The red light flickered out.
Garbed in white, the boy from Isomer unleashed his spell. Five minutes of doing nothing but pouring magic into his wand manifested itself as a field of ice. It spread around him, flash freezing everything in a small bubble of space. Plants and insects alike died in droves. Even tiny drops of water in the air crystallized and fell to the ground in an explosion of snow.
Standing next to his fellow red marble holder, the other boy should have been caught within the ice as well.
“Frostbite is no laughing matter in the short-term. Not particularly painful as it tends to numb the senses, but it would make moving difficult. With proper application of ointments and potions, all but the worst effects can be reversed before permanent damage is done.”
“He–He doesn’t seem affected by it at all!”
The vampire shook his head with a chuckle. A few flakes of snow fell from his hair as he moved.
“You know,” he said, locking cold eyes with his companion, “I was perfectly willing to honor our truce. But after that, I think a light snack is in order.” A feral grin spread across his face.
The Isomer student realized his mistake as soon as he saw the two sharp fangs dangling from the smiling mouth. He tried to conjure up a wall of ice between the two of them, but the vampire was behind him before the wall could grow more than a few inches.
Taking hold of his victim’s shoulder and head, the vampire made room for his head and dipped his fangs into flesh.
He didn’t drink for long. To the Isomer student’s credit, he managed to coalesce a few icicles and toss them towards the vampire, over his shoulder.
The vampire was fast enough to dodge. He did end up releasing the other student.
Clutching his neck, the Isomer student spun around. He conjured a large wave of water rather than ice, attempting to push back and wash away the vampire.
The vampire didn’t even get his feet wet. He jumped out to the side, planting both feet on a tree. The entire trunk cracked and snapped as the vampire kicked off. Splinters of wood fell to join the snow on the ground. As he flew overhead, the vampire grabbed hold of the stunned student’s collar. He gripped tight as his feet hit the ground and used his continuing momentum to fling the boy out of the ward.
Hank winced, making an audible note of empathetic pain as the kid slammed into a tree. It didn’t shatter like the other one, but this tree hadn’t been flash frozen either.
From somewhere inside his pocket, a faint red glow lit up the Isomer student’s white uniform. The same pocket that had held his marble, if Zoe remembered correctly.
The student wasn’t done, however. He staggered to his feet. After shaking his head, he charged forwards, ice flowing around him as he prepared another attack.
Crossing his arms, the vampire just smiled. A few drops of blood still stained his teeth red.
Ice and a body hit the invisible sphere of a ward a few paces away. Blood drained from the Isomer student’s face as he tried slamming a shoulder into it. Anger bled away to worry as his fists pounded into the ward. Icicles hit, glancing off without leaving a single mark in the air.
“Thanks for the meal,” the vampire said with a wave of his hand. He turned and ran into the forest.
And left the Isomer student disqualified.
“Wow,” Hank said softly. “Two students have already been taken out of the game.”
“In less than two minutes,” Zoe added with a smile.
“Isomer Academy and Mount Hope are both down one student each. But will we see a third?”
The screens changed from the medics rushing up to the Isomer student to Eva and the rest of the violet group.
“A tense standoff by the looks of things,” Hank continued.
Zoe wasn’t so sure. If Eva hadn’t attacked them by now, they would probably reaffirm their truce.
“Both groups of three have no pairs from the same school. Which means that as soon as one person attacks another, they leave their backs open to possibly getting attacked in return. I doubt…” Zoe trailed off as Eva held out her hands to the other girls. She started speaking as well.
It was a mere moment before both girls were shaking her hands.
“Ah, see. They’ll have to betray each other later.”
“Well, no third then,” Hank said, sounding almost disappointed. He perked up almost instantly as a voice came over the earpieces saying that they were going to display that previous battle again. “But, with how far apart the students are, that gives us time to go over those two fights. Let’s start with the most recent.”
The screen flicked backwards to a still image of the ice spell.
