Juliana Laura Rivas flipped through the news.
It had been months and there was still no sign that anything was amiss around Brakket City.
The purple streaks in the sky had attracted a good amount of attention for the first month. Brakket was fairly isolated from much of the mundane world, but not so much that the sky would go unnoticed. Even had satellites not been able to pick up the anomaly, people in neighboring cities could look out the window and see the sky. It was simply too huge of an effect to contain.
Conspiracy theorists had come out of the woodwork to appear on talk shows. No one could agree on any one cause. Mundane experts were baffled. Some tried to claim that the purple streaks in the sky were caused by light refracting in certain ways in the area. One guy with extremely messy hair appeared numerous times to claim that aliens were behind everything.
Once it had been found out that Brakket Academy was supposedly one of those ‘magical’ academies, people started to get nervous.
Everyone had been expecting a repeat of the Lansing incident. Some catastrophe of city-leveling proportions. Cameras were trained on the city—from a safe distance—day in and day out.
Somehow, one news station had managed to get Dean Turner to do an interview.
“The state of the sky is the result of a failed experiment. The intended effect was to shade the entire sky for a set distance, filtering certain wavelengths. Uses proposed for the intended effect was to use it in certain parts of the world to control light level to crops, helping to feed millions. It could remove harmful radiation. A more controlled version could be used to color the sky for a celebration, taken down the next day.
“Obviously, things went wrong. The streaks of purple are not harmful. We do not currently know if the sky will return to normal on its own, but we are researching ways to remove the effect.”
Roughly the same announcement that Zoe had said was given to the people of Brakket City.
The interviewer had asked a number of other questions. Most dealing with Brakket Academy itself and the use of magic. Dean Turner had dodged some of the questions while others had been answered.
If Juliana didn’t know better, she might have believed the dean.
But she didn’t need to believe it. She just needed Erich and her dad to believe it.
That interview had started up the debate on whether or not magic actually existed or if everything was a cover up for government conspiracies. Even a decade and a half after Lansing, some people still doubted the actual mages conjuring matter from nothing on live television.
After a month of nothing notable happening around Brakket, the media started to get bored. Less and less of the city was shown. News anchors briefly mentioned that nothing had changed before talking about a plane crash on the other side of the world with a gleam in their eye.
“Now they don’t even show Brakket at all. Obviously nothing bad has happened.”
“We’ve had this discussion before, Juli. You’re not going back.”
Juliana flicked the television off with a huff.
“Mom said I could.”
“Your mother–” Juliana’s father cut himself off with a sigh. He pulled off his glasses with one hand and pressed his thumb and middle finger to his eyes. Bringing his fingers together, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your mother is a reckless woman. I love her for it, but she often thinks that others can be as reckless as she is.”
“You aren’t as strong as Genoa. You cannot survive what she can survive.”
Juliana’s head whipped to her other side to stare at her brother. “You think I don’t know that? If I was as strong as she is, mom wouldn’t be in the hospital.”
“And stop agreeing with each other,” Juliana said, looking between the two men. “It’s weird. You’re supposed to be fighting or arguing. Ignoring each other at the very least.”
Resetting his glasses on his nose, her father looked down at her. “Your brother and I have had our… disagreements in the past. Especially regarding your mother. That doesn’t stop the both of us from caring about you. We want you to be safe.”
Juliana rubbed the black band around her finger. Her thumb idled around the skull pattern engraved into the heavy-yet-light metal. The body heat coming off her finger should have kept it at least lukewarm, yet it felt icy to the touch of her thumb.
The only things–demons, at least–that it hadn’t protected her against were the imps in the prison and Zagan himself. Technically Willie, though she had attacked him first, making that one more of her fault than anything.
“I’ll be safe enough,” she said as she stood.
Erich stood the moment she did.
“Will you calm down?” Juliana half-shouted. “I’m just going to my room. I don’t need you babysitting me everywhere I go. Don’t you have a career to get back to?”
“The bank has given me extended leave for a family emergency.”
“Yeah? Well, emergency over. Go back to work,” Juliana said as she stormed out of the room.
In her first year of school, Juliana had been somewhat sad that the school wanted students there for most of the summer. It had taken her away from her parents and thrust her into a world of unfamiliar people.
Now? Juliana wished that the magical world had decent truant officers. Someone to show up and tell her father and brother that she had to be at school. It didn’t even matter that the school seminars hadn’t started up yet.
Anything to get a little breathing room from her family.
