Tag Archives: Jordan

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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006.006

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Zoe came out of between.

Taking a step forward, Zoe heard the light slap of her shoes in a shallow puddle. Her eyes widened in horror and shock as she noticed the pool of red coating the surface of the floor.

The Gate Room, as Eva called it, was the designated entryway for all arriving teleports. There weren’t all that many people cleared to just show up inside the women’s ward. At least none that would find the experience pleasant–Eva’s wards weren’t the kind one wanted to stumble across. It basically amounted to just herself, Eva, and Wayne.

Because of the limited amount of people who used the room, Zoe immediately thought of Eva. Something had happened to the girl, again, and she just barely scraped out of it alive, again.

A more rational section of Zoe’s mind reminded her that Eva’s blood was black, or close enough that this pool of blood couldn’t be hers.

Wayne then? His meeting should have finished during the previous hour. But had he been injured, he wouldn’t have come here. He would have gone to one of the school nurses or a real hospital. Judging by the amount of blood, he had better have gone to a real hospital. That was not a trivial amount.

A small shudder ran through Zoe’s back. Wayne might have come here first if it was something related to demons.

Zoe slammed open the door and strode out of the room, not even bothering to wipe her feet on the mat–it was already soaked to the core with blood. As she moved, she fished her cellphone out of her pocket and took a moment to shoot off a quick message to Wayne.

Blood in the women’s ward teleport gate. Yours? Know anything?

Two sets of bloody footprints led through the common room and out the exit. Both were of the distinctive, almost skeletal imprints left by Arachne’s feet. One set was slightly smaller than the other, matching Eva’s size.

Zoe followed them in a run. They tapered off a few feet outside of the women’s ward, but that didn’t matter. There were only two real destinations outside of the women’s ward and Zoe couldn’t see a reason to head towards Devon’s building.

Unless all the blood was from him.

A faint buzz in her hand pulled her out of her thoughts and back towards her cellphone.

Not mine. Emergency?

Zoe’s thumb hesitated on the touch pad. Was it an emergency? Possibly. That amount of blood would certainly mean that there was an emergency for someone.

Maybe. Looking for source. Will be inside Ylva’s domain/no cell shortly.

Shaking her head, Zoe decided to press on towards Ylva’s domain. If nothing else, Nel could point her in the right direction.

She didn’t get another reply before her signal dropped to zero. Inside Ylva’s domain, Zoe was surprised to find the main room entirely empty. The throne lay bare and neither Alicia nor Nel hung off its sides.

Zoe almost started off towards the augur room, the location where Nel would most likely have been. She stopped as some movement caught her eye.

The augur in question paced back and forth outside one of the archways. Her pallor was sickly and her hands rubbed one another constantly as she mumbled something to herself.

“What happened?” Zoe called out as she ran over to the archway.

Nel froze in her pacing, back towards Zoe. She turned slowly. Opening her mouth, Nel started to speak.

“It’s already been an hour?”

Nel’s mouth snapped shut as both women turned to the new voice.

Eva stood in the doorway, slightly hunched over with all of her weight on one foot. Arachne stood at her side, offering support with one arm around Eva’s shoulders.

Both were coated in a decent amount of red blood.

Ignoring the demon for the moment, Zoe focused on her student.

A portion of Eva’s shirt had burned away. Zoe immediately recognized the marks on her skin. The tree branch-like pattern marring her thigh and waist was all too familiar to anyone who used lightning. The gaping hole filled with what appeared to be black rods at the center of the lightning mark was slightly less familiar.

Eva moved her hand up, slightly covering the hole. That only served to draw Zoe’s attention to the girl’s arm. A bracelet of lightning marks wrapped around her chitin plates. The marks went up towards her elbow, turning bright red as they crossed over from carapace to skin.

“What happened?” Zoe repeated, this time to Eva.

“Met an old friend. You remember Sister Cross.”

Zoe blinked. Of course she remembered. But… “She did this to you?” Zoe gestured towards where Eva had covered her hip.

“Tried to do more. I’m mostly certain that she was going to kill me until I threatened her with Shalise.”

“Threatened–”

“She did attack me first,” Eva said, indignant. “Viciously and maniacally, I should add. She’s lucky I didn’t kill her. Twice. Though the second time would have been accidentally.”

“Accidentally? The blood?”

“All hers. I kind of forgot about my wards when teleporting her here. And the teleport wasn’t pleasant on its own,” Eva said, glancing down at herself with a sigh. “Yet another shirt I’ve ruined.”

Zoe winced. She hadn’t forgotten Genoa’s screams when she had first arrived at the prison. “Is she alright?”

“Alright enough. She’s been stuffed full of potions. Apparently she has a method of healing herself as well, though I don’t know if it will work in Ylva’s prison. I couldn’t get more than two words out of her mouth before she started shouting at me.”

Enhancing her hearing, Zoe shut her eyes to listen to the room beyond. Apart from slightly laborious breathing, there wasn’t a peep. “Seems quiet now.”

“She’s gagged.”

“Ah.”

Zoe stood there as she considered how to react. She couldn’t be sure without meeting the nun in person, but the woman known as Sister Cross had always struck Zoe as being a level-headed person during her brief tenure as self-proclaimed protector of Brakket City. Even during the fight with Zagan, she had radiated a certain calm aura up until the last few minutes when her powers failed her.

‘Viciously and maniacally’ attacking Eva didn’t sound like her style.

Eva reacted first. “Postponing our meeting might be for the best,” she said with a wince on her face. “I’m going to miss my other appointments for the day as well. Need to get some medical attention for myself, though I’m not sure what.”

Zoe shook her head to clear her thoughts. “Right, of course. I–”

“You’re just going to leave her here? Alone?” Nel said in a high-pitched shriek.

“She’s in Ylva’s prison,” Eva said, already limping by with the aid of Arachne. “It’s probably the safest place for her to be for you. And if you’re that scared, I’m sure one of these rooms has a good hiding place you can cower in until Ylva gets back. Besides, I’ll be back after I see to myself. Have to make sure she doesn’t bleed out or anything stupid.”

Nel’s sputtering response went ignored by Zoe. Torn between making sure herself that Sister Cross was okay and ensuring that her student was okay, Zoe decided on keeping near her student.

“Are you going to see a nurse?”

“Not really considering it. As much as half of everyone knows already, I’d still like to keep my exact physiology a secret from the rest.”

“Laura Post knows what you are, so you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”

“I don’t know what she would do for me,” Eva said.

“She could examine you, tell you exactly what is wrong, administer potions.”

“Potions are having less and less effect on me as time goes by. Maybe Wayne can invent some demon-compliant potions that do work–maybe there would even be a market for such a thing in the near future.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

Sighing at Eva’s callous shrug, Zoe pursed her lips together. Her pressed lips twisted into a frown as Eva’s words reminded her of the despicable experiments carried out by Devon Foster.

“We’ve never talked about your… condition,” Zoe hedged. While the topic might be interesting, from a purely theoretical point of view, Zoe couldn’t be sure she wanted to discuss the subject of what amounted to child exploitation.

Eva paused. The arm Arachne had around her shoulder squeezed tighter for a bare moment.

“I don’t know what there is to talk about. I agreed to it and I have no intention of stopping now. In fact, it might be more dangerous to stop.”

“That’s…” Zoe bit her lip. “I just want to make sure you weren’t being coerced into something. That you’re alright.”

I,” Arachne said, voice hard, “will ensure Eva’s well-being. Nothing will bring her harm. This topic is outside your expertise, professor.” The last word came out with venom.

Not literal venom–Zoe wasn’t entirely sure whether or not Arachne was venomous–but metaphorical, verbal venom.

She contained far more ire in that single word than any Zoe had heard her speak in the past. Granted, Arachne didn’t often address Zoe. Especially in the recent months. In fact, this could be the first she had heard Arachne speak at all since the incident involving Genoa.

“Do you get this involved in the personal lives of all of your students?”

Zoe blinked at Arachne’s question, slightly taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“Or is it just that she makes for a fascinating research subject? You and Devon might have a lot in common if you looked past your foolish sense of self-righteousness.”

“Arachne,” Eva said, silencing the demon.

Excuse me,” Zoe said. “No student I have ever had has found themselves in as much trouble as Eva so frequently attracts. Nor am I likely to instruct such a troublemaker–trouble finder,” Zoe corrected at a glare from Eva, “again. Very few children find themselves at the unpleasant end of necromancers and the Elysium Order.”

Eva snorted and mumbled under her breath. “You’re going to have a whole lot more troublemakers if Martina is still the dean in a year’s time.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes in Eva’s direction. The only reason she caught that little tidbit was because of mildly enhanced hearing. “What do you mean by that?”

“You know of her little specialty class, right?”

Shaking her head, Zoe answered, “I do not.”

“Ah, maybe I’ll invite you one of these days.”

Before Zoe could question what she was talking about, Eva continued speaking.

“To answer your original question, no. I’m not going to go find a nurse or a hospital. I’ll fix myself up myself, even if I have to remake my entire side out of molded blood. Though it would be nice if I could regenerate on Arachne’s level… The whole demon transforming thing could at least have that as a payoff.”

Zoe frowned but said nothing. Despite it being her suggestion, she didn’t know what a medical professional could do for Eva. Especially with how uncooperative she would likely be. Slathering on bone regenerating potions might actually do more harm than good, given her hip injury was right where skin met carapace.

“Actually,” Eva said, looking up at Zoe, “could you go back to where we fought? Sister Cross hit me pretty hard,” Eva said, once again gesturing towards her hip. “Between Nel, Sawyer, and my own blood ritual experiments, I’ve been somewhat conscious of leaving pieces of myself around. If you could grab Wayne and have him burn down a section–”

Eva froze, voice catching in her throat. Her eyes grew wide.