Except it wasn’t a still image. Zoe leaned closer, watching the snow form in the air in slow motion.
And extremely high resolution.
“It is a very beautiful spell,” Zoe said, deciding to voice her thoughts aloud. “Not something a student would likely be able to cast in an instant. He had probably been preparing it for some time.”
“I’m slack-jawed watching this footage again,” Hank said, only exaggerating slightly, “but it didn’t seem very effective.”
“Against a human, I imagine it would have instantly incapacitated them. Even if he hadn’t known that he was walking with a vampire, he should have realized that things aren’t always what they seem with the Nod Complex. And,” Zoe started, doing her best to hold in an exasperated sigh, “he really shouldn’t have stood around doing nothing after his first attack failed. The vampire taunted him for a good ten seconds during which he could have done plenty more.”
The footage on the screen sped up until the vampire’s fangs were half into the human’s shoulder.
“He was a vampire then?” Hank asked with a slight somber tone to his voice.
“It seems I was wrong earlier,” Zoe said slowly.
Given that, largely thanks to Wayne, most of the mundane world believed that vampires had been responsible for the incident in Lansing, they were likely to be a somewhat touchy subject. Though it had been more than a decade ago, an entire city had been wiped off the maps. Family and friends of those who had perished were probably watching the broadcast right now.
Zoe wasn’t sure if she should say something. Or what she should say, even. Some platitude about how all the vampires involved were dead? That wasn’t even true. She knew of at least two survivors, though one was a victim and the other hadn’t had anything to do with the incident itself.
Not to mention that such a statement wouldn’t make anyone feel better. Knowing what had happened from first-hand experience didn’t make her feel any better about it. Had it not been for Wayne, she would have died along with her parents.
Zoe pressed her lips together into a tight line. Saying something would be crass. Politicians and spokesmen for magical societies could say more careful words at a later date.
Thankfully, or perhaps noticing that Zoe had gone silent, the image switched to the first fight.
“Ah, this was a particularly interesting fight in terms of air magi,” she started with a smile. Air magic was a safe topic and, best of all, she could talk about it for a few minutes at the very least.
“I’ll say,” Hank started. “The way the student from Faultline moved…”
Perhaps she could become an announcer at events like these when she retired. It was a lot like teaching. Going over uses of magic and the like. That and the slow motion lightning bolt was a beautiful sight to see. She could definitely get used to seeing magic performed in front of high quality cameras.
Of course, that assumed the world would still be around in the far future.
Zoe pushed that sour note from her mind.
“Using air magic, one can essentially wrap air around one’s body…”
— — —
Eva slowed her run, sniffing at the air. She held up a hand and waved it in a silent gesture for her companions to slow down. They did so, though Eva couldn’t tell if it was because of her hand motions or simply because she had stopped.
Frankly, she didn’t care so long as they weren’t charging ahead and weren’t attacking her.
A few more whiffs of air had Eva thoroughly confused. There was something familiar in the air. Something she couldn’t quite place. A slimy feeling. Or maybe more spindly.
Eva glanced back at Anise. “Do you smell anything?” she asked in a nearly silent whisper.
The nun-trainee wrinkled her nose with a frown, staring at Eva as if she were setting up some trap. She did eventually try smelling at the air.
“Nope,” she said with a shake of her head. “I smell pine and wood. Maybe a little rotting plant-life? Nothing too unusual for where we are.”
Eva frowned and looked towards Emily.
The other girl shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe it is some demon thing?”
“I don’t think so. My sense of smell isn’t much better than most humans.”
Eva paused, thinking to herself. She actually hadn’t ever tested such a thing. Really, Devon should have thought of it. Her statement still held true. She hadn’t noticed any significant changes in her sense of smell.
While it was possible that it had been a gradual thing that she wouldn’t have noticed over the years, the large leaps with her recent treatments had brought drastic changes. If her sense of smell had been enhanced or just altered, she likely would have noticed along with everything else.
