Eva stood in the middle of a small clearing. Not the one a short distance from her prison. This clearing was out in the Infinite Courtyard in the center of Brakket Academy’s main building. This would hopefully prove to be a much safer alternative.
Or at least, more difficult to reach for the hunters.
One, perhaps the more troublesome one, was dead.
If Eva didn’t miss her mark, the other might return with something of a grudge. Assuming she didn’t starve to death because she couldn’t feed herself with her paralyzed body. As much as Eva wanted that to be the case, she wasn’t going to get her hopes up too much.
But with the death of one hunter and the idol destroyed at Nel’s hands, Eva was feeling safe enough to attempt clearing out an area for the ritual again. There might be other nasty surprises waiting, but it needed to be done sooner rather than later. It needed demons to work.
Between hunters running around and the doll—who Eva hadn’t seen since she ran off after the battle—the ritual needed to be done before they all wound up dead. If they ran out of demons, there would be nothing to do but wait for Life to bring Void over on its terms.
Something Eva had accepted would likely be far more destructive than doing it their way.
But those were all concerns that only might come to be a problem. At the moment, not having a ritual circle—or even a place to start the ritual—was a far greater problem.
Eva glanced over towards Srey. The demon was relaxing on a toppled log, using it as a chair as he thumbed through the pages of a book.
Fiction. Some fantastical story about a steam-powered society, judging by the cover. Not a book on magic or any sort of useful topic. Much like Catherine, he was reading purely for the fun of it.
Demons and their distractions, Eva thought with a slight shake of her head. Maybe I should find a hobby.
“Anyone watching us?”
Srey glanced up from the page. “Nope. We’re good at the moment.”
Eva gave him a curt nod in return as he went back to his book. He didn’t look as if he had any intention of helping out. However, Eva didn’t much care. So long as he warned them of any approaching hunters, his value was perhaps greater than everyone else combined.
Lips tightening as her gaze connected with Arachne’s, Eva offered the spider-demon a small smile.
Arachne was still injured. Even two days after the battle, her chest still had a hole in it. Her legs as well, though she had managed to pull her severed legs back inside her body, making them far less obvious.
It was that sword. Something about it acted similar to nun lightning, though only towards demons. Not quite the same, as it lacked the magic eating property, but it did inhibit healing.
Arachne was healing, just slowly.
At the moment, Eva was torn between destroying the sword or keeping it around just in case she needed to fight some demons. A third option, one she had been considering more seriously ever since she realized just how slowly Arachne was healing, was handing it off to Zoe.
If Zoe could come up with a method of reversing the effects, that could prove invaluable. Any similar swords would be rendered useless as far as their magical effects went. They would still be sharp bits of metal and thus still dangerous, but not cripplingly so.
There was just one problem with that line of thinking.
She really didn’t want anyone else to touch the sword.
Eva trusted Zoe. Quite a lot, in fact. She had been given almost unquestioning support from the theory professor since they first met. That was more than she could say about most other humans.
However, the sword was a danger to Eva. A direct personal danger that couldn’t really be compared to anything else. Not to mention the danger it posed to Arachne, Catherine, Lucy, and… well, just about half of everybody Eva knew. So long as it was in Eva’s possession, hidden behind her blood wards at the prison, it wasn’t going to be used against them.
While Zoe would probably keep it safe, she didn’t exactly have a home to hide it in anymore.
Though, maybe now that her third residence in as many years had been blown up, she might actually consider Eva’s offer of housing her at the prison.
Of course, Eva wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of her prison blowing up a few months after Zoe moved in. She seemed to have extraordinarily bad luck with regards to homes. Unless the bad luck followed Ylva around. But Ylva hadn’t been living at her first home when it was burned down by Qrycx and the jezebeth. So it couldn’t be Ylva’s bad luck.
At the moment, Zoe was living with Wayne at his house. A place Eva still didn’t know the location of. She had never once been there. Wayne had never invited her. Or even mentioned his house. For all she knew, he teleported in from wherever Serena lived—a place a few states away based on hints dropped by the vampire.
Ylva had moved into the Brakket dormitory. Eva didn’t know if she had asked Anderson for permission or simply decided that it would be her new residence. Either way, she was now living two doors down from Eva’s dorm room. Along with Nel.
Neither had mentioned Alicia, but Eva had noticed a certain hardness in Nel’s eyes when asked about the former nun. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
Of course, neither were in the clearing at the moment. Eva was still keeping the ritual secret. And she was doing a remarkable job of it, if she said so herself. Given her failures in keeping several other things about herself secret—diablery and blood magic, namely—she was quite pleased with the low amount of people around her.
Vektul was here. He had the exact designs for the ritual circle in his head, making him not only indispensable but also more knowing of the secret than most everyone. That said, Eva doubted that he would be helping much either. He really didn’t seem to be the strongest demon around.
And heavy lifting was what they needed at the moment.
Last was Juliana.
Eva gave her a smile.
She only half returned it.
“Ready to begin?”
Juliana fidgeted, glancing around to the other demons. After eying both Vektul and Srey for a moment—something that had Srey shifting in his seat, though he didn’t look up from his book—she turned back to Eva. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”
The metal coating Juliana’s arms rippled before returning to its still state. “Only mostly? This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should be mostly sure about.”
