Category Archives: Book 002

002.021

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You saved my life. I’ll spare yours.

This one time.

Do not test my goodwill.

Eva frowned as Arachne read the three lines again. There was no signature, but it didn’t take a lot of guesses to figure out the sender. Eva could only recall saving one life in her recent memory.

Maybe. Zagan agreed to not kill her. As long as he was planning on following through with that, Eva didn’t actually need to interfere.

How Sister Cross got the note onto her pillow without either waking Eva or alerting Arachne was somewhat worrying.

A pulse of magic had Eva’s hand lit with thaumaturgical fire. She plucked the note from Arachne’s claws and crushed it in her fiery hand. The note evaporated into ash. She frowned again as she felt her fire die down.

Her master’s flames were green. Unless something changed in the last few months, her flame was a reddish-orange. Eva wasn’t certain there was anything more than a cosmetic difference. Still, perhaps it was time to ask for another lesson.

Perhaps not. Green fire would draw all kinds of attention. She had enough to go around with the gloves and blindfold as it was.

Eva set her unblemished claw down and looked over her sleeping roommates.

Juliana sprawled out over her bed with one arm hanging off. Her mouth was wide open and, while Eva couldn’t actually see it, there was little doubt a small pool of drool had gathered on the pillow.

Shalise was the exact opposite. She had curled up in a ball and stayed there ever since they returned the previous night. Every so often a shiver would run down her spine. A nightmare perhaps. Her heart rate was slightly elevated.

Neither Juliana nor Eva had mentioned their nocturnal activities, though word of the riot spread through the dorms like wildfire before some professors ushered everyone to their rooms.

As far as Eva knew, Shalise was not aware of her relationship with Sister Cross. They were friends in a sort of weird, generation-boundary-crossing way.

Still, Shalise clearly cared for the nun. She worried over her and hadn’t fallen asleep for a good portion of the night.

Eva flopped back down on her pillow. It was too early to think. Even discounting the late night she’d had. Arachne curled up alongside Eva, though she was at full alertness. Eva wouldn’t have a problem sleeping through the rest of the morning with that vigil over her.

I hope you appreciate what I did, Eva thought at Shalise as she shut her eyes.

Not that she ever intended to tell.

— — —

Lynn Cross fidgeted in the lobby of the Rickenbacker. She wore no coif, no scapular, no rosary, not even a robe. Simple jeans and a tee-shirt did not fit her.

To say it felt awkward would be an understatement.

Headquarters almost relieved her of command over Charon Chapter. She lost Nel, several members of Charon Chapter, and had the public turned against the Elysium Order. The public relations nightmare had been the biggest complaint, followed by the missing augur.

Nel’s disappearance weighed heavily on Lynn’s mind. They didn’t even have a body to perform the final prayers and ministrations upon. Headquarters declared her dead, though they planned to follow the procedure for all rogue augurs. Her blood would be watched nearly twenty-four hours a day for a full year.

Lynn did not hold out much hope.

As a last chance gesture, Lynn was being sent off to some town in Central Africa. Some upstart lich needed its phylactery destroyed and sent on to meet its maker. If the mission was a failure, or even a success with significant losses, Lynn would be relieved of her command.

They weren’t even going to give her augur support.

If she did fail, Lynn wasn’t sure what would happen. She did know that there was a semblance of regret regarding her own vial of blood stored in the Elysium Order’s vaults.

The mission had to be a success.

Lynn sighed as she leaned back in the lobby chair. Everything had become such a mess. She still wasn’t sure who to blame it on. The necromancers, probably. They were always a good target for blame. Eva somewhat.

Herself, as well.

Finding out about the darker aspects of Eva woke a streak of paranoia and mistrust. Overwhelming worry for Shal followed close behind. She was blinded. She ignored the teachings, lectures, and rules of the Elysium Order by focusing so much on Shal.

Plenty of people could have died due to some rogue poltergeist while Lynn stuck around trying to deal with a situation that no one in the Elysium Order was qualified to handle.

Worst of all was that Lynn still was not sure if she had overreacted, or if she hadn’t reacted enough. Eva still wandered the halls of school. She still slept in the same room as her daughter.

Yet she worried about calling in proper demon hunters. They were known to apply scorched earth policies to anything they deemed corrupted by Void.

Shalise walked into the room while Lynn thought. She walked just behind a chattering Eva and their blond friend. Shal looked… lost. She had a smile on, but it didn’t reach her eyes. They were empty and stared at nothing in particular as she walked behind her friends.

“Shal,” Lynn said as she stood up.

All three of the girls stopped in their tracks. The two who weren’t Shal looked on with a hint of confusion. Her daughter didn’t.

A smile crossed Shal’s face. It quickly twisted to a frown before returning to a soft smile. “S-Sister Cross,” she started.

Lynn held up her hand and shook her head. “I’m not wearing my habit right now. Just Lynn.”