“Just keep up your guard,” Eva said, moving forwards again at a far more cautious pace.
The two followed after her, Emily turning her head this way and that while Anise’s glowing eyes had started up again. Emily’s wand darted around everywhere she looked. So far, she hadn’t used a single spell. If they did end up fighting, Eva really hoped that she would use a spell before then just so she knew what kind of mage she would be fighting.
Anise didn’t have a wand out. With the eye in her chest, she really didn’t need one. Assuming she was like other nuns and relied on the Elysium Order’s magic, Eva had a good idea of what to expect. Though she was very well aware that they could use thaumaturgy if they felt like it.
Though the sensation was growing stronger, Eva glanced back over her shoulder as a thought occurred to her. “I don’t suppose either of you know of any creatures with platinum scales?”
Emily shook her head in a negative.
However, Anise froze for a split second. Her eyes lit up a few shades brighter, filling the surrounding forest with light before returning to their normal luminosity.
“I don’t know of any creatures with literal platinum for scales. None that are still around,” she added, effectively confirming Arachne’s experience with the gorgon. “There are a number of reptile breeds that have scales that might appear metallic. In fact, almost every magical reptile can be specifically bred for specific scales.”
Eva groaned. “That doesn’t narrow it down very much.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, just something that is in here with us might have scales looking like platinum. A few friends of mine suggested gorgon–”
“But they’re extinct.”
If she actually had the scale, showing it to Anise might be enough for her hive mind to identify. Unfortunately, Randal had kept a hold of it. Assuming he had even brought it with him. If he had, she would need to run across him out in the forest.
Something that would be much easier if she could just sense the demon inside him.
Eva froze. She stopped suddenly enough that Emily bumped into her back. Not hard enough to knock either of them off balance. Enough for Emily’s heart rate to briefly spike as she jumped away from Eva with her wand raised.
“I’m so stupid,” Eva said, ignoring the wand at her back.
Both girls blinked, glancing at each other before focusing on Eva.
“It wasn’t a smell. Why would I think that? How does something even smell slimy?”
“There’s a demon out here with us.”
Anise immediately turned to scan the surrounding area. Her fingers started to crackle with white lightning.
Emily didn’t take her wand off Eva. “Friend of yours?” she asked with narrowed eyes.
“Normally. Used to be?” Eva wasn’t quite sure. “At the moment, I doubt it.”
“We should move,” Anise said. Her voice was tinged with actual fear. It even trembled slightly. Emily’s heart rate had risen, but Anise was in a whole other league. “We don’t– I can’t– A real demon?”
Eva frowned. Do I not count? Sure her treatment wasn’t complete, but it was close enough.
Then again, Anise’s hive mind likely labeled her as an abomination rather than a demon.
“Yes a real demon,” Eva snapped. What was she so worried about anyway?
The answer came almost as soon as she wondered.
The Elysium Order had found themselves embarrassed by demons several times over the past two years. Not a single engagement had gone well for them. At least none Eva had been involved in. Lynn Cross and the Charon Chapter had been driven out of town with a few losses. Ylva had demolished their inquisitorial squad after they had abjectly failed in their mission to recover Nel. Eva had stolen an artifact right from under their nose and dumped it on their front porch after she had finished with it. Which was probably a fairly large embarrassment on its own.
The only damage they had really done to demons in return had been killing Arachne.
Perhaps Anise, being a mere student and trainee, didn’t have the power necessary to pull off a similar stunt.
“It won’t matter anyway. She already knows where we are. Following us won’t be difficult.”
Especially given other demons’ ability to sense Eva. Not that she was going to admit that to her companions.
“We can’t fight a demon. Are you insane?”
Eva glanced at Emily, pointing a finger at herself with an incredulous look on her face.
The Mount Hope student just shrugged and turned a pitying look on Anise.
While they sat around talking, the demon closed in on them. The slimy sensation grew stronger and stronger.
Right up until Eva’s sense of blood registered something other than the few animals and insects that were still around.