“Well, yes. I agree with that. However, we’re not actually performing the ritual today, as I said a thousand times, just clearing the area.”
Something that shouldn’t be too much work. The grass and brush were a tad overgrown, but it could definitely be worse. There could be trees and boulders littering the clearing. It was part of the reason she had chosen the location in the first place.
Finding the spot hadn’t been that easy. While the Infinite Courtyard was grossly misnamed, it still covered a fairly large space. Roughly ten square miles according to Zoe. Enough that the entirety of Brakket city could fit within and still have space left over. Eva had wandered around, picking the fifth spot she had come across that looked even mildly usable.
There might be better areas. In fact, there were almost definitely better areas. It was hard to imagine there weren’t any given the size. But they couldn’t be anywhere too close to the school, or near any paths leading to the handful of buildings that had been built out in the courtyard. Not to mention, Eva didn’t really want to spend ages just wandering aimlessly about.
“We should really talk to Zoe,” Juliana said. “I mean, bringing a Power to Earth? I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the Powers. But, that can’t be a good thing. They’re in their own planes of existence for a reason.”
Eva just sighed. Explaining things a hundred times got annoying by the second time. For some reason, she felt like she would be explaining things a hundred more times before the ritual was complete. They did have to bring other people in at some point, after all. More demons and more humans were needed.
“Like I said, Zagan’s theory is that Life is bringing Void and all of Hell over into the mortal plane. Probably destructively. This ritual should only grab the Power.”
“So says Vektul,” Juliana said. “This guy just shows up out of nowhere and you’re going to trust him?” She paused for just a moment, turning to the demon in question before adding, “No offense.”
Vektul just tilted his head to one side.
“But you’re supposed to be in the center of this circle. Arachne too. How do you know it isn’t going to do something terrible to you? You should at least have Zoe look over it. Catherine too. You said she was good with rituals, right?”
That was something that Eva actually had been considering. They would need to bring in more demons before the ritual actually started. Catherine was not only good at working on and developing rituals, but she was also a demon that Eva knew. Just because the doll hadn’t come back to kill off the rest of the demons did not mean that they were good, trustworthy, and not about to stab Eva in the back.
But Catherine had her own interests and designs. She was currently picking out demons for her upcoming ritual. While Eva had offered again, Catherine still hadn’t decided on what she wanted to do. And if she wanted one of the other demons around Brakket, she had to pick them while they were still around. Especially those who might become bound familiars.
They might not be around by the time she performed her next ritual.
“I might,” Eva said, voicing her thoughts aloud. “But not today. We need to clear out brush and grass from here to about halfway across the clearing,” she said with a gesture of her hand. It wasn’t a very useful gesture. Pointing at this distance wasn’t very precise.
“Preferably with as little burning as possible. I’d rather not have a column of smoke pointing out our location for everybody to find.”
“So I’m doing most of the work,” Juliana said with a sigh. “Great.”
“Well, I do recall saving your life. Wasn’t going to force you or anything, but consider it a nice way to pay me back.”
Juliana craned her neck, looking up to the sky. “How would smoke even look from outside?” she said after a moment. “I mean, would someone sitting on the dormitory roof see a great black plume that appeared to come from the whole courtyard or would it be a thin streak, barely visible?”
Space manipulating wards were some of the most complex bits of magic that were possible, according to Professor Lepus. Wards that Brakket Academy made liberal use of in both the main building and the dormitories. Apparently that same professor not only created the wards when the school was first built several decades ago but still maintained all of the wards to this day.
All without looking a day over twenty.
Eva had considered asking her about it, but eventually just shrugged her shoulders and assumed ‘magic’ to be the answer.
“But don’t worry. I’ll help out as well.”
— — —
Zoe let out a long sigh. “For the last time, I didn’t even come close to dying.”
In contrast to her own morose exasperation, Zoe got a fanged grin in return. Hands on her hips, Serena spun around, walking a few steps away.
“Zoe, Zoe, Zoe. Wayne told me you know? You would have been a crispy corpse without him.”
“He exaggerates. I was fully prepared to escape.”
“But you didn’t. Wayne had to save you and you know it.”
Again, Zoe sighed. Arguing with the vampire was just not something that could be done. “Serena, what are you doing here? And how did you get here?”
Pausing, Zoe glanced out the window. Night had fallen a mere ten minutes ago. It still wasn’t completely dark. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the sun had dipped below the horizon ten minutes ago. About a minute later, Serena had waltzed into her office.
She should have been back in Michigan. A bit far to travel in the span of sixty seconds. At least, a bit far for Serena to travel.
“I can’t imagine Wayne would have brought you here,” Zoe finished, looking back to Serena.
“But he did!” She spun back around, boring her eyes into Zoe. “His sister can take care of herself. She doesn’t need me babysitting her at all hours of the day. And if you two are going to get nearly killed every few months, I should be here. Somebody has to protect you. And I don’t sleep—at nights—so I can hover creepily over your beds and ensure nothing disturbs you.”