“Sister Cross,” Eva said with some slight apprehension. One of her hands moved around behind her back, but she made no further move. Her head moved up and down as if she were examining Lynn’s body. She gave a slight nod and smiled. “You should ditch the habit more often.”

Narrowing her eyes, Lynn shot a glare at Eva. The little cretin couldn’t even see. “Shal,” she said as she turned back to her daughter, “could you spare a few minutes to speak with me. Alone,” she added with a glance back towards Eva.

“That’s fine, I think.” She looked over to her friends and said, “you go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

Eva nodded and turned to leave the lobby without another word. Her blond friend trailed after her.

Lynn had half a mind to stop the girl. She had more than a few choice words for her. A lightning bolt to the brain, perhaps. Shaking her head, Lynn focused on Shal. Her daughter was what mattered at the moment.

Leading her off into one of the small study rooms, Lynn used her wand to set up a few privacy wards. Her air magic would arrest all vibrations in the air, thereby stopping sound from escaping.

Once done, she turned back to face her daughter. Offering her a small smile was all it took.

Two arms wrapped around her waist as Shalise pulled her into a hug. Pressed against her chest, Shal mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m glad you’re okay. I heard about the riot–”

Lynn ran her fingers through her daughter’s wavy hair. “I’m glad you are okay.”

Shalise looked up, confusion written on her face. “Why wouldn’t I be? The riots weren’t anywhere near the dorm.”

“I know,” Lynn said. “I just needed to check on you with my own eyes. I had a… scary night.”

That was an understatement. The idea that she needed rescuing from Eva had her gritting her teeth once again. Lynn shut her eyes as she took a deep, calming breath.

Lynn patted Shal on her back and gave her a light smile. “I thought about going back for you right after the riot, making sure you were alright and letting you know that I was alright, but I worried that might put you in more danger. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

An almost imperceptible nod came from her daughter before she looked up with her wide, brown eyes. “Eva and Juliana weren’t in our dorm for most of last night.”

A simple statement. One full of implications.

Her mind raced in wonder at how exactly to respond. One thing was certain, Lynn was not about tell her that Eva saved her life.

Eventually, Lynn decided.

“Eva has her hands in some very dangerous things. Things that are going to get her killed one day.” Lynn knelt down to get more on the eye level with her short daughter. “I want you to promise me that you will never get involved in all her mess. I want you to promise me that if things look even remotely dangerous, that you will get away and that you will come find me.”

“Alright,” Shalise nodded. “I can do that.”

“As for this school,” Lynn smiled, “there are other schools, though they will be significantly less free to attend. I’m sure I can arrange something if you want to transfer.”

Shalise shook her head. “Professor Baxter is a good teacher. She’s been privately tutoring me for a while now. I don’t know how other schools would be, but she says lightning is an end of third year spell. With her help I might be able to manage it by the end of next year, if not sooner.”

Lynn blinked at that. She hadn’t managed a proper┬áthaumaturgical lightning bolt until half way through her fifth year. Pride welled up at her daughter. Shal would end up a far better thaumaturge than Lynn ever was.

Still, that didn’t release the school or its inhabitants from her worries. “If anything happens like the incident on Halloween, I will be pulling you out of this school.”

A shiver ran through her daughter. “That’s fair,” Shalise said with a nod. “I can’t say I enjoyed Halloween. Maybe this next year will be better.”

“I hope so too.” Lynn stood back up and rested her hand on her daughter’s head. “I have a mission in Central Africa for the Elysium Order. I’ll be leaving in just a few days. When I arrive, I’ll send some way for you to keep in contact with me. I want reports on everything that is going on in and out of school at least once a month.”

“Reports?” Shalise frowned. “How about friendly letters that sometimes mention bigger news?”

“I just want to know that you are safe, Shal.”

“I’ll be fine,” Shalise said. “I should go. Today is a review day before finals tomorrow.”

Lynn opened her mouth to protest. She had more she wanted to say. More she wanted to know.

In the end, Lynn simply smiled, patted Shal on her back, and said, “good luck.”

— — —

Finals started on April sixth. An event Irene did not feel ready for in the slightest.

Normal schools had classes that stretched into June. Not so with Brakket. Nonmagical schooling would take over for the remainder of April and the first week of May. After which there would be roughly a month of vacation before the summer seminars started up.

Several other students had entered the examination room. Juliana included. None of them commented on their score and none of them mentioned what the actual exam consisted of.

Some students went in with frowns and returned with smiles. Some did the opposite.

For a brief moment, Irene felt a vindictive smile cross her lips. Drew was one of those who came out with a frown. Petty, but Irene didn’t care. It was a brief island of happiness before she returned to her worries.

Juliana was the only one who looked bored going in and bored coming out.

If that girl got anything less than a perfect on any part of the test, Irene would eat her wand. She tried not to be jealous. She really did. Watching the metal she wore constantly flow over her skin before forming up in intricate patterns made Irene want to scream.