Thin tendrils, each no thicker than a pencil, swarmed across the forest floor. They managed to maneuver through the trees and brush without winding up tangled around anything despite being spread out enough to half-surround Eva and her group. The care they took in crawling through the brush kept even a single leaf from rustling.
If it weren’t for her ability to sense both demons and blood, it was entirely possible she wouldn’t have noticed until it was too late.
Though, as she had just said, she doubted there would be an escape.
Eva crossed her arms and sighed.
Tendrils snapped out of the brush, all of them leaping as one.
Emily managed to get off the ground, leaping from a pillar of earth that hadn’t been there a moment ago. She wasn’t quite fast enough. The tentacles caught her in the middle of her jump, wrapping around her waist and pinning her arms to her side.
Anise didn’t fare half as well. Lightning crackled at her fingertips, but she didn’t get a chance to actually fire it before becoming wrapped up like a mummy.
Eva didn’t bother to move. She could have blinked away. She could have fought back with explosive fire. But escaping would have wound up with her leaving Anise behind. Something she really didn’t want to do at the moment. Not until the vampire had been incapacitated.
Neither did she want to fight.
So instead, she simply stood still with her arms crossed. Even as a bundle of tendrils wrapped around and snaked up her leg, Eva didn’t move. The tendrils lifted her up, swinging her upside down. Eva kept her arms crossed.
And just glared at the main mass that was slowly approaching.
— — —
“T-tentacles?” Hank said with a nervous chuckle.
Zoe pressed her face to her palm, not willing to meet his eyes. “She’s actually pretty nice once you get to know her,” she said slowly.
“That’s… a she?”
“She’s employed by Brakket Academy as a security guard. Or was in the past. I believe her contract expired. I’m guessing that Wallace picked up her contract for this event.”
“Ah hah ha.” Again with the nervous laugh. “Well, precarious situation for our young ladies.”
— — —
The cheer filled voice came from the main mass of tentacles, filled with far more gurgles than Eva remembered. Of course, she couldn’t see a humanoid body formed in the mass, so she was probably just forming up a mouth in the middle of it all.
“Lucy. I think you have some explaining to do.”
Before the tentacle demon could even start to respond, Eva’s head snapped to the side as she heard rapid chanting from the nun.
“Stop!” she cried out.
But Lucy was already one step ahead. A number of tentacles pressed into Anise’s open mouth and wrapped around her tongue.
The way Anise’s eyes bulged and she started choking almost had Eva feeling sorry for her. Almost.
She tried to keep her voice as firm as possible. “Don’t banish my friend. Please,” Eva added after a slight pause. “She’s not going to hurt us. Right Lucy?”
The main mass of tentacles quickly formed up into the familiar shape of a more humanoid Lucy, Brakket security uniform and all. Mostly. From the waist up. Below her waist, the mass of tentacles remained as it was. Eva wasn’t too surprised. A good portion of her body was still spread out across the forest floor.
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head left and right far further than anyone with a proper skeleton could manage. “Wally said that no matter how much I get attacked, I can’t break anyone.”
Wally? Eva thought with a confused blink of her eyes. They’re on a first name—no, nickname basis?
In a hushed whisper, Lucy added, “He’s scary.”
“How long have you been healed for? I visit you every other week!”
“I… don’t know. A long time. Wally wanted me to pretend,” she said. “After seeing me, he asked if I could stay pretending to heal until he had a job for me.” Her face rippled like a drop of water in a smooth pond, goofy smile turned to a sad frown along with the ripple. “It was so boring. But the nurse was nice. She played with me sometimes.”
“That’s great and all,” Emily shouted from somewhere around, “but since she’s your friend, think you can get her to let us go?”
Eva, still hanging upside down, looked up to her feet. Emily was stuck in the middle of a web of tentacles. Her hands were empty, lacking the wand that had fallen to the forest floor.
“Good point. Lucy?”
