Catherine paced around the Brakket Academy lobby. She walked up to the potted plant in the corner, turned and walked to the window, and turned back to the potted plant. With every step, she grew more and more impatient. Had Eva told her to wait in the dormitory, she might have been able to relax.
But Anderson’s door was right there. He could pop out at any time. Theoretically, there was nothing to fear. Catherine was free from any contracts at the moment. She wouldn’t be beholden to stick around and listen to him. Neither had he actually done anything to her. Originally, he had said a few words that unnerved her. He had sounded almost like he wanted her to be bound to some snot-nosed human.
Of course, there wasn’t much need for him to bind her now that the event was well underway. So even had he originally wanted it, she shouldn’t have to worry about it now.
Shouldn’t, but did anyway. Catherine couldn’t help but feel like he was planning something. Martina had been a fool, but an honest one. Or at least, she had been honest with Catherine. Mostly. Anderson… Catherine wasn’t too sure about. Sometimes he seemed the fool. Other times, he had this look in his eyes that sent chills up her spine.
Biting the nail of her thumb, Catherine looked up through the little window leading towards the office area of the lobby. The secretary desk and all the offices were separated by a wall and a door, but the secretary desk connected to that wall with a large sliding window.
Despite it being a Sunday and the feast having only finished an hour ago, the old guy Anderson had replaced her with was in her old seat. He wasn’t playing games. In fact, it looked more like he was working. He kept taking a paper off a tall stack, scribbling on it, and dropping it off on another stack before repeating himself.
All between the uncomfortable stares he kept giving her.
The moment she had arrived, he had notified Anderson of her presence. However, neither had done anything since. And that made her more nervous than anything else. Unless Eva had warned him that they would be meeting in the lobby for the evening, he had to be wondering what she was doing.
Catherine pulled out her cellphone, checking for messages. Eva was supposed to have been here twenty minutes ago. If she was standing her up… Catherine would ensure that she regretted it.
Nothing. No Eva. No message. And, oddly enough, no Zagan.
Zagan was another curiosity. One Catherine was less worried about than she otherwise might have been. Zagan had endorsed her ritual circle, after all. If he was displeased with her or otherwise hostile towards her, he wouldn’t have been so cooperative.
She knew without a shadow of a doubt that she had sensed him. The sensation had been muted. Which wasn’t surprising. Zagan was powerful, but Catherine had been all the way out at the prison. That she had been able to sense him at all was somewhat surprising. Catherine couldn’t feel any of the other demons around Brakket while in the prison.
It had only lasted for a few minutes. Had he been banished again? Or maybe he disappeared on his own, going back to Hell or just farther away than Catherine could sense on Earth. She didn’t know why he would do either of those things. Then again, she didn’t know how Zagan might think. His goals weren’t often the goals of normal demons.
Most demons were content merely being out of Hell for a time. Some of the more aggressive or unstable ones often took exception to their summoners’ attempts to bind them to a contract, but the rest usually didn’t care so long as they were allowed some freedom.
“Did I keep you waiting long?”
Catherine jumped. She spun around and just about clawed off Eva’s smiling face. Instead, she just scowled at both Eva and her ever-present shadow. Arachne stood just behind Eva, arms crossed and attempting to look menacing. It might have been menacing a long time ago. Arachne was stronger than Catherine without a doubt. But, so long as she didn’t try to harm Eva, Catherine doubted anything would happen to her. She had a good enough grasp on both of their personalities at this point.
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“Scare you?” Eva said, blinking her eyes in confusion. “You didn’t sense me coming?”
“You feel something like Zagan in that you’re a bit too omnipresent. The closer you are, the harder it is to tell distance.” She shook her head. Eying the closed secretary window, Catherine dropped her volume to just above a whisper. “Speaking of Zagan, I assume you know something?”
“I might,” Eva said, also glancing to the window. She paused for a moment before shaking her head. “But let’s not talk here.”
“Alright. Lead the way. You had some ritual circle for me to look at?”
“Let’s hold off on talking about that as well.”
