Eva seethed. It took a great deal of willpower to not blink behind him and take off his head. He was a student. She couldn’t just kill him. Not without inviting all kinds of trouble at least.
To the side, Srey edged closer to Juliana. He slipped just behind her, peeking out over her shoulder. It took Eva a moment to figure out what he was doing.
Really, she should have realized based on how all the demons reacted around her.
He was cowering behind a human. And he was leaving his back open to a vampire. At least he was protecting Juliana’s back. Sort of.
Of course, Juliana wasn’t looking so confident either. Eva couldn’t see her face as she had completely encased herself within her suit of armor. However, Eva got a decent map of Juliana’s face using her sense of blood. Using the little blood that hadn’t drained from her face, that was.
Despite the two frightened people—two friends who Eva really shouldn’t be scaring—the vampire stood still, his irritating smile never wavering. Without a working heart, Eva couldn’t even tell if he was mildly nervous. He probably wasn’t. Serena had said that there was something wrong inside his brain. She hadn’t said his brain specifically, but his strain all had the same problem.
Overconfidence and delusions of superiority.
Now, Eva thought, how best to take advantage of that?
Eva flicked her eyes back to Juliana and Srey. Taking a few deep breaths, Eva tried to calm herself down.
Being called a snack just irritated her. She was fairly certain that it would irritate anyone. It was just demeaning. Which fit with what she knew of his strain, she supposed.
Serena asking for her blood had been annoying in persistence, but not so much in how she asked. Not to mention the fact that Serena was more or less Eva’s friend. She wasn’t some random vampire who showed up out of nowhere feeling entitled to a taste of her blood.
Wanting it, maybe. But not entitled.
Eva shook her head, clenching her fists. She was getting herself worked up again.
Focusing, she kept her voice as calm as possible.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pluck your fangs from your mouth.”
That actually had his smile faltering. Though the blood inside him was dead and stale, she could still see it. Specifically, she could see his tongue run along the backside of his fangs.
Good. Let him be a little nervous.
“You come out here, harass my friends, and think I’m going to willingly give up my blood as a desert? Really, I should just kill you and damn the consequences. In fact, I bet there wouldn’t be any consequences. I’d get some good will with the Elysium kids at least.”
“Ah yes,” he said, slowly regaining his confidence with a shift of his weight to his opposite hip, “I suppose I have you to thank for them following me around.”
“They actually figured out who the vampire was?” Eva said with genuine surprise. It hadn’t been long since she had told them. A day or so plus a few hours. Not to mention, those two really didn’t seem like they had much training. Of course, they didn’t need training to light up their eyes and scan the room upon entering the cafeteria. Depending on how quickly they could glean information, they could have just flickered their connection on and off to reveal the vampire.
Eva narrowed her eyes into a venomous glare as another thought occurred to her. “If you led them out here, I really will kill you.”
The vampire’s grin widened. “I knew you were bluffing,” he said, emanating airs of pure confidence. As if he actually knew that Eva wasn’t going to kill him. Before Eva could object, he continued. “But fear not. Those bumbling children are as obvious as the midday sun. Slipping away was a simple matter.”
Arrogant though he was, Eva didn’t believe he was lying. Mostly because she couldn’t sense either of the nascent nuns. While they could be too far away and spying with binoculars, Eva doubted it.
Because the vampire was right. They were not subtle.
Despite the slight relief she felt at his words, Eva found herself growing irritated again.
Eva again considered setting up blood wards around the ritual site. Unfortunately, she was right in the middle of the school. Though unlikely given the size of the Infinite Courtyard, it was entirely possible for students to happen across the place. Her ward’s outer pain should keep them away before they start exploding. It would have to be far enough away that the ritual circle wouldn’t be visible.
Which would just increase the size of the already large area by a great deal, making it all the more likely that it would be stumbled across.
And with the pain effect of her ward, describing it wouldn’t be difficult. It was too signature to her blood magic. Zoe and Wayne both knew about it. If a student happened across, felt the pain, and went to tell the staff, Eva’s involvement would quickly become common knowledge. Then people would wonder what she was hiding out here.