The tentacles started to lower Eva down. They didn’t make it more than a few inches before Lucy paused.
“I forgot,” she said. “I’m supposed to take anyone I find out of the wards.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
Though it struck Eva as odd. Whoever Lucy found would almost assuredly be ejected from the match. She wasn’t really the kind of thing that even a group of sixth years could face. Eva had only personally seen Lucy fight on one occasion, back when the half-demon half-zombie golems had attacked the dormitory. Even then, she had only seen her fight for a few moments.
Though she had effectively torn apart her target at the time.
Of course, Irene had told her of two other times Eva had missed Lucy fighting. Once during the same incident, tearing apart and flinging the golems at Ylva. The other time had been more recent. Enigmas within Eva’s domain had escaped through her dormitory room. They made the unfortunate mistake of treading on Lucy.
From Irene’s description of them being peeled apart like an orange, Eva had no doubts about Lucy’s strength.
Even limited to not harming anyone, she would easily be able to capture anyone just as she had captured Eva and her companions. It was as simple as walking out of the arena from there. The only one who might stand a chance at facing her was Anise, and that was simply because of her ability to banish demons. Even her lightning probably wouldn’t do too much damage to such a disembodied creature. Maybe others if they could blink.
Unless Redford wanted her to thin the groups no matter who she came across, he had probably told her to retreat under certain circumstances. Maybe managing to run away.
Eva blinked out of Lucy’s grasp, righting herself using the blink. She appeared right in front of Lucy’s main body.
Her fist went straight into Lucy’s face, sinking in without much resistance. The tendrils making up Lucy’s head started to constrict around her fist as expected.
Eva’s hand burst into flames.
Lucy’s face split in two, avoiding the fire.
It probably wouldn’t hurt her. Lucy was constantly covered in a greasy sheen. A little flame might dry her out, but not cause any permanent damage. She was a demon, after all.
But the way she avoided the flames had Eva smiling. Almost confirming her theory.
Eva blinked a short distance away.
“Alright Lucy. Let’s fight.”
“Or you can let my companions loose.”
The two halves of her head twisted to independently look at each of her captives.
Anise glared with her burning eyes only enhancing the menacing look. The effect was somewhat ruined as tentacles still filled her mouth. Not to mention that she looked about ready to throw up.
On the other hand, Emily actually looked interested. Her eyes were following Eva with rapt attention.
“I can’t,” Lucy said.
It was probably part of her contract. Eva would have to free them or they would have to escape on their own.
Perfectly acceptable conditions.
“Alright,” Eva said with a smile. A wide, teeth-filled smile. “Since you can’t hurt me, I’ll go easy on you.”
Eight marbles of explosive fire appeared between each of Eva’s fingers. None were high-explosives. She had only put a small bit of magic into each one, enough to make them unstable. Nothing compared to the room-destroying explosion she had used to free Lucy from the hunters’ trap.
She pulled her hands back, crossing her arms over her chest with each hand open and clawed around her shoulders.
So long as that drone was hovering around overhead, she might as well be theatrical.
She flung her arms out, throwing the marbles as she did so.
Before the first even touched Lucy, Eva blinked away.
Reappearing in front of the main branch of tendrils holding Emily up, Eva lifted her claws high and swiped downwards. The sharp tips of her carapace didn’t quite cut through the entire branch of tentacles. She only made it about halfway through.
It was enough. Emily dropped out of the main mass of tendrils.
Several explosive pops sounded behind Eva as she bent to flick the wand upwards. Emily caught it without issue.
She started casting as Eva dove to the side, avoiding another bunch of tendrils after her.
Looking up at Lucy’s main body again, she was actually smoking. A number of black scorch marks marred her skin—or the masses of tendrils that were pressed together to appear as skin.
Eva felt a little guilty. More about cutting off some of her tentacles than anything else. But her fingers weren’t Elysium Order lightning or cursed with whatever was on the demon hunter’s sword. She should be able to regenerate a few severed tentacles with relative ease.
