“I don’t see why you need me for this.”
Juliana’s concentration collapsed. Along with it went the few particles of iron that she had managed to conjure up.
She took a deep breath and let it out as a long sigh. “All that progress. Gone. Just like that.”
“Progress? You’ve been standing in one spot for the last hour doing nothing.”
“Didn’t you see all the iron? I conjured that.”
“I saw nothing.”
“Then you weren’t looking.”
Arachne glanced off to the side, looking back towards the direction of the school building.
It might have been her imagination, but it almost seemed as if she let out a small sigh of her own.
“Why am I here again? I know nothing about thaumaturgy. And this doesn’t seem to be a secret thing that you would need to come out into the woods with a bodyguard for.”
“Bodyguard?” Juliana raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you think you’re here for?”
Taking a deep breath, Juliana closed her eyes in mental preparation. As soon as she opened her mouth again, there might be no going back. But she needed this. She had her goals and Arachne was going to help her accomplish them.
Whether Juliana wanted her to or not.
“I want you to fight me.”
The moment the words left her mouth, Juliana sprung into action. She couldn’t let Arachne have the initiative. There was no Eva around at the moment. No one to chide Arachne if she went too far. No one to watch and ensure that Juliana lived.
Arachne would be free to fight however she wanted. Juliana held no doubts that she would. She had picked today specifically because Eva had an exam as soon as lunch ended while Juliana didn’t.
Juliana lunged forward with an arm. A thin blade sprouted out of her wrist as she moved. It extended a good deal out from her body.
She hadn’t been lying to Eva. Affecting metal away from her body wasn’t possible—at least, it didn’t use to be possible before breaking apart that emblem. It was still much too difficult to use in a combat situation.
Luckily, with how she had been taught ferrokinesis, she didn’t need to do anything to metal outside of her body. The metal that she controlled was almost an extension of her limbs. It was much easier to manipulate metal no more than an inch away from her skin, but she could do simple things like extend spikes from a contiguous bit of metal.
She still built her sword from the tip down, extending it outwards as she poured more metal into the construct.
The demon-harming metal in her collection stayed behind. Juliana only used normal iron and steel in the sword.
The special metal was making up her armor. Especially around her neck and head. Just in case Arachne did decide to go all out.
Maybe she wanted Arachne to go a little easy on her. Slashing her with a weapon that would cause severe harm would maybe make her a little angrier than Juliana wanted. They still didn’t completely understand the metal and she didn’t want to permanently injure Arachne. Or temporarily, for that matter.
She wanted a fight. Not a slaughter.
Arachne didn’t even look surprised at being suddenly attacked with a sword. She stepped to one side, dodging Juliana’s lunge before grabbing the sword with her hands. A leg from her back, which hadn’t been there a second ago, thrust forward, snapping the blade just above Juliana’s outstretched hand.
Juliana dodged backwards, rolling along the ground and manipulating the earth as she went to give her just a little extra distance.
Only… As Juliana got back to an upright fighting position, she realized that Arachne hadn’t followed up with an attack. Her dodge had been meaningless.
And even now, the demon was just standing there, staring at her with the bit of broken metal in her claws.
Juliana watched it carefully. In Arachne’s spars with her mother, she had not been shy about catching and returning the rocks and boulders that Genoa had thrown. Usually with as much or more force behind them.
But the spider-demon just dropped the blade, letting it fall straight to the ground without even trying to kick it towards her. She turned and started walking.
Confusion took over Juliana for a few moments. Is it a ploy? she thought. Some sneaky way to attack?
It quickly dawned on her that Arachne was not trying to lull her into some false sense of security. She was walking away.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“I have better things to do than play with you.”
“Like what?” Juliana asked as she ran after the spider demon. She did pause just long enough to reach down and reabsorb the bit of blade into her armor as she passed it. “Need to ogle Eva some more?”
It was a dangerous game she was playing. Needling Arachne about Eva was one of those things that might really set her off.
But the demon just kept walking.
“What’s your problem?” Juliana asked. She threw a little magic towards Arachne’s feet, causing one to sink into the ground a few inches.
That gave the spider-demon about as much pause as a fly brushing past her face.