For a moment, Zoe was worried that something happened. Heart failure or some other sudden illness. She reached forwards, placing a hand on the young girl’s shoulder.

“Um, if there is even a forest left. Sister Cross might have set a good chunk of it on fire and I might have forgotten until just now.”

Zoe blinked. “She attacked right after the spar?”

“Put up anti-banishment wards, probably while we fought, which have the unfortunate side-effect of breaking my teleportation.”

There hadn’t been a hint of that anywhere. Even with all her enhanced senses on, Zoe hadn’t so much as suspected that someone else had been in the area. And she knew that Eva had a method of sensing any living person within quite a range around her.

“How did we miss her?” Zoe asked, dumbfounded.

Eva shrugged. “I was focused on fighting you. You were as well. Don’t forget that Sister Cross can teleport; it wouldn’t be difficult to stay on the edge of our senses with that. But maybe worry about the fire first?”

“Right,” Zoe said. She swung open the heavy entrance to Ylva’s domain and let Eva head off towards the women’s ward.

As soon as her phone found a signal, it started vibrating like crazy. Six missed messages from Wayne. All despite having told him she was entering Ylva’s domain. After skimming through them, she sent out her responses.

No immediate emergency.

Sister Cross attacked Eva, wound up injured instead.

May need help w/fire. Investigating. Will send location if assistance needed.

Messages on their way, Zoe pulled out her dagger and allowed the world to fall to between.

— — —

Irene lay back in her bed, staring at the ceiling. She traced out a wide circle in the air with her finger.

As far as she understood, shackles were the single most important aspect of dealing with demons. Some might say that summoning circles were the most important, but Irene had already disregarded those ideas–and half of her classmates–as idiots. Sure, there might not be a demon without a summoning circle, but without the shackles, there was no protection. Shackles were the things that kept a summoner alive.

Really, it was some fascinating magic from a purely analytical point of view. Very similar to some of the stuff she had already decided she wanted to do for a profession. Irene had already signed up for enchanting and warding for next year’s electives. Shackles were very much a sort of written ward.

As the book explained, it was technically possible to wave a wand and erect shackles purely through magic. Unfortunately, all but the weakest of demons would break through a magic-based ward almost instantly. Being highly magical creatures, demons required their shackles to be set in stone–so to speak.

Drawing the patterns out in the air didn’t do much for practice however. She really needed to draw it out on a paper to see how it all came together. The boundary, sigils to strengthen the boundary, demonic magic suppressants, thaumaturgical magic wards, and so on and so forth, they all were far too complex to wave about in the air.

But that wasn’t something Irene could do. While drawing on a piece of paper wouldn’t violate any terms of her contract, Shelby would be sure to have questions about what she was doing. Shackles and summoning circles looked like rituals–and they were in a certain sense–but rituals weren’t something Irene had ever expressed much interest in.

Jordan would probably recognize demonic shackles right out.

Irene was already struggling to explain her two-hour twice-a-week absences without violating any of the contract. The terminology was uncomfortably strict about describing any aspect of the class. A good portion of the others didn’t look like the types of people who had many friends, so it probably wasn’t such a big deal for them.

Just her.

So far, ‘reconnecting with Eva’ had worked out well enough. And Eva was actually present, if as a teacher, so it was mostly true.

Irene let her arm flop to her side. The pointless exercise was little more than a time sink until it was time to go. She had already finished her homework for all of her regular classes, but they could always use more studying. Especially the practical side of things, given end of the year exams were a scant few months away.

But there wasn’t time for that now. The classroom doors locked on the hour. Though it wasn’t something she had really decided she wanted to pursue, if she wasn’t there on time, she would fall behind. Irene worked her hardest to keep up in everything no matter what it was.

Halfway out of bed, Irene paused. A jolt of panic sent her almost flying out of bed.

Are there going to be end of the year exams in demon summoning?

There was no room in her schedule for studying for yet another final. If it had an exam, she’d have to reorganize everything. She needed to ask Catherine or Eva as soon as she could.

Irene swung open her dormitory. In her haste, she almost ran face-first into Jordan’s raised fist.

He took a step back, blinking in surprise. “I didn’t even get to knock,” he said, moving his raised hand to brush back a lock of hair.

“Sorry,” Irene mumbled, averting her eyes to one side to avoid looking him in the eye. If there was one thing diablery class was good at, it was making her feel guilty. “I was just on my way to find Eva. Did you need something?”

“Thought you were afraid of Eva,” Jordan said, leaning against the door frame with a joking smile. “Or Arachne, at least. You’ve sure been spending a lot of time with them lately despite that.”

“I’m not afraid of them.” Irene stamped her foot down. “I just… didn’t understand.”

“What changed?”

“Well, she did at least help to save me during that thing,” Irene shuddered slightly at the memory. “I figured I should give her the time of day once in a while. Turns out, we actually have a lot in common.”

That was lying through her teeth.

Crossing her arms, Irene glared at Jordan. “What’s it to you, anyway?”

“Nothing,” he said, holding up a hand. “But speaking of changes, have you seen Shelby around?”

“Not in the last hour or two. I think she has been getting extra tutoring from Professor Carr. Why?”

“It used to be that I could speak at all kinds of odd hours during the day, and she, being always at my side, would hear. That’s not the case so much anymore.”

“Aww,” Irene mock cooed. “You miss my sister?”

This time it was Jordan’s turn to avert his eyes as a light blush surfaced on his cheeks. “I wouldn’t put it in those exact words.”

“I’m sure she would be delighted to hear it.” Irene shuffled past Jordan, shutting the door to her dorm room behind her. “But you’ll have to tell her in person when you next see her. As I said, I’ve a meeting with Eva to get to.”

“Ah, of course,” he said, suddenly looking downtrodden as he stepped aside.

To Irene’s great chagrin, Jordan did not decide to wander off. He ran up alongside Irene and kept pace.

Irene chose to ignore him as much as possible in hopes that he might head off and find something else to do. Something that wasn’t following her all the way to a classroom he couldn’t enter without causing a lot of trouble.

Her efforts were all for naught. Jordan stuck by her side.

Irene was going over excuses to leave him in her head, but wasn’t coming up with anything halfway decent. By the time they hit the ground floor, he was still at her side.

“So, going to be doing anything fun?”

Irene jolted at the sudden attention. Entirely misplaced guilt was making her nervous. There was absolutely no reason to feel like she was doing anything wrong. If anything, he should be the one feeling awkward because of his own dalliances in less than savory magic.

It didn’t help that she was absolutely forbidden from mentioning anything real, despite the fact that Jordan was probably the one person she should be talking with. Or at least, the one person who wouldn’t judge her.

“Nothing,” Irene said, feeling as lame as her one word response.

“Nothing huh?” Jordan allowed a coy smile to slip onto his lips. “No visits to the hot springs in the nude?”

Fire burned in Irene’s cheeks as she whipped her head around to her insolent friend. “Of course not. Nothing means nothing.”

“Hmm? Well,” he cocked his head from one side to the other, “I just worry that you might be being forced into doing things you don’t want to. You’ve had fairly vocal ahh… arguments against her in the past.”

Irene fell silent. He wasn’t exactly wrong.

Though it had been Catherine who dragged her into this, rather than Eva.

In the end, Irene had been the one to read and sign the contract. Nothing had forced her into that.

“No,” Irene eventually answered. “I’m doing this because I want to do this.”

Jordan hummed again, capping it with a small sigh. “And this thing that you want to do is nothing?”

“It is,” Irene said, keeping her voice firm. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jordan waved her off, stopping just inside the dormitory entryway. “Just don’t become a stranger.”

“I’ll try not to.” With a small smile, Irene waved a farewell.

It was a quick trip to the main school building and, from there, a quicker trip to the class room.

Irene slipped inside and took her usual seat. A good half of the class was already in the room thanks to her dawdling with Jordan. Questioning Catherine about end of year exams would have to wait.

The rest of the class filed in shortly after Irene arrived.Only when the door’s lock clicked did Irene notice that Eva was nowhere in sight.

“Leaving me alone with a bunch of degenerate mortals?” Catherine said, loud and clear despite clearly speaking about Irene and the rest of the students. “I’ll feed Eva to hellhounds.”

The irritation on the professor’s face vanished as soon as she finished speaking. It was replaced by thoughtfulness.

A scary look on the succubus.

“Or perhaps,” Catherine said, flashing her teeth in a wide smile, “today’s lesson can be a bit more fun than usual.”

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004.005

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Irene let out a sigh. Something she had been doing a lot of recently. There wasn’t really any one thing that was making her sigh, just a lot of little things that all added up.

First and foremost would be the knowledge that one of her professors was a demon. A demon that had attacked Juliana and Shalise. Thankfully, he wasn’t around anymore. At least, no one had seen him since the ‘incident’ had happened. His class had been taken over by a substitute with no word on his return or permanent replacement.

She glanced over to her side. Another of the primary sources of her exasperation sat in the seat next to her.

Jordan had descended into a serious phase. Possibly because of the aforementioned demon wandering about. It wasn’t something Irene would have thought would bother him, what with his whole shadow thing. More likely, he had been acting as he had due to his father being around town.

Mr. Anderson had a way of stalking around that sent chills up Irene’s spine. And that wasn’t even related to the fact that he could do the whole shadow thing and plenty more besides.

As for Shelby, she wasn’t acting the same either. She still sat next to Jordan, yet she wasn’t so talkative. Not once since the incident had she reached over to touch his elbow during a shared laugh. Even now, as they sat in class, she leaned away from him, preferring to doodle on a notebook rather than to pursue her attempts to engage Jordan in conversation.

They both were… subdued.

Irene wasn’t all that different, but she had always been far more introspective than the others.

Someone towards the front of the classroom cleared their throat, ruining her peaceful reminiscence.

