Eva reached into the large leathery bag. By a strange happenstance, she was the first to choose a marble. The first school to leave the ready area had gone to the far left, the second had gone to the far right. Third and fourth went to the left and right leaving Brakket right in the center.
Right in front of the marble bag.
The opening was right at waist height. Despite being able to easily see inside, Eva couldn’t actually see anything. Some darkness spell was keeping everything below the lip of the bag effectively invisible.
Feeling around inside the bag, Eva’s hand swept through hundreds of marbles. Her hand dove deep, burrowing inside the large bag. As it wasn’t on any sort of pedestal, just resting on the ground, Eva would actually have to bend over to reach the bottom. Something she wasn’t willing to do.
But it spoke of how many marbles there were.
Redford had said that there were seven starting locations with a maximum of three people per spot.
So what are all the other marbles for?
For all she knew, this was some kind of test before the test. Not picking one of the colors might disqualify her. Or something else horrible.
Or perhaps it was just an innocent bit of magic. The marbles might color themselves upon being drawn and only so many could be drawn of one color. Something so that the last person to pick would feel like they had just as many choices as the first, even though that was just an illusion.
With nothing else to do, she gripped one of the marbles and pulled it out.
Her hand came out of the darkness with a violet sphere.
She stepped away, allowing her two companions to choose their marbles.
Randal reached inside first. Much like Eva, he looked surprised as he moved his hand around. He didn’t take quite as long to pick, coming away with a yellow marble.
Rachael stepped up after him. She reached in and immediately pulled out a green marble with no surprise or digging around. By the looks of things, she had taken the very first marble her fingers touched.
“Alright,” Eva said as they moved away for the next schools to have their turns. “Guess I’ll see you guys in the center.”
Randal looked to her with a half-smirk. “Don’t get killed.”
“Please, after everything I’ve been through? I’m more worried about accidentally killing one of them.”
“Don’t get cocky either,” Rachael said with a sour expression. “Or kill anyone. It wouldn’t reflect well on us.”
“I’ll try not to,” Eva said, taking one step towards the violet light hovering just behind where the schools had been standing. She paused, looking back to her companions. “I warned you before,” she said in a hushed tone of voice, “but keep an eye on the Nod Complex’s vampire. I don’t know that he’ll be playing nice.”
“So long as fire puts him down nicely, I shouldn’t have a problem.”
“And I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve as well,” Randal said. “Good luck.”
With that, they split up. Eva slipped her own marble into a pocket on her skirt, watching the other schools pick their marbles as she waited.
Somehow, the Isomer students muscled their way past the Mount Hope girls despite being further away. Only one of the Elysium Order nun trainees were participating in this event. The two other boys picked out a blue and a red marble.
The curly-haired nun picked her marble, looked over it, and began scowling as soon as she glanced towards Eva’s colored light.
From their brief interaction, Eva had a vague idea bout the curly-haired nun’s personality. She deferred to the other trainee, acted somewhat nervous about Eva, and—if Eva wasn’t missing her mark—had been more believing about the fact that a vampire was roaming the halls.
Of course, just because this was the nun more believing of Eva’s claims did not make them friends.
She stalked over with a glare yet somehow managed to avoid eye contact.
Eva paid her little mind for the moment. When the event actually started, she would have to be wary. It wouldn’t be surprising if the nun tried to take her out the second the light disappeared.
Instead of talking or taunting, Eva continued to watch as the students split off to their respective colors.
It wasn’t until the Nod Complex students moved up to get their marbles that Eva found herself growing worried.
The violet light still only had herself and the Isomer girl. Though unlikely, it would be just her luck to wind up with both a nun and a vampire. She had already done that dance once with Serena and Nel and it hadn’t been a lot of fun back then. Those two were at least friendly. To Eva.
She actually let out a short sigh when she saw him pull out a red marble. At least she wouldn’t have to doubly watch her back. He would still be around the playing field, but she could maybe get away from the nun before then. Or maybe set the nun on the vampire.
“Is he that dangerous?”
Eva glanced to the nun with a raised eyebrow. “The vampire?”
“You weren’t half as agitated when you saw me walking over.”
“Between him and you, I’d much rather be partnered with you.”