Especially Zoe and Wayne.
She knew that they were probably going to find out at some point. Either she would tell them or they would find out on their own. But Eva was somewhat hoping that they wouldn’t find out until everything was past the point of no return.
If they found out earlier, Eva would have some explaining to do. She did not want to have to think up what to say to them.
But, for the moment at least, she could put that off.
“I recommend you leave,” Eva said.
“Leave?” the vampire said with a dark chuckle. “You drag me all the way out here and expect me to leave empty-handed? I don’t think so.”
Eva opened her mouth.
She didn’t get a chance to say anything. The vampire vanished.
Behind her, Arachne took a hit to her stomach. She went flying through the air until gravity remembered it existed. Crashing into the ground, she tumbled through an already completed section of the ritual circle.
Eva turned with a snarl.
Only to find the vampire missing once again. Cold fingers clamped down on her. One hand on her shoulder and the other on the side of her head.
Before the vampire behind her could wrench her head to the side and bite down, Eva burst into flames.
Her hair was already short and ruined from the hunters’ idol. A little singe around her neckline wouldn’t be that noticeable. The rest of her head could stay extinguished. That was really all she cared about. Her clothes were easily replaceable. Modesty? Worthless. Her skin… well, she was a demon. She should be able to hold up to a few minutes of sustained flames.
On the other hand, a vampire had several very well known weaknesses. Sunlight for one. Beheading and stakes to the heart as well. Garlic, Eva was less certain about and she doubted that flowing water would give a vampire pause unless they stopped to weigh the consequences of getting their clothes wet.
Fire was one of the weakness that she rated fairly high. Right up there with sunlight. Perhaps higher even, given her lack of ability in making the sun suddenly rise.
The vampire yelped, releasing her at once. Eva did not hesitate to slam her flaming elbow back and into his stomach. At the same time, she stomped on his foot. Her leg forced her foot through his, shattering bones and puncturing skin.
He jumped back, stumbling as he landed. Before he even regained his proper balance, he started patting out the flames on his chest.
Eva spun, blinking straight behind him. She barely kept the presence of mind to keep a closed fist as she punched him in the back of the head.
He went face first straight to the ground.
Eva planted a foot on his back even as the earth wrapped up around his limbs, holding him to the ground
She didn’t turn to thank Juliana. Any calm she had regained since being called a snack vanished the moment he attacked. Looking up at them, she wasn’t sure what her face would look like.
But she didn’t want to scare Juliana and Srey any further than they already were.
Instead, she focused all of her anger on the vampire beneath her foot. Her flaming foot that was digging into the squirming vampire’s backside. Murder was a definite temptation at the moment. As was torture. Maybe both, though in the reverse order. Torture then murder made much more sense than the reverse.
Sawyer’s torture session hadn’t gone over so well. Perhaps it would be best to skip over it. Maybe tying him to a tree for the sun to have would count as torture.
But he was still a student. The same arguments against killing him still applied. Although now she could legitimately claim self-defense, she would have to explain why she had been out in the Infinite Courtyard. Saying that she was out looking for event clues might work.
She would have to drag him away from the ritual circle first. Or kill him then drag his body away. Either way might leave trails leading back, revealing the circle when people undoubtedly investigated his death.
No. It would be best to either kill him later or find some way of controlling him. Even just something to keep him away from her would be enough.
Arachne was already crawling back on six legs—the two that had been severed closer to the base still hadn’t fully grown back—face twisted in a snarl. She might be a bit overeager.
Eva took a deep, calming breath as she extinguished her flames. To her great delight, her skin was only mildly raw from the heat. Something that should go away soon enough.
“Arachne,” Eva said.
That one hard word stopped the spider-demon cold. A slight shake of Eva’s head only further served to calm Arachne.
No longer squirming from the flames at his back, the vampire turned his head to the side. He took a moment to spit out a great deal of dirt. “Alright, we’ll call it a draw.”