“I have had a great deal of time to think,” Arachne said, pulling her leg out of the ground and continuing her stride almost unbroken. “Between my self-imposed isolation after the… incident with your mother and my detention in Hell. I have decided, on my own, to become a better person.”
“By whose standards?”
“Eva’s, of course. A year ago, I would have torn you to shreds. Eva isn’t around. Whatever she thought about it could be dealt with later. Now, I don’t want to fight you.”
“You can’t even spar with me?”
“I’d rather not risk hurting you.”
Juliana froze, looking at Arachne with her mouth agape. Was this even the same demon? What had Hell done to her? Shaking her head, she skipped forwards to catch up with the rapidly retreating demon.
“You sparred with my mother all the time. You never hurt her!”
“Are you forgetting the part where I put her in the state she is currently in? Barely better than an invalid.”
Juliana reached forward, gripping Arachne’s wrist. She made sure to move the metal out of the way before touching her. Burning her with the hunter’s metal right now wouldn’t advance any of Juliana’s goals.
When Arachne didn’t swat her hand away, instead stopping and turning, Juliana grew a little more confident. She stared into Arachne’s red eyes—her main two anyway, Juliana kept her gaze steady rather than flick to each set of eyes.
“You apologized for that. I’ve accepted your apology. More, I’ve decided that you didn’t apologize just because Eva made you.”
That last bit she had been convinced was false up until about thirty seconds ago. Arachne deciding not to fight and her current attempt to escape the situation just made it all the more convincing.
After another moment of keeping their eyes locked together, Arachne turned with a slight snort. Her hand slipped out of Juliana’s grip and she resumed her march.
“Besides,” Arachne said, not looking towards Juliana as they walked alongside each other, “I’ve still hurt her during our spars. Unless we have different definitions of the word. I seem to recall tearing out her throat once.”
“That…” Was true. Partially. It had been more of a scratch, really. A particularly bloody scratch that went just a bit too deep and took out a bit too much flesh. “Well, just don’t do that.”
“I don’t think you quite understand the difficulty of holding back while in real combat.” Arachne did glance down towards Juliana this time. Just long enough to make sure that Juliana saw the sneer. “I suppose that wouldn’t be much of a problem in fighting you. I doubt it would be much of a fight.”
“You won’t know until you try.”
Again, Arachne stopped. “Do you honestly believe that you can fight me? Even with me tying all of my limbs behind my back, do you think you have a chance?”
Gritting her teeth, Juliana broke her gaze with Arachne.
“I didn’t think so. You aren’t your mother.”
“She was the one who suggested I come to you in the first place.
“I need training,” Juliana said when Arachne didn’t respond. “With all the monsters running around, I need to be a better fighter. Zagan’s combat course got canceled with him gone and the after-school dueling club is just fighting other students. My mother is in no position to train me so you’re the next best choice.”
Arachne stared for a moment, eventually shaking her head. The hard carapace covering the tendrils that had taken place of her hair snapped and crackled as they hit each other. “I’m your third choice to teach you to fight?” She let out a cold laugh. “Something has seriously gone wrong with the world.”
“What else is new?”
“But I’m the wrong choice. I know nothing of thaumaturgy. I don’t know how mages should fight with it. I don’t know how to teach. Find somebody else. Your professor knows how to fight, get her to do it.”
“Not an option.”
She had suggested Zoe to her mother. Her mother had shut that option down. Zoe was not a fighter. She could fight, but there was a difference. Being able to fight did not mean that they were a good person to learn from. Perhaps the basics. Her mother hadn’t had any complaints about the seminar that Zoe put on over the summer. She had even attended one or two of the sessions.
But Genoa wanted an opponent like Arachne. Someone similar to what Juliana might have to fight in real life. Preferably someone who wasn’t going to hold back much either.
That didn’t look like it was going to be an option, but Juliana would take what she could get.
“Help me. If you really need, we can ask Eva for permission.”
“That would be more acceptable. I don’t like going behind her back. Though I will warn you: we might not have much time for you.”
Juliana frowned, crossing her arms as she stared at the demon. Was Arachne really that busy? Apart from hanging off Eva like a lost puppy, Juliana couldn’t think of a single thing that Arachne had done that might take up any amount of time.
“We have a certain project we’re starting soon. We’re expecting it to consume a fair bit of time. Lots of work to do.”
