It had taken about an hour for Catherine and Devon to discuss the changes to the circle. Considering that it had taken almost an entire month for Devon to design the latest version of Eva’s treatment circle, that was essentially lightning fast.
Either Catherine was really a genius at understanding how rituals worked and how to change them, there hadn’t been all that many changes to be made, or Devon just cared so little for Catherine’s safety that he wasn’t too interested in checking, double checking, and ensuring that everything was protocoligorically correct.
Eva was leaning towards that last point if it wasn’t all three. Which was actually somewhat flattering for her. It was nice to know that Devon cared. Even if all that care was just for her as a test subject and not as a person, friend, or anything similar. But she really didn’t expect any of that anyway.
After sketching out a preliminary circle in Devon’s notebook, they had started on the larger circle. Something they had been working on for about another hour. One would think that it would go faster with the two of them erasing and redrawing everything, but no. Not really. They kept getting in each other’s way, going over sections that had already been done, bickering, and all sorts of other nonsense.
Frankly, it was amazing that they had managed to sketch out the changes in the first place.
Though, perhaps not quite as amazing as the lack of fireballs while working on changing the circle itself.
Eva was staying far away from it all. She had sat in and watched during the notebook phase. It had taken all of her willpower to not fall asleep. She should have been paying attention and she should have been learning.
Devon’s ritual circles were so beyond her own abilities that she couldn’t understand a thing about them. He and Catherine had been speaking another language as far as Eva was concerned. Zoe might have enjoyed it, but she was off collecting new prospective students for Brakket Academy.
Whether or not she actually came back with any remained to be seen. Eva was well aware that she had several misgivings about how Brakket was being run.
But, that wasn’t too relevant to what was going on at the moment.
Eva stood back at the edge of the converted basketball court while Devon and Catherine argued over some line or other on the circle.
She still didn’t know what Catherine hoped to gain from the experiment. Well, that wasn’t true. Power was likely the answer. But in what form? Some abstract ‘blip’ on a map?
Zagan’s motivations were actually clear for once. Based on his conversation with Eva when she had asked him to participate, Eva could guess that he wanted to see some new variation of a demon. Even if it was still based on Catherine’s ‘template’ or whatever.
“So,” said a voice to Eva’s side, “that seemed pretty intense.”
“Not something I’ll look forward to in three months.”
“Three months?” Serena just about jumped out of her boots. “You have to do it again?”
Eva turned to glance at the vampire. Now that she mentions it… “Actually, I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask Devon about any changes to the schedule. Until now, however, I’ve been doing a similar thing every three months since I was nine-ish years old.”
“Nine?” Serena trembled a little.
It looked fake. Like an actor on the stage of a play. But it was entirely possible that she couldn’t emote properly, being a vampire. Maybe she was exaggerating her motions in a forced attempt to emulate the living–a way to put regular people more at ease. Eva really didn’t know enough about vampires to say one way or the other.
“I don’t think I could have done something like that when I was nine.”
Eva laughed. “Oh it was far worse back then.”
“All that blood in the air? It had to be transfered through needles in the old version of the ritual. You don’t even want to know how much of a baby I was about having a needle stuck in me.”
There was no way she was about to tell Serena that the old ritual had been essentially painless. If the vampire wanted to think that she had always been a tough kid, who was she to correct her?
“But,” Serena said with a ponderous expression, “you’re a blood mage. You have to cut yourself daily.”
“Yeah, there might be some connection there. Maybe I picked up those blood magic books because of the needles.”
It was entirely possible. Eva hadn’t thought of that before.
“But,” Eva said, “speaking of blood.” She pulled the tee-shirt she had changed into up to her nose and gave a few light sniffs. Nothing smelt especially unusual. But that was why she was bout to ask Serena for her opinion. “When we first met, you said that I had a good smell. At the same time, you didn’t seem so fond of Arachne’s blood. How about now?”
Serena glanced at her with a quirked eyebrow. Her lips peeled back into a smirk, revealing her sharp fangs. The storm clouds in the back of her eyes lit up.
