Zoe put on a light smile as she greeted her old teacher. “It is good to see you again, Genoa. Carlos.”
Juliana’s father gave a light nod of his head.
“I wish I could say the same.” Genoa slid down her circular sunglasses to peer over the top.
Zoe tried to maintain her smile. It felt strained and fake. She did not like the look she was getting.
Understandable though it was.
“A situation has arisen involving your daughter.”
“So I hear. Where is she?”
“Juliana, along with her two roommates, is currently at a prison and will be commuting–”
“A prison? What did,” Genoa almost looked ill before she got herself under control. “What did she do?”
“Nothing. She’s not in trouble. The prison was old and abandoned. It has been retrofitted for habitation. She is there because of a possible threat to her life. We were able to place far more secure wards around it than around the school dorms.”
“A threat to her life? And you didn’t think to contact me?”
Zoe suppressed a sigh. It was hard. She managed anyway. “That’s why I called you here. We only learned about the threat this morning.”
Carlos cut in before Genoa could say anything else. “Does this have anything to do with the incident that occurred the other week?”
“Indeed. I was attacked in my own home. We believe they were after a ring I possess.”
“I want to ask about that,” Genoa said, “but first tell me how Juliana factors into this mess.”
“She possesses an identical ring, given to us by a mutual acquaintance.”
“Powers, enchantments, and abilities of the rings?”
“The rings are quite fascinating. I had several notebooks worth of notes on the subject before my home burnt to the ground. The properties of just the metal are simply astounding. I had only scratched the surface on what kind of enchantments might be on–”
Zoe cut herself off with a light cough before she could get too excited. “There is definite cause for someone to want one. I’ve been told that their primary purpose is protection by way of dissuasion against certain entities.” The last word was punctuated with a glance towards Carlos.
“Demons, dear,” he said softly.
Genoa’s lips pressed into a thin line as she reached up and adjusted her glasses into their proper place. With a glance towards her husband, she said, “I see.”
“Zoe was attacked while I was meeting with Juliana. I heard about it then.”
“I was not wearing it at the time and thus missed the chance to verify the protection ability.”
“You were attacked by demons.”
Zoe gave a quick nod. “Which is why we felt the protections offered by the Brakket dormitories were insufficient.”
“I believe I would like to see my daughter.”
Another nod from Zoe. That was expected and planned for. On Juliana’s suggestion, they decided to avoid all mention of Ylva or her domain. The girls would be staying within the women’s ward until Genoa left.
“I can bring you to them. Would you like to drive or shall I ferry you there?”
“Teleportation, if you will.”
Zoe stepped forwards and took hold of Genoa’s arm. “Carlos, I’ll return for you in a moment.”
“I’ll wait right here.”
With a swipe of her dagger, the world fell away to the cool white of between. The sensation lasted mere instants before the pathway leading towards the women’s ward appeared beneath their feet. The rest of reality followed soon after.
“The paths are safe. Avoid the buildings until we get you keyed into the wards. They are not to be trifled with and may cause maiming or death.”
Rather than the acknowledgment Zoe expected, Genoa’s thin lips twisted into a sadistic smile. “If these wards are going to be protecting my daughter, I think a good test is in order.”
“Genoa! That’s not–”
The woman was gone. A pillar of stone jutted out of the ground where she had stood, propelling Genoa with it.
Zoe pinched the bridge of her nose. Genoa had survived as long as she had without too much trouble. Surely she could survive the minute or so it would take to get Carlos and have him talk sense into her.
With a swipe of her dagger, the world vanished.
Besides, she thought, this might actually be a good test.
— — —
A boulder crashed into the common room.
Right through the window adjacent to the front door.
Shards of glass, stone, and metal exploded inwards. If it wasn’t for Arachne diving to cover Eva and Juliana raising a wall in front of herself and Shalise, they could have been killed by debris.
A boulder crashed into my common room.
“Arachne,” Eva shouted as all five vials of blood swarmed to her open hand. “Handle it.”
Arachne got to her feet and ran outside. Her grin as she sprinted would not have looked out of place on a serial killer.
Several backup vials of blood in her room exploded, releasing the contents. A second boulder crashed through one of the guest rooms in the time it took the blood to travel and form up into the ball in her hand.
Eva shaped it into the largest shield she had ever created.
Just in time.
She felt a massive impact on the shield. Whatever boulder just got deflected would have impacted straight on top of them.
Confident her shield could handle at least a handful more boulders, Eva made her way towards the unbroken window.
