“Excuse my brother. He isn’t so high-strung normally.”
Eva pulled back from Juliana and turned her eyes to the man she had called Erich. That explained the vague likeness to Genoa that she had noticed. Yet he lacked all of the relative frailty that embodied Carlos.
Which didn’t actually mean anything. Juliana wasn’t frail in the slightest. She had inherited her father’s height impairment while taking after her mother in every way that mattered.
Probably a good thing. She might not have survived her ordeals had she her father’s constitution.
Looking closer at him, and looking past the resemblance to Genoa, Eva found that he had rather sharp features. High eyebrows, a pointed nose, a chin that stretched down to a single point–at least, that’s how it appeared through his goatee. Unlike Devon’s unkempt scraggly beard, Erich had styled his to a point.
His short hair even came to a well-defined widow’s peak.
Especially with that beard, he looked more like he could have been a younger version of Devon than any descendant of Carlos.
Eva suppressed a shudder at the thought of Devon having children.
“Ah,” Eva said, hoping that the lengthy pause had gone unnoticed, “so this is the mysterious Erich that Juliana has so sparsely mentioned.”
She had already decided not to hold his almost-assault against him. He was just protecting Juliana from a possible threat. That was an admirable trait.
Erich crossed his arms, not lessening his glare in the slightest.
Glancing slightly towards Carlos, Eva said, “I didn’t think you would be bringing along your–”
She cut herself off. ‘Bringing along your whole family,’ was what she nearly said, but without Genoa, the whole family wasn’t here. And she didn’t exactly want to call attention to that fact.
“–children,” Eva finished, feeling awkward. She was the same age as Juliana and wouldn’t appreciate being called ‘children’ in any sense of the word. Erich was worse. Eva wasn’t sure how old he was, but he had already graduated from Brakket Academy before she had started. That put him at twenty at the very least, though Eva was willing to bet closer to twenty-five.
Carlos didn’t respond. He used one hand to grip either side of his glasses, hiding his eyes as he readjusted them.
To Eva’s side, Juliana just let out a small cough.
Erich didn’t react in the slightest.
“Perhaps,” Catherine said, her chair grinding back against the tiles as she stood, “you should move on to the ‘enigma.’ Your greetings can be exchanged later; at some point in time when I am not required to be here observing this disgusting display of social diarrhea.”
Eva could have done without that last line, but apart from that, all she was thinking was thank you Catherine.
“Right.” Eva clapped her hands together. “Um, just follow us?”
Heading out of the office lobby and into Brakket Academy proper, Eva kept just a few steps ahead of Juliana and Erich while Carlos trailed behind them. Catherine took up the rear, absolutely failing at her job of keeping an eye on the guests if all the noises coming from her cellphone were any indication.
The short walk passed in silence. And not the good, comfortable type of silence. Eva had a number of questions that she wanted to ask of Juliana, but with Erich sticking at her side and Juliana not at Eva’s side, it felt like an insurmountable task.
So instead, Eva used the walk to reflect. Partially on Juliana and the distance she was keeping, but mostly on herself.
Why was it so hard to talk to her? Eva had never had a problem like this. Mostly because she cared very little for what other people thought of her. Awkward situations were a snap to avoid when your only friends were a potentially insane old man and a spider demon.
But even after coming to Brakket and meeting Juliana, Shalise, Jordan, Irene, Shelby, and even Max, Eva had not had trouble interacting with them. And that included immediately after her gloves came off–so to speak–about demons and Arachne.
Really, all of them, save for Max and Irene to an extent, cared far less about the whole diablery thing than Eva had been expecting.
This, here and now, was a completely different feeling. Arachne had almost killed her friend’s mother. Under the influence of another demon or not, that was more than enough to cause a rift. Especially since they knew that Eva still associated with Arachne.
But still, she should be able to talk without tripping over herself, shouldn’t she?
Maybe it was something else then. Carlos and Erich? That was a whole lot more likely. Eva did care what Carlos thought to an extent. Not quite the levels of what she cared about Juliana’s thoughts. And Erich, Eva had only just met him. With no real opinions set in stone, she only cared about what he thought as an extension of what Juliana might think if he ended up hating her.
“Alright,” Eva said as she pushed open the door. “Inside that large ice block is the creature. I do have some information about it from other sources, but I think that I would rather hear your uninfluenced opinion to start with.”
“Is there a reason,” Carlos said as he readjusted his glasses again, “that you two are here instead of the dean or the school’s magizoology professor?”