Dolt, Irene thought. They had been sitting in peace and quiet. Left to her own devices, she was more than happy to read through textbooks.

Drew–of course it was him–just had to ruin it.

Their substitute glanced up from the front desk’s computer at the noise. Upon seeing Drew’s eager glare, she rolled her blue eyes.

Irene joined her. At least that was something they shared; a mutual disdain of that idiot.

Eye-roll complete, Catherine–she never had mentioned her last name–finished a few quick keystrokes at the computer before standing. She sauntered around to the front of the desk. She rested against the desk, sitting on the very edge with her feet pressed firmly on the ground.

As she leaned forwards ever so slightly, almost the entire class sat up straighter. The motion wasn’t confined to guys or girls. Even Shelby sat up straighter, Irene noted with some disdain. Jordan did as well, though it felt different in his case; he was giving her attention as deserving of their professor rather than attempting to sneak a peek down her shirt.

Apart from Irene, the only other student who didn’t move for a better view was Timothy Dewey. He was one of the ones with a smarter head on his shoulders, so maybe there was some correlation with that as to why Irene didn’t care for the teacher. Everyone else seemed to enjoy her a little too much.

The substitute had to be doing it on purpose. The cut of that shirt alone should be against school rules. Not to mention the skirt–or lack thereof. It was a good thing that her legs were pressed together.

At the same time, Irene had a feeling that she couldn’t shake. Like the professor wasn’t actually trying to do anything. It was all just her natural state of being. There was a certain casualness to it that Irene had to admire, as if she had been doing it her entire life. It would never be something that Irene could just do.

“Well, class,” she said with clear disdain. The rest of the students didn’t seem to notice or care. “While I am certain that you are all itching for a continuation of yesterday’s lesson. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that such lessons are strictly off-limits pending excruciatingly painful punishment.”

Thank goodness, Irene thought. She did not need to learn how certain objects placed in very specific places would lead to various magical effects. Even more pleasing was that she wouldn’t be doing the continuation. Which, by her words yesterday, would have implied that Catherine herself would be demonstrating such magic.

Predictably, there were several groans from most of the class. Shelby included.

Irene vowed to punch her sister in the arm later.

“Today’s lesson plan, according to notes left by Baxter, was to be on the Stratogale Principle.”

Irene sat up even as most of the class slumped over. That was a topic she had been looking forward to discussing.

“But,” she said, prompting a groan from Irene. “Even with all the magical remedies and life extensions available to mages, not a single one of you will live long enough for it to apply. If you did live long enough, you probably would have done something to get reapers or some other minion of Death on your tail.”

Irene blinked. Death? She could almost hear the capitalization in Catherine’s voice, yet the substitute punctuated her statement with a casual wave of her hand. And she mentioned minions as well, as if He was a real thing and not some bogey man to scare children.

She shuddered anyway.

“The only beings that need worry about the Stratogale Principle are non-mortals. Demons, for instance.”

The hackles along the back of Irene’s neck all rose. That was a word she had heard far too much of in the past few weeks. There was no chance that it was a coincidence.

During her thoughts, Catherine had continued talking. Irene quickly tried to pay attention. “–ends up not affecting demons much at all. Only a few especially stupid actually suffer for it. Since it is a vastly more interesting topic and one that, ironically enough, is quite related to you all, who can name a type or race of demon?”

Irene stiffened. This was definitely not a coincidence. At her side, Jordan stiffened as well. They shared a brief, worried glance.

Max–that traitor–lifted a hand in the air. He probably wanted to show off for his new best friend, Drew. Or Catherine herself. Probably the latter, more likely.

At Catherine’s nod in his direction, he said, “Arachne?”

“Incorrect,” Catherine said. “Arachne is an individual. She has no siblings, spawn, or progenitor to share her name with. Should she, Void forbid, decide to breed one day, that might change. There is, however, a demonic race of spiders called jorogumo, but they aren’t sentient. Not that you would be able to tell the difference. Anyone else?”

Jordan, to Irene’s great surprise, was the next to raise his hand. “Succubi,” he said without waiting to be acknowledged.

Catherine’s face split into a lecherous grin. “Ah yes, succubi. Arguably the most well-known race of demons among humans. And for good reason. We–” She stopped and cleared her throat for a moment. “We often hear tales of how beautiful and wonderful and perfect those enticing beings are.”

A sinking feeling settled into Irene’s stomach as the substitute went on about succubi. There was no sign of her diatribe slowing, nor a hint of an end.

There was, however, a small nagging feeling in the back of Irene’s mind. It made her look at the substitute in a new light.

And not necessarily a positive light.

— — —

Alicia Heiden gasped for breath.

She sucked in the air as fast as she was able.

It had only been thirty-seconds–she’d counted the first few times–but her lungs were burning all the same.

As soon as her head emerged from the water, the cranks of the wheel slowed. The clicking became audible as water drained from her ears. The rest of her body had to sit in that murky liquid until the wheel turned enough. By that time, she would have her head at the peak of the wheel. There wouldn’t be time to dry before she started back towards the water.

And then she would be fighting off all the blood rushing to her head. Once again, she would be sitting on the edge of passing out.

Every turn of the wheel made Alicia that much more exhausted. That much more tired. That much more likely to succumb to passing out.

She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t nap. Early on, she had guessed that each revolution took roughly one half hour–that included the times the wheel sped up while her head was underwater. If she could guarantee that she would only sleep during the upward motion of the wheel, Alicia would take the chance in an instant.

As it was, she was certain that she wouldn’t wake up thanks to the blood rushing to her head.

Alicia knew without a doubt that she would drown if that ever happened.

After she caught her breath, Alicia started to relax. Going up the wheel was infinitely better than going down. Far less stressful. Enough so that she often felt bored.

Bored! During torture!

She had lost count after about twenty revolutions, but she was running out of things to occupy herself with.

Alicia had already imagined herself in each of the other torture room implements. In comparison, the water-wheel wasn’t bad at all. There was another wheel device across the room; except that one looked designed to move along a bed of hot nails, pressing the helpless victim into them as it turned.

Her wheel didn’t even have spikes! What luck.

Sure, she might have preferred a stationary chair or bed of some sort. Most of those she could see had something uncomfortable about them, whether that be flames, more spikes, or a bladed pendulum. One device looked designed to dip a restrained person into a trough of molten lava.

On second thought, the water wheel was one of the best devices to be–

Alicia shook her head. Her mind was wandering, becoming loopy. She would rather not be tortured in the first place.

But as long as she was…

The wheel ground on, clicking and clanking as it brought Alicia up to face the ceiling.

This was even worse. At least there had been something interesting to look at before, even if they sent her mind down weird tangents.

Here, there was just the ceiling.

She had already counted every tile in the room.

Boredom was dangerous. Boredom led to sleep. Sleep led to drowning.

So Alicia turned her thoughts towards the same subject that always occupied her mind during this phase of the wheel.

Why is this happening to me?

She wasn’t being asked questions. She wasn’t being held for ransom, as far as she could tell.

No one had so much as been in the room since she had first awoken strapped to the wheel. No tell-tale rattling of skeletons, no draining of her blood for vampires, no stench of rotting corpses.

Though Alicia was willing to admit that she might have simply become used to whatever smell permeated the torture room.

Necromancers, or other undead, did not make much sense given that they had been battling demons. Alicia had no idea what to do about that. The meaningless torture made sense in that case; she wouldn’t put it past demons to torture her for fun. But something didn’t sit right with her about that. If she had been captured by demons or a diabolist, she would have expected there to be voyeurs.

Or more painful torture.

Someone was watching her. Upon first waking, she had attempted to connect to the source. The moment she had, the wheel spun and held her beneath the water until she stopped.

After refilling her lungs, she tried again.

Let it never be said that Alicia Heiden couldn’t learn a lesson. She hadn’t tried a third time.

The wheel clicked on. Alicia felt her heart pick up the pace as it worked overtime to keep all the blood flowing to the rest of her body.

While the other side of the room was as interesting as the first, she couldn’t spare it much thought. It only took a few minutes for the headache to settle in. Alicia pinched her eyes shut.

The clicking stopped.

Alicia snapped her eyes back open as the wheel ground to a halt.

Why did the clicking stop?

There was a low groan from somewhere deep within the wheel’s mechanisms.

Alicia had a bare instant to panic.

“Cra–”

The wheel spun under her weight.

She tried to take a gasp of air, but the wheel spun too fast.

Alicia crashed head-first into the trough of water.

Her lungs burned for oxygen. The small bit of water she had inhaled before submerging gave a need to cough.

I am going to die. Whatever kept the wheel turning broke and now I am going to drown in knee-deep water.

Her head broke the surface of the water a second later.

There must have been enough momentum to bring her head all the way through.

Alicia gasped and coughed at the same time, resulting in nothing but pain. She forced through the pain and took in as much air as she could before holding her breath.

She waited for the wheel to swing back under the water.

It never did.

The wheel lifted her until she was almost facing the ceiling again.

Two dead eyes obscured her view of the five-hundred-thirty-seven tiles. Long, platinum hair fell down the front and back of a dress cut for a scandal.

Finally, Alicia thought as she coughed and sputtered again, gasping for more air. Finally someone is here.

There was joy in her heart at that very fact. Anyone was better than no one. After Lord knows how long, another person was a Godsend. Unless she was hallucinating. Alicia would rather have no one than a hallucination.

But she didn’t look like a hallucination. A fresh corpse, maybe, but no hallucination.

Maybe she would be lucky and that corpse would mean necromancers. Alicia knew how to handle necromancers.

Unfortunately, most of the things she had been fighting before being captured had looked like corpses, yet the source insisted that they were part of a demon.

As she finally got off the emotional roller coaster that seeing something else caused, Alicia had to remind herself that this person was not a nun.