Eva curled her lips into a sneer, not removing her foot from his back.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just tear your head off and be rid of you.”
“Today wouldn’t be the first day that I caught your sent out here. You travel here enough that I’m surprised mortals can’t smell that sweet scent.”
Eva shuddered. Sometimes Serena would look at her like she was a meal. But she would always rein in her hunger. Especially if Eva pointed it out.
This guy was on a whole other level of creepiness.
“I’m no fool. I had my doubts that I could fight a demon. Let’s just say that if I die, people might look around in my belongings. If they look around my belongings, they might find something that will lead them here. I take it that this place is supposed to be secret?”
Eva fought to keep a wince off her face. She was suddenly glad that she hadn’t given in and killed him.
“So let’s make a deal.”
“What,” Eva said through grit teeth, “did you have in mind?”
“The upcoming event. My school wins, you freely give up your blood. Not all of it. I’m not so crass as to kill my subjects. Having another blood doll on campus, especially one with such an interesting scent, shouldn’t be thrown to waste so easily,” he said. Despite his face still being pressed into the dirt, his tone carried the confidence of someone who had already won the event.
Frankly, it pissed Eva off. Everything about him seemed designed to tick her off.
She had seen other students talking with the vampire. He didn’t have quite the social following that Saija had, but he definitely had admirers in the student bodies of all the schools. Aside from herself and those she had told, the nuns, and maybe the professors, Eva didn’t even think anyone knew he was a vampire. He didn’t even have that exotic allure going for him. She couldn’t see why anyone would want to exist near him.
“And if you lose?”
“I don’t tell anyone about whatever it is you’re doing here. I won’t tell them when I win, of course. It is just a handy bit of insurance.”
“If you want to look at it like that.”
Even if she won, there was nothing stopping him from making another ‘deal’ before the next event. Or finding some other excuse to use the ritual site against her.
He needed to die. But not until after she found whatever message he left for other people.
Maybe she could get the nuns to do the actual killing. Though they would need to be kept on a leash until after Eva found his message. With the first event only a few days away, there might not be time to properly stalk him. Which meant her interest in winning just went up another few notches.
What a pain.
“Fine,” Eva said. “Fine. I’ll play your little game.”
“Oh good. I knew you would see reason.”
Eva grit her teeth as she further dug her heel into the vampire’s back, grinding it back and forth.
“I don’t suppose you would be willing to let me up,” he said, voice slightly strained.
“Hmm. Not sure about that. Our agreement was that you winning the first event means I have to give up some blood. So long as I follow that, you wouldn’t tell anyone about this place. Never in our agreement did I say that I wouldn’t handicap you by breaking every bone in your body. Just trying to decide which I want to start with.” She added a little more pressure to the small of his back. “I’m thinking right around here.”
He let out a strained whine before a weak little chuckle escaped his lips. “You demons and your literal contracts. But we didn’t make a contract. We made a deal. Deals can be altered. I should think that excessive bodily harm would be grounds for changing the deal.”
Eva had honestly expected that. Which was the only reason she hadn’t actually broken his back.
She finally stepped off him, giving him a decent kick to the side in the process.
“Get out of here,” Eva said. “And don’t come back. If I find you around this place again, I’ll kill you regardless of your messages to other people.”
He flashed another wide smile as he pushed himself back to a proper standing position. “Don’t worry. I have what I need from here.” As he spoke, he brushed his hands down the front of his clothes. He glanced to his chest with a look of abject horror. “My suit!”
The vampire—who, Eva realized, she still didn’t know the name of—started frantically brushing at his suit, trying to remove as much dirt as possible. Under other circumstances, Eva might have taken amusement and joy in his suffering. Now, she just stared, eyes cold and unfeeling.
He snapped his eyes up, eyes narrowed for a moment before he let out a small snort. “See you around, I guess.”
Eva didn’t respond. She watched and waited as he sauntered off. Only when he finally left the range of her ability to sense blood did she let out a sigh.