Zoe rolled her eyes, shaking her head.
Ylva had essentially performed that task for the last several months.
Serena spun back around, walking through Zoe’s office. A stack of ungraded papers caught her attention. She skipped over and started thumbing through the top few, pausing every now and again to read some of the text.
“So he just brought you over?”
“Well, there was a bit more arguing. As I told him, I’m not some pet to be chained up. I do as he asks because of respect and friendship. Also because your company is far more enjoyable than that of my brethren kin.”
“I hope you didn’t threaten him.”
“Of course not. Friends don’t threaten each other. I merely suggested that I would be making my way here anyway. The long and laborious task of crossing several state lines would be dangerous to only myself. Well, myself and whatever I was traveling with. I might have mentioned that his car might not survive the journey.”
Deciding to ignore the fact that she had threatened him, Zoe sunk down into her office chair.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t anywhere for you to stay.” She waved her hand towards the couch in her office. A small case full of clothing had been shoved underneath while a few of her teaching suits hung off a rack overhead. “I’ve been sleeping there almost every night.”
Serena paused her rifling through the papers, looking up to Zoe with a frown on her face. “Wayne doesn’t let you stay with him?”
“I spent a few nights with him, and I’m sure I could say longer should I ask.”
“I am not a little girl anymore. I prefer to live on my own.”
Though, she had been living with Ylva, Alicia, and Nel since being kicked out of the apartment, and next to them before that. But they were more like roommates than anything else. It was somewhat like being back in school dorms.
“Besides, its only temporary.”
“Moving into the dorms?”
“I– How did you know?”
“Even in a housing market as poor as this city’s, buying a house isn’t a thing you can do lightly. Burning one house down, being kicked out of your apartment for vandalism, and blowing up another house? I doubt that any insurer will cover you. Which means somewhere free or exceptionally cheap.” Serena dropped one of the essays onto the center of the desk.
Eva, read the simple print at the top. No last name. One of the longer essays in the stack. Then again, it was on the topic of demons. Not something Zoe usually included in her curriculum. With all their new guests around the school, she had thought that assigning a research paper on the subject wouldn’t be the worst idea.
“Prisons just don’t seem your style.”
“You’re right, but your deduction is off. The apartment and second house were both owned by or, in the apartment’s case, paid for by the school. Both were something of bribes to keep me in my teaching position. Anderson is not as willing to pay for my housing as Martina was.
“I could buy a smaller home. I’ve saved up enough. Wouldn’t even need a loan. But you are right. I don’t really want to talk to insurers. More, I’d rather not have another house destroyed in another six months.” Zoe sighed. Again. “If, in six months, the dorms have become uninhabitable for some reason, I’ll probably just take Eva up on her offer to live at the prison.”
Serena hummed a few times before walking over to the window. She took a moment, just staring out at the black surface that now made up most of the ground between the dormitory buildings.
After Genoa had taken down her walls, Eva went around smoothing the place out. There were still no patterns in it. Just a smooth sheet of glass-like material that Zoe worried might become too slick once the winter weather started up in force. On her suggestion, Eva had added a slight slope and channels for water to run down, as the crystallized blood was otherwise nonporous. It wouldn’t help with anything that stayed frozen, but would get the water off the platform.
Assuming they could remove the ice, magically or through mundane salt, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Serena’s interest with the world outside the window gave Zoe a moment to tidy up her desk. Papers which had formerly been in a neat stack awaiting reading and grading had been strewn about into a disorganized mess. It was a good thing that she kept her desk neat. With only one other stack of papers, one that Serena had barely touched, it wasn’t hard to put everything back in its proper place.
Whoever said that vampires had an obsession with order and counting had never met a real one.
“Wayne said that new students will be arriving soon.”
“The top ten students of the top four North American schools. Here to show off what they have learned.”
“How many are going to be demons, vampires, dragonkin, necromancers, or half-fae?”
“I would say hopefully none. We have enough excitement as is. However, the Nod Complex has been invited. I know at least a dryad will be arriving with them.”
“Yet a bunch of humans are expected to compete with demons?”
“Mr. Anderson,” Zoe said through pursed lips, “hopes to show off alternate methods of utilizing magic. A protest, if you will, against what he feels is a society stagnating by restricting itself to thaumaturgy.”
“Sounds like cheating to me.”
Zoe kept her mouth shut. The same thought had occurred to her. But it didn’t really matter. He would be getting the school’s name mentioned alongside the names of actually reputable schools. For the next school year, they might not have to go around, scrounging for students. Some might actually apply willingly.
“Who is running the betting pool on some disaster happening while the other schools are here?”
Zoe blinked in confusion. “I’m… What?”
“Figures you wouldn’t know,” Serena said, turning back to the window. “But somebody has to be gambling over this. Maybe I’ll try to sniff them out.” After a brief moment, she shook her head. “Though I don’t know why. Probably terrible odds on something happening and I’m certainly not betting against.”
Leaving her chair and walking around her desk, Zoe approached the vampire at the window with a long sigh. The fourth in seemingly as many minutes.
“Yeah,” she said, resting her forehead against the cool glass. “I wouldn’t bet against it either.”