“And– Ohh!” Hank cried with a wince. “There goes the scout from Mount Hope. Brakket Academy’s scout showed absolutely no restraint.” He glanced to the side. “A little rivalry after that last event?”
“Perhaps,” Zoe said, watching as the boy struggled against the fleshy bindings that pinned him to a tree. Neuro stood nearby, apparently basking in his victory. Though that wasn’t quite right. It was just that the cameras didn’t show exactly what was going on. To be fair, Zoe doubted that being there in person would be much different. “Although he could have just been after a quick snack.”
“Snack? How so?”
“Did I forget to mention? Neuro is a brain eater,” Zoe quickly held up a hand. “Before you freak out, no, not literally. He feeds on negative emotions. So the young boy from Mount Hope feeling depressed, upset, or otherwise in despair over being immobilized two minutes into the event is like an energy drink to Neuro.”
“Ah. You had me worried for a moment. What are the odds that the scout from Mount Hope can escape from his… What is that holding him to the tree?”
Zoe honestly had no idea.
For all she knew, it was digesting the boy alive. She doubted it. The boy was struggling, but not screaming in pain or otherwise freaking out at having his body dissolved. Neuro had a “no permanently hurting students” clause in his contract that included those of other schools. But so had Timothy and he wound up with a sword through his skull. Hopefully Neuro wouldn’t be so foolish. Zoe wasn’t going to be too optimistic. Demons were not necessarily known for their good decision making skills.
Still, she decided to go with an educated guess.
“I’m not sure on the exact nature of the material, but its purpose is to hold victims in place. Similar to a spider wrapping up a fly in its web for later consumption. As for escaping it, I don’t find it very likely without outside help. If Neuro–”
Zoe cut herself off as Neuro spread his feathered wings and took off to the skies once again. He zoomed right past one of the hovering drones, pausing just long enough to give it a bright smile. Unlike most demons, he didn’t have red eyes or slit pupils. His were glowing green without any real pupil at all, just three concentric irises, each separated by a thin black line.
And then he was off. The drone dropped a few feet from Neuro’s wake before it managed to catch itself. By the time it swiveled around to try to find him, there was nothing to find.
“Well, Neuro left…” She trailed off with a quick glance at her notes. “Brandon conscious and within the field of play. So long as his teammates show up to cut him out, I think it is safe to consider him still a contestant.”
“Ah, but that’s still over ten minutes away.” Hank shuddered. “I sure wouldn’t want to be inside a pulsating sack of flesh for so long.” He paused with a finger to his ear. “Ah, I’ve just been informed that a medical team is on their way to ensure he is alright. They won’t actually touch him without due cause so as to not disqualify him, but it is simply a precautionary measure.”
“He did get thrown against the tree with some force,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “Probably nothing worse than being tackled in football, but checking can’t hurt anything.”
She said that mostly to soften any appearance of danger.
Over the past few weeks, Zoe had been reading the internet. From large news articles to comments and even forum threads. The reactions to the previous event had been… divided.
There had obviously been the people panicking and decrying magic as witchcraft and devilry, calling for everyone to be hung or burned at the stake. They were the minority for the most part. In the modern world, many didn’t find such things appealing. Especially with how romanticized the supernatural, magic, and vampires had been in movies and books as of late. Even people bringing up the Lansing incident didn’t seem to sway many.
Only one group decrying magic really got any traction. That was—Zoe assumed—mothers.
People who watched the last event. They didn’t blink at the idea of magic. They didn’t care about the existence of vampires, demons, and dryads. They didn’t even consider the ramifications of conjuring water or earth, apparently violating various laws of physics.
All they saw were children fighting each other with ‘deadly’ weapons. And the dragon. And Lucy, actually.
Idiots for the most part. There were probably more injuries and deaths every year in high school marching bands than there were in the interscholastic tournaments for the past century. They simply failed to understand that magic—especially with potions included—had just as many healing and protective elements as offensive ones.