That meant that she was not her friend.

“So,” she managed between waterlogged coughs, “my host finally shows themselves.”

Without waiting for a response, Alicia gathered what was left of the fetid water in her mouth and spat at the woman.

Her eyes went wide as the small bit of water turned to ice. She heard it crash into the floor a moment after, all without the woman even twitching her fingers.

Ice blue lips tipped down into a disgusted frown. “Your disrespect is unappreciated.”

With that said, the woman turned and walked out of the room with all the grace and dignity of–of something very graceful and dignified.

As soon as the door slammed shut, the clicking started again.

And the wheel started turning.

The cranks stopped. A moment later and the wheel spun up to force Alicia to face the dead-eyed woman.

Finally

Alicia didn’t speak. She waited, enjoying the reprieve from the clicking and the turning.

She closed her eyes. It was hardly a break if she had to look at that woman’s face.

Counting backwards from ten wasn’t enough. It would have to do. She couldn’t remain silent forever.

“Do your wors–” Alicia’s eyes flicked over to some of the more creative pain-causing instruments in the room. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“We had yet to speak.”

Alicia frowned. ‘We?’ She craned her neck. There was no one else in the room as far as she could see.

“Doesn’t matter,” Alicia said with a shake of her head. “Whatever you want, I won’t betray my allies.”

“Allies?”

The woman tilted her head. She started bending over as if to sit despite there being nothing there to catch her.

Alicia smiled, preparing to laugh at the foolish woman when she sprawled herself out on the ground.

Her smile quickly vanished.

A massive chair–a throne, really–rose from the black marble tiles. Other than sitting down, the woman hadn’t made a single motion. She had no wand, no foci visible.

There must be someone out of sight casting these spells.

The woman’s elbow came to rest on one of the armrests. Her fingers curled under her chin.

Alicia’s wheel cranked downwards until she was eye-to-eye with the woman once again.

“What allies?”

Alicia blinked. That wasn’t the response she had expected. “What do you mean?”

The woman tilted her head once again. She went silent for a moment. “We found no room for ambiguity in Our query. What allies are you concerned about betraying?”

Alicia clamped her mouth shut. She shook her head back and forth before staring down at the woman’s knees.

The clicking started a moment later.

Alicia lolled her head from side to side. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake.

The clicking stopped again. It took but a moment for the wheel to spin up and stop with Alicia facing the black throne.

Alicia closed her eyes with a sigh. Such a welcome sight. A reprieve from the spinning and the water and the turning and the clicking.

But she had to stay awake.

If she fell asleep, Ylva would leave. The clicking would start.

And the turning.

And the water.

She had almost drowned once already. There was still a constant need to cough from some amount of water that made it to her lungs.

“Last time we spoke, you seemed so certain that you would be rescued. How long has it been?”

Alicia shook her head. More than a hundred half-hour long revolutions. She had stopped bothering to count. “I don’t know.”

“And where are these allies of yours now?”

Again, Alicia shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Ylva nodded. For a moment, she was silent.

Alicia loved the dramatic pauses the demon–for what else could she be–often used. As long as she was not spoken to, Alicia didn’t need to speak. She was free to rest. Even as far as shutting her eyes for a few blessed seconds.

“Your allies abandoned you,” Ylva said, voice soft. Sad. Almost regretful. “They know you yet live. They know where you are. None have come to rescue you. None will come to rescue you.

“You are an expendable asset to them. A casualty paid in a meaningless conflict.”

Ylva went silent. She shifted as her head switched its resting spot from one hand to the other. Her free hand came up and gently rubbed against Alicia’s cheek.

Alicia leaned her head into it, savoring the sensation. She hadn’t felt anything except cold water and slowly drying skin in days. Weeks? Months? Lord, Alicia thought. How long have I been here?

“Do you know the reason for your suffering?”

Alicia jerked back from Ylva’s soft hand. It was a strain to keep her eyes focused, but she managed for a few seconds. That beautiful woman in front of her gained corpse-like features as she looked harder.

“You’re a demon!” Alicia shouted.

Ylva withdrew her outstretched hand.

And she frowned.

Just the corners of her lips. She tipped her head up, looking down at Alicia past the tip of her nose.

Alicia’s heart sank. She made Ylva mad again. She was so stupid. How could she have shouted at Ylva.

Ylva stood from her throne. She maneuvered around it and turned her back to Alicia.

“I’m sorry,” Alicia said, not even bothering to hide the desperation in her voice. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t go.”

Ylva stopped. Her head turned to align with her shoulder, not quite looking at Alicia.

“Our servant has been stolen from Us. We will not allow Our servants to suffer. All in Our path will be demolished until Our property is returned to Us.”

Her words said, Ylva turned and walked out of the room.

Alicia hung her head. Some lingering water started dripping from her face at a steady pace.

And the clicking started.

A cool hand brushed the loose water from Alicia’s face. It stroked gently, massaging away fatigue. Two arms wrapped around Alicia’s head. It was a cold embrace, but not an unwelcome one.

“We care for Our servants, Our property.”

Alicia nodded into the crook of a shoulder. She had to show she was listening. Had to stay awake.

“We care for those that assist Ourself. Those that help us. Friends, one might say.”

The voice was gentle. Soft. Soothing.

“And We assist Our… friends in return. We protect Our servants. We rescue those of Ours who have managed to place themselves in the hands of an enemy. Because we care.

“We wish We could care for you, Ali. Will you not let Us?”

Alicia pulled back from the fingers, from the voice. Her head lolled side to side.

And the clicking started.

Alicia crept along the wall. Keeping her own noise down was far more difficult than she had expected. Her habit was both soaked and torn. Soiled with foul liquids. Most of the fabric around her wrists, ankles, and waist had worn away thanks to her struggles against the restraints.

She slipped out of her robe, only wearing the undergarments. Parts of what she slipped out of were blessed. Tossing them on the floor so carelessly was disrespect almost to the point of heresy.

Caring about such a thing was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t like the cloth wasn’t ruined anyway.

Alicia slipped out of the torture chamber into a massive room. A throne, far larger than the one Ylva had used during their sessions, sat suspended over a gigantic pit.

There were doors everywhere. The walkway was circular and there was a door right next to one another.

The exit could be behind any one of the doors. But if Alicia had built the place, she would have built the throne facing the main entrance.

Assuming the throne couldn’t rotate.

Still, it was a better option than checking every door and stumbling across other people.

Halfway around the ring, Alicia heard voices coming from one of the rooms. A meeting perhaps? She considered stopping by and listening. Shaking her head, Alicia continued on. She had wasted so much time already. It was too important that she get back to the Elysium Order as soon as possible.

She hefted open the heavy doors.

The sun beat down on her.

It had been so long, she just sat, staring.

Smiling.

Voices behind Alicia shook her from her reverie. She sprinted out into the prison compound.

The cold air bit through her damp clothes, giving her instant shivers. Was it still November? December? Could it even be January?

It didn’t matter except to show how much time she had wasted with her foolishness.

She sprinted on, looking for any kind of exit.

Alicia stopped in her tracks and almost broke down in giggles. It had been so long, yet it was so easy.

With a moment’s concentration, Alicia connected. The source flowed through her, warming her cold body. It had been so long. Such a foreign feeling.

With a second thought, Alicia teleported. The prison fell away to reveal a pure, radiant white.

Elysium Grand Cathedral formed up around her.

Priests, monks, nuns, and all manner of other clergy turned as one to her direction.

She collapsed to her knees as the startled gasps and shouts echoed around her. Alicia had to remind herself to keep her hands as still and nonthreatening as possible. The Elysium Order wouldn’t hesitate to kill her if they thought she might be a threat.

“Sister Heiden,” someone shouted. That someone ran up to her, wearing the gold trimmed inquisitorial robes.

Alicia was sure she knew the inquisitor. It was someone familiar. She couldn’t quite grasp the name.

It didn’t matter.

“Water,” Alicia choked out.

Once the Elysium Order was certain that she was Alicia Heiden, it didn’t take long for her to find herself wrapped in a warm blanket with a glass of cool water in hand.

She had been sequestered away in one of the cathedral’s side rooms, probably with guards just outside.

The door opened. In walked one of the most highly decorated members of the Elysium Order. He wore black robes with actual platinum weaved in. The light always caught it in strange ways, giving it a shine unlike anything else.

He stopped just in front of Alicia, smiling down at her.

She smiled back. It was hard, forcing a relief filled smile. Probably not as hard as the smile he was forcing. The corners of his mouth kept twitching in a way Alicia had seen only once before.

During Sister Cross’ briefing just before they began their ill-planned assault on Ylva’s servant.

Brother Maynard reached out, placing a hand on Alicia’s shoulder. He gave a light squeeze before withdrawing his hand.

Alicia had repress narrowing her eyes. His face wrinkled slightly, especially around his nose. He was, however, less subtle in wiping off his hand onto his own robes.

Ylva had never done that.

Alicia knew she stunk. That water hadn’t got any cleaner as the days went on.

She didn’t need it rubbed in her face like that.

“My dear sister,” he said, “I can only imagine a fraction of what you must have gone through. Torture to leave you in such a state must have been cruel indeed.”

Alicia shook her head. “They care about the augur, Nel Stirling. I had no useful information on the subject, and they never asked me questions. I was kept, not tortured.”

Brother Maynard’s face lightened for a moment before his features turned downwards. “However did you escape, my dear?”

“One of the people there, a little girl. She would bring me my meals–a single roll of bread. Earlier today, I bit down into a key. I guess she felt sorry for me.”

“Most fortuitous indeed. Perhaps salvation is not yet out of reach for that one. I shall keep her in my prayers.”

Alicia nodded. She looked down into the glass of water she had been given, looking at her own reflection.

She wasn’t quite sure what was staring back at her.

