sent a fireball over her shoulder. Only through his quick thinking did it swerve around her face to hit the zombie coming through a door.

Ylva,” Genoa spat, “isn’t even here. She’s off gallivanting with the nuns, thinking that a single demon can keep them at bay.”

“She did it before.”

“What?”

“Last spring, I inadvertently invited her to drinks at a bar.”

“Inadvertently?”

Wayne rolled his neck. “I meant to invite only Foster, but she showed up as well. Some nuns showed up with presumably hostile intentions. Foster fled as fast as he could and I wasn’t too keen on being caught in a demon’s presence.

“Ylva sat there, drinking her drink without a care in the world. She mentioned that they wouldn’t be able to touch her.”

“Sounds fishy,” Genoa said, turning back on Wayne.

“Yeah, well, demons. What are you going to do?”

Genoa gave a snort as she rounded on a door. “This is the floor, right?”

“Unless someone moved the signs around.” Wayne tapped a finger against the floor marker.

“They won’t still be here.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain. They cannot teleport, your husband is watching the exits that Zoe won’t pass by, and they didn’t head up to the roof.”

“If they are here, they’re idiots. If I knew that I was after me, I’d have jumped out a window. They have a better chance of surviving the fall than–”

The door exploded outwards.

Genoa took the full brunt of the impact and was carried down to the next landing.

Wayne managed to maneuver such that he only got clipped in the arm. He processed through the pain as fast as he could. It would probably need medical attention, but he would live for now.

Standing in the doorway was a stitched up human. One fist about the size of his head hung down by his knees. He had an arm to match.

His other fist was already raised and headed towards Wayne.

Selecting a spell, Wayne created a concussive blast just in front of the man’s chest. He sent a stream of fire before the pinpoint of magic had a chance to expand.

Meaty chunks exploded back down the hotel hallway, painting the off-white walls with dark blood.

He waited for a moment for any follow-up surprises before shouting out, “Genoa?”

“I’m fine.”

The response came through clenched teeth. He could tell without even turning his head.

She walked up beside him, cracking her knuckles and neck. “Looks like this might be a better stress relief than I thought.”

“These must be the demon-golems?” Wayne said as two more stitched up monstrosities wandered into his flame’s light.

“Let’s see if they’re any better than the ones from the other week.”

Genoa kicked off the ground running. Metal trailed after her, forming spears in the air at her back.

The spears exploded into flames as Wayne coated them in a magical napalm. Just in time for Genoa to pierce every limb of one of the golems.

Wayne flared the napalm, incinerating the creature in an instant.

The sole remaining golem in sight lashed out with whip-like appendages. Genoa spun and dodged.

In a move that made Wayne wonder if she hadn’t somehow enhanced her reflexes as he had, Genoa grappled one of the whips and yanked.

It stumbled. The golem went off-balance just long enough for Genoa to step in and drive her focus through its forehead.

“Got any more?” she shouted. “Come on! These pathetic wretches cannot stop me!”

Nothing but silence answered her.

Well, Wayne thought with a sigh, silence and every door in the hallway being opened or broken down.

Wayne took a step back, making sure there weren’t more golems flooding up the stairs behind them. Genoa stepped forwards. The smile she wore would give him far more nightmares than any of the creatures around.

“You just had to open your big mouth, didn’t you.”

— — —

Des moved down the hallway, chasing after her father.

He wasn’t moving very fast–not as fast as Des might be moving had she learned that there was a contingent of nuns prepared to take them down–but with the recent ‘remodeling’ to her legs, Des had to move quick to stay at his back.

They walked into a room and stopped.

Their guest sat strapped in a chair. Almost all the eyes had been removed from one of her arms. Empty flaps of skin cried red tears.

“Some of your former compatriots have arrived, my dear.”

Her two normal eyes went wide, though she couldn’t speak with the bindings holding her jaw shut.

Something Des could empathize with.

“Oh don’t you worry,” her father said as he dug a finger into their guest’s arm, “thanks to our experiments, I am quite confident in my ability to keep them from using most of their abilities. My minions are well shielded against the unfortunate effects of their lightning. You are perfectly–”

The lights blackened with a heavy click. Only the ambient light from the window kept the room from becoming pitch black.

Sawyer stopped talking and glanced up at the ceiling light for a moment. He danced around their guest’s seat to the window.

“Huh,” he said. “It appears we have guests that did not make a reservation. Come Des, this hotel still has some vacancy. We will strive to serve.”