Two combatants danced over the space between the women’s ward and the walls.
One was the obsidian black form of Arachne. Only four legs sprouted from her back. No bulbous behind appeared. Either the demon needed the mobility or she wasn’t being serious.
Eva hoped it was the latter. The unmistakable form of Genoa Rivas was her dance partner.
Showing off as many of her scars as she could without offending the delicate sensibilities of mere mortals, Genoa slung bits of earth towards Arachne with a fervor. Occasional bursts of fire joined the stone.
The smile on her face matched Arachne’s in intensity. Neither looked very friendly.
Arachne caught a boulder almost the size of her abdomen. She had to sprout another two legs to assist. A moment later and it sailed back towards the original sender.
Genoa had the decency to look surprised before she let out a short laugh. Earth beneath her feet disappeared. She fell into a hole and popped out a short distance away just a moment later.
Twelve spears made of rock followed her out. They wasted no time in launching towards Arachne.
Who managed to bat them away with her extra legs. She made it look easy enough that Eva almost wanted to blindfold her.
Eva’s front lawn was a mess. Pockmarks and craters dotted the large clearing between the women’s ward building and the wall sectioning it off from the rest of the prison. Large sections were simply missing. Probably used in making the boulders.
Every dodge or deflection by Arachne was another stone pinging against her shield. The rocks would scatter, further damaging her lawn and her walls.
Then again, the space wasn’t used. No grass. Nothing well-kept. A bunch of weeds and sagebrush that Eva never bothered to clear out. Some new landscaping might be just what the doctor ordered.
A sudden vision of a trap filled courtyard brought a smile to Eva’s face. Moats of molten earth could surround her home. Surely some earth or fire mage could get the molten rock to stay molten.
No. No, no, no. No glass half full. No combustible lemons. They were ruining her front lawn.
Before she could launch her own attack at the mad woman, an exasperated sigh came from Eva’s side.
Eva almost swiped out with her own claws before her brain caught up to the presence of a fully armored Juliana.
“Mother,” she said softly, blissfully unaware of her near death.
“She could have killed us,” Shalise said from a few feet behind.
Eva gave another start at the brown-haired girl. Both managed to surprise Eva.
Just when she was getting used to keeping a full awareness around her with blood, eyes had to ruin everything. It was a lot to concentrate on both blood and sight. She’d need to practice.
“Yeah,” Juliana sighed. “That’s my mother.”
“She’s testing our defenses.” Eva gave a dismissive gesture towards the hole in the wall. “They obviously failed.”
“Your shield is working.”
“It came up too late. I need… something. Some way to preserve the blood outside of vials. Perhaps enchanted glass formed up in the shape of a shield. And then some way to make it reactive. Or even preventative.”
Perhaps runes set up to detect high-speed objects? That could ignore fireballs. And then how to hook it up to the blood shield.
Eva shook her head. “Something to worry about later, I suppose.”
“I’m glad we’re not staying here then,” Shalise said in a quiet tone.
Probably not meant for Eva’s ears. Despite taking a slight offense to that, she couldn’t actually disagree.
Instead of commenting, Eva withdrew her void metal dagger and jammed it into her own arm. She didn’t want to hurt Genoa. At least not too much. Maybe some light maiming. Her own inferior blood would be perfect for that task.
If she could find it in her heart to spare Sister Cross who actually attacked her, she could avoid killing someone who was merely probing defenses.
The ground opened beneath Arachne. A wide enough hole that even with her legs, she wouldn’t be able to avoid it. Without even a waver on her crazed grin, Arachne fell in. She leaped out, just skimming the boulder that was going to bury her.
Rather than use her blood as obliterative explosives, Eva formed it into three blunted lances.
A voice echoed through a metal helmet before Eva could launch the blood. “She’s going to be angry if you don’t sharpen those.”
“I don’t want to hurt your mom.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t.”
Eva frowned as she looked towards the blond. “I know that when we’re kids, we think our parents are invincible and the greatest thing ever. They’re not.”
Juliana just shrugged. “I warned you. Don’t say I didn’t later.” The mirth in her voice was plain to hear even through the distortion of her helmet.
Gritting her teeth, Eva gave the spears a point. Not as sharp as she could make them, but at the speed they would be flying, that shouldn’t be noticeable.
All three launched out of the broken wall at the same time. One, the dullest, aimed at her head. The rest aimed around her chest.
Eva didn’t blink. She still missed the slight flick of Genoa’s fingers that raised a shield. It lasted exactly long enough to catch all three of the spears. She was back to flinging stones at Arachne the instant the spears were shattered.