I need a shower.

Repressing a small chuckle, she took a drink. It tasted… stale.

Looking back towards Brother Maynard, Alicia met his eyes. “Sir, I’m not hurt. Tired and hungry, yes. Give me a few days of rest and I will be fit for duty.”

His eyes darted between her own, looking left and right over and over again. Searching for something.

Alicia kept her own eyes steady, focusing on his right eye. “And a shower,” she said.

Brother Maynard laughed. A good, hearty chuckle, fitting for a slightly rotund monk.

She had to fight to keep her eyes steady. The nerve. He laughed at her.

“I’m glad you’re eager. We have much work to do, my dear. It is good you’ve returned, Sister Heiden. We were all very worried.”

“Yeah, it’s good to be back,” Ali lied.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.002

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It was surprising how normal everything seemed.

Not seemed.

Everything was normal.

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

And there was nothing Zoe Baxter could do about it.

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

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

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

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

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

This is depression, Zoe thought.

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

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

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

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

“Class dismissed.”

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

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

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

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

“Something I can do for you?”

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

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

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better than yesterday.”

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

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

“Devon is not a doctor.”

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

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

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

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

The door slammed in her face.

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

There was no response from behind the door.

There was a response from behind Zoe.

“No one cares about Juliana though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Having an affair.”

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

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

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

She decided to simply ignore that part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe stopped at the entryway and frowned.

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

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

He didn’t even look up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

“How long have they been in there?”

“What time is it?”

“Nearly three o’clock.”

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

“Any progress on Juliana and Shalise?”

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

“She’s going to be angry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I want to know?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

“And you’ll locate Nel through them?”

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

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

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

Ylva turned her head, staring off towards her throne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe had a feeling she might actually enjoy this assignment.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.027

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“Has she woken up yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s going to be alright, right?”

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

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

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

His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s just–”

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

“Wha–”

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The security guard–”

“Eva.”

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

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

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

“Start at the beginning.”

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I take it you know something.”

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

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

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

“I’m not–”

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

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

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

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

“A leave of absence?”

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

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

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

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

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

Something that involved a king of hell.

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still so much going on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.

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

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

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

“Why can’t you send me?”

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

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

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

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

Zagan would have to go.

Later. And with a lot of planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unchanged.”

“No one is watching over her?”

“Arachne was with her when we left.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You haven’t tested it?”

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

“You disappoint me, Des.”

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

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

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

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

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

That was what her father had said anyway.

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

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

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

“And Hugo helped you.”

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

Her father snapped his fingers.

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

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

They didn’t budge.

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

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

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

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

He spun the spare chair around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>>Author’s Note 003<<

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.026

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“What does it mean?”

Neither of them had dared to speak for the longest time. Her voice felt dry and hoarse–though not simply because of the time. What they watched drained all the moisture from her mouth. Most of it had gathered on the palms of her hands.

Jordan shook his head as the shadows around them faded back into the background. He’d waited long enough. It had been several minutes since anyone walked by.

“The professor is a demon of some sort,” Jordan said. “I’m certain of that. Not as friendly as Eva and Arachne, by the looks of it. I don’t even want to say his name. He might notice us.”

Shelby shuddered.

Eva was one thing. She kept Arachne out of sight and out of mind. Her own physical changes were easily overlooked simply because Shelby had known her for a year and a half.

But Professor Zagan was a demon too? And Professor Baxter knew about it? Not only that, but she looked about ready to attack him too.

Shelby walked up to the classroom door. There was a solid wall of air keeping her from even opening it, but it didn’t stop her from peeking in the window.

Just as Professor Baxter said, there was a magic circle in the room. A ‘transference circle’ according to Professor Zagan. Desks had been shoved aside to make way. A broken bit of chalk lay just outside the circle.

A book bag rested on top of one of the desks. Juliana’s bag?

“They’re not in there,” Shelby said.

“Of course not.”

Jordan paced up and down in front of the door, looking scary. Terrifying even. While the shadows that had been hiding them in the alcove of another classroom had receded, he still had shadows curling off of him.

This must be one of the things my sister was always talking about.

“Professor Baxter asked where they were. If they were in there, she’d know. Didn’t you hear how he dodged her question? He claimed not to remember their names.

“No.” Jordan stopped pacing. “He couldn’t be bothered remembering ordinary mortal names. That might be true, but he remembers our names. He says them in class often. He said it himself. A lie of omission.”

“Then, where are they?”

“Transference circle. Sends things to Hell. He answered that as well.”

“They’re in Hell.” The last word came out as little better than a choked up whisper.

Jordan reached out and gripped Shelby’s hand. “We don’t want to get caught around here.”

Under normal circumstances, Shelby might have enjoyed having her hand held. Now, her hand was cold and clammy. All thoughts of affection had been replaced by fear.

“We need to find Professor Baxter.”

“What about Irene?” Her sister was the whole reason they’d followed after Juliana and Shalise in the first place.

“Her too,” Jordan said as he led them through the halls in the same direction Professor Baxter had gone several minutes earlier. “Though she wasn’t with Shalise and Juliana. She’s probably not in Hell.”

That was only a small relief. Shelby had seen the army outside. If her sister had gotten mixed up in that…

She didn’t know what she’d tell mom.

“I still don’t know why she skipped class. It isn’t like her.”

“She has been on edge lately,” Shelby said. “Every day seems worse. I was hoping she was finally going to make up with Eva, or just relax, but now this. I can’t help but wonder if it was all a lie.”

“I doubt Eva had anything to do with this,” Jordan said, giving her hand a small squeeze. “Not unless I severely misread her personality.”

Shelby smiled at the reassurance. She wasn’t about to decide either way until she heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, but Jordan knew plenty she didn’t. More than that, Shelby trusted him to give a straight answer. Especially about serious issues.

“Come on, out there.”

“Out there?” All the faint happiness died with those four words. Jordan was looking straight out at the army. “We can’t go out there. Even if you can keep your shadow thing–”

“The little girl, the one from Professor Baxter’s class, is a demon too.”

“Another one? Then we definitely–”

Jordan shook his head. Shelby barely registered him pulling her close and putting an arm around her shoulders. “Arachne is out there too. They’re helping fight. And the fight looks almost over.”

Shelby’s vision went black before she could protest.

When her vision returned, it was accompanied by the cool outside air.

A black-nailed hand stopped moving just an inch from her face.

Shelby stumbled backwards with all the reaction time of a sloth. A drunk sloth. She fell to the ground, dragging Jordan down on top of her.

“You are students.”

The owner of the black-nailed hand stared down at the two of them with cold, dead eyes. Despite the fact that the eyes were sitting on the face of a ten-year-old, Shelby felt herself being weighed and measured.

If she was found wanting, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that she would not survive.

“We are. We need–” Jordan cut himself off with a glance to one side. After a brief moment, he nodded and looked back towards the demon.

“I apologize for intruding on your shadow.” He bowed his head until he was looking straight down at the ground. “We have information we felt should be delivered with haste.”

Shelby held her breath as the weighing continued. After what felt like an eon and then some, the demon–Ylva, Zoe had introduced her as–lowered her arm.

“We will receive your information.”

Jordan glanced up with a faint smile on his face. “The male professor that is also a demon–”

“Zagan.”

Jordan flinched at the demon’s word, but nodded. “We watched him follow Juliana and Shalise into a room with a transference circle. He left. They disappeared from the room. He then failed to mention either of them when Professor Baxter asked. We knew you were associated with Professor Baxter and Eva. Not knowing where they are, we sought you out.”

Silence grew as they waited for her to respond. Every second that passed brought along a slightly colder wind. Shelby didn’t have her jacket with her and the cold quickly leeched away the warmth from being indoors.

Out of the corner of Shelby’s eye, she noted the black carapace of Arachne run towards one of the few remaining creatures that made up the army. She tore off the creature’s arms, then legs. Shelby pointedly turned away when she started pulling the thing’s insides out.

“We understand your implications. You wish to be rewarded for this information?”

“No. Nev–”

“Yes,” Shelby cut Jordan off. He looked at her with wide eyes and slowly shook his head. Shelby ignored him. “My sister, Irene. She’s been missing since the start of this. The last time we saw her was with Eva at lunch.”

“We own a clairvoyant. She spotted Eva with a companion when this began, according to Arachne,” the demon said with a slight glance off to the side.

Shelby sagged in relief, not even caring that her own eyes had drifted to the other demon and the target that was being disemboweled.

Her relief ground to a halt with Ylva’s next words.

“Eva’s whereabouts are unknown. As are those of her companion.”

“But… that–”

Jordan squeezed Shelby’s hand once again. “Doesn’t mean any harm has come to either of them.”

“I just want to find her.”

“And we–”

Professor Baxter appeared before them, a single step behind Ylva.

At least, she thought it was the professor. Shelby’s eyes widened as she took in the state of the woman.

Most of her suit was covered in dirt. Half of it had been burned clear away. Whatever hit her suit hadn’t stopped there. A massive spot of charred flesh lay just beneath her right breast. Several boils and burns spread out from the burnt circle.

Her mud covered face was twisted into a tight grimace. She had her lips pressed into a thin line and Shelby could tell that her teeth were clenched tightly behind.

Zoe looked like she was only standing though sheer force of will.

“Professor Baxter,” Jordan said, “we–”

“I’m sorry. No time.”

Professor Baxter twitched the dagger in her hand. Her voice boomed out over the battlefield.

“ARACHNE!”

— — —

Genoa narrowed her eyes. “Which side is the enemy?”

“The nuns,” Zoe said. “Eva did not part on good terms with them. Though I’m not sure who or what the peasants are. They could be just as hostile.”

“Everyone then.”

Genoa had a look in her eye. One that Zoe had never seen before. It was a dangerous look, something she’d expect to see on Arachne. The only difference was that Arachne got the look for no reason, while Genoa had reason enough.