I should not have asked, Eva thought as she averted her eyes. It was just an idle curiosity. She didn’t need to know the answer. Now she had gone and made Serena shift from a sixteen year old girl to a hungry vampire.
It took a great deal of effort not to pull back as Serena leaned closer and drew in a deep breath.
How long has it been since she last fed? Eva thought with a sudden start. The vampire had been lounging about the prison for at least the last week. There weren’t people around here. No one to turn into midnight snacks.
The profound yearn for blood emanating from Serena died off. She slumped away from Eva to stare off towards the ritual circle.
Eva just about sighed in relief. Not that she was worried. She was strong. Her hands and legs made it so that she was never unarmed, plus she could light herself on fire. Vampires didn’t like fire. Even if she couldn’t fight off the vampire had Serena decided to clamp down on her neck, Devon and all the demons would have been able to put her down.
Well, Devon would have stepped in to help his precious research subject. Lucy probably would have done something as well. Zagan? Doubtful. If Eva guessed correctly, he would have considered such a thing a mere failure in her being–not worthy of becoming a demon or something along those lines.
Catherine might have helped out. But she might not have. It was hard to say. A friend would have helped out, but Eva could very well have been too hasty in naming Catherine a friend. She hoped not, but the possibility was there.
“No good?” Eva asked, trying not to let her relief come across as too obvious in her voice.
Serena glanced up with a tooth-filled grin. “Oh, no. You smell delicious. I was just thinking. Reflecting, really.” Her grin slid by the wayside as she turned back towards the ritual circle. “Not so long ago, there was a cloud of blood overhead. I am always hungry, but I didn’t feel anything about it. No desire to go slurp it all up or anything.”
“Because it was demon blood? Or something else?”
The vampire put a finger to her lip as she hummed out a thoughtful tune. “Don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “Could be a huge part of it. Perhaps it is like sugar?”
“I don’t… you’ve lost me.”
“Demon blood. It’s like sugar. With you, it’s like a sweet cake. Sugar with all kinds of other things mixed in. Them, however… well, you wouldn’t want to eat a spoonful of raw sugar, would you?”
“I suppose not.”
Her tongue traced the edges of her lips. “Buut,” she drew the word out, “it has made me hungry. Hungrier.”
“That’s a shame.” Eva kept her voice steady and as neutral as she could force it. “Perhaps you should go find someone willing to give you some blood.”
“Come on. It won’t even hurt. Just a little bit.”
“Sorry.” Eva pointed at herself. “Blood mage. I’ve become a bit protective of my blood lately.”
Serena let out a long groan. “So, what’s all this then?” Serena asked, changing the topic while waving her hand out towards the ritual circle. “You’re not doing it again, are you?”
“Not for me. Catherine wants a try.”
“It seemed unpleasant enough with you. Are demons usually masochistic?”
“Catherine being so wouldn’t surprise me. As I said, I’m not looking forward to additional treatment.”
As they watched, Devon placed his hands on his hips, leaned and cracked his back. “The circle is ready,” he said, not even looking towards the assembled demons.
“Well,” Serena said, “I think I’ve had enough screaming demons for one day. Unless you’re going to help satiate my hunger…” She trailed off with a glance at Eva.
“Sorry,” Eva said without meaning the word in the slightest.
“Then I think I’ll head off and seek a meal elsewhere. Need to get going and get back before daybreak.”
As Devon started organizing the demons into their proper spots, Serena stalked off with her hands behind her head. Eva only watched her go for a few moments before turning her attention to the yelling going on around the ritual circle.
“This was not part of our contract,” the carnivean said, hair-tentacles dancing in the air in rage. “Find someone else to be your pet. I’ve had enough of myself being drained away for one day.”
Devon looked about ready to toss a fireball at Qrycx. His hand was outstretched with the rings on his fingers lightly glowing in that sickly green he used for his fire.
Turns out, he needn’t have bothered.