Eva blinked. She had been expecting him to rush up to the enigma and start examining it, or whatever a magizoologist did when they came across a potentially undiscovered species.
“I’m not sure about the dean,” Eva said with a glance towards Catherine.
The succubus just shrugged and went back to her cellphone.
“Professor Twillie is on the outside of the loop because of the nature of the creature and how it arrived. Zoe should be here before long, she was just taking care of overseeing a makeup test that will be ending soonish.”
“That’s a summoning circle,” Juliana said, quirking an eyebrow at Eva. “It is a demon then? You think my dad has a better chance of identifying it than Devon?”
Eva nodded. “It is a summoning circle. Every other line in the room is a shackle. The creature is not a demon, however. The intended target of the circle was an imp. Catherine, myself, and Zagan have all confirmed that the circle should have summoned an imp. This arrived instead.”
The creature’s method of arriving had been included in her letter, so confirming that didn’t reveal anything new, unless Juliana hadn’t read the letter.
“Very well,” Carlos said, stepping towards the ice block. “Is it possible to melt the ice?”
“Yeah. It’s just regular ice. A fresh layer gets frozen on once a day by a water mage. Heat would take it down.”
“I mean, is it dangerous to melt the ice?”
Eva frowned. “Probably not. Its blood has stopped circulating. I would say that it is dead…”
“One of the quirks of these things, according to Ylva, is that they don’t die properly. None of the ones that I have killed have gotten back up, but I was a whole lot more violent than freezing water over one. But if it did wake up, with both myself and Catherine here, we should be able to handle a single one without much issue.”
Nodding, Carlos said, “I think we should leave it as is until Zoe arrives. Not that I don’t trust that you can take care of it, I’d rather have the extra focus on hand if something does go wrong.”
With that said, he started walking around the ice, looking it up and down through the glassy surface. After his third revolution, he pulled a chair from the side of the room and sat down. Taking off a large backpack and setting it to the side, he retrieved a sketch pad and got to work with a set of pencils.
Eva spent a moment watching his deft hands trace out minute details. He could have taken his profession as an artist and done rather well for himself, in Eva’s uneducated opinion.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t commenting during his drawing process. At least not out loud. His sketch had a slowly growing list of annotations off to one side detailing colors, estimated size of teeth and appendages, and other such characteristics.
That meant that, once again, no one was talking.
Gritting her teeth, Eva shook off her nerves. She walked right up to Juliana–the side opposite from Erich.
“Can we go talk outside for a minute or two?”
“Sure. Not like I have much to add. And I had something to talk with you about too.”
All three of them started off towards the door at the same time.
Juliana stopped and whirled on her brother. “I’m fine, Erich. Stay with my dad and make sure he stays fine.”
“No buts! You’ve been hanging off of me since I called you. It’s driving me insane!”
She turned and marched out of the room, barely managing to not slam the door in Eva’s face.
Eva gave Erich a half-hearted shrug before she chased after her friend.
Juliana had taken up a crossed-arms slouch against a wall out in the hallway. When Eva approached, the armor coating her arms clanked as she shifted.
“Fine,” Juliana snapped. Pressing a hand to her forehead, she sighed. “I’m sorry. My entire family has just been unbelievable since the–” She paused with a glance around the hallways.
It was a Saturday afternoon; they were empty. Few students would be in the school on the weekend and fewer still down the corridor where they had set up the diablery classroom. The room had been specifically chosen for being in a lesser used portion of the school proper.
“The thing,” she finished.
“Since telling my brother about it, he hasn’t let me out of his sight. And that is on top of the high tensions between him and my parents…” She shook her head. “Dad wants me to cut ties with you and Ylva, and for me to finish my education off at some ancient castle in Scotland–probably don’t even have working toilets.
“Mom’s the most reasonable, but she’s bedridden for the moment. The other two ignore everything she says the moment they’re out of the room.” She looked up and met Eva’s eyes. “You have no idea how irritating it is for everyone to ‘know what is best’ for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Zoe has been somewhat attentive of me as of late. You’d think she was my mother.”
Juliana laughed. A nice real laugh. “So things here been as hectic as usual?”
“Not really. Quiet, actually.” Eva thumbed over her shoulder. “Except for that thing, that is. Those enigmas have been showing up all over Hell, including both my and Ylva’s domains.”
Juliana’s eyes widened and her brow creased with worry lines. “Shalise?”
“She’s fine. Still in my domain. She had a brief run-in with them, but managed to dispatch two before I arrived. They’re not actually that tough. Sister Cross is keeping her company at the moment.”