The rage of a mother was a scary sight to behold.

Noticing the look Zoe gave her, Genoa pressed her sunglasses up on her face, obscuring her eyes.

“We’re wasting time.”

Zoe gripped her dagger. With a deep breath, she glanced at her friend. “Right.”

In the blink of an eye, Genoa vanished.

A dust storm erupted over the combatants. Only Zoe’s enhanced sight allowed her to see the vague outlines of the nearest group.

She moved out while the dust had everyone occupied.

There wasn’t much cover in the prison aside from the walls of buildings. It was designed that way on purpose. Letting prisoners hide from guards would have led to ambushes and escapes.

Zoe walked out in the open. Room to dodge was more important than hiding behind the handful of sagebrush that had grown since the prison last saw proper maintenance.

Repeated slashes of her dagger sent razor-thin blades of wind through the air.

The black-cloaked mage didn’t even acknowledge the wind. A shield flickered up around her, tanking the hits. She didn’t even turn towards Zoe, choosing instead to incinerate one of the peasants with white fire.

For all Zoe knew, the mage didn’t notice. The wind was invisible and Wayne had said that their shields were ridiculously strong.

Zoe sent a light gust of air. Nothing big, nothing sharp. Air had to be getting through their shields or they would asphyxiate.

She was pleased to note the billowing of the mage’s cloak. Some things could get through.

Evacuating all the air was a possibility, but Zoe didn’t want to kill if she could help it.

Zoe set the wind around the mage’s feet to compress. More and more air pulled in beneath the mage.

There had to be a threshold between wind and attack. She’d love to run a few tests, but now was not the time. Finding a way around their shield was more important.

The mage noticed something. It must have been the wind moving strangely, though she did not look down. Had she noticed the sphere of compressed air at her feet, she would have moved.

After incinerating one more peasant, she turned to face Zoe. One hand raised up.

Lightning, probably, Zoe thought as she tensed her legs. Dodging lightning might seem impossible to a layperson, but Zoe knew lightning and she knew magic. The Elysium Order might use slightly different magic, but it had the same principles.

Probably.

The instant Zoe’s enhanced eyes noticed a slight change in the mage’s arm, she threw herself to the ground.

Lightning careened through the spot where she had stood.

Not giving the mage a second chance, Zoe released her control over the compressed air.

The shock wave was like a little bubble expanding outwards. Zoe could see it coming. She pinched her eyes shut just as it rocked over her prone form.

A thundering boom came an instant later.

She tried to pop her ears, but nothing made the high-pitched ringing go away.

Looking up, Zoe found the mage knocked a good twenty feet away, slumped against the wall. Not moving.

Too much force? She deliberately kept it small, relatively speaking. Was it still too much in the end?

Zoe shook her head.

No time to check on her.

The cloud of dust had partially cleared away thanks to the blast, revealing another three mages. All turned to look at Zoe.

“Shit.”

Zoe rolled away as spot she occupied quickly turned into a black scorch mark.

With a flick of her hand, a shield sprung up in front of Zoe.

It fractured and shattered as the mages released two lightning bolts.

The first mage had gotten to her feet.

She reached out, aiming her hand.

With wide eyes, Zoe saw white fire forming at her fingertips.

Buildings, mages, even the sky itself fell as the cool white of between replaced everything.

The opposite end of the prison compound rebuilt itself around Zoe. Far from any nuns.

Adrenaline gave her the strength to stand. That same adrenaline had her hands violently shaking. Zoe tried to wipe the thick layer of sweat coating her hands onto her pants and wound up with a thick layer of damp dirt.

Zoe knew that Genoa was still out there. Fighting. Winning, in all likelihood.

She slumped against whatever building she had teleported against. Devon’s, probably.

Their cloaks hid their faces. All features were obscured save for the brilliant white glow of their eyes. That first and last nun, staring into those eyes as she prepared to incinerate Zoe as she had to those peasants…

A fear-infused shudder ran through her body.

Breathe in, Zoe thought. And out.

A short laugh followed her exhale. To think she’d been worried about using too much force in that compressed air blast.

She should have used more.

Zoe slapped her cheeks, regretting the action immediately. Dirt ground into her sweat-covered cheeks.

Situations like these were exactly why Zoe never went farther in the guild than the initial trials. She liked research. Developing, discovering, and rediscovering secrets of magic were her passions.

Applying those passions to combat did not interest her in the least.

Zoe slapped her cheeks again. This time, she ignored the extra mud her slap smeared around her face. She had to get into the right mindset. The mindset she’d had to adopt when going through the guild’s trials.

The Elysium Order did not play nice. They acted with excessive force and violence.

Zoe let out a small laugh as she ran her fingers through her hair.

With a flick of her dagger, between enveloped the world.

Before the battlefield finished reassembling itself around her, Zoe raised her dagger. She fired off a lightning bolt at the nearest nun.

As expected, it collided with a shield about three inches from the nun’s face.

That was something she could work with.

Without waiting for any kind of retaliation, Zoe teleported.

She couldn’t do the rapid blinking that Genoa was capable of–something she was regretting never taking the time to learn–only the long-range teleportation that Wayne had taught her. Her way took more energy, concentration, and time. Only a few seconds but a few seconds was an eternity in combat.

Zoe reappeared in front of another nun.

The nun was in the process of incinerating another peasant. One who had a hatchet buried in his back.

Hatchets weren’t a weapon used by the order as far as she knew. Zoe didn’t have time to frown.

As the peasant collapsed into a pile of ashes–without a single cry of pain–the nun looked to Zoe.

Who had already been preparing her attack. With the flick of her wrist, a sphere of compressed air exploded. Zoe kept the air shaped so that most of the force would aim towards the nun.

It wasn’t large. She lacked the time to create one as large as earlier. It made up for it by being placed an inch and a half from the nun’s forehead.

The nun’s head snapped back, though no sound of cracking bones reached Zoe’s enhanced ears. The rest of her body staggered for a moment before she fell backwards against the ground. White glow faded from her eyes as she landed.

There was no time to check on the results of her attack. Zoe teleported away just as the lightning from one of the downed nun’s comrades crackled through the spot she had been standing on.

She reappeared just behind the attacking nun and immediately started compressing air next to her head.

As soon as the nun turned to fire, Zoe let the compressed air loose.

The nun’s shield flickered in around her head, only half an inch away.

“Shit.”

Zoe cried out even as the world fell apart around her. She held on to her dagger for dear life. Wayne had warned her about losing control while teleporting. She had no desire to suffer that fate.

When the far side of the compound asserted itself in front of her, Zoe collapsed into the side of the building. Her shoulder slammed into the rough, sandstone bricks.

Her dagger-less hand gripped her side. Zoe winced and immediately let go.

The side of her suit had been burned clean through. A black circle the size of her fist lay just under her right breast. From it, red lines reminiscent of natural lightning snaked down through the side of her body to some point beneath her clothes. Boils and blisters had already started forming.

Zoe took a few deep breaths. She tried not to expand her chest as she did so. Every movement caused pain.

She couldn’t sit idle. Gritting her teeth, Zoe teleported again.

Reappearing at the battlefield, she prepared to evacuate as much air as she could around the first nun she saw.

Blinking, Zoe saw not a single nun apart from the prone nun she had hit a few moments earlier.

The dust settled, flattening against the ground in an instant. A few of the peasants stood around, looking somewhat lost.

Standing where the thickest parts of the dust cloud had been was Genoa. Two nuns, or their remains, lay around her. Genoa glanced around, looking none the worse for wear.

“Tough bitches.”

Zoe didn’t feel up to much besides nodding.

“You’re injured.”

Zoe nodded a second time. She could feel the adrenaline draining out of her. It was making her somewhat tired, though every jolt of pain kept her from falling unconscious on her feet. “Where did they go?” Zoe finally asked.

“Just up and vanished. Teleported away leaving that icy air you leave behind. Cutting their losses, maybe?”

“That one,” Zoe said with a nod towards the one she had hopefully just concussed, “might not be dead. Restrain her in Ylva’s domain. Teleportation doesn’t work inside, so she won’t be able to escape. Unless we want to let her go?”

Genoa walked over and slung the nun over her shoulder, fireman’s carry. She didn’t look at all bothered by the weight of a human body.

“Let’s find Nel and…”

One of the peasants ran over, waving its arms wildly. It stopped a few feet from them, just in time for Genoa to not turn it into paste.

Outside the heat of battle, Zoe noticed a few things. His clothes were definitely made from some type of burlap. There were rope burns around both of his wrists. Most notably, he was missing his entire jaw, though he didn’t appear to be bleeding.

The peasant outstretched one arm, pointing down between the cell houses. A second peasant was in the distance, pointing perpendicular from the first peasant.

“They want us to follow?” Genoa asked.

The first peasant stomped his feet and took off at a run. Genoa was quick to follow despite the nun over her shoulder.

Zoe simply flicked her dagger and teleported. Running would hurt.

From the second peasant, she could easily see what he was pointing at.

“Eva,” Zoe said softly. She teleported again to her student’s side with Genoa running up not far behind.

Eva was lying face down, wrapped in one of the security specialists’ trench coats. A gash had been torn in one side and through it, Zoe could see the inside of her student. Nestled within appeared to be one of her bloodstones.

A bone white dagger lay to one side, half sheathed in blood.

Zoe started to reach for it. A collection of blood appearing in front of her face stopped her.

NƠ̸̻̫̝̝͘͞ TOUCH

CURSED

“Eva? You’re alive?”

OBVIOUS̷̘̘͍̟͇̩LY

“Damn,” a voice behind them called out. “Damn.”

Devon ran up beside them, almost shoving Zoe out of the way. Two things, demons likely, followed him.