A large hand clasped around her head, completely ignoring the tentacles as they lashed out to attack the invader of her space. The carnivean’s legs dangled beneath her as Zagan lifted her off the ground with the single hand. She was a good few feet off the ground—she was only about half as tall as Eva and yet Zagan had his arm almost parallel to the ground. He twisted his wrist once she made it to eye level, facing her towards him.
As soon as she saw who had a hold of her, Qrycx went still. Her tentacles dropped to her sides, not a single muscle in them even twitched. With her tentacles smoothed over her body, her tiny form looked even smaller.
“You will participate,” Zagan said with a smile. Qrycx’s stillness failed as she started shaking. “There might even be something in it for you.”
Qrycx actually stopped her trembling to glance up at Zagan. Or she tried to. Zagan released her. She fell the short height and landed on her feet. Without sparing a moment for hesitation, she moved out of the way as Zagan continued towards his position.
It still took her a moment to move to her spot. Her fists clenched and her teeth ground together. Yet she went with no verbal complaint.
Lucy was under no such reservations. Between the bounces in her steps and the occasional giggle, she actually looked excited to participate. Devon did have to fuss with her a bit to get her facing the proper direction–a task complicated by the fact that Lucy was an axopodia. How was she supposed to sit with her back to Catherine when she was just a bunch of tightly wound spaghetti noodles?
Somehow Devon figured it out. It took a lot of doing, but he had managed to rearrange Lucy’s tentacles. She still looked like a human, but a dark spot on her neck stood out.
Once everyone got to position, Catherine stepped into the center. She rotated once, eyes roving over the ritual circle for one final check. Satisfied, she knelt and gave Devon a short nod.
He replied with a scoff.
Kneeling down himself, Devon placed his hands at the edge of the circle and started channeling magic.
Eva watched with rapt attention. She had never actually seen someone else’s treatment before. The terminal child from the hospital was the only one who had received Devon’s treatment to her knowledge, and she had been simultaneously groggy from her own treatment and off helping Ylva clear enigmas out of her domain. She had only caught the tail end of it.
Of course, this wasn’t anything like her old treatments. And it really didn’t resemble what little she had seen of the hospital kid’s treatment.
Catherine sat, much like Eva had, as a cloud of blood gathered overhead. Streams of blood descended and entered her wrists. Catherine didn’t scream out. Apart from gritting her teeth and her tail stiffening, her body remained very still.
On the surface, at least. Beneath her skin, Catherine was definitely feeling something. Her heart rate spiked. Her organs–which were, for the most part, remarkably human-like–trembled as her breathing sped up.
Now that Eva wasn’t in agony, she could actually see what the blood was doing. The blood didn’t spear through organs, unlike what she had thought. It hit an organ and started to spread around it. Once an organ was fully enveloped, the blood sunk inside and became indistinguishable from Catherine’s preexisting blood. Then, the tendrils of blood would search around for more organs. All the while, the blood would diffuse throughout her muscles, veins, and other non-organ parts of her body.
Fascinating to watch for the first few minutes, but Eva quickly found herself growing bored. Her own treatment had lasted from noon to nightfall. She had no reason to believe that Catherine’s would go any faster. In case something strange happened, she still wanted to watch.
Eva went back to the women’s ward and grabbed a tome and a chair–Devon, Serena, and Lucy had not had a chair the entire time for some odd reason–and dragged them back to the basketball court.
The tome was her book on blood rituals. Eva had promised both herself and Nel that she would hunt down Sawyer after her treatment. She had no intention of breaking that promise. There was a particular ritual that she had come across in the past and wanted to refresh herself on before using it.
Settling into her chair, Eva kept the corner of her eye on Catherine and her ritual while she flipped through the pages of her tome.
— — —
Succubi were fools. Incubi as well. Every last one of them.
Obsessed beyond measure with the pleasures of the flesh and other such carnal desires.
And for what? What did sex get any of them?
