The demon is howling and trying to get away from its burning self, like a dumb beast that is scared of flames but doesn’t understand them, flailing around and making itself even more dangerous than before.
Joshua would’ve killed for the ability to create some kind of protective shield, to throw it over Kayla, who’s standing defenseless at the other side of the plaza, but he can’t use that type of magic. That’s Darren's expertise and the Knight of Crosses is nowhere near, is probably fighting at the other side of the city tonight, as bad luck would have it.
There is, however, other magic that Joshua can use, magic that comes more easily and at a lower cost than any other, magic that uses the blood that is flowing freely from his many cuts and gashes.
From the other side of the plaza, Kayla catches his eyes, reads his intention in them and shakes her head, parts her lips to say something, but he’s already dropping to his knees, the words ready to spill from his mouth. He starts singing them aloud, pitch, tone and pronunciation coming effortlessly with the Archon’s mind connected to his.
He doesn’t dare look up as he casts, to see if the creature is advancing on him or Kayla, if either of them is going to die from a branch cleaving their heads open while he uses what is left of his energy on one last spell.
The blood running from his injuries starts gathering in front of him in a neat circle as he sings the words, it’s surface vibrating slightly, as if it is excited for him to finish and release it.
He hears Kayla scream his name, her tone desperate, but he doesn’t listen.
Instead, Joshua releases the spell.
The blood shoots forwards, breaking into dozens of smaller streams that surround the demon, making up a circle, drawing shapes and letters that will envelop, imprison and destroy it.
It is only then that Joshua looks for the creature.
The demon has not come for him or Kayla, has not tried to kill her while she was defenseless and he was casting the spell and that is, most likely, the only reason why they are still alive. Instead, it’s burrowing into the ground, its roots desperately tossing the cobblestones and digging down, its wails sounding more and more like panicked cries. Joshua sees this only for a moment and then the spell takes hold.
With a flash of red light, the demon is no more, a pile of black ash in the place where it had stood, trying to save itself with an intelligence it shouldn’t have possessed.
The fire coursing through Joshua’s body, the pleasant tingles of magic are gone along with his relics, his powers exhausted now that the Archon has used up all the blood he had fed it. His breathing is rapid and raspy through his parted lips, but only part of it is adrenaline and pain. Something nags at him, telling him he has just witnessed something unholy, some horrific, world-breaking secret he is not supposed to know.
But his mind has more pressing matters to tend to.
Kayla is on her knees amidst the drifting ash, holding her tattered arm close to her body. The supernatural ensemble has faded from her body, she’s back to wearing only a thin white nightgown, now stained red with blood, the golden medallion, and her feet are bare.
Joshua runs across the plaza, feeling every cut, bruise and injury as any other person would, without the ability to shut them out. He heads straight for where Kayla is. His heart is hammering in his chest, demon panic and worry for her mixing into a bitter brew that scorches his insides. He’s close to her now, his footsteps ringing out loudly but she’s in a daze, staring at where the demon disappeared, not turning to him. A lump forms in his throat and he holds out his hand, fingers aiming for her face.
Steel fingers grab his arm and twist it behind his back, pull it up to keep it in place. Joshua bites back a scream as tears of pain fill his eyes. The Archon protection is gone and the iron grip is more than his human body is meant to endure, but he won’t give the soldier the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
Kayla has broken out of her daze and is looking up at him and the soldier, her expression a mix of confusion and fear as she stands. She doesn’t realize what he just tried to do, has no idea how close he came to breaking the first rule.
“Touching is not allowed, Lord Knight.”
The maid’s monotone voice is followed by her coming into view a moment later, her bright red hair framing her pretty face. But the beauty can’t hide the fact that her skin is too rubbery, her brown eyes are too vitreous. She stands next to Kayla, the difference in their height and manner making the Bride seem like a graceless child beside her.
“I wasn’t going to touch her,” he spits the lie easily. “I was just coming closer to check on her arm.”
Kayla’s expression doesn’t change; despite all the years they’ve spent forcefully kept apart, she knows him and she knows he’s lying.
The maid doesn’t answer, simply keeps staring right through him. Whether she believes him or not, whether she even has the ability to or only spouts pre-learned phrases at the correct times, he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care, at that moment.
