Juliana took in a deep breath of the cool November air and let it back out as a long sigh.
The days were getting colder. Not quite cold enough to need a heavy coat, especially not while the sun was still up, but a light jacket wasn’t cutting it anymore. Winter was coming late this year, but it was still coming.
Soon enough, Juliana would be spending every weekend walking through shoulder-high snow, uphill both ways.
After a brief smirk at her own joke, Juliana sighed again. Just when she had been starting to convince her parents that she didn’t need to come back every weekend, the hunters attacked. It was a wonder that her father even let her out of his sight after that. While slightly more lax in terms of what Juliana should be allowed to do, her mother was just as worried. Even if she didn’t show it on her face.
Which probably had something to do with her near drowning.
She had downplayed it. On her insistence, Eva barely said a word, letting Juliana explain that she hadn’t even come close to drowning. If possible, she wouldn’t have said a word at all. Unfortunately, her cellphone being full of water along with being soaked to the bone was enough to warrant some explanation.
Though she had said that the water never went higher than her waist before stopping completely, that didn’t reassure her mother.
“What if the trap froze solid, you along with it? What if it had been fire? What if it had sucked all the air out of the bubble?” Her mother had gone on with a thousand more what ifs.
As a result, she had been forced to drop her magizoology elective—something she had really only taken in the hopes that it might make her father feel better about… well, everything. Now she was in Eva’s warding class with her mother giving her a crash course every weekend to help her catch up to what she had missed over the first few months.
Which just meant that she wouldn’t be getting out of walking to their house every weekend.
As she walked down the sidewalk, Juliana went over everything that had happened during the week. It would be the first thing her parents asked about.
Really, nothing especially interesting had happened. Something that Juliana would be happy to report. The less excitement, the better. For her parents at least. If she was being honest with herself, she liked a little excitement. Just enough to keep her on her toes.
Going to Hell was a bit much.
Juliana froze. Both her thoughts and her footsteps came to a screeching halt.
The house her parents had purchased was on the outskirts of town. The farthest possible residence in Brakket that could still be considered in Brakket. As such, it was something of a long walk.
And a quiet walk.
She couldn’t point out anything in particular that made her stop and look around. The houses were few and far between on the edge of the city. Most didn’t have lights on in the early evening darkness, indicating a lack of residents. Untended yards were overgrown, grass and weeds stretched as high as they wanted without fear for a simple mower. Much of the area had long since been overgrown.
Nothing stood out to her. No glowing red eyes watching from the shadows. No leather-coat wearing dolls rushing at her with a sword. Not even another person walking along the street who might be a hunter about to pounce.
Still, the metal coating her body rippled, ready to form into armor at the first sign of danger.
She took a step. Then another step. Slowly, Juliana resumed her walking.
A shift in the wind had her diving to the side, armor flowing up and around her as she jumped through the air. She landed in one of the overgrown lawns, rolling a few times before coming to a stop.
Something hit the ground where she had been standing. She could hear the impact. The sidewalk cracked.
Not wanting to present a still target, Juliana pushed against the earth. Flaring her magic, the earth pushed back. Acting like a kind of spring against her feet, she flew through the air much faster and much farther than she would have ever been able to jump herself.
Her instincts proved correct. A series of boulders landed in the yard, each one nearly scraping her back as they fell and she moved.
As soon as she saw what they were—boulders of loosely compacted dirt—Juliana started to form some suspicions about just who was attacking her.
But no time to ponder. Another boulder forced her to dive to one side, only for the ground to drop out from under her to form a large pit. A twist of her hand pulled the earth back up to her, raising her up even higher than the surrounding landscape.
She had seen where that last boulder had come from.
Her eyes found a silhouette atop a nearby roof, haloed by the setting sun.
The plateau of earth beneath her feet started to crumble as several earthen spikes rose from the ground around her, trapping her in one spot.
Or it would have trapped her had she not been an earth mage.
A hill rose up, destroying the spikes before her. The crumbling remnants of her plateau sifted, sliding her along to the hill. Hills continued rising as she kept shifting the top to the next one, surfing along the top.
Her mother tried to knock her off with a few softball sized stones. Juliana twisted under the first, sidestepped the second, and brought up a wall of earth to block the third. All while continuing her forward movement.
A fourth softball struck her square in the back, sending her toppling forwards. Her own earthen hill that she had been surfing atop collapsed around her, partially burying her. The only redeeming thing was that her upper shoulders and head were still in fresh air.
Her mother blinking atop the mound, effectively standing on her chest, only added insult to injury.
“Not good enough Juliana,” she said, looking down on her daughter.
“I’ll show you not good enough,” Juliana mumbled as she wiggled her fingers—which was about all she could do while half buried.
