The outdoor auditorium where most of the summer seminars were held had a nice atmosphere. Seats surrounded a small circular platform on a raised dais down in the center of the area. On the platform, a wall of cushions had been set up and a waist high pile of silver marbles lay at the other end.
The auditorium was at the very edge of campus, somewhat near a small lake. An overgrowth of plants and trees spread out from the forest behind the platform. A single pointed mountain lay in the distance almost directly behind the platform.
Eva took her seat in the stands. The weekend passed and there had been no sign of Arachne. So she sat without a spider clinging to her chest. Juliana sat to her side. There were far more seats than the thirty or so students who showed up.
Zoe Baxter appeared on stage like some sort of magician. She had a pointed silver dagger in her hand. With a wave, the lights on the platform brightened and the lights in the audience darkened. She tapped her throat and began speaking in a loud voice.
“Welcome to my seminar. Here you will learn to fight. We will perform mock battles and we will discuss survival techniques.” She scanned the crowd as if waiting for questions or objections. None came. “Tonight will be a bit different.
“The goal is to avoid my attacks,” she gestured to the large pile of silver marbles, “and to land a single strike on me. Any volunteers?”
A larger student, maybe a third or fourth year, stood up and got a bit of a reaction from Zoe. “Oh. Mr. Burnside. Have you learned from last year’s mistakes?”
The student climbed up on stage and rolled a palm sized red sphere in his hands. “I’ve given a lot of thought into what I did wrong. You’ll be the one on your back this time.”
If Eva hadn’t been watching Zoe closely, she might have missed the tiny sigh that escaped her lips. “Very well, Mr. Burnside. Let us begin.”
Zoe gripped her dagger and flicked her wrist. Six of the marbles floated off the top of the pile and launched themselves towards the student.
A massive ball of flame, about the size of a large beach ball, erupted from the red sphere. Eva felt the heat wash over her as it raced towards Zoe.
The marbles entered the flame but did not emerge from the other end.
A heap of marbles moved between the flame and Zoe. The ball of flame crashed against the makeshift wall. More than half of the marbles disappeared beneath the flame before the ball of fire dispersed.
The remaining marbles all launched themselves at Burnside. He tried to dive out of the way but a number clipped his back. He was carried backwards and landed in the pile of cushions at the end of the stage.
“That was a powerful attack, Mr. Burnside. Relying on a single large attack is not a valid option. If your opponent avoids or defends against it, you will lose. I believe you tried a similar strategy during your second year. I do not wish to see it again.
“You may take a seat, Mr. Burnside.”
After that, a number of veterans fought against her and, without exception, all wound up failing to strike at her.
As the number of willing participants started to dwindle, Zoe began to call out specific people.
“Miss Eva. You look eager to test your mettle.”
Eva was certain she looked nothing resembling eager. “So much for not participating right away,” Eva whispered to Juliana.
The blond just shrugged.
Eva pulled out her wooden wand and climbed upstage. She hadn’t practiced with the thing at all since she got it, and didn’t intend to actually use it. Holding it in her hand and waving it around should cover up her casting.
What she was going to cast was the bigger issue. Neither she nor her master used traditional magic much and neither had a proper education in it. But Eva didn’t have her vials or her daggers, nor any demons to come rescue her. Not that she would have used any of them in a little mock battle.
Stepping was the most normal magic she used. She could do simple light spells, but she wouldn’t be throwing around fireballs just now.
Her poor planning session ground to a stop as Zoe took up a stance. “Ready yourself,” she said.
Immediately a handful of the silver balls shot towards Eva. Several aimed at her face.
She stepped past them and immediately threw up her hand. A dark ring spread and enveloped the stage.
Her instructor slowly turned, unable to see in the darkness but obviously expecting an attack. Several marbles launched from the pile in seemingly random directions. More than a few were a bit too close for comfort for Eva.
Eva flashed a bright light just to the left of her instructor and stepped to her right. Her hand, already halfway through a punch when she came out of her step, froze in midair as she felt the cold flat of a blade on her neck.
That happens way too often for my comfort, Eva mentally sighed.
The darkness dropped to reveal Zoe Baxter looking her usual proper self.
“You managed to avoid the projectiles and create a situation disadvantageous to myself. You pressed your advantage in an unexpected move with a physical attack. I can’t say I ever expected to be nearly punched.
I would compliment you, however you just moved within range of one who uses a close quarters weapon as their focus.” She removed the dagger from Eva’s throat. “As lithe and as delicate as it looks, it is still a deadly weapon. Unless you have a counter, don’t get close.
“Take a seat Miss Eva.”