Why couldn’t her parents have given her a head start. They were mages. Surely they could have taught something. Neither Irene nor her sister had their wands before arriving at Brakket. Jordan had his wand. Unfortunately, he focused on things Brakket would never teach. He said he could simply learn thaumaturgy from Brakket Academy and his time was better spent elsewhere.

Irene wished he hadn’t. If only for the sole reason of being able to teach Irene proper thaumaturgy.

A call of her name snapped Irene out of her thoughts. She immediately chastised herself for letting her thoughts wander. The time waiting could have been better used thinking of earth magic thought patterns.

With shaky hands, Irene opened the door to the Earth exam room.

Sitting on a stool over a patch of empty earth was Yuria. A clipboard was in one hand and a pen spun between her fingers in the other.

She was a water mage, but that didn’t affect her observational skills and she could still manipulate earth. Professor Calvin delivered exams to the fire and air mages. Not that Irene minded. In truth, she was happy to have the perpetually cheerful teacher deliver her exam.

“Irene,” she said with a bright and friendly smile, “come in. Come in.”

She took a deep breath and stepped into the room. Her fear dampened through willpower alone as she crossed the room to the small earthen circle.

“Now don’t be nervous,” Yuria said. “You do excellent in class and I have high expectations for your exam now.”

Hearing the word ‘expectations’ did not help at all. Irene meekly nodded.

“If you would be so kind, Irene, I’d like you to try making a hole, a depression in the ground. You’ll get extra points if you make it square. More than three feet deep is not necessary.”

Irene nodded again. She withdrew her wand and pointed it at the ground.

She concentrated. The dirt was loose from prior examinees. That would make it easier to work with. Earth didn’t like to be moved. It liked to sit and be steady. With the proper thought patterns, she could incentivize the earth to move.

After all, the dirt would be even more sturdy when compressed.

Slowly, the dirt patch pressed inwards and to the sides. Once underway, more dirt followed far more easily. Like a landslide. The hole became deeper and larger. The corners formed with a flick of her wand. It wasn’t a perfect square. Irene thought it was pretty close.

“Marvelous, simply wonderful,” Yuria said with a huge smile. “Thirty-seven seconds and using compression.” She looked at Irene over the rims of her glasses. “Some students,” she said with a small hint of disapproval, “dig the dirt out of the hole as if they’re using a shovel.”

Irene just nodded once again, ignoring the praise. She could be happy after her exams finished.

“But this was excellent.” She scratched down some notes on her clipboard. “Next, reverse what you just did.”

With a deep breath, Irene started working. Decompressing the dirt would be more difficult. It was stable and sturdy, especially at the bottom where most of the dirt had compressed.

Still, with some concentration and the proper thoughts, Irene enticed the earth back to a mostly flat surface.

Yuria moved off her stool and stepped down on the center of the dirt pile. Irene noticed she had swapped her usual high heels for some hiking boots. Hiking boots that were covered in dirt.

“Excellent,” Yuria said. “Only sank about half an inch. You did a fabulous job solidifying the dirt. I’m very proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Irene said.

“Now,” Yuria said as she retook her seat, “a pillar. I’d like it to be hard, no crumbling away at a touch. It should also rise up no higher than three feet.”

With yet another nod, Irene set to work.

After several more tasks, including breaking down earth into pure earth essence, the testing concluded. Irene left the room with a smile on her face. While she didn’t know her exact score, she felt good about it. All of the tasks were completed swiftly and were met with high praise from Yuria.

Sure, Juliana might have scored higher than her in every aspect, including the bonus points for ferrokinesis which Irene hadn’t been able to work at all, but that girl was no better than a cheater. Her mother might as well have home schooled her for all the grades, or at least gotten her to skip straight to third year.

At least the scores were not graded on a curve.

— — —

Zoe Baxter had a certain amount of pride in her first year students. All three of them passed every exam. Eva may have skimmed by in her pyrokinesis practical, but she still got a passing grade.

More important than their grades were their actions. Zoe still could not approve of their instigated riot. She desperately hoped that they might confide in her any future plans of that level.

Eva intervening to save the life of her friend’s mother despite the very unsubtle hostility between the two just made Zoe all the more confident that she had chosen correctly when she invited the girl to Brakket Academy.

That Eva’s actions somewhat vindicated both of them in Wayne’s eyes hadn’t hurt her mood.

Zoe frowned as she thought back to that night. She had let Rex–no. She had let Zagan into her home. Had met up with him at Tom’s bar once or twice. All-the-while he had been a wolf in a sheep disguise.

To think he had the nerve to waltz up to her the next day and casually ask how she was doing. And Martina Turner planned to put him in a classroom? With children?

Zoe was at a loss for what to do. She couldn’t fight someone like that. Resigning in protest had crossed her mind. The idea vanished as soon as she realized that it would change nothing. Zagan would still be in a classroom, but she wouldn’t be around.