Genoa dropped into a combat stance. Something of an odd sight with the nun still over her shoulders. She seemed to recognize Devon just in time.

“What are those?” she said with a gesture towards the demons.

“Don’t shake hands and headache,” he mumbled as he stopped above Eva. “You couldn’t do one thing right, girl?”

The blood in front of Devon swirled around into a frowning face.

Devon didn’t seem to notice. He hunched over the dagger, pointedly not touching it.

“Where’s Juliana?” Genoa asked. “Alternatively, Nel?”

J NOT S̷̢͝͠Ị̸͓̪̹̝̼͈͠NCE LUNCH

NEL KIDNAPPED

“Kidnapped?” Genoa said with a growl. “Who?”

Before Eva could write out a response, Devon jammed both fingers into the hole in her back.

She spasmed twice. The mass of blood above her had a similar spasm. It formed into a spiked ball before splaying out a few droplets. A few landed on Devon’s face, causing him to pull his fingers out.

STOP

FIGH̵̨͇͎͕̬̘͘͟͞TING CURSE

BLO̧͈̮̲̭͇̹͇O̶DSTONE CRACKED

WILL BREAK

NEED DAĢ̸͙͓̭͈̰̳̖͞GER

“Arachne has it,” Zoe said.

NEẸ̢̡͓̼̰͘͟͠ͅD͉̯̝̰̜̰̖̤̤͞

LOSING FIG̸͓̺̖̙̫̬̕͡H̢̫̫̩̮̗͉̩͝T͉̜͓͔̻̀

NEED HELP

“Damnit. I can’t fix this on my own.”

Zoe was already readying herself to teleport to Arachne when Devon turned to face her.

“Grab the dagger and bring Ylva with you.”

“Ylva?”

“This is a necromancer’s work. If anyone can fix it, she can.” He turned back to Eva, mumbling under his breath. “Going to cost me an arm and a leg.”

“Necromancer,” Zoe said softly.

She saw one word written in blood before the world fell into between.

S̺̭͈͓̥̝͈̖̹̬̱̕͢͝Ḁ̧̛̞̝̩̘͉̝͈̗̠̞͉̦̳̞̳̗̀̀͟W̡͓̼̯̹͉͉̜̱͎͚̥̥͖͘͜͟͢Y̴̸̧̞̫̝̫̘̰͎̰͜͠Ẹ̼̳̯̩̮̲̞̞̩̝̼̼̝͎͉́̀̀̕͡ͅR̶̴̺͈̣̣̦̯͚̪͘̕͡

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003.019

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Ylva didn’t sleep.

At all.

Zoe wasn’t quite sure what she expected, but she had laid out a fairly fancy bed for the demon. She had a gigantic bed in her domain, after all. Unless that entire thing was solely for Nel.

It wasn’t until the first week had passed that Zoe got any kind of real sleep in. Her time was spent watching Ylva. Waiting for her to do something.

On the first night, Ylva had gone around and inspected seemingly every object in Zoe’s apartment. Some, she would pass by with barely a glance. Others would receive a good amount of attention.

The next night, Ylva watched the television. She didn’t watch any stations, just the television itself. As if she had heard that humans like to watch television but didn’t quite know what that meant.

Zoe tried to turn it on for her the night after that, but Ylva had lost interest.

She moved on to rummaging through the few research documents that Zoe had saved from the fire. The only surviving ring notebook was of particular interest to the demon.

Part of Zoe wanted Ylva to add her own notes to it. She didn’t even comment on them.

A combination of growing accustomed to Ylva’s nightly antics and sheer exhaustion had Zoe falling asleep without much trouble by the weekend.

All except for Halloween night, during which Ylva stood guard. It was as if she expected something to happen. Although she had slept soundly for the previous few weeks, Zoe got no sleep on Halloween.

The entire situation was all so surreal. Even though it had been two and a half months since the attack on her home, she still kept expecting to wake up back in her burning home in the arms of those two demons. Every day that passed was a fresh relief in that department.

And today is another day.

Zoe arched her back and held it in a long stretch. With a long, open-mouthed yawn, she slid out of bed and started unbuttoning her nightshirt.

“Good morning, Ylva,” she said to the little girl sitting on the end of her bed.

Ylva gave her a brief nod in return.

Undressed fully, Zoe tossed her pajamas in the dirty laundry and started towards the shower.

As soon as she touched the door handle, Zoe froze. The feeling of icy water ran down her back. She slowly glanced back to her bed where tiny Ylva sat in one of the dresses they had purchased for her.

“Is something wrong?”

Ylva had never just shown up in her room before. She always waited out on the couch.

“You were thrashing in your sleep. We observed to ensure you did not come to harm.”

“That’s… Thanks, I suppose.”

Zoe pressed her fingers to her forehead and stepped into the shower as she tried hard not to think about her casual undressing in front of Ylva.

Aside from the lingering thought about the demons attacking her home, Zoe didn’t feel very bad. Not like right after it happened. She even felt well rested. No aches or pains in her neck, back, or legs like she might find if she was tossing and turning.

Ylva might have done something, but Zoe didn’t think her abilities extended into dream management.

Zoe shut off the hot water and dried off. Moving to the mirror, she ran a comb through her hair–it would dry in her preferred style. A quick dusting of hairspray after breakfast would keep it in place for the day. She only applied the bare minimum of makeup. She could never understand her old roommates and their need to sit in front of the mirror for hours on end.

There were only twenty-four hours in a day and a third of that was spent sleeping. Spending an hour or two more on makeup was simply inconceivable.

Then again, she was the only one of her old dorm mates to still be unmarried.

“Ylva,” Zoe called out as she finished suiting up, “are you ready to head out?”

“We are prepared.”

Zoe walked out into her room to find Ylva standing beside the bed. It hadn’t been made before Zoe got in the shower, but now it was nicely smoothed out and tucked in.

One thing she couldn’t complain about was the demon’s propensity for cleanliness. Any time Zoe left something for later, she found it tidied up. Dishes, clothing, and the bed of course.

Placing her hand on Ylva’s shoulder, Zoe teleported the two of them straight to her office. Unlike Eva, Arachne, and even Zagan, Ylva was not bothered by the trip through between. Something to do with her natural affinity for cold.

At least, that would be Zoe’s best guess. She hadn’t devoted much time to researching that particular aspect of Ylva and she hadn’t asked.

The bell signaling the five-minute warning before class started for the day echoed through her office.

Today is another day, Zoe thought with a sigh as she opened up her classroom door.

— — —

Jordan’s eyes turned from his meal. He sat up straight and looked over Eva’s shoulder. His normally gray eyes lit up with burning interest. “An elf?” he all but squeaked.

Eva set down her fork and turned to follow his gaze. She wasn’t very interested in eating the breakfast burrito anyway. It wasn’t even breakfast.

Sure enough, an elf wandered into the lunchroom alongside a glasses-wearing-man. Both wore silver patches on the sides of their shirts identifying them as members of Martina Turner’s new security force. Eva had seen the glasses guy around on a few occasions over the past few days, but it was her first time seeing the rumored elf. She even had a chance to meet the two ‘specialists’ that were creeping around the halls.

He had his long platinum hair–that couldn’t hold a candle to Ylva’s own–drawn back into a ponytail. Eva couldn’t be sure from across the room, but his lips and eyebrows seemed to be drawn on. They were too smooth and held no depth.

Eva gave a small shudder. The more she looked, the more alien the elf appeared. His eyes were too wide and his nose too small. His lanky arms stretched just too long.

It was silly, she knew. Arachne had eight eyes and had plated carapace covering her instead of skin. Ylva was a giant. Neither had ever disturbed her like the elf.

“Wow,” came the soft voice of Shalise.

Eva turned to find Shelby, Juliana, and Shalise all in open-mouthed stares. They obviously did not agree with her assessment. Several students in Eva’s peripheral vision had also noticed the elf.

She met the eyes of a sighing Irene and for the barest of moments, they had an understanding. The moment was lost as she averted her eyes.

Giving a sigh of her own, Eva looked back to her other friends. “You’re gawking,” she said to nobody in particular.

“And I don’t even care,” said Shelby without breaking her stare.

Jordan had the decency to cough and look away. “I’ve never seen an elf before.”

Eva frowned. “You didn’t act half as starstruck when I told you my little secret.”

“Well, we had already seen Arachne and your hands before you said anything. The shock was dampened.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Is an elf really all that shocking? I mean, it isn’t like humans are barred from entering their little communities.”

“True. But seeing one outside their hives? Definitely surprising. Leaving is some sort of stigma unless they were ordered to for the purpose of strengthening the hive.”

Eva glanced back over at the elf. He and the other security guard chatted quietly amongst themselves while gathering a plateful of burritos. The conversation seemed very one-sided with the elf doing most of the talking. By the time the two took their seats at a table, Eva hadn’t counted the glasses guard moving his lips more than twice.

At least they’re not hovering around the room giving me the evil eye, Eva thought as she turned back to Jordan. “And that one isn’t ordered to protect the village?”

Jordan gave Eva a flat stare. “He’s working as a security guard for a human school,” he said in a voice just as flat.

“Point taken.”

“But I suppose they aren’t all that interesting. They’ve got a basic human organ system with slightly denser bone and muscle groups, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Their inherent magical properties are interesting, but ultimately not too unique.”

“You can take a breath of air every now and again,” Eva said with a smile. “Where did you learn all this?”

“Oh,” his own smile slipped for a moment before it returned in full force. “My parents have amassed a collection of books that might rival the combined libraries of Brakket, Miskatonic, Dunholm, and Vincent. It might be impossible to read them all in my lifetime, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.”

Eva nodded. That was a respectable endeavor. She had her own pile of books she was working through.