“Yeah. But…” Eva smiled. This might be better.
Eva caught the blood as it fell, reforming the shattered pieces into several needles. Unlike Juliana and her mother, Eva didn’t fire and forget. No. She remembered her projectiles.
And her control was absolute.
The needles were far sharper than the spears, but would likely do less damage if they hit. Not enough mass. While mildly certain that she could keep the blood together and force it through her body, Eva wouldn’t. They’d act like earthen projectiles for now. As such, she didn’t feel as bad about attacking from a complete blind spot.
Fifteen needles of blood fired at Genoa’s back. A few aimed for her neck. Unlike last time, Eva staggered the needles. Even if Genoa somehow caught onto it, she’d have to keep her shield up longer. Split her concentration.
Arachne was advancing, but glacially. This could give her an opportunity to turn the tables completely.
Without even turning her head, Genoa stepped–or rather, blinked to the side. A good half of the needles pelted nothing more than a boulder she had raised prior to blinking.
Eva felt her control over some of the blood slip as too much dirt contaminated it. Her teeth grit together. Did she plan that? No. It couldn’t be. Just a stray boulder that would have been launched at Arachne otherwise.
And she blinked! Inconceivable! On a debris ridden battlefield. Arachne was throwing Genoa’s own rocks back at her as fast as she could.
She could have easily clipped into some stray rock or a piece of earth jutting out of the ground. That would have taken her out of the fight instantly.
She didn’t even look to the side before she blinked! How could she blink there?
It was bad enough that Eva had to double-check and ensure that Genoa did not have any Nel-eyes squirming around her body.
What’s more, Eva had completely forgotten about blinking. She hadn’t tried stepping since she replaced her eyes. Something to be rectified as soon as things calmed down.
Eva readied the remains of her needles and had them hound down the now rapidly blinking Genoa. She paid careful attention to avoiding losing any more needles to stray boulders.
Some of her blinks even took Genoa straight backwards. Somewhere she couldn’t see even in peripheral vision.
“How is she doing this?” Eva asked nobody in particular. She certainly wasn’t asking the giggling Juliana.
The ground opened beneath Arachne once again. The demon must have been ready for it. The moment the dirt shifted, she jumped.
Right into a flying boulder.
That she somehow got on top of before it landed.
The boulder in her face did blind her for a few crucial seconds.
Genoa blinked behind Arachne and elbowed her in the back of the head.
Eva stood in open-mouthed incredulity as Arachne stumbled forwards.
The spider-demon failed to round in time with any of her limbs.
Genoa blinked again.
And Arachne, spun backwards and unsteady, caught a boulder in the back of her head. She went down. Face first into the ground.
A very literal into the ground. The earth opened up and ate Arachne.
Genoa turned and immediately started bombarding the shield with boulders. Each one larger than the last.
“This is bad.” Very bad. Eva poured a significant amount of blood into maintaining the shield. It would dilute Arachne’s blood, but it would buy time.
“Come on, Arachne. Get up. You can’t be out.”
Eva had half a mind to summon a demon and drain them to fuel the shield and more attacks. It wouldn’t work. The summoning circle was out in solitary confinement. Not to mention the time it would take to get a demon to willingly agree to a contract that involved shedding its own blood.
Arachne, in full on Arachne-mode no less, erupted from her earthen tomb. She landed right on top of Genoa.
“Juliana,” Eva barked without even looking to see if Genoa had survived. She started moving towards her bedroom.
At this point, Eva wasn’t worried at all. If she could somehow blink backwards and sense the blood needles, she couldn’t have missed Arachne’s massive form sailing through the air.
“If the shield goes down, how likely is the chance that your mother will cease pelting my building with rocks before this building is completely unsalvageable.”
The sounds of battle resuming outside confirmed her lack of concern. Hopefully Arachne would keep her busy for a few minutes.
Also hopefully without killing her.
Juliana sounded far more serious than she had during her earlier bout of laughter. “I guess that depends on what kind of mood she is in.”
“Knock on my door if she surrenders,” Eva said, “but do not enter.” She slammed the door to her room behind her.
Worthless thaumaturgy. Useless blood. She had used all of her stores of Arachne’s blood in the shield. Even if her own wasn’t useless, she wasn’t willing to shed more at the moment.
The headache and lethargy were already settling in.
But Eva liked the prison. The women’s ward particularly. It was a great home.
She wasn’t willing to lose it.
Time to take the kid gloves off.