In the end, sticking with the school while making her displeasure known to Martina was all she could do.

In less than a week, Zoe would have to go out searching for candidates once again. Whispers of one potential had reached her ears. That was one more than all the years before Eva’s year. She’d need to find at least a second for a roommate, if the first potential turned out well enough.

Not a prospect Zoe was looking forward to, not just because of the idea of placing additional children under Zagan’s influence. However, the year under Eva’s would be involved in raising Brakket’s accreditation. If successful, maybe they would be able to hire a proper instructor in his place. It might be good to go the extra mile and find a full three students.

She wasn’t sure she’d find students as talented as Juliana or with the unique talents of Eva. Even Shalise had thrown herself into her studies. The brown-haired girl had been working double time on exercising her magical abilities.

Because of the pride she felt in her students, Zoe had a very conflicted feeling in her chest as she looked over the door to room three-thirteen.

With another sigh, Zoe shook her head. “What is this?”

“Homework,” Shalise said with a smile.

The brunette had been upset shortly after the incident with the riot. She bounced back the day before finals started and had been smiling ever since. A sighting of Sister Cross on campus was the likely culprit.

Zoe was originally worried, but Shalise did not seem to be faking or repressing anything. She was simply her happy self.

So, Zoe tried to keep a smile on her face as she spoke to the girl. “I don’t remember any of my colleagues mentioning anything about carving runes into the wood of the dormitory doors.”

Eva sat up from her bed. A small snake wrapped itself between her fingers and turned to stare straight at Zoe.

She could almost feel the beady eyes trying to turn her to stone. It gave Zoe a small start until she realized what it was. One of Genoa’s little toys.

“Maybe if Brakket wasn’t such a backwards school,” Eva said, “they’d actually have a proper rune class. Juliana thinks I should start up my own seminar over the summer and charge students for teaching them runes. I said it was too much work.”

“You’re already teaching Shal,” Juliana said. “What difference does it make if you add two or fifty students. Charge each student twenty dollars per lesson and hold class once a week. I’ll take twenty percent for the idea. Another twenty percent if I go locate willing pupils for you.”

“I think I’ve been tricked with our privacy packets. You seem to collect a good chunk of money for doing nothing but delivering the packets to our buyers.”

“Those were the terms we agreed on when we started. I don’t think I’m up for renegotiating.”

“This,” Zoe cut in, “is all well and good, but can we return to talking about the door? Specifically the carvings in it.”

Shalise stepped up and ran a finger over the markings. “These should let out a high-pitched noise for a few seconds if the door is broken. There are similar runes on the windows.”

“It’s a start,” Eva said, “as I keep teaching Shalise runes, she might add more features. An alarm is functional, but something that attacks attackers back would be better.”

“But,” Zoe sighed, “why?”

Eva just looked at her like the answer was obvious. And it was, but Zoe still wanted to hear it from the girl’s mouth.

Shalise was, to Zoe’s surprise, the one to speak up first. “We were forced out of our room twice in this very year, though I missed the first incident. Both times were because of the room being assaulted. First Juliana, then Eva. Next time is my turn and I’m not nearly as confident as these two.”

“You said it yourself,” Juliana said, “something went wrong with whatever wards you have set up to alert you of danger. Maybe Shalise’s alarm will alert someone.”

“Not to mention,” Eva said, “Wayne Lurcher’s response time when Sis–” Eva cut herself off with a glance to Shalise. The brunette did make any outward change of emotion. “When I was attacked; his response time left much to be desired.”

Zoe sighed. She rubbed a finger on the center of her forehead. “I understand that. It’s just… these doors are solid wood. Heavy wood. They’re not cheap. And the glass too?”

“Yeah, they’re actually pretty good materials to use. I’ll be charging the runes with Arachne’s blood. They’ll last a lot longer before degrading than if we were to charge the runic array with magic directly.”

Arachne would be a capable defender, hopefully, in the incredibly unlikely event that dorm three-thirteen was indeed attacked again. Then again, she was a demon. Zoe wasn’t even sure that was something to get hung up about anymore. Arachne had proven herself to be, at the very least, not hostile towards the students and staff. Zoe doubted she would care half as much if Arachne were an elf or some other magical creature.

“Just,” Zoe said after a moments thought, “if this starts another riot, I’ll have all three of your hides.”

“Zoe Baxter,” Eva said, “was that a joke?”

“No.”

“I think that was a joke. It was, right?”

“Why my hide?” Juliana huffed. “I’ve got nothing to do with this.”

“You’re complicit by association,” Zoe said.

That got another huff of complaint, though Eva started laughing.

“I do want to know everything you add to this. I want to know when your defenses activate, why, and what they do. This cannot be a danger to innocents who may inadvertently wander into your room for whatever reason.”