Juliana hadn’t been lying earlier. She had fully intended to head upstairs and lock herself in her room for a few hours.
A sound in the kitchen put that plan on hold.
Her mother was at the hospital. Her father and brother were in the living room. No one else should be home.
And yet, there was a sound in the kitchen.
Heart beating faster, Juliana channeled magic through her ring foci. Metal plates coating most of her skin turned from solid to liquid. It flowed over her, providing armor to her hands and head. A long blade stretched out from either wrist until they broke off from the main armor to act more like regular swords.
Thoroughly ready, Juliana pressed open the swinging door to the kitchen.
And promptly froze.
The familiar smell of sulfur permeated the room. It was all coming from one man. Dressed in a dark suit, a barrel-chested man with short black hair was rummaging through the refrigerator.
“No Hellfire,” he said with a click of his tongue. With an overly exaggerated sigh, he turned to stare at Juliana with golden eyes.
“P-Professor Zagan,” Juliana squeaked.
This was bad. Or good? Probably bad.
What can I surprise him with? Zagan liked to be surprised. If she wanted to survive whatever he had come for, she needed to think of something so unexpected that Zagan wouldn’t see it coming.
Juliana bit her lip.
Her mind was completely blank.
A pair of footsteps behind signaled the arrival of both Erich and her father. They must have heard her squeak.
Both had foci in hands, aiming at the devil.
Juliana’s hands shot out, grabbing both of their arms and yanking them downwards. She let her helmet melt away back to her chest–it wouldn’t help against Zagan anyway.
“Don’t! That’s my professor.”
There was no chance any of them would survive if he attacked. Juliana had watched first hand what Zagan had done to Willie. And that had been inside of Willie’s domain as well.
Her father glared. “What is he doing here,” he spat.
Juliana grimaced. Of course her father would recognize Zagan. There was no chance that he hadn’t looked at a photograph or even seen in person the one who had dropped her into Hell.
“I’ve come to inquire about this,” Zagan said, holding up a folded piece of paper between two fingers. His golden eyes turned from Juliana to her father. “Withdrawing your daughter from Brakket Academy?”
“She’s not going back,” he said with finality. “Juli has already been accepted at–”
“I don’t care.” Zagan waved his hand. The air in the room froze for a split second, cutting off all sound. “I merely came to ascertain whether or not this was legitimate and then claim what we had promised each other.” With that, he turned to regard Juliana.
Juliana blinked. She blinked again. On the third blink, her cheeks burst into flames as she realized just what he was saying.
His contract stipulated that he could not ‘lay hands’ upon students. Likely only Brakket Academy students and not whatever school-castle her father had condemned her to.
She hadn’t even considered that while her father had been making arrangements. Between her mother’s recovery, destroying diablery books with Ylva, news about Brakket City, and dodging her brother’s overbearing protection, she had barely spared a thought for Zagan and their ‘promise.’
Her father started to speak. “What are you–”
“The withdrawal notice was a mistake!” Juliana was in a panic. Their agreement was private. Not to mention embarrassing. Something that she absolutely very definitely did not want her father and brother hearing about.
If her father asked, Zagan would blurt it out. He didn’t care in the slightest about her embarrassment.
“That was never supposed to be mailed,” Juliana continued. “I’ll be back at Brakket as soon as school starts.”
“Say one word,” she interrupted her father, “and I will run away. I will disappear and you won’t see me again for a long time.”
“One word and I’m gone! I’m serious about this, dad. No arguments.”
Her father’s mouth shut with a loud click.
Zagan turned between Juliana and her father, eying them. After a moment of silence, fire engulfed the piece of paper in his hand. Not even ashes remained to be scattered about.
“A mistake. I see. Disappointing in a manner, but not so much in others.”
Juliana sighed. Everything would be fine. For now.
“I’d love to stay and catch up on the last few months. I unfortunately have a previous appointment at noon today and cannot linger. Besides, you seem to have something to discuss in my absence.”
Before the words could properly register, Zagan vanished from the kitchen with a flare of flames.
Coughing twice at the sudden burst of the scent of sulfur, Juliana stumbled backwards. A firm hand settled on her shoulder.
Her father was angry. His lips were pressed into a line so thin that it was almost as if he had no lips at all. His face was flushed red with rage. Even the tips of his ears had turned colors.
“Juliana Laura Rivas,” he said in a calm voice that was a complete betrayal of how angry he appeared. “I would like an explanation.”
