“…a whole army outside the front doors!”
“At least a thousand of them.”
“I bet it has something to do with the girl with the eyes.”
“She isn’t even here!”
Zoe shot a silencing glare at the group of students in her class. It wouldn’t help at all, but she at least made the effort to keep her charges under control. Rumors were already spreading from the students who had caught a glimpse outside to the ones who hadn’t.
Like all rumors, they were slowly being blown out of proportion.
Zoe doubted that there were more than a hundred of the creatures, exactly zero of them were the size of the school building, and ‘that little girl from Professor Baxter’s class’ most certainly did not rush out and suplex one.
As amusing as that might be.
The rumor about Eva being involved was far harder to dismiss.
Zoe didn’t believe the girl to be responsible. She had taken steps to prevent the school from being involved in the nun riot at the end of the previous semester. No one had even been hurt there. Turning around and dropping an army of monsters on Brakket’s front porch just didn’t seem like her style.
Involved was another matter entirely.
The lack of her presence was somewhat damning enough on its own. Zoe might have suspected her of doing something even if she had been present. Eva had promised to inform Zoe of any major plans and Zoe was going to trust that she would until she proved otherwise. That was the only reason she was leaning towards Eva having nothing to do with the day’s events.
Zoe didn’t know what to make of Miss Coggins’ absence. To the best of her knowledge, she had never missed a single class. While Zoe had seen her around Eva’s little group, Irene was always more of an outlier–a hanger-on.
She didn’t know enough about Miss Coggins to make an accurate guess as to what would have caused her to miss class. That was a failure of her own. There would always be students she interacted with more often than others, but Irene was often quiet and rarely spoke up on her own.
Both girls missing at once had troublesome implications. The thought that more students than just Eva had ended up involved with anything that Eva touched was more than a little concerning.
Zoe took her eyes off her class for a moment as she scanned the rest of the room. It was far too crowded to pick out any individuals. The professors were relatively easy to pick out even among the older students. All save for Bradley and Franklin wore suits of some type.
Few of her colleagues were having the same success as Zoe at keeping their students quiet. The Brakket gymnasium was a veritable roar of panicked students and a handful of panicked teachers. Poor Yuria looked like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
One voice stood out over the rabble of the crowd.
“Six of my students are missing.”
With a frown, Zoe turned to the squeak of a voice. Her eyes narrowed as she caught sight of the culprit.
Alari. Of course.
She’d been too busy with keeping all of her own students together to pay attention to the other woman’s class. It came as no surprise that the rest of Rickenbacker three-thirteen disappeared to wherever Eva was. She put far too much faith in the other woman’s ability to keep the class together.
The older witch touched the tips of her fingernails together over and over again as she spoke to one of the security personnel. Her normal confidence in the face of everything was gone–dashed by Zoe’s own students.
She was only aware of four students missing. Irene and Zoe’s girls. Who were the other two missing?
Zoe glanced over to the other professor’s class. It didn’t take long to notice the lack of Miss Coggins’ other half and Mr. Anderson.
“I’m sorry,” the guard said. “Orders are to stay here. I’ll send out a notification to the others, but I haven’t heard from them since they went outside.”
His voice was far more subdued than Alari’s nervous voice. He was young, but projected a serious air around him. Between the roar of the students and his subtle voice, he may as well have been whispering. Only through carefully enhancing her sense of hearing did the volume become a non-issue for Zoe.
Zoe turned and walked up to Alari. “Watch my class. I’ll find them.”
The security guard turned towards Zoe. “Ma’am, I’m not suppose–”
She didn’t have the time to argue with an uninformed guard. Zoe twitched her dagger. The walls of the gym fell apart into the featureless white of between. All the people disappeared along with the rest of reality.
The hallway leading to the gym built up around Zoe. Immediately, she set off down the hall. She gave a cursory glance into each room, just in case there were other students that had been left behind.
Checking the entire school was not a viable option. It was doubtful that any of her girls were inside. They’d be out where all the action was.
Zoe was already regretting allowing Shalise and Juliana out of her sight. Juliana managed to be a skilled combatant at the very least. Zoe only barely scraped by in their duels during the summer seminars–that was entirely thanks to Zoe stacking the deck in her favor.