“Sorry,” she said, turning around with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Apart from speaking, she kept her lips firmly shut. No need to flash a view of her sharp teeth. “I didn’t mean to frighten you two.”
The faint outline of a man solidified from a partially gaseous form just behind a fully-armored Juliana. She hadn’t even removed the metal around her face. Even though the vampire was gone, Srey stayed just behind the human, barely peeking out over her shoulder.
Taking her eyes off them, Eva surveyed the dark ritual site. The area hadn’t been damaged too much by Arachne’s unexpected flight. At least, not that she could tell at the moment. The darkness made it difficult to tell the real extent of the damage. However, most of it had happened in a section that wasn’t yet started, let alone finished as Arachne had plowed through some of the completed areas when she had been kicked away.
She could have tossed a few light spells around, but Juliana wasn’t in a proper state to fix anything. Eva had been using a shovel to help out and could do it herself. However, she wasn’t in a good mood at the moment either. And Juliana would still need to harden the earth to keep it from deforming.
It would be better to work on it during the daylight hours.
Shaking her head, she took a moment to examine Arachne. She was standing—glowering really—and hadn’t been hobbling while returning from her brief trip across the field. However, she was still injured from the hunter. Even lacking the strength of bestial strain vampires or the magics of the Blacksky, the August was still a vampire and not someone to be taken lightly.
But Eva’s worries were misplaced. Arachne’s carapace wasn’t even cracked. Her insides were still functioning properly as far as Eva could tell. Aside from her preexisting wound, Arachne was in perfect health.
“So,” Juliana said, making Eva turn around to face her properly, “you’re going to have to win this event now? Are you actually going to agree to his demands?”
“Not necessarily. He didn’t specify anything about me having to win, only if his school wins do I have to do anything. There are still the other schools. His arrogance in assuming he wouldn’t lose gave me the better odds.”
“You’re not worried about him ‘altering the deal’ after he loses?”
“I imagine he will. The trick is killing him before it matters.”
Juliana hesitated for a moment before shuddering. “Well good riddance. I don’t think I like vampires very much.”
“Serena isn’t so bad,” Eva said with a grin. She quickly snapped her lips shut as she realized how wide her smile went. “You just haven’t given her a chance.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Your loss. But speaking of…” Eva trailed off, turning to Srey with a small frown on her face. Something really bothered her about the way he was hiding behind Juliana. “I’m going to need your help with a little task.”
Srey flinched upon being addressed. He did move slightly to one side, coming out from Juliana’s shadow.
“Following him right?” Srey said. “Finding out where he hid this message?”
“Not quite. Or rather, I have someone else I can assign to that task.” Nel should be able to watch the vampire well enough. Unlike hunters and Sawyer, it was doubtful that he would have a way to avoid Nel’s sight. “No. I need you to spend as much time as possible here. If you feel the slightest hostility, find and tell me immediately.”
Srey started off with a frown, but the frown slowly grew to a smile. “You mean you want me to keep away from all the people around? I can sit here and read a book in peace?”
— — —
Eva had one last thing to accomplish before the event began in full. A minor thing. Possibly even an optional thing. For that thing, she was currently sitting in her golemancy classroom, waiting for Professor Brier Price to finish her lesson. Which, assuming the clock was right, should be happening in less than ten seconds.
Sure enough, the bell rang right on schedule.
Brier Price jumped slightly, glancing up at the clock as if she hadn’t been expecting it. She was the only one. Nearly the entire rest of the class was already out the door when she started calling after them.
“Oh! Ah, students, no homework today. Enjoy watching the event.”
A few scattered farewells followed from those students who hadn’t yet left the classroom. The professor just watched them go with a smile on her face.
Meanwhile, Eva sat and waited, watching her lined face and grayed, slightly curled hair as she waved goodbye to every student. Eventually they were the last two in the classroom. Something that had Professor Price jumping again when she noticed.
“Eva? You’re still here.”
“Sorry if I’m disturbing you. I had a few questions I was hoping you might be able to help me with.”
