Juliana turned away from Eva with a slight shudder.
Her skin had cracked and broken in the blast. If her hair loss had been the extent of her injuries, that would be one thing.
It had taken an effort to not throw up when she first saw Eva coming up the stairs. Between her charred black skin, cracks in the char looking like a dried desert, and a red almost glow emitting from between the cracks, she did not look well. Worse, if such a thing was possible, Eva didn’t even seem to notice herself. She walked up with only a ghost of a limp.
‘Terrible’ was the understatement of the century.
But then, while she had been talking, Eva’s skin changed. Some of the charcoal flaked off, replaced by fresh skin. The red glow dampened. She didn’t heal. Not all of her, at least. But the start was there.
It was somewhat creepy.
“Mom,” Juliana said, turning away from the staircase once Eva had disappeared. “She’s going alone.”
“We established that during our conversation. You heard her. She’ll be fine.”
“Not even Arachne is with her.”
“She’ll be fine, Juliana. Stay here and help me.”
“Help you?” Juliana marched over to the window and stared out at the fight below.
“I’ve done nothing so far. What am I supposed to do now? Throw stones at him? I can’t make a giant golem to fight for me and you won’t let me go down there.”
Juliana paused as Arachne moved from her webs at the edge of the fight, darting into the fray. The swordsman tried to move out of the way, but Arachne’s bulk still clipped him. He came out of his flash step in a stumble. Though his step carried him a good way away from Arachne and Genoa’s much slower golem, the doll was on him in an instant.
He twisted out of the way of her first slash and blocked a second with his sword. The stumble and the twist both put him off-balance enough that he didn’t have a steady hand while blocking the strike. He managed to keep a grip on his sword, but it still got knocked to the side.
Leaving him wide open.
The doll brought down her sword again in an overhead strike, apparently intending to split the hunter straight in two.
Ducking his head, he caught the sword right in the center of his off-hand’s vambrace. It didn’t stop the sword completely. The blade bit into his armor far enough to strike his forearm. Bright red blood ran down the blade, dripping to the ground from the end of the hand guard.
Both the doll and the hunter pulled back. The former attempted to strike again, but the hunter activated his speed and once more found himself with a small bit of breathing room.
The golem and Arachne moved in, keeping him from having too much breathing room and pressing their advantage over his injury.
“And what would you be able to do if you went with Eva?” Genoa asked as her golem moved to the hunter’s injured side. “Imagine fighting another one of these people. What would you do against them?”
“I don’t know. Something. Something more than I’m doing here. At least Eva wouldn’t be fighting alone.”
“Or you could find yourself in over your head. These people will not stop with their blades at your throat and ask you to surrender. They will run you through without a second thought.”
She threw her arm out in a wide sweeping gesture out the window. The action came at a cost in her concentration; her golem froze solid, missing an opportunity to grapple the hunter.
He took advantage of the lapse, diving between the golem’s arm and body, using its bulk as a shield against Arachne.
“Look at what they’ve done. There were people out there. Students. Human children. They essentially bombed this place, showing little regard for anyone’s life in trying to hit their target. It is a miracle that everyone had run indoors beforehand.
“If, somehow, they end up walking away from this, I will be personally taking out a bounty with the mage-knights on these demon hunters. Fighting demons? Fine, I can understand that. Attacking a school? Unacceptable. It wasn’t like they were sieging the school. The demons, by all evidence and observation, were behaving and simply attending the school as well.”
Except the demon who the doll killed, Juliana thought. One student had fallen into his trap, possibly more. If the doll hadn’t come along and gotten rid of him, who knew what might have happened. Half the school could be trapped in his delusions.
She refused to believe that her mother had forgotten about him, given Irene and Saija had just told everybody about it less than an hour ago. But, by observation only, the school had been running fine.
Even if the demon hunters knew about Timothy and his indiscretions with his contract, they hadn’t done anything about it. They had gone after Eva and Arachne. Nobody else. Or rather, anybody else had just been a bonus target.
So her mother’s explanation still fit.
“But that doesn’t change a thing. They’re still here now. Eva is still going off on her own. You, Arachne, and the doll are holding off this knight. He only has to fail once and he dies. But even if the other one is severely injured, she could still be a match for Eva on her own. I can’t do nothing.”
Juliana turned, preparing to head up the stairs and see if she could catch up to Eva.
A hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Juliana Laura Rivas. I won’t stop you. But you come back.”
“Of course I will.”
“Good. I love you.”
Juliana turned back around, staring at her mother. There were no glistening tears in her eyes. Not even a hint of moisture. Her mother was much too hard of a woman for that. There was a certain tightness to her jaw.
“I love you too, mom.”
Genoa gave a curt nod before releasing Juliana’s shoulder. “If your father asks, you hit me over the head and escaped my grasp. In my weakened state, I could do nothing to stop you.”
Juliana rolled her eyes and turned back around. Halfway up the flight of stairs, she heard her mother again.
“And if you die,” Genoa said, voice unusually harsh, “I swear I’ll take up necromancy, summon you back from wherever you’ve gone, bind you to your room, and ground you for the rest of your afterlife.”
Already halfway up the stairs, Juliana didn’t bother addressing her mother’s empty threats.
Probably empty threats.
There was a chance that she would follow through.
In fact, the more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed that her mother was being serious.
She would have to be extra careful to not die.
Eva had to be heading up to the roof. If she wasn’t, Juliana expected to run into her coming back down the stairs. Her conversation with her mother had taken a bit of time. Eva was probably already gone.
Juliana slowed down around the third floor corridor. Even though Eva was probably gone, she still was going to check the roof. However, a pair of familiar voices caught her ear.
“So scary. I thought I was going to die when she looked at me.”
“I don’t know what happens to you humans when you die, but a demon’s death is no fun at all.”
A short distance down the hall, just in front of Juliana’s open dorm room, Saija was…
Crying into Irene’s shoulder?
“Worse,” Saija said, wringing her hands with the sleeve of Irene’s shirt, “I wouldn’t be able to experience all this anymore. What if I never got summoned again?”
Irene, standing perfectly straight with her arms at her sides, grimaced as Saija wrapped her arms around her. She tilted her head away to avoid one of the succubus’ horns. As soon as she tilted her head, she caught sight of Juliana.
‘Help me,’ she mouthed.
Seeing her dorm room open gave Juliana hope that Eva hadn’t left yet. She must be collecting weapons inside. So, against Juliana’s better judgment, she walked down the hall.
Irene’s face lit up, but fell to despair as Juliana edged around the two to get to her room.
The lights were on, but nobody was in. A few of Eva’s clothes had been thrown about the room. The desk drawers that Eva kept her spare vials of blood in were open and missing their usual contents. With the bathroom door open and the light off, Juliana had lost hope that Eva was still around.
Turning back to the two girls, Juliana gave Irene a shrug. She doubted that Saija had even noticed her presence; her head was still buried in the other girl’s shoulder.
“Eva already left?”
Saija jumped, snaking around Irene to hide behind her. Her apparent fear lasted only a few moments as her wide red eyes narrowed.
“Oh, it’s just you,” she said, moving out from behind Irene. “I thought Eva came back.”
“So she is gone.”
“She just left a moment or two before you arrived,” Irene said.
“And good riddance. She tried to kill me, you know?”
Juliana glanced over at Irene, who gave a brief shake of her head, before she said, “I didn’t know that. You probably did something to deserve it.”
Pressing a hand to her forehead, Juliana ignored the succubus’ outburst of protests.
What do I do now?
She hadn’t seen Eva on the stairs. She might have teleported. Juliana couldn’t teleport or even blink.
Her first thought was to summon a demon. It was a terrible thought. Something she realized a mere instant after thinking it. No demon she had ever summoned had proven useful with the exception of Zagan. Almost all had tried to kill her. The ones that hadn’t tried to kill her had still not been very friendly.
While Zagan had proven useful, even unusually helpful, it hadn’t come without a cost. And, at the moment, Juliana was far from desperate enough to try summoning him.
Assuming any demons could even be summoned. Nobody had gotten anything but enigmas since early in the summer as far as Juliana was aware. Her demons had tried to kill her, but they could usually be argued with for a few minutes before they did so. The enigmas would just kill her, eat her, maybe become her? Eva had explained something about vampire enigmas, but she really didn’t get it. And then they would try to tear holes in reality to bring Hell through.
A great way to make a bad situation worse.
Not something that seemed like a good idea at the present time.