“I’ve thought about that, and we will let you know.” Eva nodded. Her voice carried a more serious tone. “For a while, I considered setting up the full array of blood wards that I’ve got running at the prison. You know,” she smiled, “the ones that explode people who get too close.”

Zoe blinked and shook her head. “I’m glad you didn’t.”

“It would have been too much of a pain to key everyone in. Not to mention too revealing that I’ve got and use bloodstones if anyone makes the connection. I’m sure there is some suspicion going around due to the state of the room after I was attacked, but I’d like to keep it at suspicion level and not move to confirmation.”

“Understandable.” Zoe shook her head again. “Seeing as you’ve already damaged the door–”

“Improved,” Eva said.

“I will allow you to continue modifying.” Zoe looked over to Shalise and met the girl’s eyes. “So long as you write essays on why runes work, list out every rune you use and their uses, and stick to what I said earlier about the safety of your defenses.”

“Great. More homework.”

— — —

“School? What would I ever do at a school?”

“Learn something, I should hope,” her father said with a small smile.

“Daddy…” She stood up from their dinner table and ran to the other side. She gave her father a light peck on the cheek. “I’d much rather stay at home and play.”

He ruffled her blond hair. “Oh don’t you worry. There are a few months before you have to be at school. Even while you’re there, I’ll be around. We can have fun on weekends and after school.”

Des sighed. Her father seemed set on it. Once he got an idea in his head, he never let it go.

School had been a thing in their family once. It didn’t turn out well.

Des slunk back to her seat. She picked up her cheeseburger and took a chunk out of it.

“Now now, honey, no sulking.”

“I’m not, daddy. I’ll go.”

He smiled. “Good.” His own burger was already gone.

Her mind whirred as she tried to come up with excuses to get out of going. Nothing would work, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try.

“What if it is like before? I don’t want to be freaky Desi again.”

“That was a regular school,” he sighed, “and a mistake. Don’t worry. This is a school for mages.”

“And they won’t think I’m weird?”

Her father chuckled. “Honey, everyone is a little weird. But in this case, I think they will be happy to have you.”

“They better,” Des said. She started towards her burger but stopped as a thought occurred to her. “It is a mage school? Can I even do magic?”

“Well, no,” he said. If she couldn’t do magic, she didn’t have to go to mage school. He waited just long enough for Des to start feeling happy. “But,” he said just to dash her hopes, “I’ve been working on a little something these past few months. It will be ready to install in the morning.”

She crossed her arms and gave her father a glare. Des hated the word ‘install’ especially when it came out of her father’s mouth. It never preceded anything but pain.

“Ah-ah. I said no sulking.” He ticked his finger back and forth. “If you’re a good girl, maybe we’ll see if Hugo wants to go with you. Now finish your food and maybe we’ll have time for a story before bed.”

Des lunged for her burger. She chomped the last half of it down in two bites.

“Remember to chew,” her father chided with a smile.

Des did. She always remembered. She shook her head. Silly father, she thought as she swallowed. “Story time now!”

>>AN.002<<

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002.020

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Things were going to Hell in a handbasket.

Lynn Cross only wished the situation wasn’t so literal.

Something went very wrong somewhere along the line. Royalty from Hell itself targeting the Elysium Order. Not just any part of the order, but Charon Chapter. The idea would have made Lynn laugh under other circumstances.

Under less dire circumstances.

Now the whole town had shown up to burn the order out-of-town like some sort of puritan witch hunt.

Fools. The lot of them. The town was infested with demons and necromancers. The town her daughter called home, for now.

My daughter, Lynn sighed as she glanced out the window. Her daughter’s friends were standing out there, watching like vultures. At least they hadn’t involved Shalise in their treachery. That was something she could thank Eva for.

Right before boiling her brain with lightning.

Eva assured Lynn that she had nothing to do with the demon attacking her chapter.

There was a slim possibility that she was telling the truth. The demon attacking her sisters stood on a roof on the opposite side of the street from Eva. They may have both simply shown up to watch the fireworks independently of each other.

That thought nearly made Lynn burst out laughing. She should have killed the stupid girl when she had the chance. Summoning a member of Hell’s royalty; how stupid could she get.

“Sister Goose,” Lynn barked out as she turned from the window. One of the white-robed nuns turned to her with a slight decline of her head. “Gather up Sisters Horner, Piper, and Botter. We need to evacuate the injured at the very least.” Lynn turned, glancing out the window once more. “I don’t like this and our injured sisters will only hinder what is to come.”

“Of course, Prioress. To one of our other safe houses, then?”

“No,” Lynn said with a shake of her head. “No. Take them to headquarters. Staying in the town will only see the current situation repeat itself. Ready transport and get them out of here.”

“It will be done, Prioress.” Sister Goose gave another bow before heading off towards the section of the warehouse petitioned off for medical use.

