Tag Archives: Des

007.014

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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.

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006.021

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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.

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006.019

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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.

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