Bright blue sky hung overhead. The warm summer sun beat down on the prison, undisturbed by the violet streaks that were only faintly visible in the daylight. A light breeze from the north kept things from hitting a blistering temperature.
The most important thing was the lack of rain clouds in the sky. That would have delayed everything.
The revised version of Eva’s treatment ritual circle was gigantic. She hadn’t quite got the proper sense of scale from Devon’s tiny notebook.
As with most prisons, the abandoned facility that Eva had claimed as her home had an exercise yard. This particular one had a court for the inmates to play basketball.
The circle stretched beyond the width of the court, though it fit inside the length.
Devon had used his green flames to melt away the chain-link fences, getting them out of the way. Four days ago, he had come out and poured fresh cement, widening the platform on either end. As he worked on that, Eva had to take a trowel and fill in all of the cracks around the court that had formed over the years of disuse.
Everything needed to be nice and smooth.
After leaving the fresh cement to set for two days, he and Eva had come out and inscribed the ritual circle into the cement. He had vehemently refused to allow her to form the circle using blood.
Worried about magical contamination, he insisted on doing everything by hand.
Eva hadn’t complained even once. The ritual was too important. If the only expert in the world said not to do it with magic, she would not use magic.
They had barely finished by nightfall on Friday.
This morning, they had both wandered around the circle several times to compare every little line to those inside Devon’s notebook. A few marks had to be corrected. No major mistakes that would require redrawing the entire circle.
Everything was ready.
And yet, despite everything being well, Devon looked like he was going to be sick.
Eva had a feeling that it didn’t have a thing to do with the ritual circle or their preparations.
It had slipped her mind when she had initially asked them to come, but Eva had remembered late the night before. She ran around Brakket Academy and drained a few vials of blood from each of the demons. Without that, they ran the risk of exploding for wandering around the wrong sections of the prison.
Zagan might have been able to survive. In fact, there was no ‘might’ about it. Eva held no doubts that her wards wouldn’t give him the slightest pause. The others wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Technically, she only needed about a half-vial from each demon. Three vials each was a bit much, but they didn’t need to know that. Anything she didn’t use in her ward would simply go towards a good cause. That of ending Sawyer’s existence.
Lucy hadn’t offered any resistance at all. Eva thought that she might be able to ask for more blood and the demon would give it up with a giggle. Or a gurgle. Lucy was… a bit strange.
Apart from a comment on how much blood she was taking, Zagan hadn’t protested either. That had come as a bit of a shock. Originally, Eva hadn’t intended to take more than she needed from him.
Whether his blood was better or worse than the other demons’ blood would take some testing. Testing that Eva wasn’t certain she wanted to attempt. If his blood was better, wasting it on testing would be a grievous misuse. Though she had taken extra, it wasn’t a whole lot. Saving it for a little party might be the best choice.
Catherine had protested the most. Something about having already given blood for Eva’s wards.
Eva had no idea what she was talking about. Catherine wound up donating an extra vial as protest tax.
Combined with the carnivean, that made three demons and a devil.
Three undominated demons and one devil that probably couldn’t be dominated all stood around the basketball court. Not to mention the vampire that had wandered over wanting to know what all the fuss was about.
Serena had bundled up in enough winter coats to make it so she couldn’t quite put her arms down. Her face had a scarf bundled around it and two sets of ski goggles placed on top of each other. And then she still had an umbrella aimed towards the sun.
Perhaps Devon wasn’t so worried about her. It wouldn’t be difficult to ruin her clothes with even a weak fireball and that would have her exposed to the sun.
But with the amount of demons around…
Really, it was surprising that Devon only looked sick. Eva had half expected him to run off screaming once Zagan showed up. Even with the almost too cold breeze, Devon had sweat dripping from his brow as he finished up a few last-minute preparations.
“Is this going to start anytime soon? I do have things that I would rather be doing.”
So Catherine said. The tone of her voice dripped with annoyance.
Eva had been watching her. All the demons, really, but Catherine was notable because of her occasional comments.
She had arrived with her cellphone in hand, tapping away as usual. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the ritual circle from the moment she first spotted it. Her cellphone was still in her hand, but her fingers didn’t move.
Catherine was old. Eva had no idea how old. Presumably, Catherine had been born. If not, as Zagan had said, she would have been created from a template. No matter what, Catherine wasn’t the sort of person that Eva could see celebrating her birthday. It was highly likely that Catherine had no idea how old she was.
But she was old. With age and experience came knowledge. Perhaps some knowledge about ritual circles. During the few times she had taken over Zoe’s class, Catherine had focused extensively on rituals.