That they needed a medical center was odd. Before a few weeks ago, there were deaths any time that thrice damned bull showed up. The deaths ceased and injuries became far more common. They were gruesome and debilitating, but the attacked sisters were alive.

All except Sister Hubbard. In the midst of all the injuries, Sister Hubbard was the lone death. She likely wouldn’t have died if her holy fire never touched that student.

If Lynn tried to pinpoint the moment her fate was sealed, that would have been it. Never before had she seen so much anger and hate directed towards her by everyone. Brakket as a whole turned against Charon Chapter after that regrettable incident.

She had thought to win back support with the capture or death of Sawyer, but her augur vanished without a trace weeks before. Not even the augurs at headquarters had managed to locate her. She hadn’t received authorization to elevate another nun to the position.

Before that incident, Lynn had thought to win support with the capture or death of the wild bull. After that notice posted of it protecting students, that option was forever denied.

The noose was slowly tightening around Charon Chapter.

Headquarters was already upset at the lack of progress towards destroying the necromancers. They believed that the necromancers had fled. Wasting time and personnel on maintaining a presence wasn’t seen as a valuable operation. It didn’t help that Lynn had had to acquire special permission to move Charon to Brakket in the first place.

She had thought about releasing the information that it was a demon. She thought about it when it first appeared and again after that hateful notice. Lynn worried about panicking the population of Brakket. Few things were more dangerous than widespread panic.

A city of rioters might be one of those more dangerous things.

Lynn grit her teeth and strode out the warehouse door with her head held high. Cool night air assaulted the bare skin she bore on her face. The last night of March wound up far colder than the few days before.

The effect of her presence on the crowd was near instantaneous. Unnaturally so. The attacks against the shield stopped and the crowd quieted to a loud murmur. An improvement over the angry shouts by far.

Still unnatural.

Lynn allowed her gaze to flick up at the demons and the students. There were two professors from Brakket alongside the students. Lynn wasn’t sure what their presence signified. Possibly the school itself was actively against her.

That would be no surprise, Lynn thought with a barely suppressed scoff.

Turning back to the gathered crowd, Lynn scanned the faces. Anger seethed on most of them. Hate on others. Fear on a few.

So far gone were the hopeful and cheerful faces that greeted the nuns after Halloween.

Lynn sighed, but steeled herself against despair. She brought out her focus. A simple wand small enough to fit in a pocket. With a wave, magic flowed into her throat. She wasn’t much of an air mage, but even Lynn could amplify her own voice.

“People of Brakket,” her amplified voice said, “cease this foolishness. We are not your enemy.”

The murmur of the crowd threatened to rise back to full-blown shouts. Lynn cut it off.

“Necromancers attacked your fair dwelling mere months ago, have you forgotten? The horror and pain that accosted your city that night? You welcomed us with open arms and smiles on your faces. While the threat has been defused, one of the necromancers runs free still.”

Lynn watched their faces, those towards the front at least. Some flickered through emotions, others stayed the same. They all ended up with rage in their eyes. Lynn’s eyes once again twitched up to the two buildings containing demons.

“A greater threat lurks your streets. Demons stalk your town, invade your school, and wreak havoc.”

A shout rose up from the middle of the crowd. “Demons you brought here!” Several among the crowd cheered at that. Their cheers turned to jeers aimed at the Elysium Sisters. Aimed at Lynn. “Only you’ve been attacked,” another shouted. “Only you have attacked our students,” another cry came. “That bull protected my son.”

Lynn cut off any further shouts. “Would you have them run free? We are all that stands between you and the darkness encroaching on your town.”

More jeers and angry shouts followed her statement. Lynn tuned them out. One of the demons, a man, just jumped off the roof he stood on. It was only two stories high. Plenty high for a human to get injured, but cakewalk for a demon.

Lynn connected herself to the source. The familiar feeling of dampened emotions and heightened clarity enveloped her. She scanned the crowd, searching for the demon among them.

Before she could lay eyes on the demon, she realized her mistake. Lynn swore at herself just as the first cry rang out.

“Her eyes are glowing. She’s going to attack us,” someone screeched.

That was all it took. The rioters panicked. Some started their own attacks, mostly the fire mages in the crowd. Most, however, simply ran. Seeing their comrades flee, those few brave enough to strike at the Elysium Sister’s shields turned and ran.

Within minutes, the streets were clear. Lynn felt that tingle of unnaturalness in their movement. She had no time to dwell her thoughts on the matter.

Standing in the center of the street was the great winged bull. The fleeing people moved around it without reacting–not seeing or not caring that it was there.

The source fed her all the information she cared to know about the creature.

A devil class monster stood in front of her. Asmodeus of lust was its primary heritage. Secondary was Mammon of greed. It had traces of all the others according to the source. As expected of one of the kings of Hell.

The source had run through every possibility over their previous encounters. Good nuns died teaching the source about the capabilities of that creature.