He turned and walked out of the room, leaving Des to scramble after him.

They walked down the hallway, passing straight by the staircase without a second glance.

“The elevators will be out. But that’s what magic is for.”

They made a sharp turn to where the elevators were. Her father stopped just in front of the door, almost causing Des to run into him. It took her a moment to realize that he was staring up the elevator shaft. The doors were already open.

Des glanced up with a frown on her face.

Eight red lights hung in the darkness above them.

Not lights.

Eyes.

<– 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 –>


003.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva spun on her heel and caught the rock out of the air.

It was small and not pointed. That was a relief at least. Her fellow students weren’t trying to kill her. It crumbled under the might of her claws. Too easy, far too easy. Probably had been designed to shatter on impact to create dust and a large mark on her back.

Unbelievable.

“A-are you alright?”

“Fine,” Eva ground out while giving a long, hard glare at the group of three students that stood where the rock had come from. She knew which of the three had done it. It did take more concentration to use, but her blood sight didn’t suddenly stop working just because she got eyes.

Not that anyone else knew that. They didn’t know how she got around without eyes in the first place.

Being able to glare again was fun, Eva had to admit. Especially because her new eyes tended to cause others to wilt and run away. She very much enjoyed seeing those three students break into a full sprint down the hall, only to crash into someone coming around a corner.

“That was mean,” Shalise shouted after them.

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Eva let out a soft sigh as she turned back towards their next class. “I liked it better when they were avoiding and ignoring me.”

“You skip alchemy so you probably missed the rumors,” Juliana said.

“What, people think I had something to do with his injuries?”

“It is a well-known fact that you two hate each other.”

Eva gave Juliana a look. Even she shied away from it. New eyes are fun. Eva shook her head and glanced back at Juliana. “We don’t hate each other. I skipped class because he doesn’t let me work. He doesn’t let me work because he’s worried about chemicals soaking into my non-lab safe gloves. That’s a valid reason on both our parts. He isn’t my best friend or anything, but I don’t want him dead.”

“You don’t have to preach to me,” Juliana said with her arms up. “I’m just saying what they’re saying.”

“Yeah, well, they’re wrong.” Eva clenched her fists. The one she crushed the rock with grated at the joints. “I need to wash my hands before class.”

“Do you want us to go with you?” Shalise asked.

“I’ll be fine on my own.”

Juliana put on an almost evil grin. It was somewhat odd and didn’t fit on her. Then again, it had been almost a year since Eva last saw her face. She’d had to approximate everyone’s expressions using their blood vessels. Getting used to sight would be a chore.

“It isn’t you that we’re worried about,” Juliana said. “It is everyone else.”

“No guarantees there. Maybe if I knock some sense into people, I can go back to being avoided before Arachne gets word and does something everyone would regret.”

“I-is that–should we be worried?”

“Oh no. You guys have nothing to worry about.”

“Should we be worried for other people, I think Shalise means.”

“Probably not.” Eva shook her head as she changed direction towards the nearest restroom. “I’ll catch up to you guys in class.”

Eva kept her sense of blood fully in the front of her mind as she walked off. She’d never felt the need to be aware of every single person around her while in school. As such, she’d nearly fallen flat on her face when a gust of wind tripped her up.

Watching everyone’s hands was an exercise in tedium, but she wasn’t willing to risk a fireball to the face.

Luckily, most students moved out of her way as she walked past. Openly wearing nothing over her hands and even a skirt to show off her legs had people staring for sure. A giddy feeling welled up inside Eva when two older girls standing outside the restroom noticed her approaching. She didn’t think she’d ever get tired of the way they ran when their eyes met her own.

Sadistic? Maybe a little.

It was almost a shame that Arachne couldn’t see their faces. She would surely get a laugh out of it. Even if she could see through Eva’s shirt, she wasn’t around today.

She had elected, offered even, to help Devon track down the source of those demons. No one was interested in a repeat of that night.

Especially not Juliana.

The official announcement was that a fire had injured both Zoe and Wayne Lurcher. No word of demons or even an attacker was mentioned, though there was a statement that an investigation into possible arson would be underway.

Carlos, on the other hand, knew the truth. While he didn’t seem to have any issue with Eva or Arachne, he definitely objected to demons attacking and causing mayhem. He would be talking to Genoa. Keeping everything secret from her wouldn’t end well when she inevitably found out.

And Eva didn’t doubt that she would find out. She had a miserable track record for keeping secrets since starting at Brakket.

