Eva slid to a stop on the sidewalk a few roads away from where they found Juliana’s cellphone. She waited just long enough for Arachne to catch up.
“I feel it too,” Arachne said before Eva could ask. “Or rather, I no longer feel him.”
“Just checking to make sure I wasn’t broken,” Eva said with a slight nod of her head. “Think he got banished again?”
Arachne’s tongue ran across the edges of her carapace around her mouth, wetting them slightly. “It would be awfully embarrassing if he did. Not that I would say so to his face.”
“What is it?” Genoa asked the second she blinked next to Eva. Her heart was beating slightly faster than normal and her breath came a bit heavier, but overall, she was doing alright. Much better than she had when the hunters attacked the other week. “Why did you stop?”
“Zagan disappeared again.”
“What does that mean?” she said with a frown. When Arachne didn’t respond and Eva shrugged her shoulders, that frown only deepened. “You still haven’t explained why you thought he might be with Juliana in the first place.”
“Nobody has seen him in months. Then he shows up now?” Eva gave her a pointed look. “I believe in coincidences but this seems a bit suspicious. But we were close, no sense not checking out… Is that smoke?”
At her question, both of her companions turned to look down the street. A plume of black smoke billowed above the neighborhood, lit by an orange ball of fire against the evening sky somewhere just beyond the nearest row of houses. Even if it wasn’t in the same direction that Zagan had been, it still would be worth checking out.
Genoa started blinking first. She moved away well before Eva could even suggest they move on. The former mage-knight was probably experienced enough to avoid the traps that were bound to be littering the area. Still, Eva wouldn’t have minded the opportunity to reiterate a warning first.
“Come on,” Eva said to Arachne. “And keep your eyes open. Martina is dead. Zagan might not be as friendly as he once was.”
“He used to be friendly at some point? Must have missed it.”
Eva blinked after Genoa without dignifying Arachne with a proper response.
As soon as she made it to a nearby roof, Eva set her mind and magic to quelling the flames. Her expertise with fire magic generally lent itself to exploding things rather than calming them, but she had enough practice to be at least marginally effective. Genoa, standing next to her, helped out as well. When she landed on the roof, Arachne did not help out. She stood and stared. Not that Eva was going to complain about someone watching her back.
She could sense a few wards around, but nothing in the immediate area. Down towards the building, in and around it.
Inside the building, Eva sensed something else. A familiar circulatory system. Hers was the only one around that Eva could sense. Immediate company excluded. No hunter around. No other innocents, though this was towards the outskirts of Brakket and, as such, wasn’t wholly unexpected.
“Juliana is inside the basement,” Eva said, raising her voice to be heard over the rush of flames and cracking wood. “As far as I can tell, she isn’t injured. There is some blood around the room she is in. Quite a lot, in fact. I don’t see any cuts on Juliana though.”
“Where in the basement?”
“She’s beneath that section,” she said, pointing out the corner of the house closest to them.
As soon as she spoke, the earth moved. A full room worth of dirt pressed to the fence line, building up into a miniature mountain. The revealed basement all looked like a bunch of rough rocks all packed together with some mortar. The rocks quickly followed the dirt as the wall exploded outwards.
Genoa blinked down into the pit before the dust had even cleared. Eva lost her visual sight of her but followed along with her sense of blood, watching as Genoa charged in, took in the scene for a split second, scooped up her daughter into her arms, and charged back out. She didn’t blink away while holding Juliana, but she did leap using the earth to springboard her back up to the roof Eva and Arachne were on.
Juliana coughed and hacked as she rubbed at her eyes. “In case–” She sputtered out a cough. “In case you were wondering. The opposite of a little fire is not no fire. It’s actually a lot of fire.”
Despite her apparent choking problem, her clothes were pristine other than a little soot and rubble, but that could have very easily been Genoa’s fault when she burst into the room. Though her clothes were intact, her armor was gone entirely. Her slightly baggy clothing that normally hid the metal skin hung off her like she was wearing hand-me-downs from a much heavier sibling.
“Are you alright?” Genoa said, voice unnaturally laden with tension. “You’re not injured?”
“I’m fine, mom. Just a little kidnapping. Nothing I haven’t been through before.”
“Don’t you dare joke about such things,” Genoa said as she pulled Juliana into a tight hug. Tight enough that if she hadn’t been injured before, she probably would be walking away with a bruise or two.
Hanging half over her mother’s shoulder, Juliana’s hands wound up pinned to her sides. She finally blinked her eyes.
Arachne actually took a step back. Eva didn’t, but she did narrow her eyes. While Genoa’s back was still turned, Eva lifted her finger up to her own eyes. Then she pointed at Juliana. ‘Your eyes are gold,’ she mouthed.
Juliana visibly stiffened. Enough for her mother to notice. Pulling back, Juliana pinched her eyes shut again.
“Nothing, just dust in my eyes,” she said, blinking her eyes open again. This time, they were back to her usual blue.