Lynn doubted it had shown everything it was capable of.

Attempting to banish it would be impossible. It would kill her before she got a third of the way into the chant. Fighting would be impossible. It would kill her before she caused even minor damage. The most she could hope for was to hold it at bay for a few minutes. Fleeing would be impossible. Lynn would die the moment she turned her back on it.

Truly a loathsome beast.

“Designation: Zagan,” Lynn said through grit teeth. Its solid black eyes bored into her. If she was to die here… Lynn’s eyes flicked up to her daughter’s friends. No worry nor concern would be found there.

“Sister Cole,” Lynn shouted over her shoulder. “Evacuate everyone. I will buy time.”

“Sister Cross,” one of the nuns started. They were all seeing the same information from the source–they were all being told to do nothing but despair.

Lynn interrupted whatever she was about to say.

“No arguing. Sisters Peep, Griggs, Lamb. You three are to retreat and evacuate the moment your shield fails.”

“It has been an honor serving with you, Prioress.”

“I am not planning on dying just yet,” Lynn said. “But I can’t leave until you’re all gone. So get a move on it and launch a flare when you’re on your way.”

Hurried footsteps sounded behind her as the winged bull took a step forward. How kind of it to allow me to finish ordering my sisters, Lynn thought with a sardonic frown.

Every step it took left a small pillar of green fire. The rotten egg stench of brimstone filled the air as it neared. A snort of flames erupted from its nostrils, further tainting the air with brimstone.

Her three sisters stood behind her with bated breath. They kept the shield running full without falter as the devil approached. Their nervousness radiated off of them in waves.

Lynn waited.

The longer the bull took to approach, the longer Sister Cole would have to relay her orders, and the shorter Lynn would have to fight the bull.

If she didn’t think it would immediately cease all its posturing, Lynn might have tried banishing it. The source informed her that it would remove the shield near instantly if she tried.

It stopped just in front of the shield wall. It stopped and stared.

Lynn stared back. Her anger leaked away into the sea of the source. A calm settled around her. No rash actions, she promised herself with a deep breath.

The bull threw back its head. Fire and smoke vented from its nostrils as it bleated. The sheer noise caused small cracks to appear on the shield.

One crumpled horn struck the shield. Cracks grew and fractures formed. One of the nuns behind Lynn crumpled to her knees.

Shards of magic flew out from the shield as the bull rammed into it. They dispersed into motes of magic the moment they were far enough away from the main wall. The holes in the shield slowly tried to reform. The nuns behind Lynn strained themselves and the source trying to close the gaps.

It wouldn’t hold. One more good strike would see the shield shattered. Lynn could add her own willpower to keeping the shield up, but that would only add two more strikes worth of stability according to the source.

She’d need that energy in a moment.

There was a brief pause before that moment came. The bull spewed out another stream of fire from its nostrils. The streets were washed in sickly green light as the flames overpowered the few streetlights. As the light dimmed, the bull pierced the shield with its straight horn.

The shield shattered. Shards broke away, dispersing into motes.

“Get out of here,” Lynn said with far more calm than she should have felt. She turned her head slightly but kept her eyes on the demon in front of her. “You’ve done all you can, my sisters.”

Ignoring the few words said to back her, Lynn turned her full attention back to the bull. Despite the source’s warnings, she attacked first.

White fire burst from her fingertips. A stream of flames spread through the air. The street brightened to near daylight levels as the bull was engulfed by holy fire.

All but the strongest vampires would be rendered nothing more than ash within seconds of coming into contact with the Elysium Order’s flames. The strongest might hold on for a minute. A human would be scorched and burned as if they touched regular fire.

The bull–the devil in front of her screeched. It reared back onto its hind legs and flapped its wings, shaking the white fire off. It wasn’t entirely successful. Flames spread out along the ground, but the beast remained entirely contained within the deluge of ever-growing fire.

And it was all for show.

Nothing more than superficial damage, according to the source. Its skin reddened, bubbled, and boiled. Screeches that it let loose rattled Lynn’s eardrums as it landed on all fours.

At the very least, Lynn hoped its pain was real.

The demon scratched its front hooves on the ground. A trail of green flames burst forth from the asphalt. Green tainted the pure, white light of Lynn’s fire.

It charged.

Lynn started to jump out of the way.

Realization from the source stopped her.

If she moved, nothing would stop the bull. It would continue straight through the warehouse doors. A massacre against her unprepared subordinates.

Lynn steeled herself. Plans raced through her mind as she considered her option.

The source helped her decide. Trickles of simulated plans passed by her mind until, together, they selected one with a high probability of a positive outcome.

Every drop of her concentration went into strengthening her shield. It normally reacted to threats automatically, thanks to the source’s backseat casting. Here, she’d need every scrap of magic she had going into her shield.

The bull hammered into her.

Lynn stumbled backwards as her shield shattered.