Eva frowned as she walked back to Juliana’s side. If Zoe hadn’t already known about her abilities, she may have been able to surprise the woman. That didn’t make her wrong. In real combat, Eva would never attempt to get close to someone with a weapon if there were alternatives. But in real combat, Eva would have used blood magic and Arachne, if she were around.
If she were around. If Eva were attacked on the way back from the seminar, what would she do? Run, probably. She didn’t have Arachne, her daggers, or any vials of blood. Maybe she would start carrying a dagger and some blood.
Eva took her seat and watched as Zoe Baxter knocked another student on their back. It was a good show, to be sure, but Eva wondered just what the purpose was. She offered next to no pointers and taught no spells that would help. If she was trying to test everyone’s level, then everyone lay somewhere around abysmal in comparison to her.
This was probably why there were almost no students above the second year. The new students didn’t know any better and the second years wanted to see if what they learned in class would help. For the most part, it didn’t.
“Anyone else?” Zoe looked around the crowd as her latest demonstration limped back to his seat.
To his credit, the boy was one of the better ones. He erected a violet shield that stopped the marbles. He tried to launch spikes of ice at the instructor, but the moment he did, his concentration and shield wavered. Zoe sent a handful of marbles at once, intending to break through, but the shield went down just as they would have hit it.
His ice spike did make Zoe sidestep, for whatever that was worth.
“Miss Rivas. You are looking like you want to try. Care to step on stage?”
Eva glanced at her friend. She had her usual half bored, half tired look on her face. She wasn’t even glaring or really staring at Zoe.
Still, Juliana stood and stepped up to the stage, withdrawing a simple wooden wand. Eva had yet to see the girl use anything else for her magic.
Zoe launched a good ten of the steel marbles all at once. Eva did make a note that not a single one had been aimed at the blond’s face. She winced as her friend just stood there.
The marbles impacted. The blond remained unmoved. Instead of knocking her across the room, the marbles splotched out on her sundress the way Eva imagined paintballs might. The silvery metal flowed over her dress and coalesced into a thin plate over her chest.
“Ferrokinesis,” Zoe said. “The ability to control metal within a few inches of oneself. An earth magic spell that is an almost perfect counter to these attacks, and of a skill level far higher than a pre-first year. Where did you learn it?”
“Indeed. Let us step it up a bit then.”
Something must have clued Juliana into the coming attack. A thick column of earth shot out of the ground just as Zoe finished speaking. A lightning bolt crashed into the column an instant later.
Eva jumped in her seat, as did half the crowd.
Juliana already launched her counter attack. Shards of the earth column that broke off with the lightning oriented their sharp ends towards Zoe. With a flick of her wand, the shards launched off.
Zoe stood her ground. Her pile of steel marbles launched at the incoming earth shards, intercepting every one.
A simple shield would have taken that hit, Eva thought. She’s showing off, still toying with her. For a moment, Eva thought about interfering. A simple light spell flying into Zoe’s eyes. But she worried her new friend may take that as an insult; that she couldn’t hold her own.
A gust of air caught Juliana off guard, rocking her back slightly. She dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding several of her own earth shards carried by the wind.
A bolt of lightning crackled over her head. “Enough,” called Zoe Baxter.
Juliana climbed to her feet. She pocketed her wand and brushed herself off.
“You did exemplary. You found a way to completely nullify my use of projectiles. In addition, your reflexes to my second attack were top of the line.” She turned to the crowd. No, she turned to Eva. “However, Miss Eva. I saw you out of the corner of my eye. You very nearly attacked me. Why didn’t you?”
Heads turned as almost the entire gathering of students focused on Eva. Eva glanced around, feeling a sudden twisting in her stomach. Juliana just gave her a light smile, barely a twitching of her lips. “I–”
“Miss Rivas could have been the first to strike me since I started these seminars seven years ago. It would have taken just a little distraction.”
Eva let silence fill the air as she considered her words carefully. “I didn’t want Juliana to feel that I thought she was weak. She was doing, as you said, exemplary. It felt wrong to interrupt.”
“So you failed to assist your friend due to wanting to save foolish pride. Her own, not yours. It is true this was a mere mock fight with no intent to seriously injure,” she gave sidelong look at Juliana, “at least on my part. But I hope you would not do such foolish things in an actual battle. I’ve known plenty of people to die because of foolish pride than I care to. I do not wish to add to that count.”
A silence hung over the crowd of students at the heavy words. Zoe seemed to not notice. She turned back to Juliana. “Thank you, Miss Rivas. You may return to your seat.
“That will be all for tonight,” Zoe said as Juliana hopped off stage. “The second seminar will be held on Monday one week from tonight.”
Eva’s shoulders slumped as Juliana sat down. “Sorry,” Eva said.
Juliana just shook her blond hair. “Don’t be. I didn’t help in your fight.”