The top of the hill lost its shape, acting more like a liquid as it swept off Juliana.
She had expected it to take her mother with it, but her mother simply blinked away again, appearing just over the now freed Juliana.
“Nice try, daughter. But not good enough. Where did you go wrong?”
Juliana grumbled to herself as she got back to her feet, half-brushing the dirt off and half-magicking it off her. “I didn’t realize there was another rock coming for my back.”
“That certainly spelled your downfall, but here is a better question. Why was I able to attack you with those stones?”
Blinking, Juliana stared up at her mother. She betrayed no real clues in her face, so Juliana’s eyes dropped down to the dagger held lightly between her fingers.
“Because you’re an earth mage?”
“Because I didn’t have to worry about being attacked. I stood in one place, didn’t even have to lift a finger to defend myself. Why didn’t I have boulders flying towards me?”
I can’t concentrate on so many things at once, Juliana almost said. But such an answer wouldn’t have gone over well. Her mother would have expected her to try, if nothing else. And Juliana couldn’t deny that she hadn’t launched one single attack towards her mother.
Instead, she tried changing the topic. “Dean Anderson wants me to join his contest between the schools.”
Genoa frowned. Whether at the change in topic or at Anderson, Juliana wasn’t sure.
“Does he now?”
“I told him that I would have to ask my parents first.”
“And we say no. You’re not having a demon bound to you if we can help it.”
Juliana blinked and shook her head. “I don’t think that’s what he wants. There were several humans and demons on the list. I think he wants a mix of regular humans, humans with bound familiars, and demons. And Eva.”
“Apparently her arm is being twisted to get her into it,” Juliana said, using Eva’s words from earlier in the day.
“I see…” Genoa trailed off, bringing a hand to her chin. “If you’re not being paired up with a demon, I suppose my objection lessens. We’ll have to see what your father says. And what do you want to do?”
“I’d rather not.”
Eyebrows lifting, Genoa widened her eyes ever so slightly in a look of surprise.
Before she could ask, Juliana explained. “He just wants me to compete because I’m younger yet ahead of my age group in magic.”
Though Juliana wasn’t sure how long that would last. The rest of the students were catching up while she had been more-or-less stagnating for the past two and a half years. They would still lack her combat training and experience, but in terms of magical ability, Juliana would probably be even with them by the start of the next year.
“It will make the school look good in comparison to all the other schools who should only be fielding the oldest students. But I didn’t get where I am because of him or his school, you trained me.”
Normally, Juliana might have agreed right away. But that just irritated her beyond belief. If she was going to compete, it should be under her mother’s name. She should be advertising her own school.
“Well, your father will be pleased to hear that.” There was a pause. Just for a moment while her mother turned her thoughtful expression back to a glare. “But don’t think you’ve gotten out of talking about your poor performance here.”
Juliana groaned. “Shouldn’t you be resting anyway? What are you doing out here picking fights?”
“I need to get back into the swing of things. I was far too exhausted during that hunter’s attack. This is a great way to train myself up and you at the same time.”
Great, Juliana thought. I’m going to be attacked every weekend from now on.
“But don’t worry. It won’t be happening every weekend,” Genoa said as if reading Juliana’s thoughts. “It will be entirely random.
“Have to keep you on your toes, never knowing when you’ll be attacked.”
— — —
Warding, Eva thought, is not as simple as theory says it should be.
Eva dropped her arm, removing the carapace shield from her eyes. For a moment there, she had been worried that there was going to be a far more catastrophic failure. A few bright flashes followed by magic dispersing into the atmosphere was more than she would have hoped for.
Well, no. Not quite. She had been hoping for a successful rain shield. But if it had to fail, it was best that her ward didn’t violently explode.
She had succeeded once. A stable barrier that kept the rain out was actually about as easy as Eva expected. Unfortunately, it was a barrier to everything else as well, including herself. Had anyone been inside, they would have probably asphyxiated eventually as well. Eva didn’t actually have proof that it had been impermeable to air. It seemed likely though.
Since then, her warding had been nothing but failure after failure. Each one somehow worse than the last.
Keeping up trying might just give her the actual explosion that she really didn’t want. Even if it didn’t harm her, it might be noticeable enough to draw attention from the school.
Or other interested parties.
For the moment, Eva decided to sit down. Ward work was exhausting in a way that casual casting of magic never could be. Never before, no matter how many fireballs she created or how long her hands were on fire or even how much she blinked, had Eva actually needed to rest. She might physically grow tired from lack of sleep or overexerting her body. Blood magic tended to make her anemic after prolonged use of her own blood.