Perhaps because she had spent most of her life without a mother—and Wayne had been a pretty poor father even before he stopped even pretending—Zoe just couldn’t understand their thinking. She was highly protective of her students and even she had very few compunctions about the tournament.
“Well,” Hank said, “I’ll make sure we check in on how he is doing in a few minutes. For the moment, it looks like another two scouts have encountered each other.”
The screens shifted to display just what Hank had mentioned.
Dressed in a military-style uniform, the scout from Faultline popped out from behind a tree. He just about ran into the sandman from Nod Complex. Literally. They were only about ten feet apart.
Zoe was about to open her mouth and comment about how the fight was already over. The sandman was an air mage, thaumaturgically. She had seen him practicing. All he would have to do to win the fight would be to gather up some of his golden sand and let his air magic carry it right to the Faultline scout.
When Anderson had first proposed his demon plan, Zoe had felt like Brakket was cheating. After watching just how easy it was for the sandman to put people to sleep, she was starting to think that they had merely evened the deck. Faultline had won the last tournament and they were a pure human school. She was pretty sure the only reason they had won had been because the Nod Complex hadn’t been invited.
Between a thaumaturge and a nonhuman with thaumaturgical abilities, Zoe would bet on the latter in almost every situation. People like Genoa could probably win, but Genoa hadn’t been what she was now while still in school. Probably, anyway. Zoe hadn’t even met her until Genoa was already a well-respected mage-knight.
However, the fight didn’t turn out how Zoe expected. In fact, there wasn’t a fight at all. The sandman gave a curt nod of his head to the Faultline scout.
“What’s this?” Hank cried, jumping to the edge of his seat. “An alliance?”
“It sure seems that way,” Zoe said as the Faultline scout nodded back.
With nothing more said between them, they turned and started walking side by side.
“Two schools joining together to take on the other three?”
“I suppose we’ll have to see what happens.”
“Right you are, Zoe. Right you are.”
— — —
Eva turned away from the television as it went to a quick commercial break. Genoa’s house had a nice big screen television. Everyone who didn’t mind Arachne’s presence had gathered around to watch. The school was showing their own airing of the event, but there were three things wrong. It was projected—Eva always thought projectors had somewhat washed out colors—the seating was made up of the same hard metal chairs used for school assemblies, and there were other people around. Too many people.
Not to mention, Genoa had ordered several pizzas. Normal, pepperoni pizzas. The Brakket airing probably had food, but it was probably absolutely inedible.
Here at Genoa’s place she could eat good food, lean against Arachne on one side, have Shalise on her other side, talk quietly with Jordan and Shelby, and…
Genoa reentered the room, one arm through the sleeve of a jacket while she looked over a cellphone in her other hand. She did not look happy.
“Still no Juliana?”
Looking up, Genoa shook her head. “I’ve sent her a few texts and calls. She hasn’t responded to a single one,” she said, using the opportunity to finish putting on her jacket. “I’ll be back as soon as I find her.”
Much to Arachne’s dismay, Eva pushed off her and stood. “I’ll come with you.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe she decided to stay at the school for some reason.”
Eva stared. Just for a moment. The frown on her face deepened the longer she stared. “Is that what you really believe?”
Other than a slight pursing of her lips, Genoa didn’t respond.
“Juliana is my friend too. If she wound up in trouble again, I can’t just leave her to it.”
It took a moment, but Genoa eventually nodded her head. “Alright. But the rest of you,” she said, pointing around the room, “you’re to stay here. Carlos is watching the house. If Juliana comes back on her own, kindly remind him to text me. He’ll probably forget the moment he sees her.” She mumbled the last line more to herself than anyone else.
Eva didn’t bother putting on a heavy jacket. She did place a few warming spells around her body. Same with Arachne. It wasn’t until recently that Eva had even realized she might get cold in the winters as well. Arachne never complained. Not even light grumbling.
But, it only took a few seconds and they were ready to go.