But the idea of demons wasn’t wholly without merit. They could sense Eva to some degree, most had ways of getting around quickly—either through super strength, flight, or outright teleportation—and perhaps best of all, one was standing right in front of her. No summoning required.
“Saija,” Juliana said, interrupting her continued diatribe about how innocent she was and how terrible Eva was for nearly killing her, “your wings are lovely.”
The comment stopped Saija’s comments in their tracks. She drew herself up to her full height, puffed out her chest, tilted her chin upwards with only a shadow of a smile showing on her face, and spread out her wings. The action knocked Irene off to the side, prompting a short grunt from her as she recovered her footing, but Saija didn’t even blink.
In a most humble tone of voice, Saija said, “Thanks.”
“They’re real right? I mean, they let you fly?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t just show them off for looks,” she said with a chuckle. For demonstration, she flapped her wings a few times. A fairly uncomfortable breeze stirred up in the hallway, but Juliana didn’t look away even as it dried out her eyes. Saija’s feet left the ground as she kept herself aloft. After a second or two, she dropped back down, landing with all the airs of a professional performer completing a difficult stunt.
“Wonderful,” Juliana said, clapping a few times. “But I suppose they’re too small to carry much more than yourself. Maybe a few small packages.”
“Nonsense. Just today I offered to carry Irene around,” she said, wrapping one arm and one wing around Irene.
Still partially recovering from being shoved aside, Irene might have fallen again as Saija dragged her back had Saija not wrapped her up in a hug.
Juliana had to admit to herself that she felt a bit bad for the girl. Saija didn’t have any friends as far as Juliana could tell. Everyone who hung out with her fit more in the category of admirer. By the looks of things, Irene didn’t quite fit into that category.
She was more of a plaything.
“Really?” Juliana said, not letting her thoughts appear on her face. “That’s pretty impressive. I wonder if you might be willing to offer me a quick ride?”
“I’m not that heavy,” Juliana lied. Her armor didn’t double her weight, but it was a significant extra. Were she just going for a ride, she would probably shed it. However, she was going to fight. There wasn’t a chance she would be shedding it for any reason.
Though, if she was going to get carried by Saija, she should push any of the demon-harming metal deep inside her armor, covered by regular metal and her clothes.
“But if you’re worried, I understand. They’re very pretty, just not very functional.”
Saija narrowed her eyes. She parted her lips in something of a sneer, enough to show off her sharp teeth. “I could carry ten of you,” she said.
Which made Juliana feel much better about her armor.
“It’s just a bit… hectic outside.”
“Ah,” Juliana said with a knowing nod of her head. “You’re scared.”
Saija actually let out a low, guttural noise from the back of her throat.
“But,” Juliana continued before Saija could say something about how she definitely wasn’t scared and just didn’t want to scratch her nails or whatever, “I’m a little scared too. So why don’t we fly away from the battle, towards the city. We can get a nice bird’s-eye view of the fight while keeping nice and safe.”
And if Juliana was lucky, she wouldn’t have to ask Saija to sense Eva. The succubus didn’t seem to like her too much, so she might be more cooperative if she didn’t mention her goal. Nel had mentioned that the other hunter was on a roof in the city. Flying overhead might let her spot them much easier.
Juliana waited with bated breath as Saija seemed to consider the proposition. She had wanted to watch the a fight between the doll and Eva earlier, so mentioning being able to watch the fight could help sweeten the deal.
Saija hummed, eying Juliana. Almost as if she didn’t trust Juliana’s intentions.
Sweat dripped down Juliana neck. Here she was, trying to manipulate a demon that probably had centuries more experience than her in everything. There was no way that Saija would agree. Even with the needling of her pride in her wings and her ability, it wouldn’t be enough. She would realize and lash out, maybe even–
“Okay,” Saija said with a smile. “I haven’t had a chance to stretch my wings much since arriving here. I do want to get a better look at the fight and flying seems a safe location. I’ll do it.”
Juliana sighed, letting out a small breath. “Excellent,” she said, giving a half-shrug to a thoroughly confused Irene. “Let’s head up to the roof then.”
Not willing to give the succubus time to reconsider or otherwise back out of her commitment, Juliana took her hand and pulled her along. Being a demon, Saija could probably break free with relative ease. She didn’t. After a few steps, she started walking along on her own.
A few steps more and Saija was practically dragging Juliana instead of the other way around.