But never had she suffered magical exhaustion. She hadn’t known it was even a thing. Zoe hadn’t mentioned it during any of her theory classes.
Which made her think that she was doing something extremely wrong.
Really, it probably wasn’t the warding itself that took her energy, it was tearing them down after failures. She had to infuse more magic than it took to create the ward to tear it away. Multiple times.
Which might be the reason for her increasingly spectacular failures.
“Are you alright?”
“Mostly fine,” Eva said with a tired sigh. She did give Arachne a small smile. One to help reassure the spider-demon.
Arachne did not look reassured. The chitin plates around her mouth twisted into a frown.
“Okay, you’re right. I feel like I don’t want to move for the next hour.” Eva leaned back against a tree. She was probably getting her back coated in sticky sap, but mustering up the effort to care was beyond her at the moment. It would have been a bigger issue had she still had waist length hair, but that didn’t grow back in a week, not even for a partial demon.
The short fuzz atop her head was slowly trying to reach its old length, but this time, she might keep it in a short bob above her shoulders. Waist length hair was a nightmare to care for. Her shower times had dropped in half since losing her hair. Which, honestly, was more of a positive point than anything.
Arachne kept up her glare for a moment before shaking her head, sending the tendrils that made up her hair snapping through the air. “You wanted this complete before the other students arrived. It doesn’t look like you’re going to succeed.”
“Rub it in some more, why don’t you.”
“Just pointing out the obvious. Perhaps start with smaller wards? If you fail, it wouldn’t take so much out of you to destroy them.”
The idea had occurred to Eva, but she ignored it. She had been hoping to get it right the first time. Failing that, the second or third time. By the fifth failure, she had been too frustrated to consider attempting it on the smaller scale.
Arachne should have pointed that out much sooner.
It was a bit too late now. Eva had been out trying to conjure up a ward since school ended. The sun had still been up then, so it must have been a few hours at the very least. If her cellphone hadn’t been destroyed, she could have checked the actual time.
She really needed to get a new one.
With the sun gone, the little heat it brought to the November air vanished. Eva’s breath left mist in the air and, now that she was no longer actively concentrating on magic, she could feel the cold digging into her bones. Eva shook in a fairly violent shiver as she realized just how light her clothing was.
Despite her desire to sit in one spot and never move again, Eva dragged herself to her feet. “Let’s get back to the dorms, shall we?”
Arachne gave an eager nod, placing her fingers around Eva’s arm to help keep her steady.
Normally, they would have teleported back. They weren’t too far into the Infinite Courtyard, but teleporting was always faster than walking. However, Eva wanted to put as little stress on Arachne’s still injured body as possible. Even though her method of teleporation didn’t seem to affect demons in the same way that it had torn apart Lynn Cross or drained Serena, she still didn’t want to take the chance.
It was one of the main reasons they were actually using the dormitory instead of sleeping in the women’s ward every night.
So walking it was.
Eva leaned against Arachne and Arachne leaned back as they walked with each other. The spider-demon’s carapace wasn’t exactly warm. In fact, it felt even colder than the already freezing air.
Magic had a solution to most problems. Fire magic in particular was especially useful in this situation. Warming spells acted just like a tablet of runes set up to generate heat except they didn’t need all the fussy inscribing. A casual wave of her hand had her magic keeping the night air at bay.
She could have lit her hands on fire. Fire was even warmer than warming spells and she doubted Arachne’s carapace would have minded. But fire was bright. It would ruin their night vision at the same time as it signaled their position to anything that might be in the Infinite Courtyard.
Without Srey along with them this time, Eva didn’t want to take the chance of missing any movement in the moonlit night.
Despite being somewhat tense and wary about the possibility of something jumping out from the dark at them—the doll was still around somewhere, probably, and Eva couldn’t even detect it with her sense of blood—Eva walked with Arachne in a companionable silence. Neither felt an immediate need to talk.
Taking a languid stroll with Arachne was nice on its own. No need to weigh it down with unnecessary conversation. With her warming spells, she didn’t even feel a need to rush.
Though she wasn’t speaking, Eva was relatively certain that Arachne was enjoying herself as well. She could speak up if she was feeling uncomfortable.
So they walked through the Infinite Courtyard.
It didn’t take long to reach the edge of the forest section. They passed by the magizoology classroom and its conjoined zoo. As they did so, they moved from the rough terrain to the paved pathway that led to the school.
The closer one got to the school building, the fewer and farther between the trees were. That combined with the relatively straight path led to something of a rare situation.
Eva actually saw someone before the person entered her range of blood sense.
Arachne tensed the arm that was wrapped around Eva’s shoulder, apparently having noticed as well.