Raising her arm, Eva skipped the explosions entirely. A stream of sticky fire flew from her fingertips.
The wave caught Lucy square in the chest.
Or it should have.
Lucy split again. The bulk of the fire passed straight through her, landing on the trees and brush beyond her body. A good amount still splashed around the edges of the hole, clinging to her body as Eva had intended.
Still, it was enough of a distraction to let Eva blink over to Anise.
Unlike Emily, Anise was wrapped up with so many tentacles that almost nothing of her could be seen from the neck down. Slicing through the thick bunch of tentacles would be not only impossible, but also cruel. One or a few, Eva could give herself a pass on. Not a full tree trunk’s worth.
“Can’t you blink or teleport?”
Anise, eyes wide and pleading for release, shook her head.
With a groan, Eva blinked out of the way of another group of tentacles.
Despite telling Lucy that she would be going easy on her, Eva really didn’t have all that much else she could do. Her fingers traced along the scales of the snake wrapped around her wrist. But she shook her head. Basila probably wouldn’t be too helpful at the moment. Not against Lucy.
Anything else she could use wasn’t something she wanted to reveal on camera. She did have her dagger with her, but it was hidden inside the lining of her jacket. Arachne had helped to create the hidden pouch. It wasn’t easy to get to, but her fingers should be able to sever the lining if there was a desperate emergency.
And, while she did have one other trump card, she really wasn’t willing to play it without being in absolute mortal peril for fear of being disqualified.
Emily, though freed from her entrapment, wasn’t much help. Her concentration was solely on avoiding being recaptured. She ran circles around the area, using her earth magic to create pillars to jump off or to boost her around. Never once did she try sending even a single blade of earth towards Lucy.
Comparing them side by side as earth mages, Eva would much rather have Juliana at her side. While Emily was proficient in spell casting, she didn’t have much in the way of a tactical mind. She couldn’t win without attacking. If she wasn’t going to attack, she might as well run away and remove the danger of being recaptured.
She wasn’t even that good of a distraction with how Lucy could split her concentration and tentacles between the two of them.
“Alright Lucy,” Eva mumbled to herself as she conjured another eight marbles of unstable flame between her fingers.
Unlike her first volley, these might actually do a bit of damage. Still not to room obliterating levels.
She held onto them as she sprinted around, using her blood sense to keep one step ahead in dodging tentacles. Every second that passed, another bit of magic poured into them.
Once ready, Eva flung them one-by-one at the tree truck of tentacles holding up Anise. Each rumbled the forest with the noise as they tore into the tentacles.
“Stop,” Lucy cried out just after Eva released the fifth bomb. The tentacles holding onto Anise withdrew, dropping the nun a few feet down to the ground.
Eva half expected her to jump to her feet and start flinging around white lighting. Instead, she got to her hands and knees, gagging and retching on the ground.
While Emily stopped by her, patting her back with a pitiful expression, Eva kept her eyes on Lucy.
A very quickly retreating Lucy. The tendrils, those still attached to her, had all pulled back to join with the main body.
Eva tried to tell herself that the sobbing she heard was just her imagination.
I’ll have to apologize after this, she thought with a sigh as she turned to her companions.
She flung three three remaining bombs between her fingers over her shoulder as she walked towards both them and the camera, not looking behind her as they exploded in the background.
“Are you alright?”
Emily gave a shallow nod of her head.
Anise spat against the ground another five times before pulling a wand from the pockets of her jacket. She touched it to the tip of her tongue and closed her mouth. A few seconds later and she was spitting out a mouthful of water.
She repeated the process half a dozen times before Eva had enough.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” she said, hooking her hands underneath the girl’s arm and lifting her to her feet. “Let’s go. And maybe next time we don’t try banishing the tentacle monster that already has you in its grasp and, therefore, has its tentacles near your mouth.”
Anise gave a few rapid nods of her head, still not talking and still filling her mouth with water.
At least she was on her feet and moving.