Eva almost wanted to ask just what it was that had caught her interest so completely.
If it was anyone but Catherine, she might have asked. There wasn’t a doubt in Eva’s mind that Catherine would only give a scathing or annoyed comment in response. That was just who she was. She wouldn’t be Catherine if she gave a proper response.
Eva couldn’t ask the other demons either. Lucy had never once been summoned prior to Martina. It was doubtful that she had ever learned anything about rituals. She wouldn’t have any insight in the matter.
Rather, she just looked excited to see something outside of Brakket Academy. Her head spun around—almost literally—as she took in the sights of the prison. Eva could tell that she wanted nothing more than to go around and explore.
The only reason she hadn’t run off was because Zagan had ordered her to be still.
Eva had considered striking up a conversation with Zagan. There was almost no chance that he didn’t have thoughts on the ritual or, at the very least, something interesting to say. And they had just had a decent conversation a week ago.
Unfortunately, Zagan’s irritation with Lucy was palpable. After taking a single glance at the circle, he had leaned against the air with his eyes shut. The only times he had moved were to snap at Lucy for her moving or making too much noise.
If he was in a bad mood, Eva didn’t want to say anything to disturb him further.
Qrycx stood away from everyone else. She didn’t speak. She didn’t mingle. All she did was glare.
More than once, Eva had caught sight of that glare aimed in her direction. Even though the carnivean’s eyes had grown back, she still looked about ready to lunge forward and take Eva’s.
“Almost ready,” Devon said, wiping his sweat on his sleeve.
Catherine slipped her phone into her pocket as she shifted to a more ready position. “Finally.”
Devon glanced up from his notebook. His eyes met with Eva’s for a bare instant before turning back to his work.
In that instant, it was like a whole conversation had passed.
‘Why must you torture me so, girl?’
‘Catherine would have been here regardless of Zagan’s presence.’
‘Don’t even start me on that. I thought you were joking when you said you were going to ask him.’
‘Well, I got my sense of humor from you.’
‘I don’t have a sense of humor.’
At least, that’s how Eva figured it would have happened. Lacking in the ability to project and receive thoughts, she really had no idea as to what he was thinking.
He was, however, undoubtedly pissed. Mostly at her for bringing along Zagan.
“Alright,” he barked out, “Eva, strip and get in the center circle. Whatever three demons are doing this, strip and get in the outer circles.”
“Lucy will be staying here,” Eva said as she pulled her shirt over her head. She still wasn’t sure why Zagan had asked her to bring along Lucy. At first, she had worried that he would try swapping places with her at the last minute.
That wasn’t looking so likely anymore.
Zagan, dressed in a sharp suit complete with a tie, undressed the very second that Devon had ordered it. He hadn’t moved a muscle. Still slouched against an invisible wall, one moment he had clothes on while the next they were neatly folded on the ground.
He had zero compunction about standing around completely naked in front of the group.
Standing a short distance away from the group of demons, Serena pulled down her scarf just long enough to give a loud wolf-whistle that Zagan returned with a smile and a wave.
Eva just shook her head as she stepped out of her skirt.
Catherine and Qrycx had to undress in a far more mundane fashion.
Really, Zagan was just a cheater. When a succubus lacked a magical method of ridding themselves of their clothes, something was just wrong with the world.
Though Catherine had arrived prepared. All she had on was a bathrobe, which she threw off without trouble. She probably would have arrived naked had she not needed a pocket to carry her cellphone in.
Catherine also received a whistle from a certain vampire.
Devon looked at her once with a scoff and a sneer before turning back to the circle.
“No chairs?” Eva asked as she stepped into the center. “Or tubes and needles to hook us up together?”
“We only added the chairs after ensuring that the old circle was stable. No chances here. If something goes wrong…” he pressed a tentacle to his forehead. “You’ll be kneeling. All of you,” he said to the demons as they made their way to their positions. “Sit with your backs to Eva.”
It was strange… No. It was unnerving to watch Zagan kneel down without protest. Eva had expected the Great King of Hell to ignore Devon and pull up an invisible chair. Or whatever else he felt like doing.
Apparently, he felt like following orders.
Catherine was the one who looked most disgusted by being told to sit on the ground. Still, after a glance at Zagan, she complied without a verbal complaint.
“As for the transfusion, it won’t be necessary. The ritual circle will take care of that.”
“Fair enough,” Eva said as she knelt down.