But Eva ignored the spider-demon. The figure leaning against the wall of Brakket Academy looked vaguely familiar. And not in the way that warranted immediate alarm.
Crossing a quarter of the distance to the main building confirmed Eva’s suspicions.
The person leaning against the wall was dead. Very dead. No living blood circulating through her veins. Yet she still shoved off the wall when she spotted Eva and Arachne despite her living-impaired body.
“Serena!” Eva said as she got closer to the vampire. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“Eva,” the vampire greeted with a fanged smile. “Good to see you again. Smelling stronger than usual.”
“If I didn’t know you were talking about my blood, I’d be a little offended,” Eva said, placing a hand on her hip and faking a little glare.
Which only had the vampire widening her grin.
Deciding to be a little ornery, Eva split her lips, matching Serena’s wide smile.
Serena blinked, actually taking a step back as her eyes dropped to Eva’s smile. Somehow, using some supernatural ability, Serena managed to turn her step back into a step forward. She got right up in Eva’s personal space.
Something Arachne actually let out a little growl about.
“Eva,” she said, not taking her eyes off Eva’s mouth. “You’re making me a little envious. Am I crazy or did you have normal teeth last time I was around?”
“You’re not crazy. And it’s good that you mentioned my teeth. My mouth,” she started, momentarily hanging her tongue down to her chin before continuing, “is a bit different nowadays and nobody has said a word. I was beginning to wonder if they just couldn’t see it.”
“Well I can see it and I’m feeling inadequate now,” Serena said, leaning back with a pout.
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Hopefully keeping Zoe and Wayne from getting themselves killed.”
“Ah. Yeah, they do seem to have a habit of attracting trouble, don’t they.”
“I doubt they’re the only ones,” Serena said with a pointed look. “What are you doing out in the forest in the dead of night anyway?”
“Trying to stop the rain and snow.”
Serena glanced up to the cloudless night sky before looking back to Eva, giving her a thumbs up. “Good job.”
Eva just rolled her eyes. “I don’t suppose you know anything about weather wards?”
“Not a thing. I might be able to trick someone into thinking it wasn’t raining…”
“Unless you can trick the ground, it isn’t very useful.”
“Ah,” she said with a hum, nodding in understanding. “You’re doing a ritual of some sort and need the elements kept out. A large one too, or you would just do it inside one of your prison buildings.”
“That’s… accurate.” Eva might have to be careful about how she explained her wards in the future. And to who. If Serena figured out what the ritual was for, it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Other people might not be so understanding.
“So what is it for? Giving yourself even sharper teeth?”
Best to be somewhat vague even if Serena was on-board to summon a Power.
“I’m hoping it is going to solve one or two problems without creating any of its own.”
Serena just stared, lightly tapping her foot against the cement pathway as she waited for Eva to explain more.
She would be waiting a long while.
“Burr,” Eva said. She rubbed a hand over her arm as she faked a shiver. “Sure is cold out here. We really should be getting back to the dormitory about now.” Her words came out stiff and awkward, but that didn’t really matter. She knew she wasn’t fooling Serena.
Hopefully the vampire would pick up the hint and not press more.
Serena continued her stare, narrowing her eyes ever so slightly. After letting Eva sweat for a moment, she finally sighed. “Maybe I’ll come spy on you one of these nights.”
“Hate to disappoint you, but there won’t be much to see even if you do. Can’t work on the circle until I figure out this weather thing. The winters here are not kind in the amount of snow they normally dump on us.”
“Well, I’ll figure it out sooner or later. But, since you mentioned the dorms, I wonder…” She paused, looking almost bashful as she clasped her hands behind her back. Her cheeks didn’t light up with a blush, but she was a vampire. Not really possible for her. “Do you happen to know anyone who might be willing to part with a pint or two of blood?”
Eva blinked and started to shake her head, but stopped as she remembered a few of the edgier students in her diablery class. “There might be one or two,” she admitted. “I’m surprised you’re not begging me.”
Serena sniffed at the air once or twice. Not quite wrinkling her nose, but not looking quite as enamored as Eva remembered.
“I’d say your blood has a cup of sugar or two too much, if you’ll recall my past analogy.”
That… actually made Eva feel a little bad. She had given Serena her blood, but never in a situation where the vampire could enjoy it. Now it was too late. Unless Devon went and found another valid test subject, Serena would never be able to have something like that again.
Despite her somewhat morose thoughts, Serena grinned. She stepped up and linked arms with Eva—on the side that Arachne hadn’t claimed—and leaned against her.
“So,” Serena said, “I don’t suppose you’ll lead me to these one or two people? I’ve been here for a few days now and haven’t had a good drink in forever.”
Eva just sighed. “Let’s go introduce you.”