Most of that stemmed from her choosing to not be the loner that she had been in middle school.

That and Arachne forcing her contract. It would be so much easier to keep secrets without a demon clinging to her body. Not that she wanted to change that too much. Arachne was a good companion.

Eva shook the water off her hands. She flexed them several times, just to ensure nothing was grinding in between her carapace. Nothing felt odd in her joints.

She turned towards the door and was almost tackled in…

A hug?

It took effort not to give into her instincts and crush the girl in her hands. Eva managed to shove her away without too much force.

“You didn’t have eyes last time.”

Eva glanced down at the girl. Even without needing to sense her blood vessels, she was unmistakable.

The blended girl.

“Are you just lacking common sense or are you trying to get yourself killed.”

Blended burst out laughing.

A pure, childlike laugh.

Eva had to take a step back. “What is wrong with you?”

Her laugh stopped in its tracks. A shadow crossed her face as she looked towards the floor. “My body doesn’t heal properly.” She fiddled with one of the stitches that ran across her face. “Any cut I get has to be held shut.”

Most of her looked a lot worse than cuts. Maybe full dismemberments. Eva shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. First you remove my gloves in front of half the school. Now you get far too close to me.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head to one side as a wide smile spread across her face. “You’re fascinating. Look at you.” Blended reached forwards and gripped Eva’s hand. She ran her fingers up along the point where the carapace stopped and the skin started. “You’ve obviously had amputations. But no stitches holding it together. And they’re not even human limbs.”

Eva tore her claw out of the girl’s hands.

She didn’t even notice. Blended’s hands immediately darted towards Eva’s skirt and lifted it up. “Fascinating. Your limbs merge with your skin and work. There isn’t any endoskeleton if I guess right. How do they work?”

What a menace, Eva thought with a sigh. She gave the girl a fairly hard shove–

Or tried to.

The hand she tried to shove Blended with stopped just inches from the girl. Caught. Another set of fingers gripped her wrist. The blood within them barely moved beneath the skin.

Almost like Ylva.

No.

Not quite. More like someone sleeping.

“Hugo,” Blended admonished the owner of the hand. “Be nice.”

A small chill ran up her spine. Both of them managed to sneak up on her. And they managed the same feat the other night. Who are these people?

As useless as she had been so far, Eva made a note to have Nel watch the two.

“Yes, Des,” Hugo said as he released Eva’s hand. He moved to stand next to Blended and went perfectly still. His eyes unfocused as they gazed off at some point behind Eva.

“But your eyes,” Blended said as she released Eva’s skirt. Her fingers darted towards her own eyes. They pressed and squeezed until a sickening pop echoed through the otherwise vacant restroom. Several stitches held it in her head by the optic nerve alone.

The boy standing at her side did not react in the slightest.

“How do you even see?”

“With my eyes. But your eyes, they’re definitely not human. You didn’t even have them the other day. Yet no sign of surgery?” She popped her own brown eye back into her skull. It swiveled independently from her blue one before settling into place. “Eyes don’t work like that.”

I don’t think eyes work like yours. Mine make a lot more sense.

“The dean said you were partially nonhuman. I don’t believe that. I think you are a human who has replaced your limbs somehow.”

“I don’t care what you think. In fact, I would be very pleased if we never met again.”

The smile on her face vanished in an instant. Water gathered in her eyes, but she managed to hold it in. “W-we’re alike though. We have unique physiology and everyone hates us.”

As her smile vanished, Eva smile grew. She let out a scoff. “Even if that were true–which it isn’t in my case–I am perfectly accustomed to being alone. As for ‘unique physiology,’ well, that’s hardly a thing to bond over. Because of your actions, you’ve potentially damaged my standing here. Damaged to the point where people might die if they realize the truth behind what the dean implied.”

Eva shoved past Blended and her little henchman–who, now that Eva thought about it, should probably not be in the women’s restroom.

“You mean, about those being demon lim–”

Hugo jumped in the way of her claws. One hand embedded itself into his chest. Eva barely took the time to note that he wasn’t even bleeding before her other hand gripped Blended by her throat.

“I think you mean to say ‘West African shapeshifting spider’ limbs.”

Blended struggled against her grip. She wouldn’t be able to break it. Eva wished she had Arachne’s upper arm as well as her lower arm if only because she wanted to lift the girl up by the throat.

Hugo struggled to get off of her fingers.

Eva threw him off, sending him back against the sinks. She wiped the surprisingly small amount of blood onto the hilt of her dagger.