It was a fair tactic. Fights in real life were rarely even.
But dragging along Shalise… That was plain irresponsible. Even if she had the rune gloves to help her with attacks, she wasn’t ready for a fight. She didn’t have the mindset for it.
Neither of the Coggins sisters were ready for any kind of combat. While Mr. Anderson may have learned a few tricks from his family, Zoe very much doubted that he was combat ready either. None of them attended her seminar. The only location where Zoe had an opportunity to observe their fighting was in the mage-knight club. Needless to say, those performances left much to be desired.
Zoe ceased her forward march through the hallway. Something had caught her eye in that last classroom. She took two steps backwards and looked in. There were no students in the room.
There was a ritual circle right in the center of the room. One of the desks had been shoved aside to make room. It wasn’t overly large, but still needed a good amount of floorspace.
As Zoe stared at the circle, her frown deepened. It wasn’t a ritual circle. While she had never practiced anything she read in Eva’s books, she had memorized the insignias and sigils associated with infernal summoning circles.
What the circle on the floor before her was for, Zoe couldn’t say. There were several different types of summoning circles. Some for summoning specific demons, some for summoning a specific species, and some for summoning a wide variety of demons. She’d have to drag Eva or Devon over to look at it to know for sure. Possibly Ylva as well.
One thing was certain, it did not belong in a classroom.
She thought about sketching it for later study. That would have taken too long. A photo on her cellphone would have to do.
Just in case the real circle held secrets that her phone did not, Zoe stepped out of the room and locked the door. She scrawled a quick note and stuck it to the front before erecting a barrier of hardened air over the doorway. It would take an air mage all of two seconds to tear down, but she didn’t have the time to put up proper wards. The barrier would keep people from accidentally walking in for the time being.
Zoe turned and took one step down the hallway.
And hit the barrel chest of a man.
She hopped backwards, one hand rubbing her nose while the other readied her dagger.
Even after recognizing the man, she did not lower her weapon.
“Zagan,” she hissed.
“Zoe.” His golden eyes glinted for an instant. “A pleasure as always. You avoid me so much these days, have I offended you somehow?”
“You lied to me. I let you into my home.”
He tilted his head to one side before shaking his head. “I can’t recall a single lie I’ve told anyone. Unless you’re talking about lies of omission. Those hardly count. You’ve done so plenty of times, yeah?”
Zoe frowned. Omitting knowledge of Eva was the primary cause of her and Wayne’s little argument last semester. Still, that was different. Zagan was a legitimate monster. “You licked that nun’s face.”
“She tasted good.”
Zagan just shrugged.
Zoe shifted her weight to her other foot as Zagan stared. When he didn’t make any move to give a proper response, Zoe said, “is that summoning circle your doing?”
“Summoning circle?” Zagan said with a blink.
Zoe blinked as well. Surprise was not what she expected.
He slipped around Zoe and opened the door, completely ignoring the barrier of wind in the process. After a moment, he shut the door with a chuckle.
“You had me worried for a moment there. I’ll forgive your ignorance this one time.” At the blank look Zoe gave him, Zagan continued. “That is a transference circle. It sends things to Hell. Not strong enough to bring things here from Hell.”
At least the school won’t be overrun from within, Zoe thought with a sigh. “Why is it here?”
“As I said, it is used to send things to Hell.” Zagan’s voice turned a few notches more menacing. His eyes flashed bright gold. Zoe actually took a few steps backwards. “Presumably, someone wanted something sent to Hell. In a very literal manner. Don’t make me repeat myself.” All the hostility vanished in an instant. “Don’t feel bad, I don’t tolerate my students’ inattention either.”
Zoe licked the edges of her lips with a suddenly dry tongue. She cleared her throat twice before she could form words. “Right.” It took one more clearing of her throat before Zoe felt up to forming a full sentence. “Shouldn’t you be outside fighting?”
“Please. Nothing out there is strong enough to be interesting.”
“So you skulk about in the hallways.”
He put on a goofy, disarming grin. “A demon of my caliber never skulks.”
That had Zoe on edge more than anything. One moment, he looked ready to murder her for making him repeat himself, the next and he looked nothing more than a particularly handsome man. After a borderline insult, no less.
