Tag Archives: Lurcher

005.004

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“Sarah!”

Wayne hammered his fist against the heavy oak door.

“Sarah! Open the door!”

He rattled the handle to no avail. It was locked.

“Maybe no one is home,” Serena said, arms clasped behind her head as she leaned against the wall.

Zoe clung to the vampire’s shirt, pressing her mask up against a curtained window near the two.

Since rescuing Zoe from the thralls, the younger girl had stuck close to Serena. At first it had been mere holding hands. After about ten minutes of walking, Serena put her enhanced strength to good use by giving Zoe a piggy-back ride.

Wayne had kept a close eye on them the entire time. Despite Zoe’s arms being wrapped around Serena, just beneath her sharp fangs, the vampire never once acted like she was about to throw away his trust.

After eating two whole people, maybe that wasn’t so surprising.

All the while, they had kept up a steady conversation. Almost all of it was initiated by Serena. Any time it drifted towards Zoe’s family, Serena skillfully directed it away. It was something that Wayne was beyond grateful for. He was at home in answering Serena’s questions about vampires and magic, but keeping a kid’s mind occupied and off of her parents was far beyond his capabilities.

That Serena kept her from crying only raised Wayne’s opinion of her.

Wayne had abstained from their conversation unless he had been directly addressed. He had not, however, abstained from listening in. Through overhearing their conversation, Wayne had learned that Zoe was a mere ten years old.

Serena herself was sixteen. Older than Wayne had initially suspected, but not so much that he had been expecting her to keep quite such a level head. That was just another thing he had attributed to her vampiric condition.

A less cynical person might say that no one should ever have to experience the things the girls had, especially not at their ages. Wayne was of the opinion that tragedy struck at some point or another, best it come when you can survive it.

For Serena and Zoe, that might just be now if only because of his presence in the city.

And hopefully for Sarah as well.

If she’d open the damn door.

Wayne took a step back. Gripping his tome under the crook of his arm, Wayne held out one hand towards the door. The wood erupted in bright yellow flames. He directed the flames and heat away from the rest of the house, concentrating it all in on itself, focusing on the door.

A metallic clatter made its way out of the silent flames. Wayne extinguished the fire.

The doorway stood open. A handle and a deadbolt lay on the floor, both emitting a faint glow.

“Watch your feet,” he said as he took a ginger step over the threshold.

Serena actually lifted Zoe up and over as they crossed. “I don’t smell any blood,” she said with a sniff of the air. “But there is definitely a smell here. It is a lot closer to Eric and Bart…”

Frowning, Wayne ignited a decent sized ball of flame in his hand. “Stay here,” he said. “And keep the kid safe. Be ready to run.”

“You don’t want backup?”

“Yeah, keep an eye on the door and make sure that we haven’t attracted any attention.”

Words spent, Wayne moved deeper into the house. It wasn’t a large home. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. The latter two were connected and were attached to the entryway. He started with the nearest bedroom.

Bedroom was probably the wrong word to use. Sarah had converted it to an office as soon as she finished school. But, it had once been his bedroom.

Gone were the posters of various new wave bands. His bed had been replaced by a curved desk, looking out of the curtained window. The only thing remaining was his old guitar, propped up in the corner with a thick layer of dust covering it.

Most of the rest of the office had a decent coating of dust as well. A good deal was probably just the particles of smoke in the air finding a place to settle.

Apart from the dust, nothing appeared amiss. The desk hadn’t been turned over. The computer and stationary sitting atop was undisturbed.

Wayne shut the door and moved on.

He wasn’t entirely certain what to expect within the next room. The last time he had been inside his sister’s room was during their parents’ funeral. It could still be her room, but if he still lived at home, he would have moved into the master bedroom if for no other reason than the added size and attached bathroom.

Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t expecting a full home theater. Two thick leather chairs sat in the center of the room. A projector had been mounted up against one wall with a white screen opposite. Heavy-duty speakers were in each corner while foam padding lined the rest of the walls.

Where did Sarah get the money for this? Wayne thought with a low whistle. Even with the money they received from their parents, Wayne wouldn’t have considered either of them in any sort of well-to-do position.

Shaking his head, Wayne closed the door. He passed through the main living room again, noting that Zoe and Serena were talking softly near the front door. Or front doorway? Either way, nothing looked amiss.

The door to the master bedroom had been locked. Wayne took that as a good sign. It indicated occupancy. And, unlike the front door, a simple coin would be sufficient to unlock it.

Not in the habit of carrying around change, Wayne extinguished his fireball and fished out his car keys instead. The lock gave way with a light click. He pressed in on the door without creating any more noise.

A hand reached out of the darkness, gripping the wrist that held the doorknob.

The moment he felt the lightest brush of something cold against his skin, Wayne pushed the limits of his mental acceleration. Relative time slowed to an almost complete stop.

Wayne’s first instinct was to incinerate everything within the room. The hand had already clasped tight around his wrist; there would be no escape from his assailant through any regular force.

A glimmer of light on the wrist stayed his hand. A small charm bracelet wrapped around the wrist, adorned with various caricatures of dragons. Wayne’s familiarity with the bracelet kept him from attacking, but filled him with a certain measure of despair.

Cutting off the flow of magic through his focus, time resumed its regular speed.

Wayne found himself being yanked into the room. A hand on his back and a leg sweeping upwards flipped him up through the air. His grip on his tome wasn’t tight enough, it went flying as his back landed on a bed.

Even as cold fingers wrapped around his throat, Wayne didn’t struggle. He stared up as two steel-gray eyes looked down at him. The eyes matched his own. The two sharp teeth, however, did not.

“Hello Sarah,” Wayne said. There was no humor in his voice. No good cheer at seeing his sister alive.

Because she wasn’t. While her eyes maintained the same intensity they held the last time Wayne was in her presence, her complexion matched that of Serena. Her cold hand was the first sign of something being wrong. Her teeth only confirmed that suspicion.

Looks like I won’t be needing those spare masks after all.

“Wayne. I would say it is good to see you again.”

“It has been two years.”

“Hell of a time to visit.”

“Could be worse,” Wayne said. “Could be snowing.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes. Shaking her head, she moved back and released her hold on Wayne’s throat. “I take it you didn’t get my message?” she asked as she bent down to pick up the lost tome.

“Oh no. I got it. Loud and clear.”

His thick focus flew back over his shoulder and slammed into the wall.

Wayne winced at hearing papers tear upon it landing. That thing hadn’t been cheap.

“Then why are you here? I explicitly told you not to come. Someone needs to take care–”

“I’ve never cared about the dragons. I care about my sister.”

“Wayne,” Sarah said with a sigh. “Mom and dad loved–”

“I don’t need you lecturing me about them. I grew up with them, same as you. You know that I don’t like your crusade to carry on their ‘legacy.'” Wayne grabbed his tome, smoothed out the pages that needed smoothing, and incinerated the pages that had been torn loose in the throw. “Besides,” he said, “you didn’t get rid of the kin, did you? They can get along without you for a while yet.

“We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of time. If the government doesn’t nuke the city, the Elysium Order will. Standard operating procedure for lost-town scenarios does include a quick sweep for survivors, but they don’t actually care about people. Those that do get rescued will typically be inducted into their order. I wouldn’t put it past them to skip straight to scorched-earth for Lansing.”

“Since when did you become an expert on Elysium Order tactics?”

Wayne shrugged. “Been researching them lately.”

“Oh?” Sarah narrowed her eyes in his direction. “What priceless artifact do you want to steal this time?”

“You’re the last person I want to hear a lecture from. Don’t think I have forgotten about your hobbies.” Wayne stood from the bed and moved for the door. “We need to find a way out of the city.”

Wayne stilled as he felt a hand rest on his shoulder.

“You’re not going to mention it?” Sarah said, her voice so soft that Wayne had to strain to hear.

For a moment, he made no move. There was so much to do, so much to consider. At the worst, he had expected a deceased sister. Wounded at best. For her to have become a vampire had never entered into his fears.

“How did it happen?”

“Went to bed around eight on New Year’s Eve. Woke up in my bed with pointier teeth at sundown the night before last. Sent out the message a few hours later.”

“Two days?” Wayne turned to look her in the eyes. “And you didn’t willingly–”

“You think I’m stupid? Of course I didn’t.”

Wayne searched her eyes, looking for any hint of deception. He found none. Blinking, Wayne realized something else that was missing. “Your eyes are the same as mine.”

“What?”

“You don’t have the Blacksky eyes.” Wayne took one of her hands in his own, just for confirmation. “And you don’t have claws. What strain are you?”

“I don’t know,” she snapped, slapping his hand away. “It didn’t come with an instruction manual.”

“Have you fed?”

Sarah’s eyes went wide before she turned her gaze to the side.

Understanding, Wayne let the matter drop. He turned back to the door. “Nevermind. It doesn’t matter. You’re still my sister and you didn’t attack me. That’s all that matters. We can discuss your condition more after we’re safe. Or even on the way, for some of it.”

That said, Wayne threw open the door and stepped out.

His frown immediately deepened. “Zoe,” he said to the little girl wringing her hands, “where is Serena?”

The little girl spun to face him, taking a step towards him as she moved. Her step turned into a stumble as she retreated backwards upon seeing Sarah.

Watching his sister out of the corner of his eye, Wayne was pleased to note a hurt expression cross her face. Pleased because it wasn’t hunger or malice.

“She won’t hurt you,” Wayne said as he put on his kindest smile. “This is my sister, Sarah.”

Something–probably my smile–made Zoe take another step back.

“This is a survivor we found,” Wayne said for his sister’s sake.

“‘We?’ You dragged someone else into this?”

“A vampire that wisely decided against trying to kill me. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, she started out attacking me…” Wayne shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Where did she go, Zoe?”

“Something smelled good. Serena went to find out what.”

“Something?” Wayne sniffed, but couldn’t smell much of anything behind his mask.

“I smell it too,” Sarah said after taking a few breaths of her own. A dazed look clouded her eyes. “Blood. Fresh and warm. Lots of it too. More than a single person for sure.”

Wayne grit his teeth together. She just ate two people plus some of my blood. How gluttonous is that girl? “Whatever,” he said. “I told her to stay here. We don’t have time to go rescue her from an Elysium Order trap.”

Both of Zoe’s hands clasped around her mask. “It’s a trap?” she said with a gasp.

“That or a big fight going on. Either way, not something we want to get into.”

“But,” Sarah said, taking an unsteady step forwards, “but I need–”

Wayne clamped a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Sister or not, if I have to break your legs to get us out–”

Not having turned on his mental acceleration, Wayne didn’t have time to react. His sister wrenched out of his grip. An elbow found its way into the pit of his stomach.

Collapsing to his knees, Wayne tried to regain control over his breathing.

Zoe screamed as Sarah charged into a full sprint. Luckily for the girl, Sarah, and Wayne’s conscience, Sarah completely ignored Zoe in her rush to the door.

Vampire out of the way, Zoe walked up to Wayne.

“Definitely a trap,” he groaned out. “Both ate recently. I don’t believe that Sarah would go into a frenzy just because of a little blood.”

“You’re going to save Serena, right?”

Wayne rolled his eyes. Using Zoe’s shoulder to steady himself, he pushed himself back to his feet, rubbing his stomach as he went. “If she’s still kicking.”

Putting a hand on Zoe’s head, Wayne considered telling her to stay where she was. With the front door gone, the house wasn’t as safe as could be. He decided to keep her at his side in the end.

“Let’s go see if we can’t find a couple of vampires.”

Finding their wayward vampires turned out to be much simpler than expected. Zoe helpfully noted in which direction both Serena and Sarah had taken off running. From there, it was a simple matter of walking in a straight line.

The music helped as well.

Classical hymns blaring over half the town only reinforced the feeling that this was a trap. The music would attract what the smell of blood did not; thralls, ghouls, and possibly humans.

It certainly gathered a number of thralls and ghouls.

Smoke obscured most of his view, but what he could see spoke wonders. Humans stood around the edges of the park, all looking in, all watching. A ghoul would occasionally slip through and shamble towards the center. They didn’t last long, usually winding up torn apart in seconds.

A wide vat filled to the brim with thick red liquid sat in the center of Washington Park. Lights had been set up all around it alongside speakers and fans. The fans served to push around the soot-filled air more than clear it, but they did clear it enough to offer a slightly better view. Wayne had a feeling that they were to spread the scent around the city more than any sort of environmental control.

And they performed that task admirably.

At least ten vampires swarmed around the vat. Rather than drink from it, they were too busy fighting their competition.

Probably intentional, Wayne mused from his position atop the park’s tallest slide. He didn’t know of any way to poison a vampire, so whipping them up into a frenzy and having them fight each other was a decent way to cull the group to manageable levels. Then again, if anyone could find a way to poison a vampire, it would be the Elysium Order.

The plan would probably be more effective at night. More vampires would be awake and therefore there would be greater chaos around the vat. But daytime was safer for regular humans. Gathering all the vampires, thralls, and what-have-you to specific points gave the Order free rein to do as they please. If Wayne didn’t miss his guess, this would be the time when the nuns would perform their token check for any regular humans.

Which meant that the end of the city was drawing near.

Needless to say, he was beyond pleased that they had actually decided to check for humans. That gave him the time he needed to get everyone out of the city. Unfortunately, everyone currently included at least one of the vampires involved in the brawl near the vat.

Sarah, being a trained earth mage, was wiping the floor with her opponents. Literally, in some cases. She carried no focus but was just as effective at manipulating earth as she had been in life–which was to say: terrible. Still, it was a distinct advantage over the other vampires.

And it did confirm Wayne’s suspicions that vampires were entirely capable of thaumaturgy. Serena ought to be happy about that.

If she survived.

Thanks to her little invisibility trick, Serena was performing quite well. She would blink out of sight before appearing on the back of an attacker.

Wayne didn’t know what effects a vampire drinking vampire blood would cause, but he expected that he would be finding out shortly. So long as she survived.

Thus far, the two had remained on opposite sides of the vat from one another. They weren’t working together. Luck had kept them apart so far.

Testing who was stronger between the mediocre earth vampire-mage and the invisible vampire was not a current desire of his.

Wayne stood, cracking his neck side to side.

He’d just have to get them to stop.

“Nice mask. Yours go crazy too?”

Keeping a firm hand on Zoe’s shoulder, Wayne glanced to his side.

One of the thralls had the gall to walk up to him. A scrawny type with wide-rimmed glasses.

“No.” And that was it. Nothing more needed to be said. Wayne didn’t know how the kid came to be a thrall. Probably another sob story; not a thing Wayne cared to hear about. He already had enough sob stories on his hands between Zoe and Serena.

Zoe pressed close to him, holding on to the hem of his suit jacket. “What are you going to do?”

We,” Wayne said, uncaring as to whether the thrall heard him, “are going to destroy all that blood. It was set out by vampire hunters and I’m not interested in sticking around for their trap.

You are going to stay right by my side.” Wayne wasn’t about to trust the thralls not to kidnap the kid. “If I say jump or duck or run, you are going to jump or duck or run. No complaints. No hesitation. Understand?”

The kid nodded.

Wayne was fairly certain that this was the point where someone else would give her a confidence boosting ruffle of her hair. Wayne wasn’t someone else. He was Wayne Lurcher. Affectionate displays were far beyond him.

Besides, she had a mask of her own over her head.

“A trap?” The thrall moved closer. “Do you need help? I’m sure some of the others–”

Wayne silenced him by igniting a fireball. “And you can leave. You’ll wind up as nothing more than mince-meat if you come with me.” Wayne wasn’t about to trust the thrall anyway. It was too beholden to his vampire. If, even in the midst of their frenzy, his vampire shouted out some order or another, Wayne held no doubt that the thrall would die to carry the order through.

The thrall backed away, not taking his eyes off the fireball in Wayne’s hand.

After ensuring that the kid was keeping up with his movements, Wayne started wading out into the center of the park. For several steps, none of the vampires so much as glanced in his direction.

Twenty-five feet from the vat, something changed. Two vampires broke off their fight with each other and charged at him.

Slowing his perception of time to a crawl, Wayne had all the time in the world to step to one side, keeping Zoe with him. He nudged the closer of the two ever so slightly as the vampire ran to his side.

Amazing how a slight redirection of momentum can send a vampire crashing into another one.

With both vampires on the ground, shoving and struggling to disentangle their limbs from one another, Wayne was free to burn another prepared page.

A column of fire erupted around the two like a miniature volcano. It lasted only a few seconds, but by the time Wayne extinguished the flames, nothing but ashes remained. Ashes that the fans kicked up into more dust to fill the air.

Wayne took an instant to appreciate his mask. Breathing in vampire remains couldn’t be good for his health.

He felt a slight tremor at his side. Zoe had started shaking. Reaching a fireball-less hand down to her shoulder, Wayne gave her a reassuring squeeze.

“Don’t worry. Vampires of this caliber are not a threat.”

Unfortunately, more vampires were taking note of his presence. Three-way fights were harder to break away from, to Wayne’s great relief. Day old vampires might not be troublesome, but he wasn’t immune to being overwhelmed.

Wayne started forward again, increasing his speed even with Zoe hanging off of his clothes.

It would have been simple to launch a fireball from afar. Multiple fireballs, even. That ran the risk of destroying the vat and spilling the blood. Not something Wayne wanted. It would be much harder to destroy spread around the park.

Burning two pages, Wayne created walls of flames extending out and around the vat. It was a long shot, but he was hoping that the vampires would maintain some semblance of sanity and stay away from the fire.

Pushing Zoe into the fastest run her tiny legs could manage, they reached the vat.

A vampire burst through the firewall to his side. So much for that idea, Wayne thought with a groan. At least the vampire wasn’t Sarah.

It was, however, on fire. Wayne didn’t need to spend much effort in fanning the flames. Soon enough, the woman was a pile of ash.

Not wasting any more time, Wayne tossed a fireball up onto the center of the vat. As it flew, he burned another page.

Flames exploded outwards, doubling, growing, and heating. By the time the ball reached the top of the vat, he had a miniature sun bearing down on the liquid.

Foul and vile scents penetrated his mask as the blood vaporized under the heat. Zoe audibly gagged, though managed to hold down her lunch.

Then again, who knew when the kid last ate. She might not have anything to throw up.

“Come on,” Wayne said, breathing solely through his mouth, “we should back away until they calm–”

Wayne stumbled forward. His foot got caught in the ground as the earth lost solidity. He sunk into the ground up to his ankles before the dirt hardened.

A figure emerged from the flames. Trails of hot magic licked her clothes as she moved through.