Catherine’s lip curled back. Eva had something planned. The way she looked around to ensure that they were alone… just what was her ritual about that it needed such secrecy? Catherine wouldn’t have worried about talking about her own ritual. It wasn’t like any of the idiots around Brakket—demon or human—would be able to replicate her work. Neither would they be able to stop her from carrying out more rituals.
But Eva started walking off, unaware of Catherine’s thoughts. And, strangely enough, she walked straight opposite of the main lobby doors. She headed towards the large windowed doors that led towards the Infinite Courtyard rather than towards the dormitory buildings.
“So,” Eva said as Catherine moved to follow from a few steps behind, “How have you been lately?”
“How have I been? What do you mean?”
“What, can’t I make some small talk? Seems like we always talk about serious things.”
“There’s probably a reason for that,” Catherine said after a moment of walking. They were moving over the paved path that led out towards the magizoology building. There weren’t too many trees around this close to the edge of the Infinite Courtyard, but Catherine still scanned the area for any threat. Something about wandering around outside with Eva and Arachne had her feeling nervous. “Where are you taking me?”
“I couldn’t find a suitable location for the ritual circle very close to the school building,” Eva said, turning around and walking backwards as she talked. As she turned, Arachne sped up just enough to walk about two steps in front of Eva, though Arachne kept facing the direction they were moving. “It’s about a fifteen minute walk away. Beyond that, I don’t really know how to describe where except by saying it’s out in the Infinite Courtyard.”
They were passing by the zoology building and its attached zoo. From her time working at Brakket, she knew that there was nothing else out in the Infinite Courtyard. Nothing of any real interest anyway. A small park area that, as far as Catherine knew, had never been used during her two years at the school. Apparently it had been a popular destination for students to pass time after its initial construction. Considering how overgrown the brush and weeds were around the worn benches, it had been abandoned soon after.
Except, as they continued on, they reached the small park. Or what had once been the small park.
Someone had plowed straight through the area with a bulldozer. Nothing remained of the thick brush or the rotted wood and rusted metal making up the benches. Instead, the whole area had been renovated. A large wooden deck stood alone, surrounded by electronics and well-trimmed grass. Cameras and monitors littered the area.
Inspecting the former park just a little closer, Catherine found the tell-tale sign of a ward set up over the whole set. A weather ward, most likely. Something to keep the electronics from exposure to the elements.
“I normally avoid this area, but nobody is out here this late.”
“This is for the event?”
“You haven’t been watching? Zoe and some news caster sit over on those benches,” Eva said, pointing to the wooden deck half-surrounded by cameras.
“I turned it on for a few minutes before remembering that I really don’t care about your high school squabbles.”
“But you play video games?”
Catherine just shrugged. It wasn’t remotely the same thing, but she didn’t expect Eva to understand even if she tried to explain. So she didn’t bother.
Reaching the end of the cleared out studio, Eva left the paved pathways. She hopped over a small fence that separated the area from the rest of the Infinite Courtyard’s forest. Catherine paused, watching as Arachne stepped over the fence without breaking her stride as if it wasn’t even there. So far, nothing had been all that odd. At least if she ignored the fact that they were out wandering the Infinite Courtyard.
But now, Catherine stared.
Eva took three more steps before pausing and turning back around. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are we going so far out? I don’t like this.” Even if Eva wasn’t going to do anything to Catherine—which Catherine honestly believed, even if the whole situation was odd—wandering around like they were didn’t sit right with her. Eva had been the one to warn her about the hunter after all. What better ambush place could there be than a dark and isolated forest?
The prison was nice. Really nice. The constant wards surrounding the place prevented people from simply teleporting in and wreaking havoc. By Eva’s own admission, they could be taken down from the outside; however, it wouldn’t be an instant thing. So long as she or Devon noticed, they could prepare defenses. Not that they had to deal with any attacks since Catherine started living out there.
Catherine had definitely grown accustomed to the peace of mind granted by the wards. And the peacefulness. She had only scarcely thought about the hunters while out there. It was a nice change of pace from the nuns, necromancers, and hunters that seemed to be a persistent feature at Brakket.
“We’re going so far out because I needed a large and isolated area.”
“You couldn’t have just used the courtyard of the prison? We could have moved or temporarily erased your treatment circle.”