“That’s different. I wasn’t doing much of anything and Professor Baxter wasn’t doing much in return. You had lightning bolts tossed at you and they are nothing to be scoffed at, believe me.”
“You’ve had run ins with lightning before, Miss Eva?” Zoe walked up to where the girls were seated. “I shouldn’t have held back so much then.”
“Second hand and I’m very sure that it wasn’t quite the same.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
Eva sighed and relayed a sanitized version of her master being hit by lightning. She made sure to obscure all the details.
At mentioning how her master had been laid up for a few weeks, Juliana nodded sagely. “I’ve seen my mother on potion highs after injury. It isn’t pretty.”
“Sounds like you’ve had quite a lot of experiences. I fully expected to be hit by a spell under the cover of your darkness. What led to your decision to use a punch?”
Eva shrugged. “I don’t know why you expected a pre-first year student to do much of anything,” she said with a glance towards Juliana.
“I personally know Juliana’s mother, and have known Juliana for a fair amount of time.” The two shared a glance. “Still I wanted to check and see for myself how her training was coming.”
“Well,” Eva said, “I’ve never had to use major offensive spells. Light spells and the darkness derivative are useful on occasion. My stepping is useful for everyday transportation. I can light a campfire but I’m not going to be throwing around fireballs like that first student.” She shrugged again. “In retrospect, I should have just ducked down and wrote down a sleep rune.”
Zoe Baxter narrowed her eyes. Eva did not miss the glare.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“A complex and rather impressive array of runes was found outside a museum in your hometown. A certain group expressed great interest in recovering a dangerous object that was stolen.”
Eva stiffened as her stomach clenched for the second time that night.
“And Miss Eva. I do remember your promise to be clever with your lies.”
“There was a ten thousand year old phylactery with a bounty for its destruction. My mentor was looking to collect.”
Zoe had the good sense to look startled. “There was a lich running around while I was there? And you fought it?”
Eva shook her head. “I just put the museum staff to sleep. Apparently its body had been destroyed a long time ago and it was unable to acquire a new one. And before you ask, the phylactery was destroyed. I watched it happen.”
Zoe studied Eva’s face. After a minute, her eyes flicked over to Juliana. Eva caught a shrug out of the corner of her eye. “Well,” Zoe said, turning back to Eva, “that is reassuring. I must admit to being concerned when the sisters refused to describe what dangerous object was stolen in their notice, especially as I suspected one of my students were involved. They’ll be happy to know it is destroyed.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Eva said quickly. She did not want her name mentioned to the nuns. “My mentor theorized that the Elysium Sisters were protecting the phylactery, rather than seeking its destruction.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Juliana spoke up. “The Elysium Sisters are known for being intensely hostile to any sort of undeath or necromancers.”
“Well, I highly doubt my mentor was capable of destroying it while they were unable to. But that’s just his theory. You would have to ask him.”
“I would love to.”
Eva suppressed a wince. She forgot the stiff woman wanted to meet with her master. Her little challenge to herself went wayward with the traveling and exploring of a new city. “I passed on your wish to meet him before I left. I haven’t spoken with him since.”
“In any case,” Eva said before the instructor could continue, “if they really want to know, just tell them Randolph Carter destroyed the phylactery. As far as I know, my mentor is still in Florida.”
Zoe Baxter nodded and parted with the girls, but not before reminding them to be at the next week’s seminar.
“Sounds like you’re into some dangerous things.”
Eva glanced at the blond as they walked back to the dorms. Her face had the usual impassive look to it and her tone lacked the accusatory edge Eva had been expecting. “Not really,” Eva said, “put the night shift to sleep, walk in, my mentor grabbed the phylactery, walk out.”
Juliana seemed not to hear. “You never told me you had tutelage under a mage-knight. What other bounties did you go after?”
“I don’t think he and your mother are quite the same thing. His bounties come from a more… seedier sort.”
“Still, you didn’t even have a focus until a few days ago. Yet you used two chaos spells, though they were admittedly low-level.”
Eva didn’t have a proper response to that. “Chaos spells?” she deflected.
Juliana glanced at Eva. “You don’t know?” At Eva’s shaking head, Juliana said, “Order and chaos magic are taught during the fifth and sixth year, after four years of elemental magic.”
“So it is very advanced magic then?”
“Not really. I imagine we’ll learn plenty during our general magic classes. It just doesn’t have a dedicated class until later. They’re used a lot more in creating magical artifacts than elemental magic and have less use in daily life.”
Eva frowned at that. “You’re telling me,” she stepped forward about ten feet, “that is a chaos magic spell?”
Juliana nodded. “My mother can blink.”
Eva hummed at that. “Zoe Baxter called it a ‘rudimentary teleport’ and seemed fairly dismissive of it when I first met her.”