Wayne immediately extinguished the fire. Vampires regenerated from just about anything, but fire damage took the longest by far.

While Sarah would probably forgive him even if the scars lasted a century, it wasn’t a chance he was willing to take.

Sarah opened her mouth in a scream. Her twin fangs protruded from her teeth, dripping with ichor. With blood-addled eyes, Sarah charged.

Unable to move his feet, Wayne was forced to hold his ground. He swung his heavy tome, making contact with her outstretched arm. Something snapped as her elbow bent the wrong way.

Not letting his sympathy get the better of him, Wayne followed through with an elbow-strike to her ribcage.

Again, something snapped.

Pain shot up Wayne’s arm. He accelerated his mental process to the max to take a good ten minutes worth of time just to scream internally.

His arm was broken. No doubt about that.

The only consolation was that he was fairly certain something snapped inside her as well. It wasn’t so much her durability that snapped his arm, it was her sheer speed that broke both their bones.

Working through the pain, Wayne brought his raised tome down on Sarah’s head. She crashed into the ground, face smearing into the dirt.

Wayne was a fire mage. Through and through. He had never cared about dalliances of air magic or the complexities of earth magic, and water magic was sealed away from him due to his affinity for fire. That didn’t mean he hadn’t learned anything from school or his sister.

Using the little earth magic he knew, Wayne freed himself and Zoe–who was in the midst of screaming–from the ground.

Sarah was in the middle of using her arms to push herself up. One arm, mostly. The other didn’t look like it would support much weight anytime soon.

Wayne directed a portion of magic over to his wayward sister. Her arm sank into the ground up to her shoulder.

His sister, though a terrible mage in general, still surpassed him in earth magics. She immediately started to counteract his manipulation of the ground under her arm. In her blood-addled state, she wasn’t that great at it.

“Sarah,” Wayne said, his voice as deep and as authoritative as he could make it. “I am your brother. Wayne. Calm yourself. Do you hear me? You must stop fighting me.”

He could see movement in his peripheral vision. Nothing had burst through his walls of flame since his sister, so their blood-lust may be subsiding. Or they were still too busy fighting each other.

“Sarah,” he said again. “Please.”

His sister’s struggling ceased. She lay flat against the ground with her face in the grass.

Wayne took a step closer. “Sarah?”

“I’m sorry.”

Blinking, Wayne shook his head. “I don’t give a damn about your sorrys.” He released his hold on her arm. “Get up and move. We don’t have time to muck about.”

Only when she finally started to move did Wayne start to feel the second coming of his arm’s pain. He knelt down, gritting his teeth, and tossed his backpack on the ground.

“Could you do me a favor,” he said to Zoe. “Find me a vial of milk-white liquid.”

At the younger girl’s staunch nod, Wayne moved up to his sister.

Before he could say a word, she spoke first. “Are you hurt?”

“Broken bone. Not a bad break at that. I have potions.”

“Of course you do.”

“You’re injured worse.” Wayne said, gesturing at her backwards-facing elbow. “And I’m hesitant to try potions on you.”

“Vampires heal right?”

A voice at his elbow sent Wayne jumping to one side.

“They do,” Serena said as she faded into sight. “There are plenty of thralls that just lost their master if you want a little boost to your regeneration.”

Sarah clutched at her side as she stood. A slightly disgusted look crossed her face. “I think I’ll pass.”

Wayne started to smile at her resolve. That smile disappeared as he watched her shamble forwards a step. “Reconsider,” he said to Sarah. “We need to be in top shape to escape.”

“Besides,” Serena said, “I’m not planning on taking on any thralls. Worthless beings that can’t think beyond their next hit. And if you’re not planning on taking any under your wing, then they aren’t coming with us. I don’t rate their chance of survival very high.”

Wayne narrowed his eyes at Serena, but slowly nodded his head in agreement.

Zoe chose that moment to run up to him, holding a vial in one hand and a backpack in the other.

Breaking the seal on his mask, Wayne downed the potion in a single gulp. The acidic taste left over in his mouth caused an involuntary shudder to wrack his body. Pain in his arm flared up almost immediately as the bone reset itself and started mending.

It would still be a few hours before he could use his arm. A few more before he should use his arm. But it paid to get the process started as soon as possible.

“Thanks kid,” he said, giving Zoe an awkward pat on her head.

While she had his bag open, Wayne reached in and pulled out his last two masks. “I don’t know if these will help against any more traps, but they won’t hurt anything. Put them on,” he said, holding them out to the two vampires.

Making some noise that Wayne assumed most teenagers made when excited, Serena accepted immediately. She slipped it on and proceeded to breathe as loudly as she could.

Sarah took the mask, but only held onto it. At his questioning look, she bared her teeth without smiling.

“Right,” Wayne said, understanding. “You hold off for a few minutes.”

With that, Wayne extinguished the flames around them.

Five vampires–not counting Serena and Sarah–stood around with an accompaniment of thralls. All looked like they had been waiting for him.

None looked to be in a fighting mood. Several were wobbling on their feet with droopy eyes–Sarah included. Many were injured to some degree.

Wayne kept his pages charged and ready as he looked over the crowd just in case.

When they failed to part and allow his passage, Wayne cleared his throat. “Vampires. This,” he thumbed over his shoulder at the vat–or where the vat had been before his sun atomized it, “was a trap set by those who hunt your kind. If you stay within the city, you will die. Again. Permanently.”

One stepped forward. “How are we supposed–”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Move at once or I will end you now.”

“Come now,” an older vampire said. She drew a sharp fingernail across her wrist. Blood dripped out, landing on the ground.

The thrall standing behind her leapt forward, tongue out. He buried his face in the grass and licked. Several of the other bystander thralls looked ready to join in.

Though he knew it was hidden by his mask, Wayne drew back his lips in disgust.

“Surely you want to serve a real master,” the vampire said, having continued to speak even as her thrall made a fool of himself. “I can provide so much more than that flat–”

Wayne had heard enough. Burning a page, Wayne replaced the vampire and her thrall with fire.

The screams filling the air caused Wayne to wince. The vampire had turned to dust in an instant, but her thrall was still mostly human. There would be a charred carcass left over.

He hadn’t even considered Zoe before igniting the two. Looking down, he was pleased to find Serena pressing her hands over Zoe’s ears while pressing the kid’s face into her chest.

Wayne gave a curt nod of thanks to the vampire.

He could tell that she was smiling even behind her mask.

“Anyone else have something to say?” Wayne called out as the thrall’s scream died off.

The remaining vampires cleared away in a flash, leaving behind a scattered group of masterless thralls looking somewhat dazed.

“Oh, me!”

Whipping his head back to his side. Serena–Zoe still pressed against her–moved right up against Wayne. She looped one arm around his, eliciting a small grunt of pain.

“I don’t want you to be my thrall,” she said with a slight husk in her voice, “but maybe something else?”

“Too young for me, kid.” Wayne said. He almost smiled at the pout visible behind her mask.

“Buut,” she said, drawing out the word, “I’m going to be sixteen forever. I’ll always be too young.”

This time, he actually did smile. Glancing at Sarah to hide it, Wayne gave his sister a slight nod of his head followed by a nod towards the thralls.

She sighed, but took off running without complaint.

Which suited him just fine. He wasn’t too interested in saying anything aloud with Zoe around. Though she probably heard anyway, he considered, she had only been a few steps away when Serena had initially mentioned it.

Shaking his head, Wayne turned back to the kids. Mirth over the previous conversation gone, he narrowed his eyes at the vampire.

“Sarah will return in a minute or two. We will leave as soon as she does. But first,” he slowed his perception of time and ignited a small fireball, “I want to know exactly who I am traveling with.”

To his surprise, she didn’t balk away or grow hostile. Serena leaned into him more than before, smile visible beneath her mask.

“You saved me from the Elysium Order’s trap so I’ll give you a little hint. I’m a few years older than I look.”

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005.003

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Walking through the streets of Lansing wasn’t that bad. Because of the smog, Wayne had been forced to drive at extremely slow speeds. As long as he kept up a brisk pace, walking would likely end up being faster in the end anyway.

There were a few drawbacks. Wayne considered himself far from the most athletic of people. Power walking the remaining mile or two to Sarah’s house wasn’t a huge issue, but he was starting to feel the strain in his legs. He had dropped his time dilation down several notches as well, which forced him to keep an even closer watch on his surroundings–doubly so without the protective shell of a car around him. Leaving his mental acceleration on would have made the walk take an agonizingly long time from his perspective.

At least he no longer had the rumble of the Impala’s engine drawing the attention of every vampire in the city.

After a mile and a half, he had yet to see another group of vampires. Something Wayne was immensely thankful for.

Part of that could simply be the time. Dawn shouldn’t be far off. While the thick smoke over the city would protect any vampires caught outdoors from the harmful rays of the sun, there was still a natural inclination to locate a safe area to enter a brief period of torpor. That still left ghouls and thralls wandering around, but they were a non-issue. Wayne had already torched a handful of the zombie-like slaves.

Wayne doubted he would be seeing many thralls out and about. Most vampires in the city would be sleeping until roughly an hour before sunset and their thralls would be watching over their slumber.

Sunset was long after when Wayne hoped to be gone from this place.

How exactly he was going to get out, Wayne still had no idea. Perhaps he could find a radio to call up Hicks and get him to open the gate. Then again, if Wayne were Hicks, he would have called up his superiors already to ask about the mysterious man who spoke of vampires and tossed fire around. Everyone in the upper echelon would deny his existence–those orders had been forged after all.

Maybe Hicks would get orders to detain and interrogate Wayne instead of outright killing him.

Eh, best find another way out. Sarah could just use earth magic to tunnel out, but Wayne wasn’t all that excited about being trapped underground for who knew how long–Sarah wasn’t the best at earth magic. Though, at least they wouldn’t be hounded by vampires while underground.

“So, since I’m really a vampire, that was real magic you were using?”

“Yes,” Wayne grunted, rolling his eyes. There might be one vampire underground.

He smiled behind his mask at the thought of a vampire six feet under.

“That’s so cool. Can you teach me? Please? Please?”

“Aren’t you feeling sleepy? Any instinct to go nap the day away?”

“Nope!” Serena–the name she had picked after Wayne commented that Patty was a silly name for a vampire–hopped in front of Wayne. She spun around with a smile and clasped her hands behind her back, walking backwards. “I’ve been feeling so good. I used to have an ache in my back, but it’s completely gone.”

“Good for you,” Wayne said, wishing the aches in his legs were gone.

He still didn’t know what to do with the girl. She would definitely be finding herself left behind if they had to find a way past the military. Wayne might wind up interrogated, but he had a feeling that any vampires with him would be taken apart for study.

Even if they got through the military with her in tow, the Elysium Order would find out. Being hunted for the rest of his life didn’t sound like much fun.

On the slim chance that they gave the Order the slip, what then? Let her loose in some unsuspecting town? Keep her like some kind of vampire pet? Neither choice was very appealing to Wayne.

There were no good solutions. The smart choice, obviously, was to end her. It would have been so easy back when she had attacked him. Looking at her stupid grin as she walked backwards made that option all but impossible now.

“You never answered me?”

Wayne gave the girl a questioning hum.

“Can you teach me magic or not?”

“No. Thaumat–”

Wayne paused, considering it a bit further than his gut reaction. Elves, goblins, and a whole slew of other races could learn thaumaturgy. It wasn’t like fae magic that was restricted to fairies. So, why not vampires?

“Maybe,” Wayne said, changing his answer. “Never seen a vampire use thaumaturgy before. But I’m not teaching it to you.”

“Whaat?” she said, drawing out the word. “Why not?”

“No time. It isn’t something you learn in a day or two. Besides, the only thing I’d be good at teaching is pyrokinesis. In case you haven’t noticed, fire doesn’t mesh well with vampires.”

Serena pouted with the strangest set of puppy dog eyes he had ever seen. The endless storm in the back of her eyes ruined the effect. “But you said that Blacksky vampires are the masters of magic.”

“Vampiric magic,” Wayne grunted. “Us mere mortals can’t use it.” Though, he considered, thralls can.

Wayne shook his head. I’ll incinerate myself before I become a thrall.

“I’ll admit,” Wayne continued. “Never met one of your kind before. Only read about you in books.”

“So,” she prompted when Wayne failed to continue, “what did the books say?”

Wayne sighed, not entirely certain that he should be telling her much. Sure, she was an ally at the moment. If she decided to side with other vampires, it could be dangerous to give her too much knowledge.

Of course, being only a day old, she likely wouldn’t be able to put much magic to practical use.

“You know the stories. Turn into mist, or water, or dirt–”

“Why would I ever want to turn to dirt?”

Wayne shrugged. “I’m no vampire. Don’t ask me.”

“I guess mist might be cool. What else?”

“Mental control of animals and…” humans, “other things. Invisibility, illusions, a whole bunch of nonsense with mirrors and other reflective surfaces, you can turn milk chocolatey.” Wayne sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Arcane beams out of your eyes and large-scale illusions are some of your strain’s specialties.

“Really, what can’t you do is the bigger question.”

“Arcane beams? What is that, like, lasers?”

“Like I said, I just read it in books. You’d have to…” Wayne trailed off with a growing frown.

The girl was staring at him. Intently.

Wayne’s book-free arm shot out, gripping her over her mouth. He yanked her head off to one side.

“Ow, ow, ouch!”

“If you’re going to try shooting lasers out of your eyes, don’t look at me. Not if you want to keep living. Or unliving. Whatever.”

Wayne released her face and started walking again, leaving her rubbing her cheeks.

“You wouldn’t be able to anyway. Vampires grow in power the longer they’re alive. You’re a day old.”

“Aww,” she whined as she skipped forwards to his side, “so I can’t do anything then?”

“No.”

She started pouting in the corner of his eye, but was otherwise silent.

Overall, she didn’t appear all that upset. Her temperament since drinking his blood had been jovial for the most part. Considering how upset she was immediately prior to her feeding, Wayne had to wonder if it wasn’t some vampire thing. Feeding on fresh blood released the vampire equivalent of dopamine or something similar.

Perhaps she was merely showing off a happy face as a means of coping with her lost humanity.

Or maybe she was always like that.

Wayne didn’t know and frankly, did not care. He wasn’t about to pry and inadvertently bring up poor memories. She hadn’t once mentioned her sister since he donated a portion of his blood and Wayne intended to keep it that way.

Without parking lots taking up space, the homes in the residential areas were a lot closer to the sidewalk. At the same time, they were spaced much further apart than the more commercial buildings. Walking around the neighborhood had a disturbing peace to it.

It was like taking a stroll on a foggy morning.

Except, there was no sign of life. No home had lights. No people walked around apart from the two of them. There weren’t any signs of cats or dogs. No barking or mewling. No birds tweeting. It was as if Nature herself had decided to leave town.

In that silence and in that smog, as they meandered through the town, a high-pitched whine shook the very air.

Literally. The air vibrated alongside the sound.

Wayne snapped his neck towards Serena so fast that he suffered a bit of whiplash. Jovial countenance gone, her face was dead set in a serious expression.

“Did you feel that?” she asked.

“It wasn’t you?”

“I don’t scream like that,” she said, aghast.

“Scream?” Wayne blinked. “That whining sound?”

One of her hands gripped the opposite elbow, rubbing it lightly. “It was a kid. In trouble, I’d reckon.” After giving a light shudder, she pointed off in the direction they had already been walking. “That way. And I,” she sniffed before dropping her voice to a murmur, “smell blood too.”

Wayne didn’t bother to point out that Serena was a kid as well. “Come on, let’s look into it. Stay behind me.”

“I’m a vampire, I can help too.”

Wayne ignored her, turning his brisk walk into a light run. He scanned every bush, every roof, and every window that he could see for any kind of movement.

It didn’t take long to find the source of the disturbance. A small, single floor home had its doorway kicked in. The tell-tale illuminated circles of a flashlight danced around through the windows.

Wayne pressed himself against one side the door. He almost jumped out of his shoes as Serena pressed up against him. She had followed so silently that he had been certain that she had remained behind.

Serena had the audacity to let out a short giggle.

Narrowing his eyes behind his mask, he pressed one finger over his lips in the universal gesture for silence. At her nod, he leaned around the entryway, peeking into the front living room.

There was a short and rotund man standing over a fireplace that had its covering grate thrown to one side. “Master will be so pleased we found another one.”

“And this one,” a female standing at his side said, “looks so tasty.” Her tongue darted out of her mouth, licking her lips. She was notably missing any sign of elongated canines. Merely a deviant thrall.

“Go away,” squealed a third voice.

As before, the air rumbled. Here it was far more violent than before. It was unmistakably a sign of magic, though likely performed without a focus. The slight rumbling of the air didn’t use nearly enough magic to do anything of any use.

Neither of the thralls seemed very concerned with the possibility of a mage around, likely because of the impotence of said mage’s attacks. They glanced at one another with mocking looks.

“You already killed the hag,” the male said. “If Master finds out you’ve been toying with his food…”

The woman moved fast, though not so fast as to make Wayne reconsider her thraldom. Her arm wrapped around the man’s neck. “Master won’t find out,” she said, pulling her arm tighter. “Will he?”

Gasping for breath, the man kept smacking his hand into the woman’s arm.

“Thralls,” he hissed towards Serena while they were making a good amount of noise.

Serena had moved to look in through the front windows. “I can take them,” she said.

Before Wayne could object, she vanished. For a moment, he thought she had teleported. Feeling her brush past him threw that idea out the window. His eyebrows crept up his forehead. Invisibility?

He didn’t have time to consider the implications. Inside, the woman had released the other thrall.

“Now that we understand each other,” she said, turning back to the fireplace. “Come out, little girl. I won’t hurt you, I just want to play a little.”

“Play with this!” Serena reentered the visible spectrum of light just behind the thrall. Before either could react, she jumped up on the female’s back. Her legs wrapped around the waist while her arms kept the woman’s arms from interfering, much the same way she had initially attacked Wayne.

Unfortunately for the thrall, she lacked the fireball in her hand to keep the short vampire from biting down.

The thrall back-stepped and tipped over the side of a chair, all with Serena’s teeth plunged deep within her neck.

Panic on his face, the male thrall lifted up a gun.

Wayne moved to act. He threw out a shield immediately in front of the gun, catching the bullet before it left the barrel. With no place for the gas to expand to, the barrel split in two, sending shrapnel into the man’s hand.

He sank to his knees, cradling his hand as he cried out in pain.

Wayne strode across the room in three large steps, barely paying attention to the broken-necked corpse of a woman lying on the couch. He kicked the thrall upside the head, knocking him out cold on the floor.