As soon as she had control over it, the blood flew through the air to form two disks that pressed into his eyes. Eva released her control.

Blinded by his own blood, Hugo flailed around as he attempted to wipe the blood away.

Eva dragged Blended to the restroom entrance and pressed one foot against the door. The room was empty save for the three of them. She did not want anyone walking in on them.

“Now,” Eva dropped her voice until even she could barely hear it, “we are going to have a little talk. I don’t know where you got the idea that any part of me is demonic and I don’t care–” for now at least. “If I find out that you mentioned the ‘d’ word to anyone, I promise to hunt you down. If rumors start going around the school, I will assume you are responsible. Do we understand each other?”

Blended did not respond. She continued to struggle against Eva’s claw.

Eva released her with a light shove.

She stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

Eva turned her attention back to Hugo just in time to see him rushing at her despite the blood still in his eyes. She kicked out with her foot and struck him square in the chest.

Rather than fly back like a good little ragdoll, he gripped her leg and held on.

Eva hopped forwards–there was no one on the other side of the door anyway–and used her stronger legs to force Hugo backwards.

He stumbled over and fell to his back with Eva’s leg pinning him against the ground.

“I believe I asked you a question.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice rasped.

Eva didn’t think she squeezed hard at all, definitely not hard enough to cut off air. Then again, she might have some medical issues related to the unable to heal thing.

Blended coughed a few times before she said, “I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again. I just wanted a friend.”

“Well, you sure screwed that up.”

She hung her head. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”

“‘How it was supposed to go?'” Eva narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

“You are like me. We’re not like everyone else.”

“We are not alike. Even if we were, that alone isn’t a good reason to be friends. Next time you want to make friends with someone, don’t antagonize them.”

Eva turned towards the door, but turned her head over her shoulder. “Remember my promise. One word to anyone.”

Blended nodded behind Eva’s back as she started to help Hugo up. He’d probably have a few broken ribs.

Eva wasn’t too concerned about him running to a nurse. He still was barely bleeding. Something was odd about him.

Odd about both of them.

She could only hope that the small marble of his blood that she reclaimed from his eyes was enough for Nel to work with.

— — —

Zoe Baxter leaned back into the soft padding of her infirmary bed. Too many potions had her feeling loopy, but her head had started to clear in the last few hours. Hopefully she hadn’t done too many embarrassing things.

She hated this.

Not just the potions and the infirmary. She felt groggy. Her mind wasn’t completely sharp.

A few key notes stuck out to her. Things she picked up despite the potions.

Wayne was off in some elven hospital. Her home destroyed along with all her research.

I hope those fireproof safes were worth the money.

Even if they worked perfectly, not everything would be saved. Definitely nothing she had been actively working on.

Zoe pinched her eyes shut as she tried to remember all her current projects. The ring stood out first and foremost. She hadn’t worked on it much after the end of last year, but plenty of notes hadn’t been filed away yet.

The notes about Des’ healing condition would be long gone. Not a big issue. She hadn’t been making any progress in that department. The biggest issue there would be the destruction of books.

Any material relating to demonology had been dropped into between. Far too volatile to risk anyone accidentally happening upon. At least she wouldn’t have to tell Eva that her books had been burnt.

Anything else would hopefully be in the safe.

The ring was the only thing that wasn’t between. Zoe hadn’t given it a moment of thought until just now. She had a sudden urge to find Eva and have her collect it. If someone else found it…

Zoe shook her head. Nothing to do about it at the moment. She’d have Lisa find Eva as soon as she could.

The ring was supposed to protect her. Supposed to dissuade enemies from attacking her. Provided Ylva was telling the truth, of course.

She should have been wearing it. Everything might have been different.

Again, Zoe shook her head. Worrying about the past was not constructive.

Zoe stretched out her arm.

She was quite certain that her elbow had been pulverized by the tentacle monster. Her arm flopped loosely for a good while before she managed to escape.

Whatever Lisa did to it worked wonders.

Her arm came down on the buzzer for the nurse. Sure, she could have used her other arm. Doing so wouldn’t have let her test out her injuries.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad. There was a strong tingle right in the crook of her elbow when she tried to flex it. Zoe wasn’t sure if painkillers were dampening a more intense feeling or not. If Lisa didn’t want her to be moving it, she should have put a cast on it.

Trying to move her leg didn’t end in such success. Pain wracked up her thigh before she decided not to hop out of bed just yet.

“You’re still injured. Don’t try getting up.”