“The same Sister Cross that told you to purify yourself through death or something?” Juliana asked with a flat stare.
“That was one of her minions. But yes, that Sister Cross. She showed up and tried to kill me. Naturally, I objected. We eventually came to the agreement that she should protect Shalise.”
“Just like that?”
“More or less,” Eva said with a shrug.
Again, a silence fell over the two. A silence that felt more comfortable than the earlier lack of conversations, but not quite how Eva remembered.
Eager to keep the silence from dragging on, Eva said, “I heard you were up to something with Ylva?”
“Ah, yeah,” she said, shifting forward and making direct eye contact. “Ylva hadn’t told you about it?”
Eva shook her head. “She tends to be the sort of person you have to directly ask to get an answer out of, and I only learned when your father returned my letter. Around the same time everything became hectic with Sister Cross and all the enigmas.”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk with you about.”
She glanced around the hallway again, looking out for any passersby. There were none, of course, but she still took an extra glance to either side.
“I want access to all of your diablery books.”
Juliana blinked. “Just like that?”
“Why not just like that?”
“I-I stole your other book.” Juliana took her eyes off of Eva, glancing down towards the ground. “I kept it secret and I caused all sorts of problems for everyone.” Her eyes snapped up into a shallow glare. “And you’re just going to let me into your library?”
Eva sighed with a small smile touching her lips. “You’re the one who suffered the most from all that. Arguably. So it is somewhat surprising to me that you still have an interest in diablery. The real question is what you intend to do with my books. Either you haven’t learned and you’re just going to get yourself killed, or you have learned and you want to learn more to better protect yourself from what the future may hold.”
“Well,” Juliana said as she rubbed the back of her head, “it isn’t that.” She blinked just before her eyes widened. “I mean, I have learned. I’m not intending to get myself killed. And I want to protect myself. But maybe not quite the way you’re thinking.
“Ylva and I have been going around destroying references to talkina. Especially any that mention Willie. So far, we have gone to a few larger repositories. However, diablery isn’t a popular topic. Demon hunters tend to destroy any public collections of diablery books. Almost all books are either hidden in some tomb or ruins waiting to be discovered, or they’re all in the hands of practicing diabolists. Like Devon.”
“Make sure you call him ‘demonologist’ to his face,” Eva said. Moving to lean against the wall alongside Juliana, Eva rubbed her forehead. “I don’t have a problem with that. Devon, on the other hand, will object to you burning his books.”
“We’re not burning books. Just the page. And if there is something written on the other side of the paper, I’ll transcribe it all.”
“I can ask, but I don’t think that will make him any more reasonable.” Eva shook her head. No, Devon will not be enthused with that idea in the slightest. “But I have a question for you: Why?”
“Why?” she repeated with far more anger in her tone than Eva had used. “Why do you think? After what he did–”
“I know why you think, or I can guess. But in spite of your experiences, Juliana, I highly doubt that Willie is the worst demon around. Far from it, I’d wager. For all you know, a demon mentioned on the same piece of paper as a talkina could be a literal walking apocalypse.”
Juliana went quiet, leveling a glare at Eva.
“Spite,” she eventually said, dropping her glare to stare at the ground. Her hands, shaking at her sides, curled into fists. “I just want him to… to suffer.”
“Can’t argue with that. And I don’t have a problem with it either. We’ll have to talk with Devon, but after we’re done here, why not stop by the prison?”
“Maybe. If I can convince my dad and brother.” She slapped her face and shook her head. “Maybe I’ll just sneak out with Ylva the next time she comes by.”
“That’s–” Eva paused as someone entered the range of her blood sight, making their way towards the two of them. “They already almost lost it while you were in Hell. I’d at least leave a note so they don’t worry.”
Juliana didn’t have time to respond before their guest turned the corner.
“Professor Baxter!” A genuine smile appeared on Juliana’s face as she ran up to their teacher.
“Hello Juliana, good to see you again.” Zoe pressed a lock of brown hair back over her ear, trying to sort out the slight mess as much as possible. “I’m sorry that I’m late, I was… held up. How are you? How is Genoa?”
Eva wanted to slap herself in the face. She should have asked that the second she saw Juliana. Just because she had received a response from Carlos stating that he was fine–something that was probably a lie anyway–didn’t mean that she couldn’t be polite at the very least.
“I’m doing okay. Mother is,” her face took a slightly somber expression, “recovering. I guess she’ll be starting physical therapy sometime within the next six to twelve months, depending on the state of her heart and lungs.”