“Serena,” he said, “are you alright?”

The child-like vampire was still beneath the female thrall, teeth sunk deep inside the withering woman’s neck. Their fall had torn open her neck, spraying blood around the room.

Serena appeared to be reveling in it. She gave a thumbs up without removing her mouth from the thrall’s neck.

Going to have to burn it later, he grumbled to himself. Couldn’t have ghouls wandering around, even if they were subject to the whims of his current ally.

He turned his attention to the brown-haired woman lying on the couch. There was no hope for her. Her neck had been quite thoroughly snapped along with several knife injuries on her person.

Wayne gave the thrall at his feet an extra kick before turning to the fireplace. Kneeling down, Wayne found a soot-covered girl with hair matching the older woman on the couch. It was hard to tell what the rest of her looked like; ash obscured most of her features. All save for her deep green eyes.

“Go away,” she said, pressing herself against the back wall of the fireplace.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Wayne said, wincing as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Those were the same words that the thrall had said in a far less convincing tone of voice.

He reached up to his mask and lifted it off his head. The air wasn’t quite as bad inside, but he still felt an uncontrollable cough bubbling up in the back of his throat.

Pushing the feeling down, he gave the girl a small smile. “See,” he said, “regular teeth. I’m not a vampire and I’m not one of their minions.”

It struck him that she likely wouldn’t know about vampires or their teeth. If she had seen a vampire’s teeth up close, she probably wouldn’t be alive anymore. Or she’d be a thrall.

“Like her?” Came the unexpected response. Her finger stretched out, pointing over Wayne’s shoulder.

Glancing over his shoulder, Wayne’s eyes went wide.

Serena stood just behind him, slightly leaning over his shoulder. Her entire front was soaked with blood, especially around her wide smile.

It took a great deal of will to keep from conjuring a fireball then and there. After suppressing his initial instinct to fight, Wayne decided that Serena’s smile was of an encouraging sort. Like she was trying to help coax the small girl out from her hiding place.

Blood put a small damper on that.

Wayne slid between the two girls, blocking their lines of sight. As he moved, he mouthed to the vampire, ‘wipe it off,’ with a gesture around his own face.

Rubbing her wrist across her mouth and glancing at the liquid covering it, Serena had the decency to look shocked. She started furiously rubbing away at her face and neck, but stopped as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. Leaning in, she whispered into Wayne’s ear. “Can I have him first?” Her finger pointing towards the male thrall lacked the discretion of her conspiratorial whisper.

Sighing, Wayne rubbed his forehead. “Do whatever you want. I’m not your mother,” Wayne hissed back. “But do it out of sight.”

Again, Serena put on a bright smile. She skipped over to the thrall and started dragging him through a nearby doorway.

Wayne turned back to the little girl only to jump back at how close she was.

What was with everyone being able to sneak up on him?

“She’s going to eat him?” she asked with a strange mix of horror and curiosity. Immediately after her question, the girl seemed to realize that she was half out of the fireplace. Without delay, she threw herself back against the wall.

A fresh cloud of soot exploded out from around her, sending both the girl and Wayne into a light fit of coughs.

“Look,” Wayne said, pulling a fresh mask out of his backpack. “It will help you breathe easier.”

“Mommy,” she said between coughs, “was keeping the smoke away. She hid me in here, but those people…”

Great, Wayne thought. The girl was starting to cry. Unlike Serena, this kid had working tear ducts. Why does it always have to be kids? Handling kids was not his strong suit.

Wayne backed up, standing once again. Glancing down at the woman lying with a broken neck on the couch, he had a sinking suspicion that she was the mother. Probably shoved her kid into the fireplace and was setting up the grate in front of her when she was ambushed from behind. Without the thralls’ flashlights, the kid might have been overlooked.

Circling around the couch, he frowned. According to the kid, she had been keeping the smoke away. A mage perhaps?

It would explain the shuddering of the air.

But she didn’t have any foci on her that Wayne could see. There was a wedding ring, but touching it revealed that it was perfectly normal.

Stepping over the gaunt corpse of the female thrall, a glint of light caught Wayne’s eye. He reached down underneath a chair. His fingers found the cool touch of metal. Pulling the partially hidden object out, he found a short silver dagger in his hand.

This was definitely a focus. A decent one too. He conjured an experimental fireball at the tip and extinguished it a moment later. It was well crafted despite being somewhat old. Probably an ancestral foci, handed down from a generation or two back. Unless it was extremely well cared for, it wasn’t old enough to come from much further than that.

Wayne had always found daggers to be odd choices for foci. They really didn’t offer much over a wand save for an edge and a price tag. Their users tended to be the violent sort.

Shrugging, Wayne moved back to the fireplace. He flipped the dagger over, offering it out hilt first. “Here,” he said, “I’m–”

The girl reached forward and yanked it out of his hand, just barely managing to avoid cutting him. “That’s mommy’s!”

“I’m sorry. Your mother…”

Wayne trailed off as the kid started wailing.

Movement at the corner of his vision caught his attention. Serena strolled out of the other room, shirt absolutely soaked. With water, this time. She must have found a water bottle or a working sink.

“The kid is still under there?”

Wayne nodded. “Please help. I can’t handle kids.”

“Move aside,” Serena said.

Wayne complied without hesitation. “Careful,” he said, “she has a knife.”

Serena knelt down, brushing a strand of brown hair back behind her ear. “Hey there,” she said. “I heard some of the conversation. Your mom, huh? I lost my mom too.”

Wayne winced. He was fairly certain that he had more tact than that, but Serena’s words got the other girl to slow down in her crying. That Serena’s face looked to be on the verge of tears only made Wayne feel disgusted with himself. Forcing a sixteen year old girl to discuss her own hardships didn’t sit right with him.

“I mean, I’m pretty sure. My house is right in the middle of the fire. Even if they made it away from there… Well, there are bad people in town.”

“You’re a vampire.” The kid’s voice came out as a definite accusation. “Mommy said vampires are monsters.”

Serena just smiled, gliding a finger over her elongated teeth. “I am. But I’m a good vampire. I just made it so that the people who hurt your mom can’t hurt anyone else.”

“You killed them.”

“I ate them. They made a tasty snack.”

From his position next to Serena, Wayne watched as the kid’s eyes turned wide as dinner plates. Wayne immediately let out a sigh. At this rate, the kid would stay in the fireplace out of fear. He didn’t have the time to fish her out. If a mage here could be taken out from behind, Sarah could be in just as much trouble.

“You don’t look fat enough to have eaten two people. Where did it all go?”

Serena opened her mouth. She paused, patting her belly with a glance towards Wayne.

Wayne just shrugged. “Don’t look at me. Bottomless stomachs weren’t covered in any books.”

“Well,” Serena said with a slight huff, “it is true. But, the point is that you can’t stay here. Your mother would have wanted you to get out of this city. She would have wanted you to live.”

Serena held out her hand. “And we can help you.”

“You’re going to eat me too.”

“If she tries,” Wayne said as a fireball blossomed on his hand, “I’ll incinerate her.” He let the fireball linger for just a moment before he crushed it in his hand.

“Y-yeah. See?” Serena’s smile twitched slightly, not quite managing to keep it sincere. “I don’t want to be incinerated.”

Wayne felt somewhat bad about scaring the poor vampire. But as long as she didn’t try anything, they’d get along just fine. A little reminder wasn’t a bad thing. Especially with her little disappearing trick.

He wasn’t entirely sure how she had managed that. Stress induced power incontinence was all that came to mind. A day-old vampire shouldn’t be able to do anything like that. Then again, several things were odd about Serena. Aside from not being tired despite the smog starting to get a little lighter, she had said that she hadn’t ingested any vampire flesh to become a vampire in the first place.

Now he was regretting allowing Serena to eat the other thrall. He might have been able to answer a few questions. Unlikely, but the possibility had been there.

The kid crawling out of the fireplace interrupted his musings. Wayne moved to position himself between the girl and her mother. She didn’t need to see that.

“Okay,” she said. Wiping a huge smudge of soot on her cheek–smearing it with tear-stains–the kid looked to Serena. “I’ll believe you. I–” She broke down into a fit of coughs.

Wayne tossed the fire mask at the kid. “Put that on. It will help.”

Following his own advice, Wayne replaced his own mask on his face.

Serena put her hands on her hips. “You never offered me one of those.”

“You don’t breathe.”

She frowned, but nodded.

“Let’s get out of here. We’re almost to Sarah’s house, then we can get out of this city.”

As they started moving out, Wayne dropped a spark behind. In ten minutes, the house would be nothing more than a smoldering pile of charcoal, taking the two potential ghouls along with it. There was a chance the ghouls would rise before his spark went off–Wayne wasn’t sure on the exact time it took to ghoulify–but he doubted it.

Besides, he couldn’t exactly stick around to ensure the job finished. He’d rather spare the kid the sight of her home burning down.

“What’s your name, kid?” He couldn’t keep calling her ‘kid’ after all.

“Zoe.”

“That’s a nice name. I’m–”

“What?” Serena said with a huff. “Zoe’s nice but not Patty?”

“I never said that,” Wayne grunted. “Just never heard of a vampire calling themselves Patty.”

She huffed again, but didn’t stay that way for long. Zoe let out a small, muffled giggle that forced Serena into a sad smile.

“Call me Serena.”

“Wayne,” was all he said.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


005.002

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The good news was that there were few cars on the freeway heading towards the city, leaving the freeway mostly clear of enemies.

The bad news was that the outgoing lanes were bumper to bumper. The military had cleared away most of the ones near the wall–with a bulldozer, by the looks of things–but the rest were just blocking the road. They looked abandoned, but Wayne wasn’t about to let his guard down.

He kept one hand on his tome as he drove along. A constant trickle of magic left him ready for anything at a moment’s notice; whether that be a shield, a fireball, or something more.

It took ten minutes to reach the city proper. Every minute that passed just built up that much more anxiety in Wayne. He kept waiting for something to happen. For a vampire to jump out of nowhere and try to tear his head off. Perhaps a thrall would flag him down, pretending to be a regular human.

Or even a ghoul.

But nothing happened.

Which made a little sense. The garrison wouldn’t hesitate to put down anything that popped its head up. With the wide freeway and the stretch of cleared cars, they had quite the killing field.

Once he hit the city, Wayne started jumping at every shadow. The smoke filling the air from the half of the city that was on fire reduced visibility to about ten feet in front of his car.

Coughing lightly, Wayne decided he couldn’t delay any longer. He reached into the back of the Impala and pulled out a fire mask. The filter was only rated for three hours but he had brought along several spares along with three extra masks. It was somewhat claustrophobic, and the small window narrowed his view to a fraction of normal.

At least I won’t be getting the black lung, he thought as he slipped the mask over his head. He set a timer on his watch as well. With all the time dilation from enhancing his mind, he would surely lose track otherwise.

Mask secured, Wayne proceeded through the city at a snail’s pace.

Lansing was not an unfamiliar place. How could it be? Most of his childhood memories consisted of nothing but Lansing. Sarah lived in the city as well, and he had remained in-touch well into adulthood.

But driving through the smog-covered streets was something else entirely. The vague familiarness worked against him to create an unnatural sensation. Were there always so many side roads before the next major intersection? Did the street he needed to turn on even connect to this road?

It didn’t help that reading street signs was a near impossibility. And the cars littering the streets forced him to wind and weave around, nearly doubling the effective length of any one road.

And the noise…

Wayne shuddered as an inhuman screech tore apart the relative silence. It was far enough away to not be a threat, but that didn’t provide him with the slightest amount of comfort. The Impala was noisy enough that he would be very surprised if nothing had taken note.

That nothing had thus far charged out at him meant that whatever had noticed him was something smart.

A car wouldn’t just drive around a city like this unless the occupants were confident enough in their ability to handle vampires.

Wayne had confidence in his flames, but he would be feeling much better once Sarah was there to watch his back. Being alone was just asking for trouble.

Speaking of trouble, Wayne thought as he glanced out the side window.

The smoke had curled in the air. Like someone had run through it at speed. Not enough for a car. Perhaps a motorcycle, but those would be noisy.

And Wayne heard nothing but the rumble of his own engine.

Slowing his already tortoise pace down to that of a snail, Wayne ramped up his mental overclocking as he glanced around. A fireball started growing, flames licking the skin of his cupped hand harmlessly, all in the slow motion of his sped perception.

There it was. Wayne whipped his head towards another disturbance in the smoke. It was on the opposite side of the car. Scouting him out? Or more than one…

The human shaped figure disappeared into the smog. Even with time dilation, it vanished far too fast to get a decent look.

It had no elongated claws unlike the one at the fence, but the speed at which it moved was far beyond any regular human capabilities. There was no chance that it was a human. Likely not even a thrall. Not unless it was a very old and powerful thrall.

The lack of claws brought up disturbing implications. There were multiple strains active within the city, possibly working together. An event of this scale wasn’t from just a single cabal.

Seeing that the vampire was circling him, Wayne slammed his foot down on the accelerator. Smog parted before him as his vehicle surged forwards.

The vampire stood in the center of the road. His head turned in slow motion to face the oncoming Impala; a momentary deer-in-headlights look. That moment passed in an instant, even with Wayne’s enhanced perception. The vampire bared his teeth, showing off twin canines that protruded half-way down his lips.

Before Wayne could mow over the vampire, he jumped.

The roof dented inwards as something landed on top.

Wayne wasted no time in hitting the brakes.

A loud screech came from his uninvited passenger as the vampire rolled down his windshield. He stopped with his face pressed against the glass. One hand broke through the roof, arresting his momentum and keeping him from flying off the front.

Wayne lifted the fireball in his hand up to the hole. Flames erupted out the top of his car like a fountain of fire.

The vampire screamed and released his hold on the car’s roof.

A curse escaped Wayne’s lips as the flames spread over the hood of his car. The vampire had catapulted himself away, disappearing into the smoke-filled air. Clenching his fist, the fires extinguished before much damage could be done.

At least, before any burn damage. The hood was covered in person-sized dents, his window had cracked where the vampire rolled down it, and there was a hand sized hole in the center of the roof. He was starting to doubt the wisdom in bringing in his own car.

“Should have got a rental,” Wayne grumbled to himself.

As he looked around for any sign of the vampire, Wayne pressed his hand against the hole on the ceiling. He built up a large fireball and kept it hovering there, directing the heat upwards and away from his hand and his car.

If that vampire dared to come back, it shouldn’t be difficult to lash out with a tongue of flame in any direction.

For a moment, he actually considered setting the entirety of his car on fire. It was, after all, a well-known fact that vampires can’t catch things that are on fire.

But even if he kept the heat away from the engine and himself, losing concentration could result in his magical, heatless fire acting like regular fire, totaling the Impala in a few seconds. Potentially with him still inside. That was aside from the fact that he would have to leave the windows clear to see.

The windows were the biggest vulnerable point to something like a vampire. They had the strength to shatter them with their bare hands and the intelligence to use tools. If that vampire returned with a gun, he’d have to rely on his mental speed to erect a shield in time.

Hopefully, that vampire would decide to go for some softer targets before coming back. Wayne was a mage and had a vehicle separating him from the outside world. There had to be regular humans left in the city. It had only been three days and rounding up a good hundred thousand unwilling people wouldn’t be easy.

And there were some left. Though garbled, the message he had received from Sarah proved as much.

Shaking his head, Wayne continued his sedate trek through the city. Really, it shouldn’t take long. Normally, from the city-limits to Sarah’s house didn’t take longer than fifteen minutes. Lansing was not a large city by any standards.

The smog, the abandoned cars, and the vampires all forced him to take caution.

The fireball was extinguished as he actually had to grab the wheel. A bus sat almost perpendicular in the road, fully crashed into the entryway of a coffee shop.

Not exactly unusual given the state of the city.

More unusual was a second bus crashed into the buildings on the opposite side of the street, completely blocking off the road.

A loud crash from the direction he had come set Wayne’s hackles on end.

Turning his car around, Wayne made it a good twenty feet before he had to slam on his brakes. A car came crashing down from the sky. It skidded along the road, stopping only after giving the Impala a quick love tap.

A second landed next to the first, blocking the road.

Parking lots were still open on either side, but if the vampires were going to keep hunting him down, he would have to deal with them sooner or later. Wayne debated for a moment about the merits of staying in his car. If they were going to be dropping cars, he wasn’t too keen on being crushed.

Wayne shut off his engine, grabbed his backpack and tome, and opened the door. “Couldn’t you just take the hint and leave me alone,” Wayne grumbled as he got out. He wasn’t entirely certain if the vampires would hear him or not. They had enhanced hearing, but he was mostly grumbling to himself.

And they were a ‘they’ as far as he could tell. The two cars landed in quick succession. At least two vampires threw them. Those buses had not parked themselves, so there could be more than two, but he had been driving relatively slow.

His tome split open as Wayne started channeling magic into separate pages, preparing several more powerful attacks for an instantaneous release. He pointed his free hand around the road. Flame burst out of the ground before settling into faintly glowing embers, creating the shape of stylized flame emblems on the ground everywhere he pointed.

Everywhere just happened to be the sidewalks between the crashed cars and the buildings, a few points in the parking lot of a grocers, and at random intervals all along the street leading back towards the buses.

Traps set, Wayne turned all of his attention towards locating targets. He turned slowly, scanning every shadow in the thick smog. One shadow, behind the rooftop facade of the grocers, moved.

Wayne unleashed a stream of fire. It erupted from his hand like a stream of water from a fire hose. A very literal fire hose.

Within seconds, the entirety of the roof was in flames. A loud screech preceded a smoking person leaping from the roof.

Vampires, regardless of strain, tended to have a few distinct advantages over humans. Namely, strength and speed. Technically, one could say longevity as well, but that wasn’t much of a concern in a fight save for the potential experience a long life–or undeath–granted. Though Wayne couldn’t discern whether or not this vampire was the same as the one he had caught a glimpse of earlier, this one was not of the feral claw variety.

Any half-baked fire mage could easily negate the speed advantage of vampires through overclocking of the mind.

That just left strength.

Smoke trailed off the vampire as he ran, joining in with the ambient smoke in the air. He nimbly avoided all the traps in the grocers parking lot, thanks to his position above the grocers, no doubt. Both of his hands were clasped into tight fists.

Once the vampire came within reach, Wayne twisted on his foot. The high-speed punch went past his face, missing him by a hair. Wayne grabbed the arm and pulled downwards, angling all the momentum at the ground.

The vampire tried to catch himself by putting a foot out. Too far out. Wayne had no trouble kicking the vampire’s legs out from under him.