Which just had Eva narrowing her eyes further. But she kept her mouth shut. Juliana obviously didn’t want her mother to know about her eyes. And it had to be Juliana still. There was no chance in Hell Zagan would act like that. Of course, that didn’t mean that Zagan was actually gone.
“Did you see the hunter?” Juliana asked before anyone else could say anything. “It was the same hunter. The one from the roof last month. She was stomping around threatening me not too long ago, but I think she left when she lit the house on fire.”
“We didn’t see anything. Nobody is around except the four of us.”
“Srey hasn’t said anything recently, has he?”
Eva shook her head as Genoa asked, “Srey?”
“A demon that can detect people watching him with hostile intent.”
“Ah, I see.” Genoa kept her tight grip around Juliana’s shoulders, but did move slightly so as to not completely crush her in a hug. “It could have been an attack of opportunity. They saw Juliana walking around alone and thought to get revenge for her foiled attack and partner.”
“She said she would let me go after killing Eva. I didn’t believe her.”
“Good instincts,” Genoa said with a firm nod of her head. “Though I don’t know if I approve of you starting a fire to attempt to get out. If we hadn’t shown up–”
“I didn’t start it. She did.”
All the tension that had mostly left Genoa came rushing back in a flood. Her back stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the surrounding area.
“I think she ran off though,” Juliana said, voice soft. It dipped even quieter as she continued. “After I summoned a demon.”
Despite the nearly silent whisper, Genoa’s eyes snapped to her daughter. “You what?”
“It’s okay! I’m okay. Nothing bad happened.”
Genoa’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. It only lasted for a moment before she sighed. “We should leave this place. This hunter has already proven willing to use long-range bombardment magic. We don’t want to be sitting around when she decides to again.”
Eva just about opened her mouth to say that she had the metal encased idol in her possession back at the prison. A single look into Genoa’s eyes told her that she did not want to draw any attention to herself. The Rivas matriarch was not in the mood.
Apparently missing the memo, Juliana let out a soft sigh.
“Don’t think you’ve gotten out of talking about you summoning demons, young lady. After what happened before… I just… I don’t… Your father will be wanting to have words as well. Come on.”
“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.
For just a moment, Eva watched them hop off the roof and back to street level. She didn’t move to follow. Or do much of anything that might draw attention to herself. As the still smoldering house collapsed in on itself behind her, Eva just took a moment to be happy that she didn’t have parents to disappoint. Or, at least, no parent she cared about disappointing.
In fact, sticking around and searching through the rubble to find Ylva’s ring was starting to look appealing. Juliana would be yelled at for the next several hours if the look on Genoa’s face was anything to go by. Sitting around in the general vicinity would both be a waste of time and the antithesis to fun. With Arachne at her side, they should easily be able to take care of a crippled hunter if she dared to return.
But, at the same time, that hunter had managed to kidnap Juliana. And, according to Juliana, that crippled hunter had been stomping around.
Which meant that Eva should really find out more before throwing herself into danger. And then there was Zagan’s presence and Juliana’s eyes. She might be less willing to talk while her mother was around, but Eva needed to know.
With a sigh, she started following. Though she made sure to keep her distance. Eva pulled out her cellphone as she moved. Zoe would probably appreciate knowing that Juliana was safe for the time being.
— — —
Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.
She hadn’t signed up for kidnapping human children. Even if they were friends with the abomination. It was a concept that lent itself to the more drastic tactics that demon hunters occasionally employed. Gertrude failed to use this child, so what would she do next time? Try to take the whole school hostage?
Riley wouldn’t put it past her. The woman was insane. She had thought as much when they had first met, but then Clement had been around. Riley couldn’t be sure whether he had kept Gertrude’s insanity in check or if his death had been the trigger for her becoming so unhinged, but either way, Riley wanted out.
It wasn’t like she was a stranger to killing innocents. The Elysium Order was far more familiar with the concept than anyone would like to admit. But undead were different. Undead spread like the plague. Zombies, vampires, mummies, all of it, they were contagious. Regular humans often had to be put down before they succumbed to whatever disease they had come in contact with.
A year ago, Riley had been on fire. High on adrenaline and furious at the attack on her home, she had been ready to march out and seek vengeance. But now, that fire had died off.
In fact, watching the broadcasts from the school, Riley was wondering if demons were such a big deal at all. They acted like children. Menacing children with far stronger powers than most adults, but still children. The vampire from the other school was a far more grievous offense. The way he stared at the other students put Riley on the edge of her nerves. She couldn’t believe that the Elysium Order hadn’t sent a smaller chapter to covertly kill him.
Maybe they were waiting for the end of the event. Killing him right in the middle would not make them look good, especially while he was apparently playing nice. So long as he did continue to repress his baser instincts, they would probably leave him be for the time being. It wouldn’t surprise her if there was a small chapter waiting in the shadows just in case he did choose to spread his disease.
Gertrude didn’t see things the same way. The television program hadn’t even progressed to the actual event this evening before Gertrude had stormed off, mumbling under her breath about all the things wrong with the world. Then, less than ten minutes later, she had called Riley up.
