Finding Catherine wasn’t half as hard as Eva had imagined it would be.
Really, quite the opposite.
It was as simple as walking into the Brakket Academy main building and heading for the secretary’s desk in the reception area. Catherine sat at her usual desk, absolutely absorbed in whatever was on her computer monitor.
Eva had no idea why she had expected anything different. It was doubtful that she had a home outside of her secretary desk.
A few minutes of standing around, waiting for Catherine to finish whatever she was doing and Eva had still not received even the slightest acknowledgment that she existed. Catherine had a set of headphones on, ones that covered her entire ears and had an attached microphone to one side, but her eyes should still have worked.
“Their whole team is dead! Get on the point!”
Eva froze at Catherine’s sudden outburst.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” Catherine let out a low growl. “Pathetic humans,” she hissed under her breath.
Eva kept frozen until the growl died off. The scowl on the succubus turned to a grin radiating pure evil in the blink of an eye.
That almost scared her more than the shouting. Still, Eva had a task. To accomplish that task, she needed to get Catherine’s attention for ten minutes.
Waving her hands a few times elicited no response from Catherine.
With a sigh, Eva blinked from her side of the desk to Catherine’s side, placing her just over the demon’s shoulder.
The screen was a flurry of lights and colors. Caricatures of people ran around the screen, most of whom were targeted and killed by Catherine with pinpoint accuracy. The images moved so fast that Eva barely had time to process what was happening.
It was giving her a mild headache. She had no idea how Catherine could keep up with it all.
Eva reached out and slid one side of Catherine’s headphones back behind her ear. Carefully, of course. She didn’t want to startle Catherine into attacking.
Turns out, her worries were misplaced. Catherine was far too focused on the game.
Eva didn’t get it. But then, she had never used computers outside of classwork–both at her old mundane school and here at Brakket. She would much rather be reading through musty tomes than whatever it was that Catherine was doing.
“Winning?” She knew enough about games to know that winning was a thing.
“If you would cease your distractions,” Catherine said without taking her eyes off the screen. “I am utterly annihilating these pathetic mortal brats.”
“Children? Surely there are more engaging targets.”
“Mortals are all children to me.”
“Fair enough.” Eva leaned forward with narrowed eyes. There were words scrolling along the left side of the monitor. “What is an ‘aimbot?'”
“When mortals find that they cannot beat me, they constantly accuse me of cheating. It almost got me banned one time, until the company personally monitored my playing and determined that I was not using any sort of hacks or programs.”
Eva pulled back from the screen with a shake of her head. If she continued asking questions, she had a feeling that the conversation would quickly head in a direction that she could not follow. She hadn’t come in to discuss games, after all.
Unfortunately, she did not want to irritate Catherine. With Ylva having already declined her request, Eva didn’t want Catherine to deny it out of pure spite.
So, she sat back and waited. There was a countdown timer at the top of the screen. Eva assumed that the game would end then, freeing Catherine up for a quick chat.
She could wait five minutes.
Thirty seconds later, a golden ‘VICTORY’ flashed across the screen.
Catherine removed her headset with a satisfied sigh and turned to face Eva. “Mortals have come up with some amusing things in the past century or so,” she said with a wistful smile.
That was good news. If she had been in a bad mood, Eva had thought that she might just come back later. Good mood Catherine meant more agreeable Catherine.
Eva took a deep breath before she spoke. “I need help. Or a favor? Yeah. A favor. And I’ll return the favor, of course.”
“Sounds like work,” Catherine said as she reached for her headset.
Reaching out, Eva grabbed on to Catherine’s arm. “You haven’t even heard what it is yet! Just hear me out. Please.”
Catherine stared for a minute before sighing. The sigh came out far less blissful and far more exasperated than her last one. “What is it?”
“I need someone to sit in on my treatment. You really only have to sit there for a few minutes and donate a little blood. Plus some magic stuff that I don’t really understand. There will be two other demons there in your position, you’ll be the third. But no work at all. It’s just sitting in a chair for a ritual, maybe a few minutes of lethargy, then you can be back to your computer.”