Momentary pleasure that vanished as quickly as it came, a reputation—not a good one in Catherine’s opinion—and perhaps the largest subset of demons simply due to breeding practices. Though true succubi were far rarer than cambions, lesser succubi, and other such derivatives.
Their population couldn’t even be turned into any sort of real power. Succubi were almost hard-wired to hate and despise other succubi and incubi. They felt threatened by others of their kind. Envy and jealousy ran rampant through their veins.
In other words, nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Much as she couldn’t understand the end goal for what succubi were designed to do, neither could Catherine understand the why.
Why would she ever want to be in such close proximity to filthy and utterly disgusting mortals? Humans, elves, dwarves, mixed races, goblins, trolls, ogres, whatever else existed. All were nothing greater than dirt to Catherine. It would be akin to a human fornicating with a cockroach.
She was above them all.
That wasn’t to say that she hated humans. They could be interesting at times. A decent diversion from the monotony of existence. As long as they kept their distance and left her to do as she willed, Catherine was more apathetic than anything else.
Irene made for a good toy. Pushing her to things that made her uncomfortable brought around interesting reactions. Those she played games with were… stand-able to a mild degree. From a distance. She wouldn’t wish to meet with them in person. They would be just as disgusting as the rest of their filthy race.
By that logic, demons would be more on her level. She should enjoy the company of other demons.
Perhaps she would. It was hard to say, having never tried.
As it was, Catherine feared other demons. In Hell, she kept to herself. Much like most other demons, she visited no other domains and invited no others to hers. Catherine was not a strong demon. Even a pathetic wretch like Arachne would be able to slaughter her effortlessly.
Such was the station of a lesser succubus.
Being lesser succubus wasn’t all bad, however. It made living among mortals incredibly easy. Almost to an absurd degree. Between her body, her natural succubi grace, and maybe a tiny bit of power poured into some mind magic, getting what she wanted from humans wasn’t difficult at all.
At least, that was how it should be. Catherine didn’t often find herself wanting anything from mortals. When she did, she ran into people like Eva’s mentor. People who weren’t enamored with her and who could just blink away if she got too close. People who knew about succubi charms and could either defend themselves or shrug them off.
Given her lesser succubus status, Catherine was willing to bet that he hadn’t even noticed.
But again, having power over mortals was like having power over cockroaches. Not glamorous. Not elegant. Not worth it.
Blinking her eyes open, Catherine sighed. She should have known.
The women’s ward. Only once or twice had she visited in the past, occasions when she had needed Eva for something or other.
She had been feeling something soft at her back for some time now. All the time she had allowed her thoughts to run rampant, the couch had been cradling her. Idle thoughts that were, ultimately, as meaningless as sex. They brought her nothing that she hadn’t already known. She hadn’t made any philosophical discoveries. No sudden enlightenment to how she could gain power over her betters.
Staring up at the brick ceiling dotted with runework lighting of the women’s ward, Catherine had to wonder why she had even tried. Nothing felt different. No surge of power or notion that she could rule the world. If anything, she felt exhausted.
That could just be the aftereffects of the ritual. Maybe she would gain in strength over the next few days as she recovered.
Somehow, she doubted it. Throughout Eva’s ritual, she could feel the girl steadily growing stronger up until its completion. After that, the steady growth dropped off, but still continued for a while longer. Catherine hadn’t been able to pay attention during her own ritual, but it must have stopped at some point afterwards. She could feel Eva now and the girl had felt mostly the same since Catherine had regained consciousness.
Though, thinking about Eva just made Catherine more depressed.
One of her favors had been consumed just to perform a worthless ritual. All because Catherine’s succubi wiles were too weak to get one mortal to even give her the time of day.
Working up the effort to turn her head, Catherine found the girl in question seated in a chair with a book in hand.
Eva glanced up and smiled at her over the top of the book. “The sleeping beauty is finally awake. Didn’t even take a kiss.”