The professor shook her head. “Oh no. Don’t worry about it. I’m something of a faithless woman,” she said with a slightly strained chuckle. “Your appearance doesn’t bother me one bit.”
Eva blinked in confusion before allowing herself a close-lipped smile. She had meant that she was sorry about taking up her time. However, Eva didn’t bother correcting the professor. No sense embarrassing her. Eva instead held out her wrist, using her other hand to slide the coiled form of Basila onto the top of the desk.
The stone snake wouldn’t move on its own accord.
“This is Basila,” Eva said. “It used to be a perfectly functional golem with a basilisk personality. Built by Genoa and Carlos Rivas, if you know of them.”
“Of course I know them. Everybody who deals with golems knows of their golem menagerie.” She leaned down and nudged the inert stone, sending Basila rolling onto her belly. “Though this one doesn’t seem functional.”
“It used to be, as I said. However, it was damaged, modified, repaired, and exposed to a handful of potions. Not necessarily in that order.”
“I see.” She pulled out her wand, pointed it at Basila, paused and glanced up to Eva for the first time since she noticed Eva was still in the classroom. And even now, she didn’t quite meet Eva’s eyes, choosing to stare more at her ear than anything else. “Do you mind if I perform a few diagnostic spells?”
Eva pulled her hands away from the table as she shook her head. “Not at all.”
The lines on Professor Price’s cheeks stretched as she smiled. Soon enough, colored ribbons filled the air around them. None of which Eva knew the meaning of despite having taken the class for a few months now. Brier Price was just the opposite. She hummed and hawed as each appeared with a swish of her wand. After a few minutes of scanning each, a single wave of her wand wiped away all but one red ribbon and one black ribbon.
“Alright. Found the primary problems. Neither of which should be too difficult to solve.”
That had Eva perking up. She was inordinately pleased that Basila wasn’t permanently broken. After the Elysium Order’s cathedral, she hadn’t been quite the same. And then a few weeks ago, she had ceased responding to anything entirely.
“The first problem,” she said, dragging the red ribbon over, “is that the magical reserves keeping the golem operational are nearly depleted. It has entered a low power state to preserve the imprinting. Now, I own a small nereid produced by the Rivas, so I know a little something about their quality. This should never have happened. There is enough magic crammed into these things to keep them operational for a century at least.” She ended with a pointed look at Eva. A look that she only maintained for a second or two before averting her eyes.
Eva, shrinking slightly in her seat, looked up to her. “Would a growth potion have caused that?”
“More mass to move around means more energy consumed,” she said with a slight hum. “I assume so.”
“But you said it is easy to fix.”
“I can show you how to refill it in a moment. Though that potion might explain the second issue—as I assume you shrank it back down. Perhaps while damaged?” She dragged over the black ribbon using the tip of her wand. “You repaired it admirably, but you missed one part. Or rather, you didn’t align the substitutiary locomotion array before beginning your repairs.”
Nothing she just said sounded familiar to Eva. Shrugging, Eva said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Substitutiary locomotion? Mystic power that’s far beyond the wildest notion?” Receiving no recognition from Eva, Professor Price made a slight noise in the back of her throat. “Right. We haven’t covered it in your class yet. But you couldn’t have repaired without knowing…” she trailed off, last sentence little more than a whisper.
“One of the modifications I made causes it to self-repair.”
“Ah. That’s an advanced bit of magic,” the professor said with a slight hum. For a moment, Eva thought she might have made a mistake. The ritual that caused it to repair was a blood-based one. But, after staring at the basilisk golem for a few moments, Professor Price shook her head. “Then before it self-repairs, straighten it out as much as possible. Better yet, don’t damage it again.”
No promises, Eva couldn’t help but think. But at least it was fixable. And without going to Genoa about it at that.
With Basila repaired, Eva still needed to make a quick trip down to the alchemy labs for a few potions. But there were no rules against bringing in equipment to the event. So long as Basila counted as equipment, she felt prepared for whatever the task would be.