Once they got up, Juliana paused.
A human—or human-like being in Saija’s case—carrying a human in flight seemed like it would be incredibly awkward at best, uncomfortable at worst. Well, not quite. Being dropped at a high altitude would be far worse than merely uncomfortable.
“So how are we going to do this?”
“Well, first I’ll wrap my tail around you,” she said, moving up close and wrapping the tail around Juliana’s chest, just beneath her armpits. “That way I will have a chance to catch you if you fall. Like a seatbelt in your car things.”
Juliana glanced down at the tail. It was a thin bit of leathery flesh, far smaller than any staircase handrail, with a spaded tip at the end. Not very long either. Even with Saija standing right up against Juliana, it barely made it all the way around her.
Given its size, Juliana wasn’t feeling very confident. If Saija’s much more normal sized arms couldn’t hold her up, what hope did the tail have?
Maybe I should drop off a few pounds of metal before we get started, Juliana thought.
But Saija had other plans. She bent slightly, hooking one arm right against the backside of Juliana’s legs. Juliana flailed as she fell backwards, eventually grabbing onto both of Saija’s shoulders just as Saija caught her back with her other arm.
“There,” the succubus said. She let out a short, slightly strained breath. “You weren’t kidding about your weight.”
Taking a moment to make sure she wasn’t about to fall, Juliana readjusted some of her metal to make the side closer to Saija a bit thicker. Moving their center of balance a bit closer to the center seemed a good idea. Still, she had to ask. “Too heavy?”
Saija tilted up her chin with a smug look on her face. She tried to puff out her chest, but it wasn’t as effective with Juliana in her arms. “Never. When I said I could lift ten of you, that might have been a bit of an exaggeration. One is still fine.”
She took a few steps forward, each more steady than the last as her confidence grew.
“However,” she said, pausing, “maybe think about a diet? Some of the people I was eating lunch with were asking how I could eat so much and still maintain my figure. I didn’t really understand, but I guess a diet makes you less heavy. So try that.”
“I’ll think about it,” Juliana mumbled. It’s just the armor.
Saija walked them right up to the edge of the building. Craning her neck, Juliana managed to get a quick view of the fight below.
Arachne was missing several more legs. They were lying scattered about the plaza. She had actually shrunken down to her humanoid form, perhaps because she ran out of legs to keep her bulky form mobile. Or even standing.
The hunter was actively trying to disengage. He kept snapping away from the demon and the doll. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t get away. Nearly the entire ground level had been webbed in like some sort of arena cage. Anytime he tried hacking away at the threads, Arachne or the doll made it to him before he could get through.
The doll would hound him relentlessly until he managed to get away again while Arachne just occupied his attention long enough for the doll to get over. She would stop fighting and repair the fencing.
Being less mobile, the golem would help keep him away from Arachne while she worked. Occasionally a rock would fly across the arena like a missile, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting but always forcing him to back away from the fence.
They watched for a few moments before Juliana remembered the whole reason they had come to the roof in the first place.
“Shall we take off now?”
“This seems to be a perfectly good view of the fight.”
“Well, if you can’t do it, I understand. I was just so looking forward to the flight.”
Saija didn’t respond. She tipped forward and stepped off the edge of the roof instead.
Juliana’s hands, already tight around the succubus’s shoulders, clamped down. Saija might survive, but Juliana wouldn’t.
The fall didn’t last long, however. Saija’s wings spread out, catching the air and turning their dive into a glide. A few quick flaps and an angle slightly upwards had them climbing and soaring straight over the battlefield.
“Please don’t do that again,” Juliana shouted over the wind.
“It’s more fun that way.”
Well, I’m not here to have fun, Juliana thought as she turned her attention to scanning the rooftops below. They were quickly moving away from the battle and towards the city, which was good for Juliana. She didn’t need to steer Saija. At least not yet.
“Oh. I wondered what that was,” Saija said.
It didn’t take long to realize what she was talking about.
One of the rooftops was lit up like it belonged in Las Vegas. Neon lights danced around in a large ring, flickering between green and red. Squinting her eyes, Juliana could barely make out the tiny form of Eva hammering her fists away at the flickering barrier.
“Quick,” Juliana said, “put me down on the edge of the roof.”
“Put you down? After all the fuss you made about getting to go flying?”