“I don’t think I will,” Zoe said as she glanced towards the door.

Lisa Naranga stood there, staring with a half-sad smile on her face. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”

“Glad to be awake.” Zoe returned the smile, trying hard not to wince as her leg resettled in the bed. “How long do I need to stay here?”

“Your knee is still in about thirteen pieces. Fixing it has been a nightmare. Both Laura and Eirin have been running through several options. I doubt you’ll want to leave before it gets fixed.”

“I seem to remember my arm bending in the wrong direction as well.”

“It looked worse than it was. Local bone regrowth injection had it mending well.”

Zoe stretched out both arms and stretched them back and forth. “Seems alright. A light tingle every time I move it though.”

“Aftereffects. They should wear off. If they haven’t by next week–well, if you’ve been released by next week–come see us.”

“I hope I’m released soon. So much work to get done.”

Lisa moved to the side of the bed and started looking over Zoe’s arm. “Any aches, pains, or general discomfort anywhere aside from your leg?”

Zoe rolled her neck back and forth with a slight cracking noise. “Lower neck pains. A small amount of strain on the actual bone, but that’s from being hunched over grading papers.”

“Dorsal lacerations likely aggravating the problem. They shouldn’t be a problem after another day or two. How long have you had the strain?”

“A few years maybe.”

“Grade papers in a different position. Invest in a new chair if that is the issue. You shouldn’t be having back pain at your age. At least not from grading papers.”

Zoe did not miss the momentary drop of her eyes. Lisa’s sad smile twisted into a lecherous smile before their eyes made contact.

And once again, her smile turned sad. “The official statement is that a fire ran through your house. Wayne burned himself to get you out.” She shook her head. “If he didn’t have that fire extinguished in three seconds flat, I’ll eat my syringes.”

“Seems unpleasant.”

“Zoe. What actually happened?”

Taking a deep breath of air, Zoe shook her head. “I don’t know much after I escaped. Just enough to catch that Wayne and Eva both survived.”

“Eva? The claw girl who has lots of ‘everythings’?”

“She has claws,” Zoe said slowly. She wasn’t quite sure what Lisa meant by ‘everythings.’

“What’s she got to do with this?”

Zoe chuckled. “She might just be the most qualified person to deal with creatures like these.” Aside from Zagan. Zoe wasn’t about to even mention his name. “Please don’t ask what the creatures are.”

“Fine, but I have my guesses.”

Zoe didn’t doubt that. The nurse probably wouldn’t need more than one guess; after treating Eva during the spring, she had to have researched anything that might be able to cause hands like that.

“What do you mean by escaped? And survived what?”

“I don’t know,” Zoe lied. “As for escaping, well, I am still wondering if I actually escaped.”

“You’re here, Zoe. You are safe.”

“That is what you said last time.”

The nurse frowned, but remained silent.

“I escaped at least twenty times,” Zoe said with a sigh. “I would teleport out. Get help. But something would be wrong. The colors of someone’s hair or pillow cases being inside out. The moment I noticed, the pain would start.” Zoe touched one of the healed cuts on her cheek. “It started small. A cut here or there. Then larger cuts. Broken bones.

“I don’t know how I escaped. What I did different. That scares me, Lisa. I’m still looking for something wrong.”

Lisa bent forwards and wrapped her arms around Zoe. It was somewhat awkward. Zoe didn’t want to lean forwards for fear of disturbing her knee.

Still, it was appreciated. Needed, even.

“We’ll find you a therapist. A good one.”

Zoe just nodded into her shoulder. She doubted a therapist would be able to do anything. How could anyone talk away an illusion indistinguishable from reality?

Disappointing her friend, assuming she was real, wouldn’t leave a good taste in her mouth.

But, once you encounter something like that, how can you ever trust anything?

Zoe shook the morbid thought from her mind. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could you send for Eva? I need to speak with her.”

Lisa pulled back with a glance at the wall clock. “It’ll be dark out. She should be somewhere around unless she is violating curfew.”

“I wouldn’t put that past her.”

“I’ll find her so long as she’s in the building,” Lisa said with a frown.

“Thank you.”

Zoe leaned back against her pillows. At least the clock didn’t have thirteen numbers this time.

None of her previous ‘escapes’ had lasted more than a few minutes before she noticed something out of place. That alone had to be good evidence that she actually escaped.

Assuming time wasn’t dilated in any way during the illusions.

The hands on the clock slowly ticked around for almost an hour before Eva walked into the room.