Genoa took two steps out of her house with Eva trailing just a step behind. And then she froze.
“This seems familiar.”
Eva blinked. Her mouth parted just a hair before she realized what Genoa meant. “Arachne promises she won’t try to kill you no matter how good an idea it seems at the time,” Eva said in a harsh voice with slightly narrowed eyes.
Genoa made a light humming noise while Arachne let out a low growl.
“So long as she leaves you alone,” Arachne said, “I’ll let her kill me.”
“Don’t do that either!” Eva snapped out, staring at the spider-demon. Arachne turned her head away. “Just… just rescue Juliana. No fighting each other at all. Period.” She grabbed Arachne by the chin and turned her to face Eva. “Don’t die.”
Eight red eyes stared down at Eva for a moment before Arachne nodded her head.
“Good. Now… where do we start?” Eva looked up to Genoa. “Brakket is a small city, but still fairly large for three people to search. Probably at the school, right?”
“Actually, no. I activated the GPS tracking in her cellphone. It’s in the middle of the city, roughly halfway between the school and here. The corner of Seventh and Cain.”
Eva dropped her hand to the phone in her pocket. “You can do that?”
“It has to be set up specially, but yes, I can find the location of Juliana’s phone.”
“I see.” At first, Eva had worried over the secrecy of the ritual circle. But on further thought, it was probably safe. The ward around the Infinite Courtyard twisted an enormous area into a relatively tiny space. The mundane technology probably couldn’t properly compensate.
“Come on. Even if she’s in the middle of walking home, might as well walk her the rest of the way.”
With that, Genoa blinked down the street. She blinked a second time immediately after the first.
“You can keep up, right?” Eva asked with a glance to Arachne.
“Even if I lose you, I can still sense you. Go as fast as you want.”
Eva nodded as she blinked after Genoa.
It took a couple of minutes to get to the cross street Genoa had mentioned. They could probably have gone faster had they taken to the roofs, but Genoa’s house was way on the outskirts of the city. There weren’t many consecutive roofs out there. By the time they made it into the more city-like part of the city, neither Eva nor Genoa bothered blinking up high.
Eva stopped, gaping at the street as she rounded the corner. Juliana certainly wasn’t where Genoa had said she would be.
The street had been torn up. A portion of the sidewalk looked like someone had taken a backhoe and just ran it into the ground. In the center of the street, a series of concentric cracks and spider-webbing lines spread out from an impact that looked vaguely like a person’s silhouette.
Genoa moved with unnatural calm as she picked up a cellphone from the gutter. The screen had cracked. Part of it was blank while the other part was pure white, no real picture on it.
She pulled out her own cellphone and tapped out a few words.
As she did so, Eva pulled out her own cellphone and sent a message to Nel.
— — —
Juliana’s everything hurt. Everything. She tried to open her eyes and only got one to properly respond. Reaching up, the other felt puffy and swollen. Her fingers came away slick with fresh blood from a cut somewhere around her eyebrow.
Her back felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to it. The back of her head was much the same. Just putting pressure on her hand while trying to sit up sent a stinging pain up her arm.
But she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. She had to get up and get away. That hunter…
All of Juliana’s armor was gone. She still had her clothes, but they were ragged and torn. Feeling around with her good hand, she couldn’t find anything in her pockets. No wand. No phone. Nothing that would help her escape. All of her rings were missing as well. Even Ylva’s ring. One of her fingers had been broken, though she could barely feel it with everything else. The hunter had probably not been all that kind while stripping her of her possessions.
Juliana finally sat up enough to look around, though she edged over to lean against a wall so that she didn’t have to exert herself just keeping upright.
She was in a small room. No carpet on the cement floor. No furniture or other equipment. A basement by the looks of the thin window high up on one of the walls. The only light in the room came in from the window. There was a ceiling lamp, but no bulbs in its sockets.
The cold cement floor actually felt nice against her aching hands. The wall, some kind of rough stone meant for decoration, was exactly the opposite. It scratched through her torn clothes, agitating her back even more.