Eva took her eyes off the nun, watching as the vampire meandered over to the other Isomer student. The two boys nodded at each other, not having anything resembling the hostility Eva might have expected from an undead and a ‘Holy’ Academy student. He was probably just a normal kid. The school wasn’t entirely made of Elysium Order recruits after all.
“He’s already attacked me in an attempt to get my blood,” Eva continued.
“And you fought him off?” the nun said with a scoff. A clearly disbelieving scoff.
Did she not think that demons would beat vampires?
Holding out her hand, Eva flicked her wrist. Flames lit up all the way to her elbow.
“Vampires can’t catch you if you’re on fire,” Eva said with a wide grin.
The nun harrumphed and looked away.
Just in time for the two of them to see a third student heading over to the violet light. One of the poor students from Mount Hope. After being shoved aside by Isomer, the rest of the schools took that as a go-ahead to select their marbles first. The Hope students just sat around awkwardly as everyone pushed past them.
The one coming towards Eva looked fairly young. She couldn’t be much older than Eva. Maybe a year at the most. She gave Eva’s hand a wide berth, eying her as she walked up to them. Despite that extra space and the slight look out of the corner of her eye, she smiled at both Eva and the nun.
“Emily,” she said with a happy nod of her head.
Eva extinguished her hand. “Eva.”
Both looked towards the nun. Emily, probably because she was being friendly. Not so much in Eva’s case. She put on her widest smile, fully channeling Sawyer as she looked at the nun with expectant eyes.
“Anise,” the nun said, barely managing not to sneer at either one of them.
Before any further introductions could be made, Redford got back to his feet. He leaned slightly on his cane as he made his way to the front of the stage.
“You’ve all been distributed,” he said, prompting Eva to glance at her schoolmates.
Rachael wound up with the Nod Complex’s dryad. With a face looking like it was made of pale wood, the dryad’s expression was near impossible to read. However, the two were speaking softly to one another. Nothing hostile, as far as Eva could tell.
Eva did take a moment to look over the dryad using her other senses. Though she wouldn’t be openly using blood magic, she could use her sense of blood without care for being found out.
The dryad, she found, did show up. But it was weird. She obviously had something flowing beneath her… bark. It counted as blood, yet it was slow and sticky feeling. It didn’t move around her body in any way that Eva could liken to anything else living that she had seen. She didn’t have blood vessels or organs, as far as Eva could tell. There were patterns, especially in her face where eyes, mouth, and nose all had distinct shapes.
Eva shook her head. Even if the dryad was strange, at least she could sense her presence with blood magic.
Randal, on the other hand, was entirely alone. The only student to have avoided being paired with anyone else. Two colors, violet included, had three people. Everyone else was in pairs.
He didn’t look all that upset about not having anyone with him. Rather, his grin could rival Eva’s.
“You will be directed to your starting positions momentarily,” Redford said. “As a reminder, straying too far from the light will result in disqualification until it disappears. I suggest you pay attention.”
He didn’t say anything more, choosing to return to his seat.
One of the robotic drones flew by, giving a view of the divided students.
Eva gave it a small wave. Maybe her old friends at the veterinarian’s clinic were watching. Though, she doubted they would recognize her. With her short hair, sharp teeth, red eyes, and literal claws, she had changed a great deal since she last saw them.
The light above her head flashed twice before slowly drifting off, heading deeper into the woods.
All three of the students followed after it in silence.
At least, they started in silence. While the nun looked like a conversation was the last thing on her mind—something Eva certainly didn’t have an issue with—Emily started fidgeting almost as soon as they were away from the rest of the groups. Her eyes constantly flicked between the backs of Eva and the nun, as both were walking a step or two ahead.
For a moment, Eva almost let her continue her fretting. If only for wondering how long it would last. The nun wouldn’t notice; her eyes were glued forward. As such, it was up to Eva to break the silence or wait for her to finally speak up.
Three steps later had Eva deciding to take pity. The girl’s heart rate was steady, but the twiddling of her fingers grew ever more intense as they continued walking. Much longer and she might have a panic attack.
“Was there something you needed?” Eva asked with a glance over her shoulder.
“Oh! I, um… There was just… It’s not that–”
“Spit it out already,” Anise snapped. She closed her eyes and shook her head, almost tripping over a fallen branch. “I’m sorry,” she said, opening her eyes again. “Just nervous.”