“You’re looking better.”

“Eva, yo–”

Zoe’s words choked in her throat as she stared at the girl. That girl stared back.

She could stare back.

With red, slit-pupil eyes.

That was wrong.

Very wrong.

Zoe braced herself.

Pain would be right after noticing something wrong.

And then another illusion would start.

She’d think she escaped.

Zoe was so engrossed in staring at those eyes, she almost missed Eva’s diagnosis.

“Bruises are gone. No internal or external bleeding. There is non-insignificant asymmetry in your legs. Are they alright?”

No pain. No booting out of the illusion.

Zoe clenched her jaw shut. She didn’t know what to think anymore.

It happened so quickly, Zoe couldn’t stop herself. It took all her effort to ignore the pain in her leg as she leaned over the edge of her bed.

What had to be hundreds of dollars worth of potions wound up on the floor.

“Zoe!” Eva darted forwards around the non-vomit side of the bed. Sharp claws pressed against her back.

This is it. Zoe braced herself for the pain and tried to think of another way to escape.

No pain came. Again. Just a soothing and somewhat odd feeling backrub.

Lisa burst into the room an instant later.

“I’m fine,” Zoe blurted out despite the foul taste in her mouth. She didn’t want Lisa jumping to conclusions. “I just–Eva, your eyes…”

“Oh. Arachne got them for me. The original owner wasn’t needing them anymore. I didn’t mean–I’m sorry. You were probably tortured… I didn’t even think–”

Zoe cut her off with a shake of her head.

She had a feeling she had seen those eyes before. Recently. She was suddenly glad she had been trapped in an endless stream of illusions rather than extended torture underneath the watchful gaze of those eyes. Being afraid of one of her students due to trauma would never do.

Maybe seeing a therapist for that would be wise.

“You stole that demon’s eyes?”

“Demon?” Rather than fear or running away, Lisa had a smug grin on her face. “I knew it.” That grin vanished as she grabbed a few towels from a cupboard.

“Thanks,” Eva said with a roll of her eyes. She could do that now. “At this rate, I might as well just issue a public statement to the whole school tomorrow. Or flee into hiding. Devon wants to do that anyway. This place is ‘too damn hot’ for him.”

Zoe put one of her hands on Eva’s claw. “Don’t. I’ll vouch for you in front of everyone.”

“You’ll lose your job.”

“Perhaps. But sticking by their students is a teacher’s duty. Besides, you kept me from bleeding out.” Zoe couldn’t help but add, “as long as everything is real.”

Eva just blinked. It would take a while to get used to those eyes. “If you’re still worried about the jezebeth, don’t be. I mean, if you think this is imaginary then nothing I say will help, but I guarantee that it is dead.”

Zoe wasn’t sure that helped. It should have. It was meant to. Maybe it would if the weeks wore on.

“That isn’t to say their illusions are anything to be scoffed at. I stabbed myself in the heart because–”

“You what!”

Her outburst was echoed by Lisa.

Eva had the gall to just wave her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

“You are most certainly not fine, young lady.” Lisa pointed at one of the other beds in the room. “Bed. Now.”

“What? No. I’m fine!”

“Last year, I warned you what would happen if you disobeyed me in my own infirmary. Do you remember?”

Any further protests died in Eva’s throat as she gave a timid nod.

“Bed. Now. If you aren’t in it by the time I get back,” Lisa let the threat hang in the air for a moment. She all but ran out of the room with the towels.

Eva didn’t hesitate. She scrambled into an adjacent bed.

“Before she comes back,” Zoe said, “there is a ring. You know which one I’m talking about. It was somewhere in my house.”

“Devon and Arachne have been snooping around all day. I highly doubt he would have missed a ring of that nature. Getting it back from him might be another story.”

“So long as it doesn’t fall into regular people’s hands.”

“Ylva was quite displeased. Not at you,” Eva quickly said.

And a good thing too, Zoe didn’t want another demon angry at her.

“She wanted both those demons to mount their heads on pikes. Apparently they broke rules by attacking you.”

“I didn’t have the ring on.”

“I gathered that and told her as much. I don’t think she cared, but you’d have to ask her.”

I don’t want to know that bad.

Lisa returned to the room. She dropped three potion vials into Zoe’s lap.

“Drink,” was her only command before she turned to Eva.

The final vial sent a wave of fog over her mind. Zoe passed out to the tune of a nurse shouting at her patient.

>>Extra Chapter 006<<

<– Back | Index | Next –>