As the vampire fell to the ground, Wayne jumped back, gaining a little momentum by shooting a stream of fire from his fingertips as he sailed through the air.

That had the added benefit of torching the vampire.

Before Wayne’s feet hit the ground, he had already started scanning for another target. He kept the first in his field of view until the screams died off and the vampire lay still.

Two more vaulted over the crashed cars, one male and one younger female. Neither were of the clawed strain.

Wayne took three hops backwards, winding up with one of his preset traps between him and the two vampires.

One held up his hand, halting the other. He made a vague gesture at the ground. Whatever he was trying to say apparently got communicated, as the woman nodded.

Then they split up.

Wayne suppressed a groan. Tactics. If one wound up behind him, their speed would let them move fast enough to hurt.

Yet his lips quirked into a smile. The two were fighting a pyrokinetic. Only earth mages could contend with the sheer battlefield control that a fire mage could impose.

Wayne burned one of his pages.

He wouldn’t be able to catch both of them, so Wayne aimed towards the male. Best to take out the leader first.

A cone of hot coals spread out in front of Wayne. They started at his feet and extended out a good twenty feet, well behind the crashed cars.

The vampire slowed to a stop, looking down at the glowing ground. His eyes widened in slow motion as the glow increased in intensity.

All at once, the embers along the ground blazed to their full potential. A column of fire erupted, encompassing a good portion of the street.

The smile hidden by Wayne’s mask vanished as he watched the vampire leap out to one side. Flames licked the vampire’s jacket, burning it in places, but he seemed unharmed otherwise.

Unharmed and angry.

He twisted his head towards Wayne, spittle flying free as his lips contorted in a snarl.

His body blurred as he took off, leaving his companion behind in an attempt to close the distance.

An attempt he succeeded at.

Frantically backpedaling, Wayne burned another page to put a powerful shield between the two of them.

The vampire slammed into it, stopping, but shattering the shield in a single blow.

But it stopped him long enough.

The embers of Wayne’s trap flared to life, forming a miniature version of the cone of fire. This time, the vampire was in the dead center and stunned from his momentary collision with the shield.

Being stunned did not stop his screams.

Nor did it stop him.

Clothes completely on fire, the vampire jumped out of the flames. Wayne ducked under and stepped to one side.

Now there was a vampire on either side of him.

Wayne faced the closer target, the male, first. He burned another page to send off a wall of fire behind him. The other vampire could probably jump through unscathed, but would she?

No time to consider. The already on fire vampire was getting his bearings back.

Wayne stepped forward as the vampire turned around, a fireball bursting to life in his hand as he moved.

This time, the vampire backpedaled with fear in his eyes.

Maintaining the flames in one hand, Wayne burnt another page. That small fireball expanded to the size of a beach ball and it wasn’t stopping there.

Hot as the surface of the sun, Wayne launched the fireball straight ahead.

It didn’t go fast and it didn’t go far, but it didn’t matter.

The vampire tried to dodge. Even with his speed, there was no escape.

Tar on the street bubbled. A metal pole belonging to a street lamp warped and bent, falling to one side before collapsing completely to the ground in a puddle of molten metal. A wooden bench from a bus stop spontaneously burst into flames despite the miniature sun being nowhere nearby.

And the vampire…

What vampire? Wayne thought with a smile.

When the sun extinguished itself, not even ashes remained.

The only one granted protection from the intense heat of his sun was himself.

Wayne stumbled forward as something hit is back. Legs wrapped around his waist as a pair of arms encircled his shoulders. He ramped up his overclocking to its limits to give himself a moment to think.

To start with, Wayne decided to move a foot forwards. The impact had been at speed, and he wasn’t interested in falling into a puddle of molten tar. He might be protected from the heat of his own fires, and the residual heat, but jumping into a vat of boiling liquid was a separate matter entirely.

But really, what was the vampire thinking? Her arms weren’t in a position to break his neck. More like a position to bite down on his neck and feed. Even if it wanted to crush him, Wayne was willing to bet that he could get a fireball off over his shoulder before she broke too many bones.

So he did.

He aimed a ball of fire right where he felt a few fangs tickling his neck.

Unfortunately, the vampire saw it coming. She kicked off of his back, sending him stumbling forwards as much as it sent her backwards.

Neither of Wayne’s boots would be surviving the night. At least they kept his bare feet from the tar.

He whipped around to face his assailant, very glad that while ruined, his shoes weren’t stuck to the ground.

The vampire hadn’t relented. Had he pivoted around the other foot, he would have a fist in his stomach. Instead of that grisly demise, Wayne found himself to the side of an opponent with an outstretched arm.

Snapping his book shut, Wayne caught her arm and threw it straight up. He thrust the corner of his heavy tome straight into the center of her chest. A normal human would have air forced out of their lungs at the very least.

Vampires didn’t need to breathe.

But they were still slaves to basic laws of physics.

Stepping forward, Wayne put one leg behind hers.

And down she went.

One hand reached out, flailing in the air. She tried to grab his arm, but wound up grasping nothing. His enhanced mind gave him plenty of opportunity to dodge.

Once her back hit the ground, he picked up his foot and slammed it down on her chest. Something cracked inside, but Wayne didn’t care.

Dropping his foot within easy reach of her hands was a dangerous move, but Wayne was counting on the fireball aimed at her face to keep her docile.

“Your comrades are dead. A smart vampire would have run.”

She snarled again and reached towards his leg.

A portion of his fireball dropped, exploding right next to her ear with a rush of air.

The vampire shrieked, throwing her head to one side to put some distance between it and her.

Other than some hair singing, she wasn’t hurt, and that would grow back.

Actually, Wayne thought, would it grow back? Vampires regenerated from all kinds of debilitating injuries, but most of the older and more powerful vampires were bald. Hair not growing back would explain that.

Which meant that the vampires that still had hair were either incredibly new or extremely powerful and intelligent. Or lucky.

Tangent line completed in an instant of time dilation, Wayne focused back on the vampire before him.

“Answer my questions and you may live to see another day. Or night.”

She bared her teeth, glaring at him but making no move to attack.

A dark sky lay behind her eyes. Wayne looked beyond the surface to the raging thunderstorm beyond.

The sight gave him cause to frown. The Blacksky vampires weren’t a strain to be trifled with. The good news was that she had likely only been awake for a few hours at this point. Not nearly enough time to be a threat. Not enough time to realize her abilities.

And her next words proved that without a doubt.

“How,” she said, teeth gnashing. “How do you make fire?”

“Magic,” Wayne said with a smile. Not that she could see it. His voice came out oddly as it echoed behind his mask. “But I believe we were answering my questions.” Wayne let the fireball drop slightly for punctuation. “Who sired you?”

True, he was here solely for Sarah. That didn’t mean he wasn’t curious about the city.

“Sire?”

Very new then, Wayne thought, rolling his eyes. “Who made you, girl? Who turned you into a vampire? Who destroyed this city? Who is behind all this?”

“I…” She pinched her eyes shut, clenching her teeth together hard enough to make a noise. “My sister and I sneaked out to go to Chad’s party. Mom didn’t want us to go.”

Wayne frowned. Looking at her now, looking past her teeth and hungry stare, Wayne could see a young teenager in the light of his fireball. Maybe even preteen.

“We were on our way home. Something… an explosion, I think. It scared Nancy. She started running, leaving me alone. A man came up behind me. Asked if I needed help. I said no and tried to leave–his smile scared me. And then… I woke up strapped to a chair.”

Wayne nodded along, filling in the blanks with his own knowledge and imagination. “And then that guy drank your blood for three days before feeding you something?”

“N-no. I was scared and struggled. And I was strong. I felt good, like I had woken up from a refreshing nap. Except… I was hungry. So hungry. So I struggled and broke the restraints. Eric and Bart were strapped up too. I helped them and we left.”

That brought a deep frown to Wayne’s face. She could have been fed on for three days while unconscious, but she would have needed to be awake to complete the vampire transformation. There was magic in intent and feeding on the vampire’s flesh was one of those things that had to be done willingly. Not necessarily knowingly, but willingly. Handing a kid a chunk of meat and saying it was pork worked, but shoving that same chunk down their throat did not.

Unless all the books were wrong. Wayne freely admitted to himself that he was not an expert in vampires beyond what he had been taught in school.

“So,” Wayne said, “you get out and decide that attacking a car is a good way to start off your new life?”

“I’m hungry. Still hungry.” She started to reach up. Her eyes flicked to the fireball glowing in Wayne’s hand and she let her arms flop to her side. “I tried to eat food. Bread and water tasted like vomit. Raw meat worked, but it wasn’t enough. I ate so much but it never was enough.”

Great, Wayne thought, now she is crying. Not literally; as far as Wayne knew, vampires couldn’t produce tears. Her face was sure going through the motions.

“Eric was the one who said we were vampires. The speed, the strength, the senses. And the teeth.” Her hands lifted up again.

For a moment, Wayne was about to drop another portion of the fire, maybe on her this time. But her hands went to her face, rubbing away imaginary tears.

“Then we found you, and now they’re dead and you’re going to kill me too.”

Wayne stood there, fireball in hand and monster underfoot. He stood there, stuck in indecision.

He hated life stories. Everyone had one. Everyone had some sob-story about how the world was cruel and they deserved sympathy for their woes. Some might actually deserve it. The kid on the ground was probably one of those that did.

Dropping the fireball would have been so much easier had she just said that she didn’t know what happened. He would have incinerated her without a second thought and not lost any sleep over it.

“Vampires live forever, kid. Trust me when I say that I will put every moment of your eternity through hell if you make me regret this.”

He leaned down, watching the girl for any sign of attack. He undid the buttons on his suit cuff after extinguishing the fireball. Pulling his sleeve all the way up to his elbow, he exposed his bare arm to the girl.

“You will lean forward. You will bite down a shallow bite. You will stop when I say stop or…” His fireball reignited in his hand with a woosh of air. “Or this will be going through your skull. Understand?”

Held as it was in the hand he was offering her, the fireball ended up next to her face. It didn’t burn a single hair on her head. Wayne was far too good for that to happen.

Eying the fireball warily, the girl nodded.

Using the book in his hand, Wayne kept her from rising too quickly.

Not that he needed to do so. She made no sudden movements.

Wayne was surprised. He didn’t let it show, but it was true nonetheless. There were always stories about how irresistible a vampire’s first feeding was. How they often killed entirely on accident their first time because they couldn’t control themselves.

But the girl touched her long fangs to his arm gingerly. Feeling them on his skin tickled to a degree. Even when she finally punctured, they barely went in at all. When she started drinking, she pressed in more, but it was still far from what Wayne had expected.

Guess a fireball next to your head is a pretty good incentive to maintain your senses. Good to know.

“Stop,” Wayne called out after about five minutes of her lapping up blood.

She unhooked her fangs immediately. Her tongue ran across his arm only once before she pulled away. Licking her lips, she quickly cleared off any traces of her meal from her face.

Wayne turned the fireball on himself, cauterizing the wound. He had potions in his backpack, but that would have required rummaging through it, potentially leaving himself vulnerable to her. Cauterizing it left a brief moment of pain and an ugly mark. Nothing he couldn’t fix later with the proper potions.

“Now,” he said, standing. “You can’t leave the city. The military has the entire place fenced off and they’re killing any vampires that try to escape. I don’t know what the plan is for the city. Maybe they leave it fenced off, maybe they nuke it.”

That is, if the Elysium Order doesn’t nuke it first, he thought with a frown.

He really needed to hurry.

She started to open her mouth, but Wayne cut her off.

“Whatever. Not my problem. If you survive, don’t let your hunger dominate you.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“No, you’re–”

“You might as well just kill me now then. I can’t go home, I can’t see my sister. Not like this. And if they’re going to destroy the city, you might as well get it over with now.”

Wayne tried to pinch the bridge of his nose. His hand smacked against the mask. Sighing instead, Wayne shook his head. “Fine. Do whatever you want. But cross me and you’ll wish I would just kill you.”

He didn’t bother to mention that her sister was probably dead or turned as well.

Instead, Wayne ignored whatever the little vampire had started to say to find his car.

He found it right in the center of the second cone of fire he had ignited.

There wasn’t much left of it.

Wayne pinched his eyes shut, counted backwards from ten, before grumbling out, “I should have got a rental.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


005.001

Author’s Note: For those who missed Author’s Note 004, Book 005 is a short (five chapter) ‘prequel’ of sorts focusing on the Lansing Incident and Wayne Lurcher.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The year two-thousand. A bunch of people thought it was going to be the end of the world. Idiots, mostly.

Some quit their jobs, packed their bags, and went on vacation. Entire life savings blown in a week. Some ran around screaming like chickens with their heads cut off. Others paraded around with signs hanging off their chest stating that the ‘End is Nigh’ or some other such nonsense. As if telling people about the apocalypse would stop the coming end.

Then there were the profiteers. The ones who capitalized on the idiocy of others. They sought money, sex, and favors while hyping up the idea of the end.

By and large, both groups were in the vast minority. To everyone else, the world would keep on turning. ‘Doomsdays’ cropped up once or twice every decade. They became easy to ignore after seeing a few pass by without consequence.

Of course the year two-thousand would attract more idiots than normal. The media had been making a huge deal out of it for the whole year. A lot of the focus was given to computers more than any sort of supernatural apocalypse handed down by God. A somewhat legitimate concern, but even if those new-fangled computers had a slight hiccup, life would go on. The mundanes in charge of technology would figure out solutions before the month was out.

And yet, looking down at the smoke-covered ruins of Lansing, Michigan, Wayne couldn’t help but wonder if the idiots were right.

The idiots in Lansing were right, at the very least.

Fires still engulfed a good quarter of the city even three days after the incident first started. The screams could still be heard, even from far outside the city. Of course, most of those came from the much nearer wall.

Wayne turned his binoculars away from the burning capitol building, refocusing on the hastily erected wall.

There was some sort of command center made up of prefabricated buildings around the freeway. Guards patrolled on top with heavy machine guns while a sniper and spotter sat on an elevated watchtower. For a good dozen yards in either direction, a fortified wall had been built up. Guardsmen patrolled along the top.

The barrier continued beyond the fortified wall. Most of it was still chain-link topped cement barriers. How they had managed to encircle the city in a mere three days was beyond Wayne’s imagination. The mundane government must have had plans. Contingencies for a biological hazard released in a city-center.

Some of the creatures undoubtedly escaped before the walls went up, but if the Elysium Order hadn’t dropped everything to focus on Lansing, Wayne would eat his hat.

Around the outside perimeter, guardsmen patrolled in full battle dress uniform with their weapons held for action at a moment’s notice. High-intensity floodlights illuminated a wide field of land, giving ample opportunity for reaction time. The field itself was scorched. Burned and scarred. Nothing remained within forty feet of the fence save ashes.

The military was thorough, if nothing else.

A flicker of movement at the edge of the light caught Wayne’s attention. He swung his binoculars over to focus on the movement.

Standing in the shadow of a charred tree was a person. At least, a person shaped thing. The blood-soaked claws at the ends of his arm spoke of his inhuman status. His blank white eyes narrowed as one of the long-range spotlights swept past the tree. Not that he got caught. The slow sweep of the spotlight gave ample time for him to reposition fully behind the trunk.

The moment the light cleared the tree, the man moved. It was fast enough that Wayne thought it was teleportation for a moment. He had to dial black on his magnification just to keep him in scope.

Fortunately for the guards, one of them noticed before he could sprint more than three steps.

Bullets poured downrange without any regard for any collateral damage behind the man. A split second after the guardsman’s rifle belched out its payload, two more guardsmen joined in from nearby.

Supersonic bullets couldn’t be dodged once they were fired. Not at the distances they were fighting at. Not by a human.

The man down on the killing field was anything but human. He snapped side to side with that same near-teleportation speed. It looked like he could only use it in short bursts, and now he had started using it to go side to side rather than straight towards the fence.

Three more guardsmen rushed over and joined in the firing. Wayne wasn’t sure which one broke the camel’s back, but their combined force meant there was just too much lead in the air to be dodged.

The first bullet struck the man in the shoulder. Thick red blood exploded outwards. Even with that, Wayne knew it wouldn’t amount to more than a bruise in terms of actual effect upon his ability.

But the sheer kinetic force was enough to interrupt his movements long enough for a second bullet to hit him in the stomach. A third and a fourth followed. Before long, the man filled with enough lead to sink a ship.

Still he did not fall. Not until his head snapped to one side, brain matter exploding out both the entry wound and exit wound.

The sharp crack of a high-caliber sniper rifle’s report split the air as his body slumped to the ground.

Wayne frowned as he continued to watch the situation, wondering just what their plan was. The man might be on the ground, but sunrise was several hours away and bullets wouldn’t keep him down.

The guardsmen ceased firing, but kept their weapons trained on his body while reloading in shifts. One of them reached over to a radio attached to his shoulder.

Less than two minutes later, Wayne saw it. A jeep rolled up alongside the fence. All the guardsmen backed off, weapons still on the downed man, as a man with a gas mask jumped out the back of the vehicle. He carried three tanks on his back, all connected to a hose.

Once up to the fence, he jammed the nozzle partway through the chain fence.

A stream of fire erupted from the end, flew the twenty feet gap, and buried the man in napalm.

Already in torpor, the vampire didn’t even scream as he turned to ash.

As the flames ate the corpse, the guardsmen exchanged their spent magazines for fresh ones at the jeep and promptly resumed their patrols.

No one bothered to extinguish the flames.

That explained the charred woods at least.

“I wonder what the brass told the grunts?” Wayne grumbled to himself. The year two-thousand idiots were right about one thing, it was the end. Not of the world perhaps, but there was no chance of covering up this disaster.

“Ah well,” Wayne said as he replaced the caps on his binoculars, “had to happen sometime.”

Really, it was surprising that the supernatural world hadn’t been outed long ago. With the way technology moved, someone had to be out there recording something they shouldn’t.

Well, they were. Wayne had seen plenty of the supernatural in mundane news reports.

It helped that such things were typically dismissed as hoaxes without much investigation. Some, like the Cottingley Fairies, fell under much harsher scrutiny. In the end, even those had been dismissed as fakes.

Wayne had no idea what those fae were thinking when they allowed themselves to be captured on camera.

But this was a bit bigger than a few girls in the woods and a grainy camera. This was a city. A capital city at that. It wasn’t the most populated city, but it was big enough to demand answers. Real answers.

Shaking his head, Wayne jumped back into his Impala and slammed the door. Such concerns were for people in power. The scope of his goal was far smaller.

“Sarah, you better be alright.”

One of the grunts at a checkpoint built up in the middle of the highway a short distance from the prefab command center waved Wayne down.