Catherine’s eyes lost their disguise and flared bright red. “You want to take things from me,” she said, her voice cold as ice. “You’re the one who told me to grow powerful. That was just so you might take it from me later?”
Eva’s eyes went wide. Was that why Ylva had declined? No, it couldn’t be. Ylva had seen the ritual. She knew what it entailed. Arachne was not lessened after every ritual. Devon had definitely used the word ‘copy.’
“No! Copy, not take, you’re still fully intact. Minus some blood, but that shouldn’t matter with a demon’s constitution and regeneration speed.
“Arachne used to be my partner for my treatment. I’m sure you’ve heard, but she…” Eva’s voice dropped a few notches in intensity and volume. “She died. Lightning bolt to the face. There wasn’t much face left.”
That at least got Catherine smiling again.
Eva couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It didn’t make Eva smile.
“I wouldn’t have asked you had she not died. I didn’t plan this or anything. You’re free to grow in power as much as you want and keep it too.” Though, I’m not sure how playing games advances that particular goal.
There must be something that Eva had missed about video games.
“No work,” Catherine said to herself. “I’ll be sitting there and nothing will be lost.”
“Yes. And I’ll owe you a favor.”
Eva opened her mouth. Her first instinct was to glare and state ‘two favors,’ but she was somewhat desperate. With a resigned nod, Eva said, “I can do that.”
“Very well. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” Eva said. “I appreciate it. It will be on this coming Saturday. I’ll let you know exactly when after I figure it out.”
“Works for me,” Catherine said with a shrug. She rubbed her hands together with a smile. “Now, for my first favor, I want you to–”
Her smile dropped off her face as she let out a thoughtful hum. “I was going to have you do a tall stack of paperwork that was supposed to be done a month ago. But being owed favors is like having power over you. I wouldn’t want to waste it on frivolous tasks.” She looked up at Eva with a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “Besides, Martina hasn’t yelled at me about the paperwork more than once. Probably not important anyway.
“And you’re not bound by the limitations of my contract.” Her gaze shifted towards the door leading into Martina Turner’s office. “Yes. I think I will hold on to your services until I have something that I want that I cannot get for myself.”
Eva frowned. Something that Catherine was restricted from doing? It couldn’t be any good. “What are the details of your contract?”
“Not telling you,” Catherine snapped. “You’ll find some way around doing what I ask.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Believe it or not, I’m being honest at the moment. I need help and I’m willing to pay for it.”
Maybe I should go offer Ylva a few favors.
“Nope. Not falling for it. You’ll find out when the time comes.” She reached forward, taking her headset in her hands. “If there’s nothing else, you know the way out.” Catherine started to place the headphones on her ears, but paused with them just in front of her face.
“In fact. I’ll use up one of my favors right now. Don’t tell Martina about our arrangement. Or anyone else for that matter. As far as everyone is concerned, I’m helping you with your treatment out of the goodness of my heart.”
Eva scoffed, but she still nodded. “I can do that. No one will hear of it from me.”
“Good.” Catherine slammed the headset on her head. In a flash, her hands were back on the keyboard and mouse.
Once again absorbed in her own little world.
Eva sighed as she walked out of the office. While happy she had secured a second demon for the treatment, she had wanted to ask where Daru and Lucy were. Maybe Zagan too.
Though, owing Catherine favors was one thing. If Zagan asked for the same, she would probably just walk away.
Given the fact that Catherine was in her usual spot, the security guards were probably in the guard room. Or patrolling around the school. Zagan would be harder to pin down, but he might be around as well. If Eva couldn’t find anyone, she could always come back and ask Catherine.
Ten steps down the hallway and Eva already knew she was going to be meeting with one demon. She caught sight of his circulatory system long before she heard his heavy footsteps.
“Intelligent decisions?” Zagan gave a light sniffle. “Our little succubus is all grown up. Brings a tear to my eye.”
Eva turned to face Zagan with a frown. “There is no way that you heard our conversation. Martina Turner’s office was empty. No one else was around. I know, I can see through walls.”
“Alright. I wasn’t there and I didn’t hear,” there was a golden glint in his eye as his silver voice spilled out obviously false words. “Of course, if I wasn’t there and didn’t hear, you might find it difficult to convince me to help with your little problem.”