Since she had received Arachne’s limbs, Eva had often considered them to be useful. More often than not, in fact. Her legs were stronger and tougher than the old human ones she had previously possessed. Maybe that would have changed after becoming a demon, but there wasn’t a way to know for sure at this point in time.
Whatever happened in the future would happen. At the moment, Eva was just glad that she could kneel on the hardened carapace instead of her old fleshy skin.
“So, what next boss-man?”
If the glare that Devon had shot Eva earlier was along the lines of being pissed, the glare he sent at Serena was absolutely apoplectic.
Serena actually took a half step backwards.
“Next,” Devon ground out. He turned back to Eva and the three demons, glancing between each of them. “You all remain as still as possible. The demons might feel some tingling and discomfort. Eva… just try not to die.”
Devon didn’t bother responding to that.
Which didn’t make Eva feel any better. How was she supposed to try not to die? Obviously, she didn’t want to die. It wasn’t like she could hold on to the edge of a cliff or dodge a bullet.
Eva shook her head. Worrying about it would just lead to stress and anxiety.
“You,” Devon shouted, pointing towards Lucy. His arm swing around to point at Serena. “And you. No matter what you hear or see, you are not to cross onto the ritual circle. In fact, take ten steps away and do not move.”
That was even less reassuring. Just what were they going to hear and see?
Turning back to the demons, Devon took a deep breath. “Everyone ready?”
“Get on with it already!”
Eva had to agree with Catherine. The longer Devon delayed, the more nervous she got. This treatment was nothing like the sessions with Arachne. That had been a little unconsciousness and a little lethargy afterwards.
This sounded like it was going to be painful.
There was a sigh from Devon and Eva was proven very right.
Eva’s hands had been resting on her knees. When the ritual started, the hydraulic pressure in her hands failed. Lacking any resistance, the strong muscles in her hands clamped down.
The only reason she hadn’t crushed her knees was because they were made of demonic chitin. The strength of her knees was just enough to resist the strength of her hands.
Gritting her teeth, Eva watched with wide eyes.
As the lines of the ritual circle lit up around the demons, something started peeling off and pulling out of the back of their necks.
Smoke poured out of their necks to pool in one great cloud above Eva.
A pitch black cloud.
It took Eva’s panicked mind a moment to realize that it was blood.
While Zagan didn’t seem to notice at all, Catherine moved her hand back to idly scratch at her neck. She wasn’t hurried or panicking. It was as if whatever she felt was no more notable than a mosquito bite. The blood just flowed around her fingers, not sticking to them in the slightest.
Eva couldn’t see the carnivean’s reaction–she didn’t have the mental power to spare on looking through her blood sight.
The dark cloud of demon blood gathered overhead made its way closer and closer to Eva.
Thin spools–two miniature tornadoes–pulled downwards from the cloud. They reached Eva’s wrists and started burrowing.
Up until now, Eva had managed to keep the pain under wraps. Though she grit her teeth and couldn’t control the clenching of her hands, she hadn’t made a sound.
That ended the moment the blood entered her wrists.
Eva arched her back, opening her mouth wide to scream out at the sky. The blood tore through her body. It didn’t care that there was meat and, after leaving her arms, bone in the way.
Organs? Shove them aside. Can’t shove them? Go straight through them.
She could feel it coursing through her. Despite feeling like it was penetrating straight through her organs, she could also feel it wrapping around them, embracing them, infusing them.
From the tips of her toes to the deepest recesses of her brain, her body felt as if it were on fire and drowning at the same time. Flayed to shreds. Worse even than the effects of her method of teleporting.
Her screams died to rasps as her throat gave up.
The dark cloud overhead was steadily shrinking. The demons were no longer contributing to its growth.
The last droplets came down and disappeared into her wrists. Her pain hit a crescendo and everything stopped.
Eva slumped forward. She could barely process what was happening. The runic circle was still glowing with magical energy and she could still feel that energy swirling around inside of her.
Trying to sit as still as she could even with her ragged breathing, Eva waited. She waited and she hoped that the worst of it was over with.
Twelve eternities passed before the light of the ritual circle was finally snuffed out. It had been near noon when they had started, but when the light died, the sunlight had gone dark.
Only the pale moonlight lit up the ritual circle.
Like a puppet with her strings cut, Eva slumped forward. Her arms could muster no resistance to stop her head from smacking into the concrete.
Eva’s hazy mind caught sight of the blazing red eyes of Catherine’s demon form staring down at her.
Everything went dark.