“She hasn’t told me about anything like that.” Not unless Eva had decided to sign up for the school’s activities.
“You’ve never asked.”
— — —
“You told her?”
“I didn’t tell her what we were doing.”
Eva rubbed her forehead. “No, but now she’s going to be asking all the time until I tell her something. I guess we can save that for later. Everything ready?”
“Are we really sure about leaving right now? The demon hunters–”
“Are still watching the town,” Eva said. She gave a quick glance towards Srey for confirmation.
His arms were crossed and his eyes narrowed, but as soon as Eva looked at him, he sat up and spoke somewhat respectfully. “Nobody has been watching us with any kind of hostility since we got to this place. For the record, everything about this plan is bad and you all should feel bad for dragging me into it.”
“Noted. Don’t care.”
Eva hadn’t wanted to bring Srey into the loop. The less people who knew about the ritual, the less failure points it had. However, without having a method to block out the demon hunters’ spying, Srey was one of the most valuable tools around.
Unfortunately, he could only detect scrying. And only scryings with less than noble intent in the mind of the scryer towards the subject. That meant that Eva was going to run into the same problem that Sawyer had when she had been stalking him. The only difference was that she knew that she was being watched.
But for the time being, they had land to survey. The ritual wasn’t quite as large as Sawyer’s field. Close, but not quite. They needed a relatively flat area free of most trees, shrubberies, and other foliage.
She doubted that she would be able to find a location that fit that criteria. She would have to make one. Eva planned to burn most of the plant life away.
Though, maybe bringing Juliana into the ritual wouldn’t be a bad idea. She could help level the terrain.
Not tonight though. Tonight it was just Eva, Arachne, Vektul, and Srey.
“You all ready to go?” Eva asked, glancing around at the gathered demons.
Arachne immediately stepped up to her side. She flexed her fingers as a few spare legs grew from her back. While she didn’t grow to her full size, she made herself as menacing as possible. They weren’t planning on fighting, but nobody wanted to be caught unprepared.
The other two were somewhat slower to jump to their feet. Vektul had taken a liking to the couches inside the women’s ward. At least, he was smiling a lot. Too much, really. Whoever had taught him about smiling should have mentioned that it wasn’t something to be done constantly.
He gave off too many Sawyer vibes like he was.
Well, not quite as bad.
Vektul’s smile, though just as wide as Sawyer’s, was more like that of an innocent child. He emanated none of the malicious vibes that Eva had felt anytime she had been in Sawyer’s presence.
On the other hand, Srey’s perpetual scowl only deepened as Eva turned to him. Not even her ‘honored’ status among demons could get him to smile at the moment. Or even look mildly content. He grumbled for a moment as he stood up. “We’re going to get ambushed.”
“Just keep an eye out for anyone spying on us. We’ll leave immediately upon being noticed. No chances.”
Tonight was for survey only. Nothing more.
Well, maybe a little foliage clearing if they had the time. Eva already had a spot in mind. An old farmer’s field not far from the prison. Far enough away that it couldn’t really be seen, but not so far that it would be overly troublesome to get to without constructing a gate.
Vektul, seeing that everyone else was up and waiting for him, finally got to his feet. Not before letting out a long sigh as he left the couch. Eva didn’t think it was that comfortable, the bed in his dorm was probably better. Maybe he had lived on nothing but beds of nails in his domain.
Either that or he was simply not emoting properly again.
None in their group could blink except for Eva, so they would be walking. Luckily, everyone here was a demon. They all had the stamina and speed to run at a decent pace.
“Follow me,” Eva said.
Running out of the women’s ward, Eva blinked to the top of the nearest exterior wall. Arachne quickly followed, though she jumped to reach the wall. Srey was next. Rather than climb or blink, he turned into his misty form and just sort of drifted to the top. He reformed into a solid demon just to the side of Eva.
Vektul stayed behind, looking somewhat confused. He turned almost a full circle around before tilting his head to one side. Glancing at the base of the wall before glancing up to Eva, he straightened his neck. “Our intention is to arrive on the other side, is it not?”
“If you put a hole in my wall, I’ll kill you.”
“That will not be necessary.” He crossed his arms across his chest.
Nothing else happened.
Eva was about to send Arachne down to pick him up when the ground beneath him opened up in a gaping black portal. He fell in and the portal shimmered away into nothing behind him.