It was cheating. Dirty, terrible, and hopefully painful.
The prison will not fall.
Eva promised to apologize later.
Blood wards permeated the entirety of the prison. Wall to wall, even outside of the women’s ward courtyard. They were simply turned off.
It was difficult to accept guests when they kept exploding.
The real trick was modifying it to not explode Genoa. It was too easy to set it to full power.
Eva stuck her dagger into the blood that made up her ward scheme. Slowly, she amped up the power in the courtyard. Eva kept a careful eye on Genoa through her blood sight. The slightest hint of a problem and Eva would drop it straight back to zero.
It didn’t take long.
Genoa dropped to the ground and started writhing back and forth. Likely screaming.
Eva turned down the power a few notches.
Arachne barreled over, turning human as she did so. She had the good sense not to separate Genoa’s head from her shoulders and merely pinned her down. The moment Arachne had Genoa under control, Eva shut off the power.
Just in time for frantic knocking at the door.
“Eva, stop it,” came Juliana’s panicked voice. “Whatever you’re doing, stop!”
Eva pulled open the door to her room. “Already did,” she said with a smile. “Shall we go talk to her?”
“What was that? She was–the screams… I don’t–I’ve seen her walk around on untreated broken legs with a smile. What did you do?”
“Um, overloaded the pain center in her brain?” That wasn’t close to right, but a good enough for an explanation. “She’s not hurt and will be perfectly fine in a minute or two.”
Juliana gave a slight shudder. “I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like my home having holes in it. You yourself said that she wouldn’t stop when the shield went down.”
Eva opened the front door and marched out as a victor would. Head held high and superior smugness in every step. Watching Ylva walk around was good for that at least.
Shalise stood just a short distance from the two combatants, shouting at Arachne. She was probably the main reason Arachne hadn’t taken off Genoa’s head. Whatever pleas she made worked.
“If you agree not to cause any more damage to my home,” Eva said as she approached, “Arachne will let you up.”
“What is–what was–I should have–” Genoa’s gaze pulled away from Arachne to look at Eva. “What happened to you?”
Both Zoe Baxter and Carlos Rivas were standing just outside the women’s ward walls, watching in with wide eyes.
It was a good thing Eva had forgotten to even ask Carlos if he wanted his blood removed from the wards. She hadn’t even noticed either of them before walking out.
Eva bent down to pick up the sunglasses that must have flung off her face during her seizure. “In order: Genoa, meet Arachne. That was the prison defenses, the real ones that were turned off to allow you entry. You shouldn’t have. And long story.” Eva gave her a polite smile. “Would you like to come in?”
— — —
“Alright,” Genoa said. “I think I understand most of the situation.”
Juliana leaned into her mother’s side. Normally, she’d never show such affection in front of her teacher and friends. Hearing those screams changed her mind. She just needed some reaffirmation that her mother was alright.
It was completely unnecessary. Juliana knew that. Genoa had popped up once Arachne got off of her. Not a single stumble could be seen in her walk. With a flick of her wand, she casually cleaned off all the dirt she had gathered from rolling on the ground.
Convincing her to give blood to Eva took longer than Juliana’s father, but that had passed by without too much issue.
Genoa pointed at herself then towards Eva. “Powerful wards. Necromancer shenanigans. West African tarantula.” Her voice dropped a few notches in kindliness as her finger settled on Arachne. “I don’t believe that for a second,” she said with a glare towards Carlos.
That earned a sigh from Eva.
“We’ll come back to that,” Genoa said as she looked down at Juliana over the rims of her glasses.
Uh oh. Juliana tried to squirm away from her mother, but her grip on Juliana’s shoulder tightened like an iron vice.
“What I do not understand is what you were thinking.”
“Your dwelling was under attack by a potentially lethal force. And you didn’t help mount a defense? Not a single stone flew towards me. If it weren’t for the wards, I would have won. I would have killed you.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Juliana said softly.
“No. But you’ll wish I had by the time I’m done with you.”
Juliana tried to shrink in on herself. The grip on her shoulder only tightened further. The metal coating her creaked under the strain.
“Honestly, I love you dear, but I thought I taught you better than this. What if I were an impostor? You and your friends could be dead because of your failure.”
“No, Carlos. I’m not finished.”
Her mother’s glare changing targets to Eva was one of the best feelings. Juliana didn’t even care that it effectively threw her friend to the wolves.
“You keyed me into your wards without even asking for verification of my identity. Not even a simple ‘what did you get me for Christmas.’ You yourself told me that one of your enemies already employed illusions against you.”