Though he kept a hand on his tome for any emergencies, Wayne wasn’t really up to testing his reaction time against the eight guns trained on him. And those were just the ones he could see. Even with the few seconds of time dilation provided by his pyrokinesis enhancing his mind, it was far too easy to get hit by a bullet from somewhere he couldn’t see.

So Wayne pulled over at the checkpoint, keeping his motions as innocent as possible.

A young grunt, a private by the single chevron he sported on his uniform, stepped out of the small guardhouse and right up to the driver-side window.

“City is under quarantine,” he said as he waved his flashlight over the passenger seat and rear seats before stopping at the book on Wayne’s lap. “I’m going to have to ask you to turn around.”

Without a word, Wayne held up an identification badge and a set of papers.

The private took the forged documents and glanced over them. He spent a good two minutes looking between the identification and Wayne. “Major Lurcher?” At Wayne’s nod, he turned his attention to the papers.

Wayne had to fight to keep the smile off of his face as the private’s eyes went wide.

“I-I think I need to call this in.”

“Then get to it, Private Mhenlo,” Wayne snapped, taking his name from the tape above his left breast. “I don’t have all–”

A crackle of distant gunshots cut Wayne off.

Wayne made a vague gesture off towards the direction it came from. “Make the call, private. And make it quick.”

“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” The private gave a sloppy salute as he half ran into his little guardhouse.

Before the door could slam shut, Wayne extended a small thaumaturgical shield out, catching the door and keeping it from closing fully. He then watched through the window as the private picked up a phone.

“Sir,” his voice came through the crack in the door, “I have a Major out here requesting entrance.”

There was a slight pause as the other end of the line replied.

“No, sir. Entrance to the city itself. He’s–”

“Yes, sir.”

“No, sir. No armor or even a uniform. No insignia either. He’s wearing a sold black suit with a flat-topped hat.”

“No, sir. He’s alone. Had a thick book though. I think,” he paused, glancing out the window. As soon as he noticed Wayne watching him, his back went straight and he looked away. “I think he’s black-ops. Men-in-black or something, you know?”

“Crazier than what’s been trying to escape from the city?”

“Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again. I’ll wave him through.”

With that, the private hung up and rushed back outside. The soldiers around the guard post apparently got a few orders over radio by the time the private made it to the Impala. They promptly pulled their weapons off of Wayne, though they kept ready and alert.

Hard to blame them for being paranoid with the disaster in the city behind them.

“Alright, sir. Captain said he wanted to meet with you. He’s up at the larger building at the left. Said he’d meet you at the entrance.”

“Thank you, Private Mhenlo.” Wayne retrieved his papers from the kid.

Stepping away from the Impala, the private touched his fingers to the brim of his hat.

Wayne gave a half-hearted return salute as he pulled forwards. Not too fast, he didn’t want to spook the guards into shooting him. Thankfully, he made it without incident.

It was good that the military had created a large and movable gate over the highway as opposed to a solid wall. The city itself was still far enough away that walking would have taken far too long. He had already delayed enough through simply not hearing about the situation for a day and a half. Hopefully the roads wouldn’t be jam-packed with other cars.

Still, the gate didn’t open. Grumbling at having to meet with some officer, Wayne shut off the engine and got out of his car. He kept his focus tucked in the crook of his arm.

Outside the larger building, one of the two guards opened the door. Neither saluted as Wayne walked past, but he didn’t expect them to. While not a part of the army, Wayne was still fairly certain that saluting out of uniform wasn’t a thing.

A thing that the captain–based off of his insignia of double silver bars–who was standing at attention within the building apparently hadn’t heard about.

Wayne had to give the same half-hearted salute just to get him to relax.

“Once the road is clear of any hostiles,” Wayne said, half throwing his papers at the captain, “you’re to open your gate and allow my vehicle through.”

“I can’t–”

“You can and you will. Your orders are to keep anyone, or anything, from leaving the city. Unless something has changed, you have no orders against allowing entry.”

It was a bluff. A huge gamble. But even if the man’s orders had been phrased as ‘not letting anything in or out,’ Wayne was getting into the city one way or another. If that meant fighting through a small contingent of armed forces, so be it.

After a tense moment of staring at the middle-aged captain, he finally sighed. “These papers say that you’re attempting a VIP extraction. I can’t let you back out.”

“That isn’t something you need to concern yourself with.” Unfortunately. Wayne didn’t quite plan that far ahead. Something would work out, even if it did end up with Sarah using her earth magic to burrow out of the city. There was also the river running through the city. It would probably be less defended than roads. “We received word of the individual being still alive and must attempt the extraction.”

“With all due respect, sir, you’re going to get eaten alive out there. Literally. Before we finished setting up the wall, two of my men…”

He shook his head, glancing down at the floor. “We probably didn’t need to burn the bodies, though we did anyway of course. Orders are orders.”

“It was good that you did,” Wayne said honestly. “Those killed by vampires have a habit of not staying dead. But don’t concern yourself with my safety. I am what you might call a specialist in these sorts of matters.”

Despite continuing to speak, Wayne was relatively certain that Captain Hicks hadn’t heard much after a certain word.

“Vampires, sir?”

Wayne grimaced at the captain’s tone. He should have just kept his mouth shut.

“Things have been crazy here, but there is no need for jokes in such poor taste.”

“I am entirely serious,” Wayne said, voice dropping a few notches. “Though you likely haven’t been fighting many. Ghouls and thralls for the most part. The smarter vampires would send such minions to your walls to probe for weaknesses.”

“Ghouls? Thralls? Sir, I-I hate to ask. Are you feeling alright?”

Wayne sighed. This conversation was going on far too long already. He needed to get into that city. If the captain decided to shut him out on the chance of him being crazy…

Magic channeled through his tome, forming a spark in the air between the two. Above Wayne’s open palm, a cool fireball formed. No real heat emitted save for a pleasant warmth, like moving from shade into the sunlight on a chilly day.

Captain Hicks took a step back, hand going to his side for his pistol.

Wayne extinguished the flame before the captain could draw it. Just in case, he erected a very visible thaumaturgical shield between the two.

“Ghouls,” Wayne said, raising his voice. “Created by death through exsanguination of a human by a vampire. They’ll follow the vampire’s orders through a mental link, but aren’t much better than zombies. You’ve seen the movies, right?”

Wide-eyed, the captain nodded. His pistol was out of his holster, but it was still aimed at the floor with its safety on and his finger on the trigger guard.

The two guards that had been standing outside burst into the room along with another soldier from behind the captain. All started with their weapons trained on Wayne, though lowered them as the captain waved them off.

“Thralls are humans given enhanced durability and limited regeneration, plus a few other bits and bobs, through the ingestion of a vampire’s blood. They retain their mental faculties, but it is addictive to the point where only those with great mental fortitude will actually disobey a vampire’s orders.”

“And the vampires themselves. Inhuman strength, speed, and stamina. They’re magic capable without exception and undying save through complete destruction of their bodies, typically through flames. They create more through a small ritual involving drinking a human’s blood on three separate nights followed by eating of the vampire’s flesh. Though any fresh ones are likely ignorant of their more supernatural abilities, or simply not powerful enough to make use of them yet.”

“That makes sense,” the captain started, slowly. He reached out and brushed his fingers across the bubble surrounding Wayne as if checking that it was actually there. “We’ve had several close calls tonight with infected reaching the fence. I’ve had to double up patrols.”

Wayne nodded. “And it is the third night.”

An uneasy silence settled over the captain and his guards.

Feeling that he wasn’t in immediate danger of being shot, Wayne toned down his shield to a low shimmer. Just enough to stop a few bullets and still have time to power it up with his mental acceleration active.

“Now,” Wayne said, snatching his forged papers out of the captain’s hands, “if you will be so kind as to open the gate. I have a VIP to collect.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll… If you don’t mind my asking, how did this happen? If these creatures were known, shouldn’t there have been plans in place? Someone should have said something. Stopped all this from happening.”

Wayne suppressed a sigh. The captain’s anger wasn’t exactly unfounded. Maybe he knew someone inside the city as well. Shaking his head, Wayne answered, “Normally, vampires are mostly harmless. They don’t like to make waves for fear of being hunted down. A meal here or there will usually leave someone feeling anemic at most with few memories of what happened the night before. Mostly harmless.

“As for how this blew up into a city-wide disaster, I don’t know. People at higher pay-grades can figure that out. I’m just a soldier.”

There, increase camaraderie by likening myself to them. Blame failures on the higher-ups.

Captain Hicks shook his head. “This whole situation is fubar.”

“No arguments there, Captain.”

“Right.” The captain gripped his radio and pressed down on the button. “Attention, this is Captain Hicks. We’re opening the gate.” He glanced around Wayne’s shoulder to look out the window. “One Chevrolet Impala will be driving towards the city. The vehicle is not a target.”

Releasing his radio, the captain looked up to Wayne. “I hope you know what you’re doing, sir.”

“So do I.” Wayne extinguished his shield as he turned to the door. “So do I.”

Jumping back into the Impala, Wayne revved the engine as he waited for the gate to open.

A series of gunshots echoed out very near. Likely right on top of the wall. The loud rushing wind noise of a flamethrower sounded soon after, illuminating much of the wall at the same time.

The captain walked up to his open window and leaned over. “You’re clear, sir. Good luck. I hope you get out safely. It’d be a shame to lose more good men to this nightmare.”

Wayne nodded. “Best you just forget about me, captain. I’m sure you’ll sleep better not wondering what happened to me.”

“I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep for a long while. Even if they are zombies or vampires or whatever, they’re still American citizens. Or they were.”

Soldiers with flamethrowers moved up to the gate, leaving just enough space for a car to slip through. Something akin to an air horn went off three times and the gate started moving at the end of the third.

“Welp,” Wayne said, “good luck with your job, Captain Hicks. Give ’em hell.”

Captain Hicks stepped back and saluted Wayne as he peeled off towards the city.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.027

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe pinched the bridge of her nose.

Wayne had to return soon with news.

Between Devon muttering to himself and the constant whining of the demon infesting Shalise’s body, Zoe was about ready to hog-tie the two of them and gag their mouths. Especially Shalise. Or Prax. Whoever it was. Keeping Shalise’s body available was a must.

The worst case scenario would be that entity deciding to return to that giant castle before Eva showed up.

Zoe wasn’t entirely certain that she could blame it if it decided to leave. At least the castle likely had seats to rest on. The tiny island they were currently standing on lacked such niceties. Her options boiled down to standing on the beach and getting sand in her shoes or sitting on the beach and getting sand everywhere else.

Not that Prax seemed to mind. It had–thankfully–accepted Zoe’s suit jacket, giving Shalise’s body some privacy. But he had otherwise just sat down next to the small tree in the center of the island.

“This domain,” Prax said, interrupting Zoe’s train of thought, “is pathetic.”

Zoe sighed. She knew she should interact with him, if only to keep him here. Couldn’t it be Devon’s turn?

A quick glance at the demonologist revealed him to be inspecting a handful of sand. Quite intensely, in fact. As if it were a handful of gold.

Frowning, Zoe looked down at her feet. Many things about Hell interested Zoe. Enough so that she was, frankly, overwhelmed. There were so many places to start. Especially around the water and the transportation method between domains. Overall, the feel of the place was very similar to Ylva’s domain. Which made sense given that hers was literally Hell on Earth.

With all the many things that interested her, the sand was not one of them. As far as Zoe could tell, it wasn’t significantly different from any other sand she had seen in her life. Perhaps Devon’s demonologist experiences lent some insight into the matter that she lacked.

When everyone was back home, safe and sound, Zoe was considering returning for a research expedition. No further than Eva or Ylva’s domain, of course. Though Eva’s–Zoe glared at Devon–treatments were upsetting, Eva’s domain provided a relatively safe location to poke around that wasn’t connected to Earth.

Blinking, Zoe realized that Devon was not about to humor the demon inhabiting Shalise’s body.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Prax. This place is plenty interesting to me,” Zoe said, looking out over the endless sea of black liquid.

“Of course it is to you, mortal,” it said as if the word were an insult. “But can you honestly say that this tree,” it slammed Shalise’s elbow back against the trunk, “is more glorious than my castle?”

Wincing at the strike, Zoe simply shook her head. “It has a certain humbleness to it.”

“Wrong. It has the stench of a demon who knows nothing. A demon who cannot control their own domain. Even a hellhound can turn its domain into a land of crags and molten rock.”

“Perhaps she likes the minimalistic atmosphere of the beach.”

“Unlikely,” Devon cut in. “Eva’s been here once before and then only for an hour or two. In her report to me, she didn’t mention anything about even attempting to alter its appearance.”

“Only once before? What–” Prax cut off. A moment later, Shalise’s eyes widened to their fullest. “A human? With a domain?”

Zoe smiled. Not at his words, per say. No, she smiled at the small sign that Shalise was still in there somewhere. And apparently communicating with Prax.

It did such things every now and again. Knowing their names for instance. At first, Zoe had worried that Prax simply had all of Shalise’s memories. Things like being surprised by whatever had cut him off implied otherwise.

“I will believe it when I see it,” it said, crossing Shalise’s arms. After a brief moment, Prax’s expression twisted into a scowl. “And you are expecting this human to be able to help our situation?”

“It’s worth a shot,” Zoe said. “You said your domain was acting up because of your bonding with Shalise. What harm could there be in letting Eva try in her domain?”

“If only you knew. Though I suppose there might be some merit in making an attempt. At the very least, this human is inexperienced in the ways of Hell and therefore far less likely to enslave me, toy with me, or otherwise ruin the rest of my existence.”

“Is that much of concern?” Zoe frowned. “Arachne and Eva don’t have any qualms about being in Ylva’s domain. Catherine got in and out with only a light interrogation.” Not to mention all the rest of the ‘plain old boring mortals.’ Zoe had been inside plenty of times and even invited Ylva to live at her apartment for a time. Nothing happened to any of them.

Nothing except the rings, Zoe thought, moving one hand to cover the ring she had taken to wearing every day.

“You mentioned two of those names earlier. I believe the context was something about walking into a talkina’s domain?” Prax actually shuddered. “Clearly they lack the sensibilities of proper demons. You’ll probably never see them again.”

“Eh,” Devon grunted. “Our resident hel has taken a liking to the girl, Eva as well, if I’m not mistaken. If they’re not back soon, I’d bet money that she will find a way to resolve it herself.”

“And how long is that going to take?” Prax said, tapping a finger against Shalise’s elbow. “I could make further attempts on my own and possibly solve it before anything happens here.”

“At the very least,” Zoe said, “we should wait for Wayne to get back with news from Ylva and Nel.”

And hopefully that will be soon.

This whole operation could have been planned better. They knew that Genoa’s group was having issues. If she hadn’t just run off, blind to all except her daughter’s safety, then they might not be in this mess.

But there was no set time-frame for Wayne returning. And Prax’s impatience was clearly growing with every passing minute.

“Finally,” Shalise’s oddly accented voice said.

Zoe blinked. It took her a moment to realize what Prax meant.

That moment ended when Eva landed in the sand nearby, sending a few grains up into the air from the impact.

A heavy thud behind Zoe almost knocked her to the ground. She turned just in time to be pelted by falling sand. Zoe flicked her dagger, catching most of the debris on a hastily erected shield.

The cause of the shower of sand was a full-sized Arachne. In her arms…

“Oh no,” Zoe said.

Arachne shrunk down to her humanoid form, laying Genoa against the ground as she did so.

Eva brushed past Zoe and elbowed Arachne out of the way, sliding on her knees the last few feet before stopping at Genoa. The black dagger teleported from the hilt against her back to her hand. Without an ounce of hesitation, she pressed the dagger down into an arm-sized hole in Genoa’s chest.

Zoe took a step forward. “Eva–”

A light thump at Zoe’s side cut her off.

Juliana lay face down in the sand, groaning lightly. Using a single hand, Juliana pushed herself up. Upon seeing Eva and her mother, Juliana rushed over without taking a second to brush herself off, half limping as she ran. She shoved Arachne to the side in order to kneel down opposite from Eva.

The demon’s growls went unnoticed by either girl.

“Mommy,” Juliana said as tears streaked down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

“She’s still alive,” Eva said, her face scrunched up in concentration. “I can keep her blood moving and keep her from bleeding out, but her heart and lungs… I need potions. At the very least.”

Almost as if by instinct, Eva reached down to grab a small satchel at her side. It was a small brown potion satchel that Zoe had seen on Eva’s person relatively often during her first year. She couldn’t quite place when Eva had stopped carrying it, but she knew one thing for certain.

That satchel had not been there before she started speaking.

If Eva noticed the same, she did not comment. Instead, Eva rummaged through it before selecting three vials. A light-blue general remedy potion, a yellow blood stimulant, and a dark purple that Zoe didn’t recognize.

Zoe’s eyes widened as Eva uncorked the light-blue potion.

“Stop.” She almost slipped in the sand in her haste to stop the vial from reaching Genoa’s lips. As soon as she took hold of Eva’s arm, Zoe said, “you just said that she is having heart problems. You could kill her with that.”

“Considering the fact that I am essentially her heart at the moment, I don’t see how it could make things much worse.”

“Just…”

Up close, Genoa looked a lot worse than she did from afar. Her wound was mostly clean–likely thanks to Eva actively controlling her blood–but the sheer size of the hole in her chest was staggering. Clean as it was, Zoe could see the sandy beach on the other side. Her breathing came out as shallow, strained wheezes.

“Just keep her alive,” Zoe said. “Wayne will be here soon. Let him pick the potions.”

He had better be here soon. Even with Eva managing her blood, Genoa didn’t look like she could hold on much longer.

As if reading her mind, Eva glanced up at Zoe. “Don’t worry about her breathing. Anywhere it touches air, I’m spreading out the blood into very fine strands. It should be getting more than enough oxygen to keep her alive and well. Her shallow breaths are more out of psychological habit than need.”

“Still worrying,” Zoe said through pursed lips.

Eva nodded. “I’d much prefer her healed sooner rather than later. I read the book I got that tidbit of knowledge from way back when I first started blood magic. Hopefully I’m not misinterpreting it or anything.”

Zoe’s lips pursed firmer as she gave a curt nod. “I hope so too.”

Devon had walked up at some point during her brief conversation with Eva. He knelt down beside Genoa.

For a moment, Zoe was going to rescind some of the disdain she felt for the man regarding his treatments for Eva. Instead, she only felt her disdain grow as he ignored the wounded mage-knight to inspect the satchel of potions.

She was curious as well, but there was a time and a place for research and this was neither.