The soldier’s grip on his arm doesn’t let up, but it also doesn’t grow more painful.
“Please wait here, Lord Knight,” the maid says. “A carriage will be over to fetch you soon.”
With this, she makes to guide Kayla away from him, but the Bride hesitates, throws him a glance as if she wants to say something, but knows she can’t. Before the maid can push her, however, she walks forward, towards a group of nuns that fall on her like vultures, their black lace robes obscuring her from his view.
Joshua’s heartbeat quickens. What is he missing?
“Lord Knight, let me see to your wounds.”
Joshua quickly turns his attention to the nun in front of him. She seems to have wandered from the flock tending to Kayla, who have now stripped her to better nurse her injuries. He quickly looks away, casts his gaze towards the ground, angrier for her than he is embarrassed for himself.
“I’m not hurt,” he answers through gritted teeth.
The nun’s shoes, an intricate mess of brass and red gems against black velvet are in his field of vision and they don’t move. He looks up, into the same face of the house maid he has just talked to.
“I’m not hurt,” he says again.
It’s not a complete lie. There are gashes and bruises all over his body, but nothing as serious as Kayla endured and nothing that won’t heal after he rests and the Archon has time to replenish his powers. He'd rather wait in pain than feel the nun’s cold, rubbery hands on him. The irony that Vivien could easily heal him, either with her powers or simple medicine, if only interaction between the few humans in the abbey was allowed isn’t lost on him.
The nun doesn’t sigh in irritation, doesn’t roll her eyes or purse her lips. She doesn’t even bother telling the soldier to hold him tighter. She simply takes a step forward, lifts his shirt and starts inspecting his torso.
Joshua twists in the soldier’s grasp, hissing and spitting at the contact of her fake skin on his. He strikes out with his foot, catches her knee in a kick that would have sent a person backing and howling, but she’s unbothered. She continues her search, the strong smell of ointment rising from the round metal box she fishes from a pocket when she pauses to open it. Joshua hisses again, this time in pain, when she applies it to an open gash. The sting of it, the smell, the sound of the soldiers’ armor as they move around them, the anger exploding in his skull make him dizzy, and he’s forced to stop his struggle just so his head will stop spinning and his knees won’t buckle beneath him.
The nun keeps probing at him with unrelenting, efficient fingers, moving his clothes when needed. His stomach churns once, again when he remembers that Kayla is going through the same thing, only much more quietly, and he wishes it still had the ability to hold real food so he could empty its contents on the nun’s pretty shoes.
She eventually stops and straightens his clothes as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.
Joshua feels out of breath, his body shaken by shivers of disgust he can’t control. The soldier continues to hold him, an iron vice around his arms. The nun remains impassive.
He feels the heavy gravity of eyes on him and instinctively seeks them out, anything to attach himself to lest his consciousness floats away. Kayla. She’s staring at him wide-eyed, lower lip caught between her teeth. She looks back at the spot where a pile of ash lies in place of the demon, then back at him.
Joshua desperately wants to understand, but his brain isn’t responding. It has already taken too much, between his powers’ activation, the demon fight and the nun’s unwanted ministrations. He wants to at least spit in her face, even if all that’ll earn him is yet another punishment. But while his inside is full of fury, his outside refuses to move.
When he feels the ground begin to shake, he thinks it’s his own body finally giving up and keeling over. When darkness doesn’t follow it, when he hears the soldiers running towards the nuns, sees the dolls linking their arms to secure their footing, he finally understands that the problem is not him.
The quake grows stronger for a few seconds and, just as the irrational fear that it’s not going to pass hits him, a shriek joins it. Joshua instinctively looks up, expecting the angels to have shown up while they were distracted, but the sky is clear and the direction isn’t right. The cry, much like the shaking, is coming from below.
It, too, rises in intensity, and the nuns look at one another in the closest expression to fear he has ever seen on their identical faces.
The shaking subsides and then stops, the howl falls and finally fades, leaving Joshua feeling as if it had come from the depths of his own self.
And it hits him. The meaning behind Kayla’s glances, the demon’s strange behavior. It was trying to escape underground, where the Scions once marched into, led by the Princess of Roses, to gain their powers.