Eva wasn’t. Not about them, anyway. The only person she was actually concerned about at the moment was the vampire. And possibly whatever creatures were out in the forest to cause problems. No one had been able to come up with a creature other than a gorgon that might have metallic scales. Someone had suggested a dragon.
The forest wasn’t on fire. Eva had dismissed that claim.
So Eva decided to come up with a list of as many scaled creatures as she could. One might have a sub-breed with metallic scales. Basilisks were at the top of the list of creatures she did not want to meet tonight, but she felt as if they might be too dangerous for a children’s school game.
Then there was the idea that the scale was not a scale at all, rather a piece of something else. She did not yet have an idea as to what.
“We’re not going to betray each other as soon as the event starts, are we?” Emily asked with a slight quiver in her voice.
Eva and the nun glanced at each other. Well, Eva glanced. The nun glared.
“I can agree to a truce,” Eva said, offering an olive branch before the nun could say a word.
“And why should I believe you won’t stab us in the back the moment we let our guards down?”
“Let’s just say that I have a vested interest in ensuring anyone wins with the exception of the Nod Complex.” Which was not even a lie. Eva did want to win, but she was perfectly capable of being pragmatic when needed. “The longer I can keep you alive,” she said with a vague gesture towards the nun, “the rougher time the vampire is going to have.”
“A-alive?” Emily had probably intended to shriek. She failed, instead somehow managing to whisper at the top of her lungs.
“A slip of the tongue. I’m used to harsher combat than whatever Redford has in store for us. Probably. I doubt they would send students into anything truly dangerous.”
“I don’t know about that. People have died in the past. Not a common thing, but it has happened. And Redford really doesn’t strike me as the most sane of event organizers,” Anise mused more to herself than anyone else. She didn’t miss the sharp breath from Emily, however, and quickly amended her statement. “But I’m sure we’ll be fine. They wouldn’t televise bloodsport.”
“Anyway,” Eva said as the violet light above them came to a stop.
They were—thankfully—nowhere near her ritual circle. Given how large the Infinite Courtyard was, even her gigantic ritual site was still just a dot on the map. But it had been a concern on her mind.
She held out a hand towards the others. A stone snake was wrapped around her wrist, but neither girl seemed to pay it much mind. “Truce?”
Emily took hold of her hand almost instantly, giving it a vigorous shake with a relief-filled smile.
After releasing her hand, Eva turned to fully offer it towards the nun.
Anise eyed the black claw. “Shaking hands with the devil,” she said in a low mumble.
“Religious theology has very little to do with real demons,” Eva said. “Trust me on that if nothing else.”
The nun harrumphed, still not reaching for Eva’s hand.
“Redford did say that we might be more successful if we work together. We should at least figure out what we are doing before mur–fighting each other.”
The nun did not miss Eva’s slip. Even so, she thrust out her hand with a sneer. Her grip tightened down as hard as her poor human muscles could go.
Eva didn’t feel a thing.
“I’ll be watching you.”
Two bright flashes above them pulled their attention up to the violet orb. And, consequently, the drone hovering just overhead.
Anise pulled her hand back with a groan. “I hope that camera isn’t recording. I’ll be excommunicated for sure.”
Eva smiled. “Come find me if you are. I know someone who might be willing to… employ ex-nuns.”
The not-yet-ex-nun shot Eva a glare before they all had to start moving. The violet light hovered forward at a languid pace.
Eva felt it immediately. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed before. Redford mentioned a ward to keep them from accidentally wandering out of the event grounds. But to be standing right next to it and entirely miss it was something of a shock to Eva.
It made her all the more thankful that the demon hunters had been either nearly incompetent in ward construction or in too much of a rush in setting them up to have done a decent job. She could have easily wandered into one just as Juliana had if Redford had been the one to set them up.
Shaking off her shock, Eva had to move quickly to follow after the light before it got too far away. Thankfully, it stopped just inside the ward. She didn’t have far to go.
“Cold feet?” Anise said with a sneer.
“Just surprised at the ward. It was… strong. Like I was being crushed for a moment by nothing more than the air.”
Emily frowned, looking back to where they had just come from. “I didn’t notice anything.”
Eva shrugged. “Probably tuned differently for humans and non-humans. I doubt they want whatever monsters they filled this place with to escape.”
“Monsters. Right. You mentioned vampires earlier,” Emily said.