“Maybe it fails at some aspect a standard blink can do?” she said with a shrug.
“Still, it is one of the few spells I actually know, yet I used it nearly every day before coming here. It seems a lot more useful in daily life than a lightning bolt.”
“That particular spell, perhaps. Take air magic. Mrs. Baxter was using telekinesis to move her attacks. An air mage might be able to slow their falls or just keep a storm out of their face while high level air magi can fly unaided or perhaps drastically increase their speed and senses. And those are just examples on a more extreme end.”
None of those sounded all that amazing to Eva. Except flying. That might be fun. In truth, she was far more interested in things like lightning bolts and fireballs than how to keep a storm out of your face.
Still, she nodded along with the blond’s words as the conversation drifted to safer topics. They made it back to the dorm and Juliana headed straight for the shower.
The earlier conversation reminded Eva that she slept on two potentially dangerous objects. If Arachne didn’t return soon, she might have to find a temporary holding place herself. Or just do a thorough examination of the golden dagger and the blackened skull herself. Eva procrastinated enough with all the traveling and settling.
Rather than reach behind the drawer under her bed, Eva sat at her desk and took out a pen and paper.
Juliana emerged from the shower a full hour later. She walked to Eva’s desk and peeked over her shoulder, bringing with her the faint smell of her flowery shampoo.
“Very pretty,” Juliana said. “What are they?”
Eva replaced her wand in her pocket as she finished charging the last rune. It was a bit annoying to use, but she decided to get used to it before school started. The runes should last a good few months even with the low quality ink and paper. She would loved to have reset her blood wards, but the idea of exploding roommates wasn’t very appealing.
“They are runes,” Eva said.
“I gathered that. What for?”
“Mostly to stop scrying, but they might be good for keeping away a handful of other minor nuisances.”
“What made you make them?”
“A book on scrying I noticed in the library earlier,” Eva lied. There had been books, but they were not the reason for the paranoia. “If you were a thirteen year old boy suddenly living in the same building as a bunch of girls with easy access to tons of magical texts, what would you do? And try to remember Max’s comments the night we got here.”
Juliana’s face flushed red and she simply nodded. She stopped as a thought seemingly occurred to her. “I didn’t think you cared about such things.”
“We’re both girls,” was Eva’s excuse. “Besides, you don’t want to show off for them, do you?”
She shook her head. “So how do they work?”
“Each one will cover a five by five foot square centered on the paper. We hang them up on the ceiling, overlapping slightly, and anyone who tries to peek gets hit on the head with a hammer. Not literally, there should be no long-term damage. If they persist the worst that might happen would be passing out, but they’d have to endure a good ten seconds of constant hammering in the skull to get that far.
“They should last about two months, maybe a bit less. I need to acquire some better ink and a fountain pen. These ballpoint pens are nice for notes but little else. The one in the bathroom will probably need to be replaced weekly. The humidity will damage it.”
Juliana nodded. “You know, runes are cons–”
“Outdated, archaic, old, not worthy of learning by any mage, and I’m a terrible person for using them. I know.”
“I was just saying: there are wards we could set up instead.”
“Runes it is then. Let me know when you find some anti-scrying wards. Until then, these will do.”
A thoughtful look crossed Juliana’s face again. “You should sell them.”
“I’m sure there are tons of people here that would like them.”
“That’s…” Extra money would be nice. The boys were just an excuse. Eva didn’t care if they saw her. The skull and her daggers, as well as Arachne when she came back, were the bigger issues. “We’d have to keep it secret. I’m quite confident in my rune-work, but I’d rather not have people trying to find ways around.”
“Hmm hmm.” Juliana smiled. Her usual smiles were rare and when they showed they were barely there. This smile was a borderline grin. “I want ten percent for the idea. For an extra twenty percent I’ll find you customers.”
Eva stared at her new friend. The girl was entirely serious. Eventually Eva shrugged. “Alright, go for it.”
“We’ll need to find a way to keep people from just copying the runes after they buy it. Otherwise they’ll just make their own after buying once.” The pulled her hand to her chin, deep in thought. “Can you use some kind of invisible ink? Or perhaps an envelope that instantly incinerates its contents when opened.”
Eva hadn’t seen the blond this interested in something since she showed off Arachne. Eva offered comments on questions about what all she could do with the runes. She relaxed against the back of her chair as Juliana went over several aspects of their new business. The girl wrangled an extra five percent for ‘consultant fees’ out of the poor runesmith.
Not that Eva minded much. This would just be an extra cushion on the stipend that came with her scholarship.
They went to bed after coming up with the full plan. Juliana would begin quietly testing for interest and advertising for anti-scrying shields. If enough people seemed interested, they’d go get some supplies and begin production.