“Good to know that she is stable, but I’m sorry to hear that it will be so long.”
“She’ll pull through,” Juliana said, her voice full of conviction to the point where it brokered no argument. “And be back getting into danger in no time.”
“Your mother is a strong woman. I wouldn’t expect any less of her,” Zoe said with a smile.
Eva closed her eyes as she leaned against the wall. Zoe and Juliana had started to catch up, the former asking the latter much the same questions that Eva had already asked. There were a few new ones that Eva paid attention to.
“When are you coming back to school?”
“Barring any rash decisions on my father’s part,” she started with a roll of her eyes, “I should be back at the start of next year. I want to come back now, but at the same time, I don’t want to leave my mother alone.”
“Family should support one another in times like these,” Zoe said with a sage nod–it didn’t quite fit her. “I’ll see if I can’t get you homework packets delivered from all of your professors.”
Juliana groaned while Zoe let out a light chuckle.
“So, your father is in the room then?”
“And my brother is with him.” Juliana pushed off the wall with a slight scowl. “We should probably make sure they haven’t started fighting.”
“Now that you’re here,” Eva said to Zoe, “he’ll want to melt the ice to get a closer look.”
“Is that wise?”
“As far as I can tell, its blood isn’t circulating. Ergo, it’s dead. But between you, me, Catherine, Juliana, and maybe Carlos and Erich, we should be able to kill it again if needed. With the shackles, I doubt it will be able to escape anyway.”
Zoe placed her hand on the hilt of her dagger and nodded.
“Don’t worry,” Eva said, “Shalise took out two on her own, and I took out one with only having my foot bit off.”
“That isn’t reassuring.”
Eva flashed a grin as she pushed open the classroom door.
It was mostly as she had left it. Catherine sat at her desk, growling at the computer set up on top. Carlos was mid-stride around the back of the ice. Erich sat in the seat nearest the door.
Eva did not miss Zoe and Erich sharing a moment of narrowed eyes with one another.
The professor turned away without a word of greeting, focusing on Carlos. Again, she started out with a few simple greetings and polite questions that Eva only paid tangential attention to.
Her thoughts lingered on the interaction between Erich and Zoe. They clearly knew each other. Not surprising as Zoe had known Genoa before Juliana started school. But apparently no one liked him. The tensions between him and Carlos, Juliana finding his presence to be overbearing, and Zoe’s glare. It made Eva wonder just what Genoa thought of him.
Though, Eva supposed, it doesn’t much matter. Not unless he hurts me or mine.
“Alright,” Eva said as the greetings died off. She clapped her hands together, igniting them at the same time. “Shall we melt this enigma down?”
Zoe stepped between Eva and the block of ice, drawing her dagger as she moved. “Why don’t we not use fire. It will make a mess and potentially damage the subject further. I may not be the greatest at hydroturgy, but even I can get rid of the ice.”
Eva huffed. “Fine.” Extinguishing her hands, she folded her arms and watched.
It was interesting. And somewhat alarming.
Not the disappearing of the ice and water. Eva’s classmates had done similar things often enough that it wasn’t interesting in the slightest.
As the enigma’s temperature increased, its blood started moving again. Slowly at first. But enough to put Eva on guard.
She reignited her hands.
That caused half the room to jump to attention.
“Blood is circulating,” Eva said. “I think.”
“You think? How could you think? Isn’t that your whole shtick? Seeing blood?”
Eva blinked at the odd word from Catherine, but shook her head. “I mean, the blood is moving through its veins, but its heart isn’t beating? Oh, wait. There it goes.”
“I’ll stop,” Zoe said.
Eva waved her off before she could start repairing the ice. She walked up to the front desk and found a yard ruler. Using it, she reached across the shackles and lifted one of the enigma’s freed tentacles.
It flopped back down without a hint of resistance.
Eva took a moment to prod it in various spots, including right in its mouth and eyes. It failed to react in any way.
“Could be,” Carlos said as he rubbed his chin. “If it was in an improper state of suspended animation. Could be something else unique to the creature.”
“Maybe its brain just hasn’t restarted yet?”
“Leave it half in the ice and keep an eye on it.”
And so they did. By the time a full hour had passed, the enigma had restarted almost fully. It was breathing and circulating blood. And showed no sign of slowing down.
Through some equipment in his backpack, Carlos confirmed that its cells were alive in every sense of the word.
The real oddity was that he couldn’t find a single dead cell on the creature. Even if the creature as a whole could cling to life, individual cells should die. Especially when removed from the body.