“A vampire. Singular. He’s actually a student.”
Anise curled her lips back into a sneer. Though it wasn’t that steady. Her heart started beating faster. After a moment, she let out a sigh and dropped the tough act just long enough to mumble out a few words. “I wish Chris were here.”
Her voice was just quiet enough that Eva wouldn’t have been able to hear from a step to the side. As it was, she decided to shrug her shoulders without comment. Chris was probably the other nun. So long as Anise could use the white Elysium Order magic, Eva really didn’t care which nun she got. While initially she had considered running off, in retrospect, she was lucky to have been in the same group as one.
It gave her the excuse of a truce to not attack and left open the possibility that Elysium Order magic would prove just slightly too deadly to the vampire.
Emily opened her mouth to comment more.
Another flash from the light overhead stopped her cold.
Three pulses. The light died off, fading to a bright spark before disappearing entirely.
Eva put up her guard immediately, keeping her back to the wardline as she stared at her two ‘companions.’ She was ready to move, attack, or flee depending on the situation.
The nun moved as well. White light burned in her eyes as she locked her gaze with Eva.
However, at the moment, Eva was slightly more concerned with the other girl.
She seemed the Shalise-type of girl. At least, Eva found herself reminded of Shalise. Timid, perhaps not very strong magically, yet earnest and willing to work hard if necessary. Her concerns about monsters, working together, and Eva’s slip about keeping Anise alive were all perfectly valid. Things she could imagine Shalise worrying about.
At the same time, Eva couldn’t imagine Shalise’s heart rate remaining relatively steady. Even while walking through the forest and discussing relatively uncomfortable topics such as ambushing one another, Eva couldn’t recall any change in Emily’s heart rate that couldn’t be attributed to the normal physical exertion of walking through a forest.
The moment the light disappeared, her wand slipped into her hand from somewhere up her sleeve. Her face hardened as she looked through narrowed eyes at both Eva and the nun.
But she didn’t attack.
The hairs on the back of Eva’s neck stood on end.
But neither of them attacked.
After standing perfectly still for upwards of five minutes, Eva broke first. They were wasting time. Good time. The vampire had undoubtedly eliminated his partner and would already be heading towards the goal.
“Well,” she said, dropping her guard almost entirely. She would still be able to blink away if either of them moved towards her. “We’re wasting time.”
“We could glare at each other until the event passed us by,” Emily said slowly.
Eva grinned. Probably not the best thing she could do given her teeth, but she did so anyway. “Right. And I’d like someone who isn’t the Nod Complex to win this thing.” She held out both hands, one to each of her temporary companions. “Truce? For real this time?”
“You mentioned something like that before,” Emily said. “What’s your deal with them?”
“Just a little bet. Well, that and a vehement dislike of their vampire.”
Anise only hesitated for a moment before reaching out to grasp Eva’s hand. “If you aren’t lying, I can definitely agree with that.”
“No lie. After the Nod Complex is removed from the playing field, we can fight all we want.”
“Fine with me,” Anise said. She tried to pull back her hand, but Eva held on.
Eva glanced towards Emily. She lifted her hand up ever so slightly, further offering it to the girl.
“Your hands are creepy.”
“Sharp too. Not the kind of claws you want on an enemy.”
Emily narrowed her eyes at the threat. Eva couldn’t bring herself to care. She already had the anti-vampire person on her side. If Emily continued to waste time, she would just pick up the girl and chuck her back towards the ward line. Leaving counted as disqualification, or so Redford had mentioned. Making someone leave probably worked just as well.
But the girl swapped her wand to her other hand, leaving her left hand free to grab hold of Eva’s claw.
“Excellent,” Eva said.
As she spoke, a drone dropped down, swooping around them in a full circle before flying back up overhead.
Anise tore her hand out of Eva’s grip, barely managing to avoid mangling herself, and buried her face in her hands.
“I am so going to be excommunicated.”
Eva couldn’t help but to chuckle.
For a second.
Releasing Emily’s hand, she made the first steps towards the rest of the arena.
“We’ve some lost time to reclaim. I hope you can keep up.”
With that, Eva took off. She didn’t use her legs to their full potential. Losing sight of either of her companions could wind up with them being ambushed. Or ambushing her. But she fast ran enough to push them to keep up.
“I’m coming for you, vampire,” Eva muttered under her breath.