“No, my contract only dictates that I keep this place safe. So long as I patrol the hallways and keep everything out, I am fulfilling my assignment.”
Zoe shook her head and focused. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by the antics of a mad demon. “Have you seen Eva in the past hour or two?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Juliana? Or Irene? Shalise maybe?”
“You’re expecting me to remember the names of several mortals that are inconsequential, at best.”
Zoe frowned. He wasn’t about to offer up anything else. “Fine,” she said as she turned on her heel. She kept her enhanced senses trained on him as she walked away. Not a single footstep reached her ears. She glanced back before she turned the corner.
There was nobody in the hallway.
With a shudder, Zoe continued to the main entrance.
The defending force was not performing well. The elf was lying on the ground, unmoving. Over him stood the older security guard. One of his arms swung limply as he tossed around an impressive amount of water and ice.
Tiny Ylva was in the thick of things, surrounded by black ash. All of the creatures seemed to be actively avoiding her.
As Zoe was watching, one creature flew out of the air, crashing into Ylva. For a moment, the beetle-like monster sat on top of where Ylva had been standing. Zoe almost ran out to get the thing off of her.
Her worries were unfounded.
Black veins spread across the beetle’s carapace. Smoke poured from the veins for a minute before the entire beetle exploded into more of the black ash. Ylva stood in the center of the settling remains.
Zoe would have liked to say she was unscathed, but her skin had several dark blotches on it. Bruises?
Following the arc the beetle took, Zoe found a mass of tentacles attached to an innocently smiling woman. One of the security specialists. Like Ylva, she was being given a wide berth. It mattered a lot less to the tentacle demon, however. Her appendages stretched out and grasped anything in their reach.
A massive wall of stone had been built around the entrance to the Rickenbacker. Genoa’s work most likely. She must have been looking for her daughter as well.
There was no Eva, nor any sign of the other missing students. Zoe opened the door and walked outside anyway, heading towards Ylva. The hel would likely be concerned about Juliana and might even know where she was.
For a moment, Zoe entertained the idea of teleporting straight to Ylva. As another creature turned to dust in her grasp, Zoe discarded the thought. Surprising the demon and winding up added to the pile of ash was not a current goal.
There weren’t many creatures between her and Ylva, but enough that she wasn’t willing to risk attempting to run through.
Zoe enhanced her vision to the point where she could pick out the individual strands of the stitchings holding the creatures together. She doubted a lightning bolt would do much good. Most of the creatures fighting the security guards had enough icicles buried in them to fill a large freezer.
Their stitches were a far more obvious weak point.
Taking it slow and steady, Zoe sent out precise blades of compressed wind. Each one neatly bisected the stitching. The insides of the creatures at the point where demon contacted human were… odd.
There were tubes filled with blood, heavy metal clamps at the joints, and more than a few wires. The clamps were drastically more difficult to cut, but it didn’t seem to matter much. Without the wires and tubes, the limbs ceased moving.
Zoe focused most of her blades on their legs. Stopping their movement was more important that actually killing the things. They could be put down at leisure later.
With only three creatures disabled, Zoe had a clear shot at Ylva.
Zoe cut her dagger through the air in front of her. The wind moved, curling around and under her–lessening her weight. Zoe took off at a full sprint.
With the wind twisted as it was, Zoe had a strong gale against her back. Her feet barely skimmed against the ground as she moved forwards. An inexperienced observer might have thought she was flying. She thought the same the first time the technique was demonstrated to her.
Ash and dust kicked up around Zoe as she sprinted through the remains of Ylva’s enemies. A twist of her wrist and the gale ceased. She manipulated the wind into curling away from her, especially her eyes and mouth. Zoe didn’t like the idea of breathing in the remains of corpses.
Cold bit through Zoe’s relatively thin suit. It wasn’t that cold of a day, but the air around Ylva’s little ash field sent Zoe into light shivers.
“You should stay inside. It is unsafe.”
“Unless you’ve seen the mastermind behind all this, at your side is probably the safest place.”
“We have seen nothing but minions.” Ylva paused as another landed right next to her.
The creature lashed out at Zoe, but she was far enough away that it didn’t matter. Charcoal colored veins raced across the creature’s skin.
Zoe shivered again. The air temperature dropped several degrees as the creature turned to dust.