Ignoring the despicable man, Zoe maneuvered around to kneel at Juliana’s side.

Placing one arm around her shoulders was the trigger.

The floodgates opened.

Juliana clutched at Zoe’s shirt. Her other arm hung limp at her side. She pressed her face into her chest and started sobbing.

“Shhh.” Zoe gently brushed a few stray blond strands out of the younger girl’s face. “Your mother is going to be fine. She’s survived so much. A little hole in her chest isn’t going to stop her.”

“It’s all my fault.”

“No. You couldn’t have known that Za–”

A sudden cough from Eva stole her attention. Slowly shaking her head, Eva gave a quick nod back over her shoulder.

Zoe blinked.

Standing just behind Devon was the sharp-dressed, golden eyed man she had met in Tom’s bar almost a year ago.

“Couldn’t have known what, Zoe?”

Devon let out a high-pitched yelp. Dropping the potion bag, he disappeared, reappearing on the opposite end of the island.

Behind Zagan, Shalise–no, Prax sat against the tree, remaining utterly still with a look of horror on Shalise’s face. Probably hoping that Zagan wouldn’t even bother glancing in that direction.

How long had he been standing there? Zoe wondered. Eva, Arachne and Genoa, and Juliana had all made noise upon their arrival. But Zagan had just been standing there, creeping behind her.

Zoe pulled Juliana closer as she tightened her grip on her dagger. “Zagan,” Zoe spat.

The devil smiled. “Come now, aren’t we on friendlier terms than that?” He gave an exasperated sigh. “Not a single person calls me Rex.”

If he thought his little play-acting was cute, he was wrong. Zoe had seen elementary school plays with better acting. Though maybe that was intentional, Zoe thought, frowning. “Leave, Zagan, you are not wanted here.”

“On the contrary, young Miss Rivas was the one to summon me here.”

Juliana stilled, though offered no protests.

“And,” he continued, “I will admit that I invited myself to Eva’s domain. However, it was with only the best intentions in mind.”

“I’m sure,” Zoe said. If he picked up on her sarcasm, he didn’t mention it.

“As long as I am repaying one favor, I might as well get them both done within one day. Less work, yeah?”

He started to turn.

Devon blinked again, this time straight over the water. There was a light splash and he was gone. He didn’t resurface.

Probably fleeing to Ylva’s domain. Coward.

But Zagan paid him no mind. He focused instead on Shalise.

Prax stood up and ran. Shalise’s muscled legs hit the sand, sending up nearly as much debris as when Arachne had landed. Being in the center of the island, it didn’t matter which direction Prax chose to run in. The demon didn’t need to think about it for a second.

Prax chose the direction that led away from Zagan.

It didn’t get very far.

Without the slightest motion on Zagan’s part, Prax was facing backwards. It took four steps before it realized that it was now running directly towards Zagan. Unfortunately for Prax, he didn’t realize in time.

Zagan reached out and gripped the edges of Zoe’s suit jacket that Prax wore.

“Praxtihr. You’re out of your cell.”

“What do you care, Zagan? You are not in the Keeper’s employ.”

“That is King Zagan to you, wretch.” He tilted his head to one side before straightening his neck again. “Or Great King Zagan. In fact, go with the latter.”

“You think you are so high and mighty. The only reason you are not a guest of the Keeper is because he could not find a cell that would hold you.” Prax hocked back and spat in Zagan’s face. “But it is just a matter of time. One of us will topple you.”

Holding Prax in the air with a single hand, Zagan wiped away the saliva with his free thumb. He looked down at it, turning his head slightly. As he watched, the liquid vanished.

The single gold eye that Zoe could see from her angle was glowing like a spotlight. Trails of golden smoke leaked from the corner of his eye.

“What is the phrase? Oh yes.” Zagan threw Shalise to the ground. Her head hit the sand. Before it could bounce off, Zagan planted one shiny shoe on her head, grinding her face into the ground. “Don’t impugn my honor. I am the pinnacle of demons. The perfect model of demonic citizenry. Pathetic peasants such as yourself cannot hope to measure up to my magnificent being. There is a reason I am King.”

As soon as Shalise hit the ground, Zoe had started to pry Juliana off of her. Once she got to her feet, a lightning bolt crackled out of her dagger. One of the strongest she had ever fired. The brilliant light illuminated the relatively dark domain to such a degree that she had to shut off her enhanced vision lest she go blind. The normally muted sound of thaumaturgical lightning thundered so great that it threatened to shatter her enhanced eardrums.

For all the power, all the strength, all the magic that she put behind her bolt of lightning, it did nothing.

Zoe watched in a combination of dismay and confusion as her bolt sailed straight past Zagan. The endless sea of black water lit up as the bolt disappeared into infinity.

I missed? Zoe blinked. It wasn’t possible. She was a class one air mage. Redirecting natural lightning to strike what she desired was within her power. A human-sized target ten feet away should have been child’s play.

Shaking her head, Zoe tightened her grip on her dagger. Lightning crackled at the tip, building up to be even more impressive of a bolt than her last one.

She wasn’t going to miss twice.

Of course, even if she hit, she wasn’t sure what it would accomplish. Zoe had watched his fight with Lynn Cross. He shrugged off plenty more than a powerful bolt of lightning during that fight.

Still, she had to do something. That might be Prax in control, but Shalise’s body was paying the price.

“I won’t say it twice,” she ground out. “Get off of her.”

Zagan stood with his back to Zoe. He kept still for a moment before his head moved–only his head. It tilted back just enough to look at Zoe through a single glowing eye.

“And just who is it that thinks they can…”

Trailing off, Zagan’s eyes lost some of their luster. “Her?”

Glancing at his feet, Zagan removed his shoe from the side of Shalise’s head. “Oh. I forgot about her.”

He reached down, gripped the lapels of the suit, and lifted Prax to its feet. Putting barely any effort into it, he brushed some of the sand off the side of Shalise’s face.

“I couldn’t very well ask what you want if you’re dead. So tell me, Shalise Ward, what is it you desire? One single favor is all I shall grant.”

Prax spat in his face again. Or tried to. This time, the spittle sailed harmlessly to one side as if space itself warped around Zagan’s head.

“Ah, of course. You cannot very well tell me as you are. However, I’m sure I can guess what you want.”

He released his hold on the suit. Prax immediately turned and ran. After two steps, Prax stumbled and fell to the beach.

Zoe watched as Shalise’s muscled body deflated. It started at her fingertips and toes, working its way up her body. Despite the jacket covering her arms, it was blatantly obvious the muscles were disappearing. The tight fabric became loose on her body.

She lay there, shaking slightly, just long enough for Zoe to grow worried.

More worried.

There was a soft giggle–a very Shalise giggle–before she pushed herself up to her knees. She patted herself down from her head to her toes, not even caring that she was covered in sand and small cuts along one side of her face from Zagan.

“I’m back,” she said. “Oh, I’m–” Wincing, Shalise put a hand to her forehead. “Ugh, he is still in here.”

“I have neither the inclination nor the time to see Praxtihr back to his cell,” Zagan said, all anger in his tone completely gone. “You can be his jailer for the foreseeable future. But, when you feel like dying, come see me. I will not forget his words. Allowing him to roam free would be a disappointment.”

With a light groan, she turned to Zagan. “Is there any way to make him shut up? He is saying very unkind things about your mother.”

“I have no mother.”

Shalise just nodded. Her nod cut off half-way. “That’s disgusting,” she said, putting on an expression that echoed her words.

“You’re the warden. I’m sure you can find some way to assert power over your prison. Good luck,” he said. Clapping his hands together, he turned to the rest of the group.

Lighting from her dagger dispersed as he glanced over it. Zoe frowned, but didn’t build up another charge. He had fixed Shalise. Though Zoe wasn’t about to forgive him, it was his fault in the first place. And Genoa was still injured thanks to him.

Glancing down at the woman, Zoe had half a mind to ask Zagan to fix her. So long as he was in a helping people mood, anyway. As she looked up towards Zagan, Zoe caught Eva’s eye.

The girl hadn’t even turned around during the whole ordeal behind her, instead focusing on Genoa. It wouldn’t surprise Zoe if she knew exactly what went on. Even aside from her ability to sense blood, this was Eva’s domain.

But Eva just shook her head slowly and solemnly.

Zoe nodded and decided not to ask anything of Zagan.

“I think that is everything on my to-do list for today,” he said. “My little embryonic one, do remember what we discussed. It especially applies to you, but also your little mortal friends. Well, back to…” His smile slid off of his face as he started walking towards the water. “I think I’ll bully Catherine into taking over my job for a few more weeks,” he mumbled just loud enough for Zoe to pick up.

With that, he dove into the water and disappeared.

Zoe sighed, tension disappearing from her shoulders. “Shalise,” she said, “are you alright?”

The brown-haired girl nodded. “I’m okay, just tired. I don’t think Prax slept at all in my body.” She paused for just a moment before a horrified look settled over her face. “They know I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Sleep,” Eva said. “You’re safe here. Unless Zagan comes back in a hissy-fit, that is. But that could happen anywhere. I don’t know how to make beds, but last time I was here, I found sleeping half in the water to be fairly pleasant.”

“You made that potion satchel,” Zoe said.

“Yeah, and I don’t know how I did that either.”

Arachne moved forwards and opened her mouth.

Eva sent her a glare, flaring her eyes bright red.

Arachne’s mouth shut with and audible clack.

“It would be best if you were to remain silent for now, Arachne.” Eva took a deep breath before half glancing over at Shalise. “So just pile up some sand into a pillow and take a nap.”

Shalise nodded, then shook her head. She walked over on unsteady feet. “I’d rather know what happened.”

“As would I,” Zoe said.

“It’s my fault,” Juliana said with a sniffle.

“No. Zagan–”

I stole Eva’s book. Not Zagan.”

Zoe glanced at Eva. The black-haired girl didn’t react. She kept her focus on Genoa.

Me,” Juliana continued. “I summoned that stupid demon. I drew the summoning circle Zagan used to send us to Hell. I played nice with the demon that forced my mom and Arachne to fight. And it is my fault mom’s–” Her voice cracked into a sob. “It didn’t look as bad on-screen. But part of her heart is missing.”

Zoe frowned, deciding to change the focus away from Juliana. That could be dealt with later. “Forced them to fight?” she asked Eva.

“The talkina dropped Genoa, Arachne, and myself into an arena. One of us dies, the others get to leave. Arachne was,” Eva glared again, “overzealous in her attempts at getting the rest of us out. If she had waited ten minutes, Zagan would have burst in to save the day without any of us significantly injured.”

“That’s not true,” Juliana said. “I summoned Zagan too. I only summoned him because mom got hurt. If Arachne hadn’t–I would have just kept sitting on my ass until Willie got bored enough to kill you all himself.”

Zoe pursed her lips, glancing between Juliana, Arachne, and Eva. Her gaze stopped at Genoa. Her mind raced over the sparse description of the events. She could probably ask for more details later, when Eva wasn’t concentrating on Genoa and Juliana wasn’t so hysterical. But her mind accurately summarized the events in three words. What a mess.

And, she thought, irritated, where is Wayne?

A gust of wind sent sand flying around.

Zoe erected a quick shield around their group. She didn’t want Eva to suffer any further distractions.

Wayne landed somewhat roughly on the beach a moment later. As clumsy as he was with his air magic, he still managed to cushion his fall enough to avoid Juliana’s fate of falling on his face. He carried a large case Zoe recognized as a portable potion kit and had a bandoleer of already made potions across his chest. More importantly, he had someone hanging off of his arm.

Laura Post. Brakket Academy’s head nurse. In the hand not wrapped around Wayne’s arm, she carried a large bag with a red cross on the front.

She took one look around the domain. One eye was covered with gauze and medical tape–the same eye patch she had worn since Zoe first met the nurse. Her single red eye did not widen in the slightest. No hint of surprise appeared on her face.

Her eye settled on Eva and Genoa. Without a word to Wayne, she unhooked her arm and half ran over.

Eva immediately started going over everything that was wrong and everything she had done to keep Genoa alive.

Not wanting to be in the professionals’ way, Zoe stood and moved next to Wayne, pulling Juliana along with her.

The blond gave no protests aside from a few sniffles.

“Nel told me what happened with Genoa before I came back,” Wayne said, answering her unasked question. “Figured Post was the best choice.”

Zoe leaned in and spoke quiet enough that Juliana shouldn’t hear. “Is she a demon?”

Wayne glanced at her with an eyebrow up.

“The red eye,” Zoe said. “It didn’t click until now, but it is a common feature among demons.”

“She’s been working at Brakket since you started school. Long before Martina showed up with her freak show.”

“When she looked around, she didn’t look surprised.”

Wayne’s frown deepened. “Are you going to complain if she can save the woman’s life?”

Zoe glanced down at Juliana. Demons had gotten them into a lot of trouble. But Laura hadn’t, to Zoe’s knowledge, ever done a thing aside from help the students. At the moment, she could be the only one who could stabilize Genoa enough to move her somewhere for real medical treatment.

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

“Lurcher,” Laura’s voice called out, “I need some potions here.”

Wayne gave a grunt of acknowledgment as he started walking away.

Zoe sat down on the beach, uncaring of the sand, and wrapped her arms around Juliana. Shalise moved up next to Juliana, though kept a short distance away.

With bated breath, they waited.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.022

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe’s chest heaved as she took a deep breath of the crisp air within Ylva’s domain. She turned to Wayne, letting all the air out in one long sigh.

She gave off a half-smile, full of nervousness and worry. “Are we really doing this?”

Wayne gave a short grunt. “I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life. Jumping head first into Hell will be a new one.”

“You don’t have to come with me.”

Wayne frowned. He opened his mouth, ready to berate her for saying that. After a moment of silence, he shook his head. “I’ve had a long life. You should be the one staying here.”

A flicker of movement caught Wayne’s eye. Zoe was idly rubbing the dark band around her ring finger. Again. Just her thumb reached under her fingers to caress the ring.

“Eva and Genoa are already there–”

Idiots, Wayne thought.

“–and I can’t just leave them on their own. Shalise is on her own and shouldn’t be difficult to escape with.”

Wayne scoffed. “Minus the possibility of invisible enemies or the high likelihood of her being possessed.”

Zoe nodded. “I’ll be following Ylva’s advice and start with taking her to Eva’s domain.” The professor shook her head. “I still can’t believe… that despicable man.”

“He said it was willing,” Wayne said with a shrug.

“She was a child. She still is a child.”

“Still wasn’t complaining, last I heard. I imagine she would object if you intervened in her ‘treatments.'”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Zoe shut her eyes. “You know, when I first learned about Eva’s involvement with demons, I assumed it was mostly Foster’s doing.”

Wayne did not miss her usage of the demonologist’s last name. Prior to their little briefing, Zoe had tended to use his first name.

“I figured that I could wean her away from diablery. Then I find out about her haemomancy and Arachne. Somehow she gets me reading books. I’m talking to demons on a daily basis. Living with them, even. Now we find out about this? And so off-handedly too. ‘Use Eva’s domain as a safe spot. Oh yeah,'” Zoe said, mimicking Foster’s more guttural voice, “‘did I mention she’s turning into a demon?”

Wayne stood still, trying to ignore the demon water seeping into his suit. He’d have to remember to burn it later. The liquid alone would ruin it, but that it was Hell water only made it that much worse.

As for Zoe…

He let out a sigh of his own. Situations like these were not his forte. One part of him wanted to place a hand on her shoulder and offer some consolatory words. What, exactly, those words were, he hadn’t the faintest clue.

But honesty was important. Words of comfort would end up being lies of one sort or another.

“She was a lost cause from the start,” Wayne said, trying to keep the ‘I told you so’ out of his voice. “Not something to beat yourself up over.”

Zoe laughed. The sound was mirthless and hollow. After a moment of silence, she spoke. “You know the worst part?”

Wayne shook his head.

“It is fascinating. It is fun.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Wayne prompted her to continue with a clipped grunt.

“Not right now, obviously,” she added quickly. “But when we get Shalise and Juliana home safe, and things calm down… I have so many notebooks filled up and so many more to fill up. Thaumaturgy feels so limited compared to the things I experience in my everyday life now-a-days.”

She pointedly glanced around the black ocean of water, sweeping an arm along with her gaze. “Would it be wrong to say that I am actually excited?”

Wayne followed her gaze for a moment. Excited wouldn’t be the word I would use, he didn’t say.

“How many humans,” she said, “actually get to experience something like this? Of their own free will with a high probability of getting back alive and sound.”

“Few. There’s probably a good reason for that too.”

And yet, Wayne thought, here I am.

Insanity. Pure and utter insanity. Willingly diving into Hell for a girl who, from the augur’s reports, might not even be herself anymore? Wayne knew people who had been committed to an asylum for less.

Zoe’s half-smile turned to a frown as the final member of their insane expedition sloshed through the water.

“Foster,” Wayne said, mirroring his coworker’s expression. “Nice of you to show up.”

“Can it,” he snapped. “Bringing the hel’s latest mark to it is the last thing I have to do to get out from under its thumb. I don’t give two damns about the girl or either of you.”

Wayne rolled his eyes. “Good to know that you have our back.”

“And,” he continued without taking notice of Wayne’s words, “if either of you tell anyone about what we discussed earlier, Arachne being after your lives will be the least of your concerns.”

Wayne blinked, but Zoe beat him to speaking.

Or shouting, as the case was.

“You’re threatening us? You monster. I had a low opinion of you before finding out that you performed experiments on a little girl. And now you dare–”

“Please,” Foster said, waving one hand while the other scratched at his gangling beard. He acted completely unconcerned about the dagger that had slipped its way into Zoe’s hand. “It isn’t me you have to worry about. I would be displeased, but me and Eva? We can disappear easily enough. And I’m sure that with some effort, Eva could eventually convince Arachne not to murder you in your sleep.

“The simple fact of the matter is that you both have a lot tying you down. I don’t know if you’ve ever met true demon hunters, but they make the Elysium Order look tolerant and understanding. When they come knocking on your door to find what you know about us, I doubt they’ll like the look of that ring on your finger.”

Again, Zoe’s thumb darted to the dark band of metal.

Unlike Zoe, Wayne had encountered demon hunters before. Their feverish zealotry was as bad as demons themselves. If one caught wind of Zoe’s involvement in any sort of diablery, the most she could hope for would be a swift death.

It wasn’t, in fact, only Zoe that would be in danger. All of Brakket Academy and city would be in trouble. Spencer and her pet were not even the largest problem around. Turner staffed no fewer than four of the pests, probably more.

