Tag Archives: Des

004.012

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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.

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004.011

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“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<<

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