“You’re willing to help.” Eva’s voice was flat. She crossed her arms and glared, feeling more irritated by his smile as the seconds ticked by.
Zagan mimicked her pose. With his arms crossed, he leaned back, resting against thin air like it was a solid wall. And yet, he didn’t confirm or deny Eva’s statement.
It wasn’t that she would be ungrateful if he was offering to help. Zagan was beyond powerful. Devon didn’t think it would matter much, but he hadn’t ever done this particular ritual before. He was designing it from scratch specifically for her. If there was even a chance that she could give herself a fraction of Zagan’s power…
Well, it would probably help with Sawyer, if nothing else.
The problem was that no one in this world–or in Hell–did anything for free. Everyone wanted something. Zagan would be no different.
Not even two minutes ago, Eva had considered skipping over Zagan no matter what. But with the possibility dangling right in front of her, could she really resist?
At the very least, she could hear him out.
“What do you want?”
“What do I want? A better question would be, what could you possibly do for me that I couldn’t do for myself?”
Eva narrowed her eyes. She had a feeling that she knew what he was talking about. A different answer came to mind after a moment more thought.
“I taught that diablery class in your place. Without me, you would have had to do it all yourself.”
Zagan stared for a moment before bursting out in raucous laughter. “That you did,” he said, slapping Eva on her shoulder.
Eva winced, but ignored the pain. If he was actually trying to hurt her, she would be writhing and screaming on the ground.
“You told me that teaching that class wasn’t worth getting Shalise out of Hell. Is it worth sitting around for a few minutes every few months?”
“It just might be,” he said, still chuckling.
Eva couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “So you’ll help out?”
“Saturday? I suppose I can clear my schedule.”
Devon is going to be pissed when he sees who shows up, Eva thought with a barely restrained giggle. And I don’t even care.
Zagan didn’t even ask for a favor. Not unless she counted the diablery class.
It had been tedious, but relatively simple all things considered.
“Do me a favor,” he said.
Eva drew in a deep breath through her nose. She had thought too soon. What manner of horror was his favor going to involve?
“Bring along Lucy.”
And she let that breath back out again.
That wasn’t so bad.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why?”
“An experiment of my own. If I am right–” he gave a dark chuckle, “and I always am–I’d like for there to be four demons at your little birthday party.”
“Experiment?” Eva blinked in confusion. “Wait, no… Birthday?”
“My little embryonic one, do you not consider your treatments to be birthdays? Every one that passes brings you more strength, more power, and a step closer to a true rebirth.”
“Not really.” Eva frowned. It made sense. Kind of. “Wouldn’t the day I complete the treatment be more like a birthday than every single treatment? The day that I cease being an ’embryo’ to use your word.”
It was Zagan’s turn to frown.
They just stood for a moment, staring at each other with frowns on their faces.
“I like my interpretation better.”
“I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” Eva said with a shrug. “I barely celebrate my actual birthday now. I couldn’t imagine doing so at your age.”
Something about Zagan’s words sent her mind in a strange direction. “Do you still celebrate your birthdays? Or wait, were you even born? I was a little preoccupied at the time, but I distinctly recall you saying that you did not have a mother back in my domain.”
“That is true.” He shifted his lean against the air behind him and cracked his neck to one side with a few loud pops. “I suppose there is no harm in telling you.
“I am a Pillar of Hell. One of the seventy-two created by Void from nothing.”
Eva’s face twisted in confusion. “Aren’t most demons created by–”
Two fingers shot out and pinched her lips shut. “From and nothing are the key words there. And don’t interrupt me.”
He released Eva’s lips.
“After the seventy-two, demons were created from a sort of template. Every demon is based on one of us in some form or other. None as unique. None as powerful. None as handsome,” he said, stroking his chin.
When he winked, Eva just rolled her eyes.
“Others were born. Not all demons can get pregnant. Not all demons can sire children. Those that can will have demonic children. Too similar to their parents to be called unique. Often less powerful than their parents as well.
“So no. The answer to your question is that I was not born. I was created.”