Eva put her hands on her hips as she frowned. “You would have complained. Don’t try to deny it. Besides, I needed the space.”
“More space?” The treatment circle occupied the basketball court in the prison. Catherine understood that it wasn’t a fully sized court—not that she had ever watched human basketball—but it was still sufficient for a fairly large ritual.
“You’ll see. Come on. We’ll be meeting up with Srey and Vektul in a few minutes. Srey can tell when someone is watching us, so if you’re worried about that, meeting up with him will be better than standing around in the open.”
Catherine bit her lip. Glancing around, she hesitated for just a moment before grasping her shirt and pulling it off. She might have torn it in the past, but buying new shirts constantly was a tedious affair. Instead, she simply folded it up and draped it over her arms. As soon as it was off, she spread her wings wide. Just in case the hunter had set up teleportation wards. Wings should suffice for escaping, especially if the hunter had Eva and Arachne to worry about.
She considered flapping her wings and flying over the fence, but it really was more for decoration than actually barring someone from crossing, so she simply hopped it, placing her hands on the rail while swinging her legs around to one side.
While Catherine undressed and jumped over the fence, Eva just stood there, watching and staring with her red eyes. She couldn’t say exactly why—red eyes were perfectly normal among demons—but something about her look just had Catherine on edge. It was probably the general situation more than Eva.
“Alright,” Catherine said after a moment of just standing on the other side of the fence, “are you going to lead the way or just stand around all night?”
“No, nothing like that. Come on.” Eva turned her back to Catherine, took a few steps, and paused again. “Oh, and watch your step. There are tree roots and berry bushes… all kinds of things to trip over.”
“I have never tripped,” Catherine said, following as Eva started walking again.
“Something to do with you being a succubus?”
Catherine hesitated for just a moment before nodding her head. Though she was behind Eva, the blood mage should be able to see it. But it wasn’t something she had really considered before. All succubi had a natural grace. Their steps were always sure, their movements smooth and sultry. It wasn’t even a conscious action. Neither had she trained herself for it; the day she entered existence, she moved exactly how she did to this very day.
Not that it was really a thing worth considering. Probably. So long as she was trying to change things about herself, would changing her gait do anything? Probably not. It would be hard to increase the confidence of her walk and turning her stance submissive or otherwise lacking in confidence simply did not appeal to her.
Even if she did try something, it would be later. After boasting to Eva, tripping now because she had decided to mess around would be far too embarrassing. She liked being the demon Eva looked up to for advice despite how Eva felt to her demonic senses. At least so long as she was useful, Eva wouldn’t have any reason to either kick her out of the prison or do something worse.
“Lucky,” Eva said. “I mean, I don’t trip either. But I cheat. There is a fine mist of blood spread through the air that I can use to spot branches and roots well in advance, but it isn’t quite the same as being able to ignore everything because I’ll naturally avoid tripping.”
Catherine didn’t bother responding. Eva managed to drag her into small talk. Instead, she just walked in silence.
As Eva had estimated, it took roughly fifteen minutes before they came across anything but open woods. Srey and Vektul were leaning against a tree. The former with a book open in one hand, the latter just standing stock still. Catherine had met the two before. The very first day they arrived in Brakket, Catherine made sure to spend at least a few minutes interacting with every demon.
“Catherine,” Eva said as she gestured to the two demons. “Srey and Vektul. Not sure if you’ve met or not.”
Neither had struck her as all that special. In fact, just the opposite. Both were weak demons. Vektul barely had a presence at all. She didn’t know what kind of demon he was, but he wasn’t anything special. Srey, on the other hand, was an oculus. Catherine had heard of them and yet had never actually met one. Assuming Srey was an average member of the species, Catherine was not impressed. She felt no fear towards either one of them. Even if both tried to attack her at the same time, neither would succeed in anything but accelerating their own demise.
Not that either looked like they were considering such a thing. Between Srey’s book and Vektul’s vacuous eyes, they weren’t worried about anything.
“Srey, everything alright?”
“Haven’t noticed anyone watching us. Of course, they could have been watching you up until you arrived.”