Eva bristled under the glare, but otherwise returned it ten fold. Her eyes made that easy. “If you make any overtly hostile actions, I can remove you from the wards with a mere snap of my–” Eva paused and looked down at her claws. “A clap of my hands. And the wards in here are not set to cause pain. You will not survive.”
“That’s something at least.”
Juliana did not miss the relief in her voice.
“But there are more problems. Am I correct in assuming your wards do not extend beyond the outer walls of the prison?”
Eva gave a curt nod.
“I could have been bombarding your building from outside the walls. Your shield came up far too slow. It was strong and I am curious as to how you powered it–I don’t think three students could maintain such a large shield–but it was still too slow. Had one of my early attacks been in a different location, you could be paste.”
“This building is the most habitable and most presentable building in the prison. We chose it to receive you for that reason. We will be staying in a more central building most of our time here.” Eva vaguely gestured off towards the center of the prison. “As for the shield, I agree. In fact, your attack revealed that vulnerability and gave me a few ideas. I’ll need to experiment a bit, but I think I can work out something much faster.”
“You need to experiment?” Genoa asked with a glance towards Zoe. “I assumed it was something you set up.”
“Most everything here is Eva’s own design. She found the prison and remodeled it herself. I think most things run on runes, but I’ve not found the time to thoroughly examine the place.”
And that was it.
Carlos had to break the silence. “It will be just you three living here?”
“And me,” Arachne said. She’d been in a strangely good mood since the fight ended. Her smile, while still quite terrifying, seemed more relaxed.
“Ah yes,” Genoa said with a voice as cold as ice. “The demon.”
“West African–” A loud sigh escaped from Eva as she ran her fingers through her scalp. She slowly turned her eyes over the rest of the room. “Nevermind. Don’t ever tell me a secret you don’t want absolutely everyone to know.”
“You weren’t very subtle. I’ve seen effects like that,” she pointed towards Eva’s hands. “And your eyes are fairly unique as well. If necromancers had actually done that, they’d be bits of dead people. Or dead things.
“Then there was the black blood, the extra limbs, the shape shifting, the strength. The overwhelming sense of superiority. A West African tarantula? Honestly, Carlos? You’re lucky we got a new couch recently, because that is where you are going to be sleeping for the foreseeable future.”
“Yes, dear.” Juliana’s father bowed his head.
“Now. You,” Genoa said with a glance back at Arachne. “When are you planning on backstabbing my daughter?”
Without even the slightest waver in her smile, Arachne answered. “When Eva tells me to.”
“Don’t say it like that,” Eva said with a smack to Arachne’s chest. “You’ll create misunderstandings.” Turning to face Genoa head on, Eva said, “Arachne is mine. She won’t hurt Juliana.”
“Oh? And when do you intend to betray my daughter.”
“What? Never. Juliana is like my first friend.”
For a brief instant, guilt gripped Juliana. She needed to come clean on her own demon summoning efforts. It wasn’t like she could keep it a secret forever. Not unless she fell under whatever secret keeping curse that afflicted Eva. Besides, Eva might help out.
Then Juliana registered the full sentence.
“Like?” “Like?” Juliana echoed her mother.
“Well, unless you count Arachne.”
“And do you count Arachne?”
“I’ve known Arachne since I was seven years old. While she wasn’t a constant companion until recently, I think I can consider her my first and best friend.”
“Since you were seven? How could you have gotten into diablery at that age? Are your parents–”
“Perfectly ordinary, nonmagical mortals. No. It is a long and very personal story. I’m more interested in your story. Juliana said you had an issue with demons. Don’t you know how racist that is? That’s like saying that you don’t like goblins just because one stole your money one time.”
“All goblins steal–”
“Look, you’re doing it again!” Eva shot Juliana a quick glance. A glance asking for help.
Juliana sighed. Anything she said was just going to make whatever punishment her mother had in mind worse. “Mom, Arachne’s been living with us for a year and nothing bad has happened.” That line worked on her father.
Genoa was not her father.
The glare returned to Juliana.
All its intensity bore into her. Searching for something.
And Juliana could feel herself being found wanting.
“I think,” Genoa said, “I will be remaining here.”
“What?” “What!” This time, Eva was her echo. Juliana shared a worried glance with the black-haired girl.
“I have judged your defenses woefully inadequate. This place needs to be beefed up. My daughter is being targeted by demons and if I got as far as I did, they won’t have any trouble.”
I should have kept my mouth shut.