The zealots would be hunting down every single person in town, student or otherwise, simply for coming into contact with the demons.

Why, then, were they not around already? Surely the situation hadn’t fallen beneath their notice. Even if they couldn’t detect demonic activity–something Wayne was certain they could–there had to have been some rumors spreading around.

He hadn’t been present for the incident at Brakket, but the golems he had faced during the operation to recover Nel had been very obviously demonic. Someone at Brakket would have noticed and word would have spread.

Wayne’s thoughts led him to a single conclusion.

Someone, or something, was protecting Brakket.

Although, Wayne mused, who or what probably doesn’t matter much if I don’t make it back.

The water rapidly cooling broke Wayne out of his thoughts. He turned to one side.

Only the tips of Ylva’s bare feet had entered the water and it was already icing over.

“There have been no changes in Shalise’s abnormal condition. She has escaped her statues’ grasp and returned to the throne room. We continue to believe the best course of action will be delivering her to Eva’s domain until her… passenger can be extracted.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Foster said. “If you didn’t have anything new to tell us, you could have said as much. Or better yet, why don’t you go to Hell while we lord around the place.” His voice descended to low grumblings as he continued. “We’re not the ones who want a new servant.”

A lane of ice formed across the surface of the water. It wrapped around the demonologist’s arm.

He threw himself out of the way, grappling Zoe to keep himself from falling into the water.

She managed to stay up thanks only to Wayne reaching out and taking hold of her arm to steady her.

Zoe shoved Foster off of her, almost sending him beneath the water.

After regaining his balance, he twisted to glare first at Zoe then at Ylva. His glare died off as he glanced down to one side.

Which wasn’t hard to emphasize with. As much as Wayne disliked the man–on general principle and his distasteful personality–the glare Ylva leveled at him was both awe and terror inducing. Being on the receiving end of those cool eyes was something Wayne hoped to never experience.

“You test Our patience, Devon Foster. We will not be displeased to see you out of your debt. Finish your task and banish yourself from Our presence, lest We do it for you.”

Foster let out a long stream of unintelligible mutterings. As soon as he finished, he took a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface of the water.

Zoe pressed herself back against Wayne as a dark shape took hold of Foster and both vanished. Her eyes darted, back and forth over the small section of water that had just contained Foster. She looked torn between jumping out of the water as soon as possible and diving in after him.

There was an almost confusing amount of both eagerness and fear in her voice when she spoke. “Is this safe?”

“You should have little to fear regardless of what happens. Few demons would lightly harm you while wearing Our ring. Wayne Lurcher,” the demon said.

Wayne stiffened as he glanced up to meet the demon’s eyes. Relief almost allowed him to relax; her eyes were merely looking, not glaring. “Yes?” he said.

“Our interactions have been few, yet We do not find you distasteful.”

Gee, thanks.

“We would offer a similar ring, yet none exist. We failed to foresee Great King Zagan’s actions and did not prepare adequately.”

Wayne blinked. Was that supposed to have been an apology for not seeing the future? Not for the first time, Wayne was wishing that the hel was a bit more down to Earth. Arachne and Catherine both could at least talk like normal people. Hell, even ‘Great King’ Zagan was more personable–from the few conversations they had had prior to Wayne’s extended hospital visit.

“Thanks for the sentiment–” I think “–but I believe I would decline your offer.” Not without reading the fine print and even then, not likely.

His stomach dropped to his shoes. Ylva’s eyes hardened as her ice blue lips pressed into a thin line.

It was stupid to decline. She didn’t even have a ring, there was no need to throw the offer back in her face. He could have dealt with declining later.

The intensity on Ylva’s face died out as quick as it came. With a graceful brush of her hand to one side, she said, “We find your rejection disappointing. Nevertheless, should you wish to ensure your own safety, remain at Zoe’s side.”

Wayne gave a slow nod. He hadn’t been planning anything different. “I can do that.”

“Very well. We do not believe Chance cares about the actions of mortals, yet We wish you luck in your endeavor.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said from his side.

There was the slightest of nods from the statuesque woman before she marched off down the beach, returning to Nel and Ali.

“Alright,” Zoe said to Wayne. She took several deep breaths. At the apex of each, she looked ready to jump in. The breath then deflated as she lost her nerve.

“You sure you want to go through with this?”

“Of course. Shalise is my responsibility. I can’t just leave her.”

Wayne shook his head. He doubted he would be so interested in jumping into Hell after his students. Of course, Anderson and Weston weren’t the type to find this kind of trouble. Weston was far too timid and Anderson… well, there wouldn’t be much left of him by the time his father finished with him.

But, he thought, I’m here now.

“Together, then?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Zoe nodded. She held out her hand.

Wayne took it.

“On three?”

“Works for me,” Zoe said with a nod. She started counting and Wayne started thinking.

A medieval castle with statues of Ward. Vain–even Ylva didn’t have a single statue of herself around her domain–definitely not something he would have suspected from the girl. Further evidence that she was not herself.

As soon as Zoe said three, both ducked down beneath the waves.

— — —

Shalise blinked.

Or rather, Prax blinked and Shalise merely took notice of the brief blackness.

It is about time, Shalise thought. I don’t know how it is with demons, but human eyes need to be kept moist.

Prax’s continuing control of her body was doing a number on it. At least she had finally convinced him to eat something. Only after he had collapsed after not recognizing the signs of hunger.

She was fairly certain that her body had not slept since she woke up in the prison either. Not unless she counted the brief periods of him shutting his eyes in concentration. Shalise did not count that.

No progress had been made towards removing Prax from her body, either. It was starting to make Shalise nervous–as nervous as she could be in her current state. The longer they went without any progress, the more Prax’s thoughts drifted towards killing himself–along with Shalise–to escape.

“Silence, servant. I am considering nothing of the sort. Yet.”

That’s very reassuring.

“Someone,” he said, “has entered my domain.”

Really? I didn’t notice anything.

“You may have some modicum of control here,” he all but growled out, “but this is and always will be my domain.”

Shalise gave him a mental shrug. She didn’t want control of it. “So,” Shalise said before he could start complaining about her again, “who showed up? A friend? It isn’t your mother, is it?”

“Mother will be… busy. The damage to her body was minimal, thanks to the eternal kindness of her spawn, yet it is far too soon for her to return. One month of your realm was her usual time to return in the past. After centuries of imprisonment, it may be far longer.”

Ah, Shalise said. So–

“It is a human.”

Shalise sat at attention within her own mind. That might be the first good news she had heard in a very long time. Juliana?

Prax laughed. His deep laugh came out strange in Shalise’s voice. “Not unless she has had some very interesting experiences since our parting. The human is a man with a beard.”

Trying to think of everyone she knew that had a beard, Shalise came up with only one real possibility. Assuming the man was someone she knew. But why would a human show up in Prax’s domain if not for her?

A few of the teachers at school had beards. None of them had any real reason to come after her. In fact, it was doubtful that they knew where she was in the first place. But there was a man with a beard that might come for her. Eva’s mentor, Devon something-or-other.

She had only spoken a handful of words to him, but maybe Eva was trying to rescue them.

“And here come two more. A man and a woman.”

Eva and… and who? There wasn’t anyone else. Not unless Juliana’s dad had decided to come.

Actually, that wasn’t so far-fetched. His daughter was somewhere around Hell. He was probably looking for her. But that meant that the woman was probably Genoa and not Eva.

“You are assuming that it is easy to locate an individual in the vastness of Hell.”

Well, we know a woman who is covered in eyeballs. Finding people is kind of her thing.

“I will concede that human visitors are a rarity in Hell, unless they have been brought by some other demon. But generally, those humans would not leave their patron demon’s domain for fear of becoming lost, stolen, or damaged.”

All the more reason to believe that I know them. Aren’t you going to go greet them?

“I would rather not be seen in this sorry bit of flesh.”

Do it anyway, Shalise ordered in her most authoritative thought-voice. Or else I’ll start changing your domain. This place is so drab, it could use more greenery to change up the scenery.

“Servant! Do not dare to–”

It was too late. The moment her thoughts drifted towards how the place could be spruced up, the throne room changed.

Prax’s head whipped around as the faint sound of two trickling streams of water carved their way out of the wall behind the throne. The water flowed along the ground, digging in shallow canals that looped around either side of the throne.

Lush grass grew out of the islands formed by the streams of water. Thick trees–spruce, if Shalise was not mistaken–sprouted and stretched towards the ceiling.

A sickness in Shalise’s metaphysical stomach grew along with the daisies. She could feel Prax’s ire sizzling beneath his calm exterior.

Both armrests on the iron throne bent and crumpled under his grip.

Maybe not so calm.

I’m sorry, Shalise quickly thought. I didn’t mean to–

“Every time this happens, it becomes ever more appealing to simply end you.”

I know, I couldn’t help thinking it. Just, please go talk to them? Surely they can help us.

“I fail to see what a mortal would know of our situation that I do not.”

That was true enough. Shalise didn’t understand much of anything that Prax did not explicitly explain.

Except we know more than mortals. There is Ylva and Arachne. And… It felt like there were more, but no names were popping into her head. They could at least give you a second opinion on what went wrong.

He did not move. His emotions were going topsy-turvy.

Shalise kept silent, not wanting to garner further anger.

After several minutes of him emotionally debating with himself, Prax got to his feet. “I can hear them out. Given our current situation, assistance may be required. If they are not who you think they are, you must be prepared to defend us.”

Like how I kept you from torturing us earlier?

“Exactly,” Prax said through grit teeth.

As they moved down towards the castle entrance, Shalise kept her thoughts carefully in check. She did not want any chance of naked golden statues of herself to assault their visitors.

Shalise’s mind blanked out in a brief moment of static.

Prax!

The demon controlling her body stopped moving with a wince. “What is it this time?”

You can’t go down there while naked. Put on some clothes. Anything.

Even as a rack of clothes appeared in front of them, Prax shrugged and walked by. Rack after rack of clothing slid in front of Prax. Each one, he simply sidestepped and moved on.

Until a solid brick wall appeared in front of them.

Scowling, he tore a one piece dress off of its hanger and haphazardly draped it over himself. “Happy. Now?”

The black dress had huge cutouts at the sides and one strap was torn from his handling. Far from anything Shalise would wear, but she didn’t exactly have fine control over what appeared. The only reason it covered anything was because of Prax’s bulky muscles holding it in place. But, it was better than nothing at all.

With a mental nod, Shalise said, I suppose so. At her words, the brick wall melted away.

Prax stalked off down the hallway, grumbling under his breath as he went.

When they finally reached the main entryway–Shalise had to open the giant gate–they found three people standing on the other side.

Devon was one of them–as she guessed–but the other two would have had Shalise’s eyebrows halfway up her forehead had she had any control over her body. Professors Baxter and Lurcher? Why are they here?

“Professors Baxter and Lurcher,” Prax repeated. “Why are you here?”

The voice that came out of her mouth was hers, no doubt about that, but it was tainted with Prax’s lack of proper inflection. His question came more as a statement than any real question.

Devon and Professor Lurcher stiffened in an almost identical manner. Professor Baxter, however, took half a step forwards. “Shalise?”

“That isn’t her,” Devon said. “Even discounting the physical changes, there was no recognition in that thing’s eyes when it saw us.”

“Partially correct,” Prax said. “Shalise is here, though not in control.”

Professor Baxter pulled back, giving Prax a glare.

A glare that Shalise could almost feel. It wasn’t a very nice glare. The professor’s arms were shaking. One of which, Shalise noted, had her silver dagger gripped tight with white knuckles.

“What did you do to her?”

“Nothing irreversible.”

I hope.

Prax ignored her. “Though the situation is unusual, but she is alive and well. Very noisy too. I assure you, this situation is not by either of our choices. Shalise seems to be under the impression that you mortals had some insight I lack.”

“The nun said you had a familiar brand, but the demon is in control?” Devon scratched at his scraggly goatee. “Let’s see it.”

Shalise gave a mental sigh as Prax gripped the already torn strap of the dress and pulled. The fabric tore right down the middle, revealing a full half of her chest, including the mark.

So much for wearing clothes.

Professor Lurcher immediately spun to one side, averting his gaze. Professor Baxter first glared at Prax, then at Devon.

Who, notably, did not turn away. Rather, he walked forwards and knelt down right in front of Prax.

A scary look came over Professor Baxter as Devon started poking and prodding around the brand. She looked about ready to stab him in the back.

“This is a regular familiar sigil,” he said, oblivious to Professor Baxter’s continuing glare. “But you are a cambion. You shouldn’t be able to take over your host. What did you do?”

“The biggest difference would be the state of her soul and my core. Neither of which were inside our respective bodies at the time of our familiar bond.”

Professor Baxter’s anger faded in the blink of an eye. Her face turned white as a sheet. “Her soul?”

“We got them back,” Prax said.

Juliana got hers back too.

Shalise’s vision rolled up to the black sky as Prax said, “Juliana as well. And everything was normal up until we regained our souls. Then, our control switched and I have been unable to break our bond thus far. I believe that my core and her soul have been muddled together.” Prax spread his arms wide as he put on a smile. “Now, mortals, what makes you so special that Shalise thinks you can do anything at all?”

Professor Baxter’s already sheet white face turned several shades paler. Professor Lurcher still faced away from them.

On the other hand, Devon scratched at his chin. “Merged souls? But you talk about her as if she were her own entity still.”

“She is,” Prax agreed.

“Fascinating. I wonder if there were a way to properly get you two tog–”

“Foster,” Professor Baxter snapped. Her voice had a slight tremble to it, but most of her paleness had vanished and had been replaced with anger. “If you say one word that does not involve returning Shalise to normal, I will personally dose you with so much memory potion that you will be unable to remember how to learn.”

Something must have happened, Shalise thought. I only ever saw Devon about three times and talked to him less than that, but I don’t think Professor Baxter was ever as angry with him as she is now.

Prax gave a subtle shrug and nothing else.

“Ylva,” Devon said after scratching at his goatee again. “It should have a way of separating their souls. Let’s carry through with our original plan of taking it to Eva’s domain, then see about contacting the damn hel.”

Prax’s emotions jumped into turmoil again. There was a sliver of hope alongside a bout of trepidation. The later was primarily focused on the idea of entering another person’s domain. “And we cannot simply bring Ylva here?”

“I’m not about to suggest that to it,” Devon said with a glance at the professors. “It will probably kill me. Or worse.”

“Eva is a neutral party,” Professor Baxter said. It almost sounded rehearsed, or perhaps something she was repeating from someone else. “She cares about Shalise, but with both you and Ylva in her domain, neither of you has to fear anything from the other.”

“And what makes this Eva so trustworthy?”

We can trust Eva.

Prax considered for just a moment before nodding his head. None of the others even had a chance to respond. “Very well,” he said. “If this is a trick, trap, or simply fails to work, I will do everything in my power to make all of your lives living hells.”

“No trick,” Professor Baxter said. “Eva is currently fetching Juliana, so she might not be there right away. However, we all just want everything to go back to normal. As long as you don’t hurt Shalise, we don’t have a problem with you.”

“Besides,” Devon said, “I don’t intend to return to Hell. Ever. This could be my only opportunity to see my subject’s domain.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.019

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Catherine glanced back and forth between the two arguing people. She never would have expected Baxter to take her side. The professor had not left her with the impression that she was well liked when she kicked Catherine out of her classroom the last time she got injured.

Few humans would side with a demon in the first place, though the point may have been moot. The sides were between Catherine and Ylva.

“We cannot allow her to leave. She will betray Us the moment she perceives a lack of danger.”

Catherine shook her head side to side hard enough that her currently orange hair flayed wide around her. It wasn’t exactly untrue, but at this point, Catherine didn’t care what she said so long as she got to leave in one piece. It was, however, somewhat offensive that she was viewed as being so weak.

They weren’t the ones who had Zagan breathing hot air on their necks at random points throughout the day.

“If she stays, Zagan might notice her absence. If he comes looking for her…”

That was almost certainly untrue. She was fairly certain that Zagan didn’t care about her in the slightest. The only reason he bothered to drag her around was out of some sadistic desire to toy with her.

The whole situation was his fault. If he hadn’t dragged her off to the nun rally, she wouldn’t have Ylva’s icy breath on her neck.

Eva was right. Being stuck as the bottom feeder even among the few demons in the area was a nightmare. Even the two security guards were uppity towards her.

Well, the morail was. Lucy, Catherine decided, had a tenuous grasp of reality at best. She wasn’t deliberately annoying so much as she was unaware of what she was doing. Besides, Catherine was certain that Lucy would be extremely susceptible to her succubus wiles and charms.

The worst part was Eva herself. Whatever was being done to her was obviously unnatural. When Catherine had first arrived at Brakket, she wasn’t sure what to make of the girl. Catherine could feel her, much like she could feel Zagan or Arachne. But it was faint. Barely there. Weaker than even the weakest of imps.

That weakness had been steadily turning to strength. By the end of summer, weaker imps might have fled from her presence if she had ever decided to project some anger. By the time all the golems attacked Brakket…

Well, the potential was there, but Eva had a long way to go before she wound up giving Catherine real shivers.

When she had finished growing, the little girl–the little human girl was going to walk into a world so much larger than herself. So much larger than this mortal plane.

And she was going to be strong.

Stronger than Catherine at the very least.

Sighing, Catherine leaned back in her chair while the two argued. Not that it was much of an argument. Baxter was more making polite suggestions than outright objecting to anything Ylva said. Still, it didn’t seem like they were going to kill her–permanently or otherwise–so Catherine was losing interest.

Who knew? It might be fun to stick around in Ylva’s domain. Her cellphone had no signal. It was sure to put a stick up Martina’s ass if she couldn’t get a hold of her.

Though she was missing out on virtually murdering slews of foolish humans. She probably needed a break from that anyway.

Just as things were getting a little heated between Ylva and Baxter, a new head popped into the room. Not someone Catherine recognized, though most humans looked the same as one another.

“Nel says that she thinks she found Shalise, Lady Ylva.”

“Thinks? Clarify her words.”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said with a small shudder. “You will have to ask her.”

“Very well. We shall.”

Baxter was, surprisingly enough, the first one out of the room. Ylva left next with the other girl staying just long enough to shoot Catherine a glare before turning to follow.

And then the room was empty.

Except for Catherine.

No guards. They hadn’t tied her down. They had even been so kind as to leave Baxter’s bedroom door open.

Catherine tapped her foot against the floor three times before coming to a decision. After all, if they wanted her to stay then they would have at least said something.

Getting to her feet, Catherine walked out the door. She stopped in her tracks one step out of the room. After glancing left and then right, Catherine sighed. “Damn.”