The necromancy books she had acquired were far less interesting than she was hoping for. Eva had no real desire to kill people and bind their souls into ghosts. Zombies were even less appealing. That Ylva would likely object to most everything in those books didn’t endear her to them any further.

All in all, it was largely a waste of time. She planned on finishing the introduction to soul binding–the process of affixing spirits to items in order to create all kinds of nasty effects–and then switch back to her studies into blood magic. The rest of the books could rot in her library until she found a better use.

There were certain rituals she wanted to get into. Eva knew a few, the cleansing that she used on Shalise first and foremost. Another could be used to bolster a group’s general toughness and strength. The set up time and amount of blood required were not exactly feasible for that one. The ritual had been designed for large armies with sacrificial slaves for a boost in a coming battle. Her wards were technically considered a ritual, but it didn’t exactly act like it.

What she was really interested in was something that Sawyer had mentioned. As much as she tried not to remember, the surprise he expressed when Eva failed to simply reattach her detached toes had not escaped her. An ability to pull herself back together if she ever found herself in such a situation again would be invaluable.

Not that Eva had any intentions of allowing that to happen.

The ringing bell signaling the end of lunch broke Eva out of her thoughts.

Everyone started moving. Those who still had food left on their plates quickly ate. Eva didn’t. She tossed the remains of the burrito into a nearby trash bin. Max would have been appalled, but he had not sat with their group for a week or two.

Eva felt somewhat responsible for that. She didn’t think he had been too freaked out by her little reveal, not as much as Irene was, but maybe it just needed time to sink in. One day, Max worked on a history report with one of the other students in class. She slowly saw less and less of him until he stopped sitting with them completely.

Arachne already threatened to tear out his spine if he ever said a word. By all appearances so far, he hadn’t.

Conversely, Irene was much happier. She smiled a whole lot more–though never in Eva’s direction. The girl hadn’t missed a beat in claiming Max’s seat next to her sister. She barely acknowledged Eva’s presence, but at least she hadn’t run off.

As Eva’s thoughts drifted to the girl, so did her eyes. For the second time in an hour, Irene met her gaze. If that alone wasn’t enough cause her eyebrows to creep up her forehead, Irene cleared her throat.

“Um, can I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure,” Eva said with what was hopefully a kind smile.

Irene held her gaze for another second or two before she glanced off to some point over Eva’s shoulder. As if looking at her directly would be painful. After a moment of standing there, she gripped Eva by the upper arm and pulled her off to a corner of the room.

Eva gave Juliana a shrug as she allowed herself to be dragged off.

“What did you need?”

“Nothing, really. I just wanted to make sure you knew. The girl over there, the one with all the stitches. She’s been staring at you.”

Rather than turn her head, Eva looked through her sense of blood. The blended girl had her eyes directly on the side of Eva’s head. Her companion seemed wholly engrossed with his meal, apparently unconcerned with the bell having rung.

“That isn’t entirely unexpected,” Eva said with a nod. “I was fairly cruel to her after she… well,” Eva lifted her hand in the air.

Irene flinched back.

Eva immediately dropped her arm behind her back. “Sorry.”

“No. No. I’m fine. I just,” she slowly tuned her gaze to Eva’s other side. “It isn’t just today. She’s been staring–glaring even–for weeks. Every time I look around, her, her mismatched eyes are just there.”

She ran a hand through her hair, leaving short, brown strands out of place on the side of her head.

“Irene,” Eva said, forcibly restraining herself from reaching forwards. “Are you alright?”

“I just… You, and her, and Jordan, and regular school, and Professor Lurcher being gone, and Professor Baxter’s injuries, and–”

“Irene. Let’s go sh–swimming.” Eva almost said shopping. She managed to stop herself just in time. It was her first instinct to say, but shopping was not on the list of things she was very interested in. “Or the hot springs.”

“What?” She actually looked up straight into Eva’s eyes. Her eyes darted from left to right, looking into each of Eva’s eyes. By the fifth pass, she seemed to realize what she was looking at. Irene took a step backwards and averted her eyes again.

“You’re stressed out.” A whole lot more than Eva originally thought. “When was the last time you did anything that wasn’t schoolwork or worry about the people around you?”

“I don’t–”

“Come on.” Eva put on her kindest smile. “Just you and me. I’m not going to hurt you. We can just swim or relax in the pool. We don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to.”

“Right now?”

“If we go now, you can’t think about it. You don’t have time to worry and get stressed out about it.”

“We have class.”

“Professor Carr won’t mind if you explain that stress was getting to you. Neither will Zoe. And it isn’t even lying.”

“I don’t know…”

“I do.” Eva held out her hand.

This time, Eva did not withdraw when Irene took a step backwards. Eva did ensure the sharp tips of her fingers were all folded inwards. All the while, Irene’s eyes stayed glued to the claw.

They stayed frozen as the lunchroom cleared around them. Irene’s heart rate picked up as time wore on. Just as she started to reach her hand out, the bell rang.

They were late to class.

Rather than give Irene the opportunity to second guess herself, Eva reached out and grabbed the partially extended hand.

Irene let out a small ‘eep’ as Eva started dragging her away from their classroom.

“I-I don’t even have a swimsuit.”

Eva grinned. “Neither do I.”

— — —

Nel took a deep breath of the frankincense filled air. She much preferred the steamy air of Lady Ylva’s baths–even with the revelation that she had been spied upon since she got there–but she had a job to do.

It wasn’t even a difficult job. Quite the opposite, really. A mix between monotonous and relaxing. Nel had overworked herself to the point of passing out after the demons attacked.

Lady Ylva had been very clear afterwards that she was never to do something so foolish again. Her property was to be kept in good, working order. An unconscious augur was an unproductive augur.

Warm feelings fluttered around Nel’s stomach every time she realized that Lady Ylva actually cared. If in her own, slightly twisted way. Nel had a feeling that she would be worked as hard as or harder than Sister Cross had Eva been in charge of her.

So, Nel slowly and very relaxedly cycled through her fetters. She wasn’t even doing it every hour. Especially not while the children were at school. They were all together and Lady Ylva was right there with them.

A strand of platinum hair drifted over in front of Nel as her master crossed her mind.

Lady Ylva sat at her own table in the back of a classroom. Her head rested on an upraised fist as she slouched back in the chairs. An almost perfect recreation of the pose she had on her large throne; all except for the fact that her tiny legs didn’t quite reach the floor. They just kind of dangled in the air.

Nel wished she possessed the kind of impulsiveness required to just up and hug the little girl.

Zoe Baxter was in the same room as Ylva, teaching, so Nel skipped over that strand of hair.

Arachne and Genoa were out fighting. Again. Nel rolled her eyes. The first few days, she had been glued to watching them. Their fights were very flashy and interesting, but quickly dulled as Nel realized there wasn’t much actual danger. Neither had managed to kill each other. Nel suspected they both were holding cards in their sleeves just in case they ever had to actually fight one another.

Genoa’s daughter sat with Sister Cross’ daughter in a different class. History by the looks of the textbook.

An empty seat at Juliana’s side gave Nel pause. Her breath hitched as a long, black hair moved into position.

Nel let out a small sigh. She’d been worried for nothing. Eva looked extremely relaxed in a large pool of steaming water. Her eyes were shut and she had a faint smile on her face as she rested her head against a headrest set outside the pool.

Eva’s companion looked distinctly less relaxed. The girl, who Nel vaguely recalled seeing around Eva on occasion, had her knees to her chest and her arms wrapped around herself beneath the surface of the water. Only her head above her nose poked out. Her eyes darted between the ceiling, Eva, and the door to the room.

It was somewhat maddening. She was squandering the fairly impressive hot springs of their dorms. Not as impressive as Lady Ylva’s bath, of course.

Nel had half a mind to go and take her own bath right then and there. She restrained herself with no small amount of reluctance.

Her final fetter–a vial of blood that was heavily coagulated despite the preservative vial–drifted over in front of Nel. Eva wouldn’t be able to make use of such a decayed sample, but Nel didn’t use haemomancy.

The boy attached to the fetter was disturbing as always. He had a blank, vacant gaze that Nel normally attributed to victims of spectral possession. That Ylva had been in the same room and hadn’t obliterated the ghost was the only reason Nel second guessed herself about the boy’s condition.

That it probably wasn’t a ghost didn’t make it any less unnerving.

Nel blinked one set of eyes. He wasn’t in a classroom. Or the Brakket dorms. The floor had orange, interlocking hexagons with red hexagons in the center. Featureless white walls separated numbered doors. A hotel?

The little girl that never left the boy’s side was absent.

Nel detached her vision from the fetter and moved outside the hotel. The town didn’t appear to be Brakket. The roads were all different and it was missing the lake and Brakket Academy itself. It was not missing the mostly deserted feeling.

Back inside the hotel–and it was a hotel albeit a small one–Nel peeked into one of the rooms.

Her heart skipped three beats.

Three things sat in the room. One had sharp razors for arms. They hung in front of him like scythes. Another was a bird of some sort. At least, it had the wings and beak of one. Nel wasn’t sure it would be able to fly without a heavy dose of magic. The third looked like someone had literally stapled Arachne’s black chitin to its body.

With some morbid curiosity, Nel checked the next room. Four creatures, all similar to the first three. The next room only had two. Then six.

Nel stopped and focused back on the boy’s fetter.

He wasn’t in the hotel. The boy stood on the street between the two Brakket dorm buildings. A scowling, patchwork woman stood in front of him.

An army of monsters stood at his back.

Nel bolted, ignoring the fetters that fell out of the air. She ran out of her private clairvoratorium and around the massive hole in the throne room. Her hand froze as it touched the ornate handle leading out of Lady Ylva’s domain.

The Order was surely looking for her, at least cursory glances, if not active searches. They would not abide a rogue augur. Especially not one as ‘compromised’ as Nel.

Nel bit her lip and made her choice.

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