“Perhaps, but so long as the ritual circle is left secret, it doesn’t matter. Shall we continue?”
Srey shrugged as he snapped his book shut.
Together, they all walked on in silence. Not for quite as long this time. Maybe five minutes, ten at the most. When the forest faded away to a large clearing, Eva paused and turned to face Catherine. She spread her arms wide. “Well, what do you think?”
“Think? Of wha–”
Catherine blinked. At first, she had thought this was just a clearing. Looking around, she started to notice grooves carved into the earth. Long sweeping lines that dragged around the entire area. And the area wasn’t small. It stretched out probably four times the size of the small basketball court that Devon had turned into a ritual circle.
She took a few steps forward, naturally stepping over one of the carved grooves. Eva and Vektul were both still a few steps forward, so she probably wasn’t accidentally walking over a set of shackles. Of course, she couldn’t even tell what the circle was supposed to be. It was too large. Despite its size, Catherine could see several smaller circles. Or rather, two circles to the left and right of where they had entered the clearing.
It took her a moment to realize just what the smaller circles were for. Someone was obviously supposed to stand within. The circles weren’t even part of the larger circle. If she was reading the sigils around them properly, they would actually isolate magic from interacting while allowing magic to pass into the circle. In essence, they were batteries for whatever the main ritual was for.
Spreading her wings, Catherine took to the skies. She couldn’t see enough of the circle from below to tell what she was seeing. It took but a moment to find the center and hover, beating her wings just enough to keep her in one spot. Being so late at night, the lighting wasn’t the best. However, she wasn’t a demon for nothing. She could see enough from just the moonlight and her own naturally strong sense of vision.
Of course, she would never want to design a ritual circle in such poor lighting. Hopefully Eva hadn’t been doing so either.
From up above, she could see that it wasn’t quite finished yet. A chunk was missing from the far side of the field. Maybe an eighth of the total circle. Unless there was something absolutely vital in that section, what was left should be more than enough to tell exactly what it was for.
At least, it should have been enough to tell what the ritual did. Not only was it huge, but it was busy. Lots of ritual circles—including shackles and summoning circles—were more empty space than they were actual lines and diagrams. Not this one. There was some drawn pattern everywhere she looked, some curved line or sigil.
Some were obvious. One recycled unused magic. Another ensured that all magic involved in the ritual was contained to the circle itself. In the event that too much magic built up, a vent off to one side would consume the magic through excessive light generation. Towards the center, there was something that almost looked like it was meant to summon demons. Except it also looked like there should be someone standing in the middle. And not in the sense that someone might put a sacrifice on a summoning circle as the enticement for specific demons.
Turning her flight into a dive, Catherine rejoined Eva after a few more minutes of inspecting the circle.
“I’ll admit, I don’t know what this is for,” she said, moving closer. “Some parts make sense, but most of it is entirely alien to me. Perhaps if I studied it for more than a few moments.”
Eva’s smile turned to a muted frown.
Which seemed odd. Catherine would have expected Eva to be excited that she had come up with something that Catherine couldn’t figure out.
“Would it help if the final section were completed?”
“Doubtful. Enough is there that I should be able to understand. The problem is that I simply don’t recognize half of what is out there.”
“I see.” Eva’s voice carried an obvious note of disappointment. “Well, I can’t actually help with that. Would it help if I described what the ritual should do?”
“Possibly,” Catherine said with a nod of her head. It wouldn’t tell her exactly what each individual part did, but it might be possible to reverse engineer from there. “Though, I might have noticed an error. I wouldn’t know for sure, but one of the rings was more of a cube. I can show you where exactly in a moment.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Eva turned to face the majority of the ritual circle. “As for what it does, it is a circle that has come from Vektul’s head. Void gave him the designs,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “The intention is to summon Void. Only Void.”
Catherine bit her lip. A thousand thoughts ran through her mind. Had she not known the truth about the violet lines in the sky, she would have immediately protested. Even as it was, was that truly the best option?
Before she could respond, two separate voices echoed out from the shadows at the same time. All the gathered demons jumped to full alertness, ready to fight.
“You’re summoning WHAT?” “That seems pretty ambitious.”