But she didn’t move. She sat staring at the open door.
It had to be a trap. The hunter wouldn’t have gone to the effort of kidnapping her only to forget to close the door.
Looking around, the only other thing of note was a small duct sticking out of the rock wall. A black plastic trash bag had been placed over the opening, held on by a few rubber bands. At first, Juliana thought she might be able to fit through it. It was probably a flue for a fireplace that might have occupied the room at one time.
But even if it remained the same width all the way to the chimney, it was only wide enough for her head to fit through. Her shoulders would never make it. And that was assuming she could climb up a chimney in her state.
Starting to stand only to freeze as a pain shot up her leg, Juliana noticed her ankle. Or what was left of it. Blackened and bruised, the foot she had been swung around by was pulverized. Which really explained a great deal of the pain she was in.
Juliana thumped her head back against the stone wall with a hiss of pain. She had meant to just rest her head against the wall. The coarse and incredibly hard wall did not take kindly to that.
Closing her eyes, Juliana took a few quick breaths. She needed to calm down.
And she needed to get out.
Her mother would be looking for her. Eva as well, most likely. She knew that they would. Why wouldn’t they? They would probably recruit Nel as well, though whether or not that would work was up in the air. She knew that Nel’s vision had been spotty around the hunters in the past.
There was no reason to believe that they would be coming. Not anytime soon, anyway.
Juliana shoved off the wall, clenching her teeth but otherwise ignoring the pain.
She was not going to be used as bait again.
Using her one good arm and one good leg, she started crawling across the room. Standing was right out. No skin had broken, but the way her foot moved in relation to the rest of her leg…
Juliana tried not to think about it as she reached forward with her elbow, pressed her arm flat against the cement, and used her foot to help drag herself forwards.
By the time she made it to the doorway, she was about ready to just flop over and never move again. Her body’s ache only doubled over since she started moving.
Stretching her arm forward, her elbow crossed the threshold.
Juliana flew back across the room, rolling twice before smashing her back into the rough stone wall. For a moment, she just stayed still. The doorway had a semi-transparent barrier. Blue lightning danced across, looking for something else to throw back across the room. After a moment or two, it started fading out, unable to find anything. Seconds later, the door returned to being perfectly clear.
At least the room isn’t filling with water, Juliana thought with a humorless chuckle—that turned to a cough part way through.
As she sat not wanting to move in the slightest, dust fell from the ceiling, knocked loose by heavy footsteps moving about overhead. Which only had her coughing worse.
The steps moved. First growing faint, they quickly deepened their volume as they stomped down stairs somewhere outside the room.
The hunter appeared in the doorway, still clad in her bulky metal armor. She sneered down at Juliana.
“You’ll kill yourself,” she said with a dark chuckle. Her fingers brushed over the empty space in the doorway. Lightning leaped out, dancing across the metal armor of her glove. Though her glove started to emit a faint light from the heat, she didn’t budge. “My own design. Can’t recommend touching it.”
Juliana just groaned.
“Just sit tight and maybe I’ll let you go.” Her face twisted into something that would look more at place on a demon than a human. “After I kill that little abomination.”
Licking her lips, Juliana found the coppery taste of blood smeared over her teeth and tongue. She couldn’t help but wonder how long that had been there. Was it from being knocked back from the barrier? Earlier? It was amazing what she could miss when her entire body was in pain.
But the woman had just confirmed that Juliana was being used as bait. Again.
Her face returned to an almost bored impassiveness as she stared down at Juliana. For just a moment, Juliana thought she was going to say something else. Or maybe even let her go. But she turned and walked away without another word.
Juliana had to get out. She was being used as bait again. This building probably had ten times the traps that the hunter’s roof had had during her previous attack. Probably set up much better, more hidden. Probably more deadly as well.
Taking the edge of her knuckle into her mouth, Juliana bit down.
I am not going to be used as bait. Not again.