“Alright,” Eva said with a nod as she digested the information. “But what about me? Arachne and Hel too?”
“Arachne?” He shrugged. “Lackluster. I am not impressed. The mages behind her transformation were amateurs in the most pathetic sense of the word. Hel may have been able to make something of herself. Death got his claws into her before she became a demon, unfortunately. If she truly can be considered a demon; she resides in Hell and even has her own domain, but there is just something off about her in comparison to the rest of us. You’ve noticed that with your friend, yeah?”
Eva frowned. She hadn’t really. Though, now that he mentioned it, Ylva had always been in a league of her own. More akin to Zagan than any other demon that she had met.
Zagan’s grin split across his face. “You, my dear embryonic one, have us all very excited. We expect great things of you. You weren’t born a demon. You’re not created from a template. Not even created by Void himself. What will become of you?”
“Does Arachne not count as a template?” Eva asked, latching on to the one thing he said that didn’t carry mind bending implications. “She’s been my partner in the treatment since the start. Wouldn’t such a ‘lackluster’ demon create a lackluster demon?”
“I would need to see the exact method of your ‘treatment’ to know for certain. However,” he took a deep breath before smiling at her. “You don’t smell like Arachne. I believe that she has given you a foundation. Your actions, desires, thoughts, and feelings will shape you into what you will become.”
“Let me get this straight,” Eva said after a moment. “I’m going to become a demon no matter what. So this treatment is unnecessary?”
“A building will topple without the proper foundation, yeah?”
“Then it is important.”
Eva let out a long sigh. Their discussion felt heavy. Enough to physically exhaust her. She shot a brief glare at Zagan.
I wish I had an invisible wall to lean against.
But she didn’t.
Pressing her forehead against the relatively cool window worked well enough. Being summer time, it was hot outside. Eva liked the heat. The humidity in Florida had bothered her, but the heat had not.
The cold of the window served to shock Eva, in a manner of speaking. A quick jolt to clear her thoughts.
Zagan moved up to the window alongside Eva, staring out into the woods of the Infinite Courtyard. He didn’t speak.
Eva didn’t say anything either.
They just stood, staring outside in a peaceful silence.
It was strange. She hadn’t expected to meet with Zagan. At least not so soon. Neither had she expected him to agree to help her essentially without any kind of payment.
Least of all, she hadn’t even imagined herself having a cordial conversation with him. Yet they had a conversation. An informative conversation. One that didn’t even have veiled threats or him shoving off his responsibilities onto her.
He wasn’t even causing problems. At least, not at this particular moment. He hadn’t caused problems for a short while as well.
It was almost too good to be true.
The other shoe had to drop at some point.
A shiver ran up Eva’s spine. Or maybe it already had.
His earlier words ran through Eva’s mind. You have us all very excited.
Who was ‘us all’? The other pillars?
Did she have seventy-two of the most powerful beings in existence keeping an eye on her? They were excited about her. Worse, they had expectations of her.
You’re destined for far greater things than a puppet of the puppet-master. The words of Void, the Power. Words that she had assumed were out of boredom. Void spoke with her friends and other demons, so there was nothing strange about it.
At least, that was what she had thought. Now…
Forget the seventy-two. She had a legitimate Power following her actions. What did He expect of her?
Eva didn’t even realize that she had been hyperventilating until Zagan placed a hand on her shoulder. She glanced up to meet his golden eyes, wondering just what words of advice he would offer.
“If your actions will determine what sort of demon you will become, I wonder just what inaction will mean.”
With that, he smiled and walked away.
Eva stumbled as his hand left her shoulder. She watched him wander down the empty hallway with static in her thoughts.
Only after he had gone, only after she had stood still for several minutes did Eva blink.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
The moment the words left her mouth, an idea came to mind. She couldn’t be sure that it was what Zagan was talking about, but it fit as well as anything.
Eva balled her fists. “Sawyer,” she hissed through gritted teeth.
With a thought, Eva teleported to the women’s ward. She had work to do. Preparations to make.
The minute she woke up from her treatment, Sawyer would wish that he had never heard of Brakket Academy.