Of course she would end up in the domain. It would be too easy if the door opened up back to the apartment building. To make matters worse, Catherine was willing to bet that she could check every archway and not find the exit until Ylva was ready to let her go.

Even if the exit was somewhere around, searching every archway sounded exactly the kind of tedious work that Catherine would rather avoid. Ylva and her little entourage disappeared through an archway three arches down. If they hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been any different from the rest of the place.

Martina had been asking about Baxter as of late–not directly asking Catherine, more of mumbling about it when she remembered that her secretary was off teaching a class. It was intensely irritating. Getting away from Martina was one of the few positives of teaching the human brats.

Maybe telling her about something Baxter had been up to would keep her complaints down, especially because it appeared that Baxter was doing the job Martina should have been doing–cleaning up after Zagan’s mess. She would have to carefully word her revelation to Martina so as to not ruin her carefully cultivated image of being unreliable and unproactive.

Having low expectations for her meant that Martina never bothered her with much of import. And that was exactly how Catherine liked it.

But she was willing to admit to a certain level of curiosity about the whole thing aside from Martina’s interests.

Following Ylva through the archway led her to a very familiar area. The waters of Hell.

And it was full of humans.

Wayne Lurcher, looking much better than when Catherine had last seen him, was standing near another human female. One who was half-standing in the waters. In the actual waters.

On a closer look, she might not have been human after all. Catherine hadn’t seen many humans naked, but she had seen plenty of bare arms and most arms didn’t have eyes all over them.

Still, standing in the water wasn’t safe. If the woman slipped and fell in, even for just a second, she could find herself whisked off to who knew where.

The woman had huge dark circles beneath her eyes. Her face was somewhat gaunt and she looked ready to tip over if a stiff breeze came her way. That only further compounded Catherine’s feeling that she really shouldn’t be in the water.

An innate, succubi sense picked up on something about the woman. She was bothered by something. And not in the simple sense of being disturbed–though she certainly was that as well.

In the end, Catherine simply shrugged it off. What did she care about, well, anyone anyway?

Everyone else walked right up to the edge of the water in front of the woman. Catherine caught up and stopped a few paces behind. She wasn’t trying to hide herself–there was nowhere to hide on the featureless beach–but at the same time, she wasn’t interested in being seen as part of the group.

“You found Shalise?” Baxter asked. “Is she alright?”

“I don’t know. I mean, her hair is the same, but…” The woman in the water brought up a hand to rub just above her eye–her regular, in the right place for humans, eye. “Did Shalise take up weight lifting? And, um, exhibitionism?”

Catherine blinked. Unless she was very much mistaken, they were talking about one of the mortals Zagan had dropped off in Hell. That meant the person was a student and Catherine was quite certain that there were no exhibitionists running around at the school.

She, of all people, would have noticed.

“Exhi–what? What are they doing to her?”

Catherine took a step forward, not wanting to miss out on hearing that explanation.

“Nothing. I mean, no one is around. I searched everywhere I could think of. It is just Shalise. She doesn’t… I mean, she’s just…”

The woman in the water cupped some in her hands and brought it up to slap against her cheeks. Some futile attempt at cooling her body temperature. After a deep breath, she started to explain.

— — —

Prax, Shalise thought to her ‘partner’ in her body. Prax, it isn’t working.

“Silence servant. I am trying to concentrate.”

Shalise couldn’t see anything but the insides of her own eyelids as Prax continued to fail at attempt number thirty-seven.

It was depressing. Sort of. Unless Prax was feeling the same emotion that she felt, she didn’t really feel anything but her thoughts. Upon reflection, that was probably the biggest reason behind her general blasé attitude and lack of constant panic. She knew, in her head, that she should be running around like a chicken with its head cut off about the fact that she was still stuck in her body with Prax in charge.

But it was difficult to care without the proper chemicals fueling her panic.

That said, if there was one thing she wished Prax would do, and that was opening their eyes. While it was an emotion that Prax was not feeling at the moment, boredom was driving her insane. Combined with the sheer irritation and anger projected by Prax, it was a very unpleasant situation.

“Stop thinking!” Prax shouted at her–there was no one else around. “Do you want me stuck inside you for the rest of this pitiful body’s existence? I could end it now and take my chances in the Void.”

I don’t believe you would do it, Shalise thought. You jumped into my body while neither of us had a soul and now it is all messed up. You’re worried about what will happen if I–if we die.

Prax’s silence was telling.

Not that she needed his silence to know she was right. Over the past however long it had been, Shalise was getting much better on picking up Prax’s thoughts. Nothing as clear as speaking, but general nudges in the right direction.

Prax hopped off the over large throne and started marching down through the castle’s corridors. He was in something of a rage. The scorch marks left beneath her feet gave Shalise an odd tingling sensation, but nothing more.

It wasn’t anything new and something Shalise had grown used to. Prax had been temperamental, to say the least, since they arrived in his domain.

So, Shalise thought, decided to change tactics?

“I think,” he said slowly, “that I will be taking a brief intermission from my attempts at escaping your worthless sack of flesh.”

Gee, thanks.

“Something cathartic sounds excellent. I have just the place.”

He turned down a staircase that descended for a short eternity. When the end finally came, Shalise found herself in the dungeonyest dungeon that she could imagine.

The upstairs castle proper had smooth bricks laid in neat, straight lines. All the bricks in the walls and floor were flush with one another. The ceiling had a smooth arch carved into it for some added height.

Ever since their initial trek through the castle, warm torches popped up periodically along hallways to lend their light. It was much better than the drab and uniform lighting arrangement that had seemingly permeated the entire place upon their arrival.

The elegant murals, paintings, and statues just added to the regal atmosphere of the castle.

Though she could definitely get by just fine without seeing the ones of her.

At first, Prax flew into a rage every time he saw one–given that they were everywhere, that ended up being more often than not. He went around smashing a few hundred of the golden statues and tearing down even more paintings. They always returned undamaged the moment he took his eyes off of them.

Eventually, Prax had decided to give up on that fruitless endeavor. He still glared at them–especially the ones of himself–every time he walked past one. Most of his time ended up with his eyes closed, concentrating in an attempt to escape Shalise’s body.

But the dungeon he had taken them to was anything but regal or elegant. The walls were less smooth bricks and more cobblestone and mortar slapped together. Particularly jagged cobblestone at that. Prax actually let out a cough as he walked through strands of white nitre hanging off the ceiling.

And the lighting. It was a good thing Prax knew where he was headed because there was the single torch at the base of the stairs and nothing else. It was probably meant to be carried along to the destination, but Prax had ignored it.

Before long, Shalise couldn’t see anything but vague silhouettes of the walls and floor. And the almost glowing nitre spider-webbing across the ceiling.

Prax’s footfalls steadily tapped against the floor alongside a faint dripping noise at the edges of her sense of hearing. He went left at the first corner, then took a right before stopping in front of a wood door.

The rotten wood of the door leaked light through small holes. Not much light. Barely enough to see that the door was made of wood.

When Prax pushed open the door, she saw the reason for the dim light. The large room was lit by a mere two torches. Both torches looked like they were on their last legs. The flames were small and dim, flickering in the room.

Shalise gave a short mental sigh. It set the perfect atmosphere for what the room was.

“At least this hasn’t changed much.”

I expected it, but of course you would have a torture chamber in your dungeons.

Prax strode through the room, gently caressing various tools and implements that Shalise was trying hard to ignore. It was a bit difficult when he started holding some of the rusted iron in front of his face.

If you don’t mind my asking–

“I do.”

What here is going to help us with our problem?

“Not a damn thing,” he said as he set down one object and picked up another.

Oh. Um. What are we–

“You are noisy for a servant. Cheeky too. I am hoping that something, or somethings, here will curtail that negative trait of your despicable personality.”

With every word he spoke, Shalise felt a sinking feeling in her metaphysical stomach.

Combined with the emotional bleed-over from Prax, Shalise had the odd sensation of being eager and happy about what could only be her own impending torture while still forcing herself to be disgusted, angry, and afraid.

You can’t torture me! Shalise thought as hard as she could. I can barely feel pain from you!

“I know,” he said. “That just means I will have to be creative.”

You’re just going to be torturing yourself!

He pulled out a thick rod from a long box and looked it over once or twice. “Should be fun. Besides, any proper servant knows how to torture their master’s enemies. I have always been a believer in teaching by experience.”

Shalise’s mind went into absolute nope mode. She did not want that rod anywhere near her body. The entire end of it, some sort of magic circle much like the one she had drawn on her chest, was glowing white-hot. Hot enough that she could feel the heat even through her diluted senses.

Something snapped in her mind. Only a vague awareness of her surroundings bled through. There was a crash followed by a shout from Prax.

The shouting turned into a constant stream of anger-speak. Nothing intelligible.

As Shalise’s mind sharpened, it didn’t take long to figure out what he was complaining about this time.

First and foremost, they were wet. A few stones in the far end of the room had come loose. Water filled the room up to their waist and–thankfully–extinguished the iron rod.

The second thing Shalise noticed was the two statues, one of Prax and one of Shalise, standing in front of her. Both of them had two hands on Prax’s arms. Even with all of his muscles, he couldn’t trash out of their grip.

“Stop changing things! This is my domain.”

Get out of my body!

— — —

“From there, she just started thrashing about in the grip of her statue and the other one.”

Catherine blinked. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “You said she has a familiar brand on her chest?”

Everyone stopped looking at the woman whose name was apparently ‘Nel’ and turned to Catherine.

Big mistake, Catherine thought as she took a step back, half expecting them to attack.

“Who invited the harlot?”

Catherine looked to Wayne Lurcher with a sneer. “Aww, still upset about being rejected by a succubus?”

Her sneer quickly turned into a smirk. He got all flustered and everyone turned to look at him. Double win. It didn’t matter that it was a lie; the seeds were planted. Baxter was already giving him a look with one eyebrow raised.

“Lies,” Lurcher said with a grunt.

“Perhaps not in so many words,” Catherine said. She shook her hips and ran a hand down one side of her body. “Succubi are the premier shape shifters in Hell. All the better to handle what our targets want. And I,” Catherine ever so subtly flicked her eyes to the other professor–who was still giving Lurcher a look, “know exactly what you want.”

Catherine blinked in confusion. Mentioning something like that often set minds on the subject. However, she was failing to pick up anything resembling lust from the older professor.

Her confusion vanished as he took a threatening step forwards. The tome chained to his waist swung into his hand.

Catherine hopped backwards a few steps, her smile vanishing from her face. That may have been pushing it too far. She had had a brief lapse in judgment regarding the fact that she was essentially surrounded by people–none of whom would be willing to take her side and one of whom was a demon that owned the domain surrounding her.

Lucky for her, Ylva decided to step in.

“Enough.”

Lurcher gave her one death glare before snapping his book shut.

“The succubus was correct.” Ylva turned slightly to give her attentions to Nel. “The designs you described are akin to a bonding brand.”

“You mentioned that a few times,” Baxter said. “What is it?”

“One of the three ways of dealing with demons. Well, four ways, but letting the demon go free doesn’t usually end well for anyone.”

Catherine ticked off one finger of three. “Arachne and, presumably, Ylva are contracted demons. You might liken them to human mercenaries. They retain full free-will, though violating the terms of the contract leads to heavy consequences. For either party.”

After ticking off a second finger, Catherine went on. “I am a familiar. We are bound to our master’s orders. If Martina wished, she could order me never to think the word ‘the’ and I would be entirely unable to until our contract is broken–typically by Martina’s death. There are a handful of topics that can’t be ordered around, such as the ability to willingly break the familiar contract.

“For upsides, I get a long-term vacation in the mortal realm and cannot be banished no matter how many silly words are thrown my way.”

“Not much for upsides,” Lurcher muttered.

“You would be surprised,” Catherine said as she ticked off her last finger. “The bound or bonded familiar is essentially two minds in one body, leaving the human in charge. The demon gets a massive–and I have heard addictive–sense of euphoria from having its powers used, but obviously they have no real body until the human dies.”

“The bond can be broken without the death of the mortal,” Ylva said. “It is not easy.”

“But it leaves the human in charge?” Baxter shook her head. “I can’t see Shalise acting like that. She can be–”

“She doesn’t act like that normally?” Catherine cut in. She paused as something occurred to her. “Here I was considering that I might have to start talking to the human brats if that was common behavior.”

Baxter winced.

Excellent.

Catherine had to fight to keep the smile off of her face. If she could guilt Baxter back into her class, then Catherine could go back to… being Martina’s lapdog. Well, she thought with a mental sigh, at least I can sit around on the computer at the secretary desk all day.

“Are you still standing in for me?”

“I am.” Catherine made a show of pulling out her cellphone. No signal, but the clock still worked. “Speaking of, I’m supposed to be babysitting a handful of the brats while they take a test in a half-hour or so. Not that it matters of course. Just like real life, I am deciding their success by the grace of Chance.”

Baxter’s lips pressed into a thin line. Catherine had the distinct impression that the students would be seeing their old teacher in class come Monday morning.

“So,” Lurcher said, doing his best to avoid glancing at either Catherine or Baxter, “what do we do about Ward?”

“We wait. She doesn’t appear to be in immediate danger, with no one else around. If Nel would be willing to keep an eye on her and warn us if anything happens?”

The poor woman looked about ready to fall over. Her head bobbed in a resigned nod.

“Then, before doing anything reckless, I would like to talk with Ylva and,” she paused, glancing around the room. “Where is Devon anyway?”

“Resting,” Ylva said.

“Ah. He’s–”

“What about me?” Catherine tapped a foot on the sand. “Am I allowed to leave?”

Baxter and Ylva shared a look for just a moment with Baxter giving a small shrug.

Catherine’s shoulders drooped ever so slightly. That’s not good. Ylva had been the one who had wanted her to stick around.

“Zagan’s experiment will end,” Ylva said. “Should he speak of these Void troubles, you will report to Us.”

Blinking, Catherine first frowned then nodded. Zagan had initially thought that Ylva might have something to do with all the trouble, though it seemed as if he had dismissed that thought after the whole nun rally. Thinking about it logically, Ylva was a demon in the same boat as the rest of them. She wouldn’t want her power disappearing any more than Catherine.

“Sure,” Catherine said. “I can do that.”

“Ali,” Ylva said, “show the succubus the way out.”

The attendant–who Catherine had honestly forgotten about–jumped slightly at being addressed. After a moment of hesitation, she bowed to Ylva and started walking towards the exit of the beach.

With a shrug at everyone else, and a flirty wave at Lurcher, Catherine followed after the woman.

From the archway leading to the beach, it wasn’t far to the exit. She used the time considering the woman in front of her.

The mixed signals coming off of this ‘Ali’ were a sight to behold. On one hand, there was a strong yearning and desire for Ylva. On the other, hatred. Like the woman couldn’t decide between punching Ylva in the stomach or kissing her on the lips.

She might be an amusing one to watch in the future, but in the end, it wasn’t any of her business.

Catherine found herself dumped unceremoniously in the hallway leading to Baxter’s apartment without a single word from the woman known as Ali.

The alarm on her phone promptly started warning her that she only had twenty minutes to get to Baxter’s classroom. For a moment, Catherine considered not showing up at all. Baxter could deal with it. In the end, she decided to go mostly because she was in a good enough mood about the high probability of not teaching again.

Besides, she had a number of games on her cellphone that she needed to check up on.

With a thought and a jaunt through the screaming inferno of Hell, Catherine teleported straight into the classroom.

And almost tripped over a little screaming girl.

Catherine blinked. All the mortal brats looked the same. It took a minute to realize who it was.

“The little mousy girl who had her name on the test and nothing else,” Catherine said as the girl got to her feet. “I have to say, you’ve got a work ethic I can admire. I mean, your score is going to be roughly the same as everyone else’s and yet you put in absolutely zero effort. Who is the real winner, hmm? Except you are here so early. You’re not having second thoug–”

“I know what you are.”

Catherine blinked again, this time allowing her eyes to return to their normal bright red, then laughed. “After that lesson on succubi, no one said anything. I was beginning to think all mortals are fools.”

Leaning in close to the girl, Catherine took a deep whiff of the air around her. No desire, at least not for Catherine. Maybe another student? It was muted and difficult to discern who without them present. She could delve into the girl’s mind a bit.

She gave a small shudder. But ugh, mortal teenager minds.

There was surprisingly little fear. Surprising less because Catherine viewed herself as an especially scary demon and more because of how much the girl stiffened up as Catherine leaned in.

“So what do you want?” Catherine said, finally pulling back from the girl. For a moment, she had considered licking the girl’s ear simply to see her reaction. Who knew where that had been. “Bigger boobs? Shapelier hips? You’re still growing kid. You’re going to be drawing plenty of eyes in a few years. Trust me, I can tell.”

The girl’s face turned scarlet from chin to forehead.

“Or maybe you’re wanting to jump some guy’s bones? Who is the lucky guy?” Catherine snapped her fingers. “There, twenty-four hours of irresistibility. Talk to someone with some confidence and they’ll be wrapped around your little finger.”

A lie of course. Watching her scarlet face twist into panic made it all worth it. Maybe she would bring the girl back to her domain–except by the time Martina kicked the bucket, the girl would probably be far too old to be fun to mess with. She would have to settle with messing with her now.

Hooray for finding more hobbies. More things to do that weren’t obeying Martina.

“No!” The girl said. “Take it off!”

“Can’t. It’ll wear off. If you really don’t want to have some fun, just don’t talk to anyone. It works on males, females, and cats, so–”

“Cats? Why cats?”

Catherine shrugged. “Why not?”

“Look,” she said, stamping her foot. “I just want to talk with someone. Eva isn’t here and I don’t know who else I can talk to.”

Catherine rolled her eyes, making it as obvious as was demoniacally possible. “First, I’m not a counselor, kid. Unless you want help pleasuring your lover–or yourself–go talk to someone else. And even then, you mortals have the concept that demons will grant wishes in exchange for souls. That’s the fae; djinn and fairies specifically.

“Any help I give will be by experience. And I can tell you don’t want that. Go find someone else.”

“I can’t.” Her voice went quiet. Enough so that Catherine had to lean in again to catch her words. “It is about demon things.”

With a sigh, Catherine pulled out her cellphone. Fifteen minutes before the testing started. The rest of the class should be showing up soon. “Talk and I might listen, but as soon as someone else shows up, we’re done. What’s your name?”

She looked mildly offended, but nodded. “Irene. It is my friend. Jordan. He…”

Blah, blah, blah. Catherine settled down on the top of her desk for what she knew would be the longest fifteen minutes of her entire existence.

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