“Don’t you dare,” Catherine said, though the words came out hollow. She was too tired to put more effort into it. That and the action of turning her head caused all kinds of strange prickles in the back of her neck. Trying to lift her arm caused the same to happen there.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Eva said with a snort. “And don’t try to move. I was all kinds of shaky after waking up. Could barely even stand.”
Catherine didn’t speak. She turned her head back to the ceiling and stared.
“It failed,” Catherine said to herself. It wasn’t a question for Eva. Rather, it was a simple statement of a fact.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Catherine would have started at the new voice, but she had already been aware of Zagan’s presence somewhere nearby. In order to see him, she would have had to tilt her head up and back.
She didn’t bother with that, but couldn’t help the eyebrow that was crawling up her forehead.
“It didn’t fail?”
Zagan gave a low chuckle. “I suppose that depends. Did you expect to come out of that ritual able to challenge me?”
Catherine didn’t respond, which only raised Zagan’s chuckle to a full boisterous laugh. He walked around the table to stand just to the side of Eva’s chair.
He was, thankfully, back in his suit. Catherine didn’t care one way or the other about people in the nude, but Zagan was more like an incubus than most incubi she had met over the course of her existence. Seeing him clothed was reassuring.
“Then yes, it failed. If you might lower your expectations a few notches, perhaps you might be able to see some success. Already, that little diabolist man–”
“Demonologist,” Eva interrupted.
Zagan glared, but didn’t admonish her. The glare was probably enough. Eva shrank down in her chair and stared at the floor.
“That man is running around with his notebook, recording every little idea his mind can dream up as they come to him. Foolish, yeah? But amusing for the time being.”
Catherine frowned. When he had said that the ritual didn’t fail, she was hoping for more a more selfish result. Even something as simple as her charms being more irresistible.
“Well that’s just great for him,” she eventually said.
Eva cleared her throat. When Zagan didn’t glare or behead her or anything similar, she sat up a little straighter and looked at Catherine. “Devon has actually requested your assistance. It was a begrudging request, but he did admit that you know your way around rituals. He might not have admitted it in such a straightforward manner and there might have been a lot more reluctance… I might be paraphrasing too.”
Eva trailed off, searching for the proper words.
Catherine shook her head. “Great. I am so excited to waste my time with that insufferable man. I’m sure I have nothing better to do with my time in this mortal realm.”
“He’s not that bad,” Eva said with crossed arms and a pointed stare.
“Catherine has the more accurate assessment of the man,” Zagan said, patting Eva on the head. She didn’t appear appreciate the gesture, but not enough to actually fight back against the devil.
Probably a smart move.
“However,” Zagan continued, “I caught a glimpse of his notebook. There are some rather fascinating things for you. This ritual didn’t work the way you wanted, but it was never intended to do that anyway. Your rush job altering it was clever, but ultimately a failure. A more specialized ritual, one designed from the ground up with you in mind…”
“You’re saying,” Catherine said slowly, trying not to get her hopes up, “that there might be something we could do that would put me on par with you?”
“With me?” Zagan laughed. He threw his head back and grabbed his stomach.
Catherine immediately regretted saying that. She should have been vague. Asked for more power in a general sense or something similar.
Zagan’s golden eyes looked down at her. She could feel herself being placed on scales, weighed and measured.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing such. I shall not set my expectations so high. Show me something new. Create yourself anew. Do so and I may grant you a boon of some sort. Fail and…” He shrugged. “Try not to fail.”
With an unrestrained shudder, Catherine nodded. She had just been given an order. An ultimatum. One does not reject such a thing when the source is a Great King of Hell. Not if they wanted to continue existing.
But, oddly enough, she didn’t mind so much. The thought of becoming more powerful was an enticing one. And then there was a boon from Zagan? She was too afraid to ask just what that was. Boons were generally not bad things though. Receiving one from him would be far greater than a thousand favors from one as lowly as Eva.
Whetting the insides of her lips with her tongue, Catherine smiled. “When can we start?”
Yes, this project is far more enticing than the usual desires of succubi.