The portal was something that Eva had seen before. Several times, in fact. Any time a demon was banished or died, they fell into a very similar portal as Void reclaimed them. It was similar enough that Eva had to turn to her companions and ask, “Did he just kill himself?”
Arachne just shrugged. Srey, on the other hand, actually took a step back. He was staring at the spot Vektul had just occupied with a look of bewilderment. Something akin to the looks that he sometimes gave Eva when he thought she wasn’t looking.
While neither said a word, Eva did get her answer.
“No. I haven’t killed myself.”
Turning to the sound of the voice, Eva found Vektul stepping out of an upright portal on the outside of the prison. He glanced around once before nodding to himself with a wide smile. “Yep. I’m fine.”
Opening her mouth, Eva found herself hesitating. Was it just a method of teleportation that looked like what happened when a demon died? Was it more than that?
Did it really matter?
Not at the moment. She might interrogate him later. For now, the longer they waited, the more likely it was that the hunters would turn their gaze in Eva’s direction.
“Alright. Let’s get moving then.”
Eva blinked to the ground, letting the others follow her in their own ways. Once on the ground, she just ran. Blinking might put her too far out of earshot to hear any warnings from Srey.
The actual run was a bit colder than Eva would have liked. Winter came early this year, though there was still no snow on the ground. At least it wasn’t pitch dark out in the early evening just yet. The sun was close to the horizon, but not quite at it yet. They should have a good hour of light. After that, if they were still outside, Eva could toss a few light spells around for a decent amount of light.
“This is around where I was thinking,” Eva said as they crested the top of a shallow hill. There was an equally shallow valley on the other side. Not too much plant life. A few stray bushes here and there. Lots of grass and underbrush, but that would be easy to burn away. Because it had once been a farmland, there were no major trees. Just little saplings that had sprouted since the farm had been abandoned.
Vektul hummed, glancing around the place. He walked along the top of the hill around to one side, pausing to observe from there. Eva followed behind him as he ran through his inspection. She gave the occasional glance towards Srey who always responded with a shake of his head.
So far, so good.
“It’s large enough.”
“Maybe not flat enough,” Eva said, preempting any arguments on that front. “But that shouldn’t be hard to solve.”
“No overhead cover. This weather you have around here might ruin any engravings or markings we make.”
“Also somewhat easily solved.”
Warding was an amazing thing. While she might have been able to whip up some sort of protective shield through runes—such a thing should be entirely possible, though she had never tried to do so over such a large area—warding could do it all and much faster. Not only did she not have to write anything down, she also did not have to experiment too much. Shifting most of the busy work to pure thought removed a lot of the effort.
Of course, she wasn’t quite certain that she was good enough to do something like that. Yet. Luckily, it didn’t need to be done right this very second. There was a good deal of preparation that needed doing before any real circle-making could begin.
“I think it should work then,” Vektul said. “You still have not collected the necessary mages and demons.”
“First thing,” Eva said, holding up a finger, “we have a lot of work to do before then. This ritual circle is not going to be drawn in a single night. One thing at a time.”
A month might be too generous of a time frame even if they recruited Juliana to help dig out the lines for the ritual. Without her, Eva would be out using a shovel. Her meager skill in earth magic wasn’t quite up to the task of drawing out such a ritual site.
Eva lit up her hands. First things first.
She started marking out a wide outline of a ring, keeping the flames carefully controlled on the outside so as to not burn more than she needed. The ring wasn’t perfect. She didn’t want it to be. At least not yet. Some hunters would almost assuredly stumble across this place. If it looked like an obvious ritual circle, they would do the same thing that she had done to Sawyer.
Fighting with Arachne might work as a cover guise should anyone start spying on them. However, there was a point where tearing down the bushes just became too much work and too impractical while mock-sparring. After a few minutes of no one watching them, Eva dispensed with the cover and started throwing flames around.
After an hour, she only had about an eighth of what she wanted to have done. Burning everything wasn’t difficult work, but it did consume some time. Especially with only her able to really do the work.
Arachne did her part by uprooting the small trees and larger bushes and tossing them out of the ring Eva had made. Neither Vektul nor Srey were really equipped to help out much. They just stayed to the side and watched.
At least, until Srey stepped forwards.
“It’s started again.”