“This army will soon be obliterated. It cannot be stopped. A waste of resources. We fail to comprehend the motivations behind this attack.”
“Eva, Juliana, Shalise, and a few other students are missing.”
“I saw Juliana and Shalise just after the attack began. I think they ran off to find Eva, who apparently skipped class today with another student.”
Ylva made a small noise of acknowledgment. Even in her tiny form, surrounded on all sides by combat, Ylva managed to project an aura of superiority. She kept her head high as her gaze swept over the remaining demons.
Just her looking at them sent the creatures backing away.
“This travesty will not go unanswered. The Keeper will be interested in the creator of these abominations.”
“A direct entity of Void. He punishes those who break His rules.”
“Creating these creatures is against the rules?” Zoe frowned as a thought occurred. “What about Eva’s hands?”
“Given willingly. It is doubtful that so many demons would contract to mutilate themselves in creation of these abominations. Many likely perished. We would not offer Ourself for such a fate.”
“Not many would,” Zoe said as she glanced around. Aside from simple limbs, many of the creatures had more important parts of demons attached to the human parts. Heads and torsos, for the most part. Those demons had died without question.
“We believe false contract–”
The giant wall around the Rickenbacker exploded outwards. Huge chunks of earth pasted a good number of the creatures.
Zoe’s eyes went wide as one boulder careened in their direction. Fueled purely by adrenaline, she created a miniature tornado in an instant to deflect it away.
She winced as the adrenaline settled down. Might have hurt something with that, Zoe thought as her dagger arm slumped to her side.
Genoa and a blood-covered Arachne stood at the entrance to the Rickenbacker. Neither looked happy. Understandable in Genoa’s case, but Zoe would have expected Arachne to be happier about dripping with blood.
It didn’t take them long to notice the ash filled clearing. Without regard to collateral damage, the two started moving.
Zoe couldn’t even see Genoa moving her dagger or glancing around herself as creatures were skewered by spikes erupting from the ground, crushed between slabs of earth, or otherwise decimated.
Arachne was much the same, though creatures actually had to come near her. She only had one leg sprouted from her back and even that one was looking battered and broken. Still, it lashed out and skewered anything that approached either of them.
Working together, they made quick work as they waded through the army.
“Where’s my daughter?” “Where’s my Eva?”
The two glanced at each other before returning their glares to Zoe.
“Eva skipped class along with another student. I’ve not seen them since. Juliana and Shalise disappeared shortly after the attack started. Presumably to find and assist Eva.”
“Juliana wasn’t with Eva?” Oddly enough, Genoa’s glare was aimed at Arachne.
“I only said she was with someone. I didn’t ask for their name.”
Genoa turned and punched Arachne in the face. A crack spread through her carapace from her mouth to her nose.
The spider-demon clenched her fists. For a moment, Zoe thought she was going to return the favor, but her fingers unclenched. She merely smiled. A smile with far too many sharp teeth. Black blood leaked over her white teeth from the part of her mouth that was cracked.
Arachne held a dagger in one of her hands. A light-eating dagger adorned with gems–with bloodstones. She noticed Zoe’s gaze and held the dagger up. “Eva wouldn’t have left this behind. It is… concerning.”
Zoe opened her mouth to respond, but Genoa stepped forwards and cut her off.
“Take me to Nel. Now.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ylva give the faintest of nods.
Zoe reached out, taking Genoa’s hand in her own. With a twitch of her dagger, the two were gone.
The walls of the women’s ward appeared around the two women. Genoa took one look around before she glared at Zoe.
“Why here?” she said through grit teeth.
“I can’t teleport into Ylva’s domain. Let’s hurry.”
Before Genoa could argue or complain, Zoe moved out the front doors. She stopped just at the edge of the inner women’s ward wall as a sound reached her enhanced ears. Carefully, she motioned for Genoa to glance around the corner.
Two groups fought in the pathways between cell blocks. One side was a random assortment of peasants from various eras. Every now and again, Zoe caught the glimpse of more knightly members of that faction. They wore armor and wielded swords as opposed to the peasants’ pitchforks and torches.
The other consisted of black-cloaked mages wielding the white magic of the Elysium Order.
Genoa narrowed her eyes. “Which side is the enemy?”