Riley had known that something would go wrong before even answering.
When Clement had been alive, it had been impossible to get the time of day from either one of them. Now Gertrude had her phone on speed dial.
Which only added to Riley’s desire to not be a part of her mad schemes anymore.
But she didn’t have anywhere else to go. The Elysium Order would likely excommunicate her if she tried to go back. Gertrude was just insane enough that she would probably try hunting her down too.
So Riley sat in the second floor of their little hideout, waiting for Gertrude to return and start ranting and raving about how she had been this close to ending demonic oppression and tyranny once and for all.
Sure enough, it took less than five minutes after the abomination and her friends left for Gertrude to teleport elsewhere into the building. Floorboards creaked under the stomping of her heavy armor as she made her way through the house. A fairly fierce creaking. The wood holding the house together had not been meant to take the strain of such a weight. Gertrude had already accidentally put two holes in the floor.
Riley sensed a few more appearing by the end of the night.
But it really couldn’t be helped. Gertrude could barely move without the armor.
“What happened?” Riley asked as soon as the door opened. Getting the first word in let her control the pace of the conversation. Somewhat.
“The little bint summoned a demon,” Gertrude growled as she stalked over to the window. She snatched the binoculars from Riley’s lap and peered out the window. All despite her own assessment that her watching triggered the observant demon’s danger sense. That was half the reason Riley was even there, apparently.
With another sigh, Riley asked a question she knew she probably shouldn’t. “I would have thought you would be able to ward against demons.”
Another low growl escaped Gertrude’s throat. “I wanted demons to come. Warding them off, even warding summoning might have tipped them off. I needed them to come to her rescue. But not everything had been set up.”
Her armor clad hands steadily tightened their grip on the binoculars as she spoke, right up until the point where one of the lenses exploded in a shattering of glass. Gertrude clenched her teeth and tossed the binoculars into the corner of the room. They punched a small hole into the drywall while black plastic and glass littered the corner of the room.
“Too soon, nun, they came too soon. It was that demon she summoned. Whatever it was, it acted like a beacon to the others. She probably didn’t even need to let it out of the shackles before sending it back, just keep it out for a few seconds for the others to notice.”
“I couldn’t find the stairs.”
“It was that demon. It did something. Illusions or something. I couldn’t break through the floor either. By the time I made a few scratches into the floorboards, the others were showing up.”
“Sounds like a sturdier place than ours,” Riley mumbled, more to herself than Gertrude.
The armored woman heard anyway if her narrowed eyes were any indicator. She turned from the window, staring into the space behind Riley. “Just be ready. We’re going to move against them soon. In fact, this little step back might just work to our advantage.”
Riley waited, but Gertrude didn’t bother elaborating. She did start chuckling. A fairly unpleasant chuckle. The tone set Riley’s nerves on end.
Really, she didn’t see what was so funny. Before tonight’s impromptu and failed operation, Gertrude had been lying low. Her enemies thought her to be crippled. If they even thought she was around at all. Now they had laid out half their cards and she was still expecting to win?
Riley really needed to get away before she found herself killed simply because of association.
But for the time being, she just smiled and pretended she wasn’t looking for opportunities to run away. She had thought Gertrude to be insane before. Watching her laugh while staring off into space only confirmed that thought. Riley did not want her supposed ally to lash out at her.
— — —
“And Faultline has lost all of their crystals to Brakket!” Hank shouted from the edge of his chair. “This puts Brakket firmly in the lead.”
“We still have plenty of time left,” Zoe said. “Though Faultline has a much greater difference to make up than the other schools.”
“Right you are Zoe. Let’s take a look at– Our commercial break!” he corrected as a voice came over his ear piece. “Our editors are hard at work preparing a few highlights from that last battle. We’ll look in on what they have for us once we come back.”
As soon as the camera switched over to the commercials, Zoe stood. “I will be back before the break ends,” she said, not waiting for a response before heading off stage.
Nothing bad had happened so far. The demons all freezing at the same time could be nothing to worry about.
Zoe worried anyway.
She pulled out her cellphone. Two messages. Roughly fifteen minutes apart from each other. She read the latter one first, hoping for the most up to date information.
Don’t worry. Problem resolved.
Well that… was good news. Probably. She quickly switched over to the first message.
Juliana missing. Kidnapped? Looks like a fight went down. Genoa, Arachne, and I are on the case.
Zoe stood, staring at the message with a frown. Kidnapped? But problem resolved fifteen minutes later? You have to tell me more than this, Eva, Zoe thought as she typed out a message. And what were the demons staring at?
Zoe jolted, glancing up to one of the station’s interns. She blinked. It took her a moment to realize why he was standing there in the first place. “Sorry. Commercial ending?”
“Hank can carry the program for a few minutes if you need more time.”
Shaking her head, Zoe smiled. “Oh no. I’m alright to continue. The problem I was worried about has been resolved. Apparently.”
The stagehand looked like he wanted to say something more, but Zoe moved back to her seat, offered a nod to Hank, and folded her hands across her lap just in time for the commercial break to end.