Shards of her shield exploded inwards. More than a few tore into her. Her habit and, in some places, her skin underneath received small cuts. A few buried themselves into her chest. Luckily none burrowed in too deep before they vanished into motes.

One shard slid across her cheek, just beneath her right eye.

Had her head been tilted just slightly, she would have lost the eye completely.

Lynn did not dwell on the thought. She did not have time to dwell.

Reaching forwards, Lynn gripped the bull’s horns with her gloved hands. She concentrated for a split second.

The street, the warehouse, the buildings, everything fell away. The pure white of the sea of the source replaced everything except herself and Zagan.

Reality reasserted itself a second later. She and the bull reappeared out in the center of the street, far from the warehouse headquarters. It would stay that way if Lynn had anything to say about it.

The bull snorted out another spew of green flames. The front of her habit caught fire.

Lynn released the bull and staggered backwards. She replaced the green fire with her own white flames before extinguishing the spell.

It wasn’t fast enough. The entire front of her habit had burned away. Her skin started to blister and crack. Lynn shunted the pain off to the source and cursed her momentary distraction.

Distractions could kill.

As she looked back at the bull, the vague sense of fright from an attack while distracted vanished and was replaced by confusion.

The bull had collapsed on the ground. It lay on its side, shaking and convulsing. Snorts of green flame spewed from its nostrils.

Lynn felt the source analyzing everything. It ran through possibilities, trying to discern what happened. Hopefully, it would draw conclusions that would keep Lynn alive.

It had something to do with teleporting. The bull reacted poorly to the sea of the source, or perhaps Lynn’s own problem with the teleport. She had been distracted, upset, and in pain when she initiated the teleport.

And she had almost failed. Her concentration had wavered as the world fell apart. She was nearly stuck, trapped forever between realities with only Zagan for company.

The horror of the thought gave Lynn a small shudder.

Lynn pushed the thoughts aside. The source would work it out. Now, her opponent was down, though she doubted it would stay there.

Not that she wouldn’t try to keep it down.

Lynn gathered magic in her core. As much as she could. Electricity crackled at the tips of her fingers.

The Elysium Order’s lightning disrupted magic. Skeletons would fall apart just being grazed by it. The lightning would keep them from reforming. Its disruption lasted long enough to allow any lingering magic to dissipate.

With hope that the disruption effect would keep the demon from recovering or healing, Lynn attacked.

Lightning thundered from her fingertips.

It crashed into the bull’s side with all the force of a wrecking ball. The bull slid halfway up the street before skidding to a stop.

Lynn wasn’t about to give it time to rest. Bolt after bolt coursed over its body. None were as powerful as the first, but the speed made up for it.

She did not stop until the bull was crackling with white lightning on its own. Arcs of electricity ran up and down its body even without her casting.

The source was telling her to run. To teleport while she had the chance.

Lynn stayed where she was. There was no chance the Charon Chapter nuns had managed to get away with all the important artifacts in the short amount of time she had been outside. She would stay until the flare went up.

Wiping the sweat and blood from her face with her sleeve, Lynn took just a few seconds to catch her breath. She hadn’t thrown around that much magic since her days at the abbey. The Eye of God embedded in her chest needed a moment to recover from her magic expenditure as much as she did.

As she rested, the bull let out several, irregular snorts. Green flames accompanied each one.

Lightning lanced towards the bull.

It struck and struck.

The demon did not seem to care. It picked itself up to its feet with only small shudders as each bolt hit. Snort after snort of green fire accompanied its rise.

And it clicked in Lynn’s head. She took half a step backwards.

It was laughing.

It laughed at her. At the damage she was, or was not, doing.

It laughed and laughed.

And it continued to its hind legs.

Lynn watched as the body of the bull folded in on itself. The great wings unfurled to their full wingspan. Parts of them were still lit with holy fire. They shrank in as a more humanoid torso was molded from the meat of the bull.

The final part to change was his head. It pressed in on itself until a brown-haired, human head with sharp features emerged from the molten flesh.

A half-man, half-beast stood in front of Lynn. The legs hadn’t changed much and he retained his wings and horns, though they shrank to more proportional sizes. His bare chest held no injuries from flame or lightning.

He stood, brazen in a lax stance, in front of Lynn.

With a glare and a grin, Zagan raised his head. Golden eyes glinted against the flames and streetlights.

“You can’t win, nun,” he said with a silver voice. “You know this. Your powers are ineffectual against me.”

Lynn remained silent. She didn’t need to win. She needed to delay.

“I find myself fond you. You’re putting up a fiendish fight in the face of futility.” He took a few steps forward, still leaving columns of green flame where he touched the asphalt. “I like you, so I will make this offer once. Kneel before me. Kiss my hooves and beg to become my slave.”

The source screamed at Lynn to run. To escape.

There were still no flares in the sky.

Lynn said the only thing she could.

“No.”

“Pity,” he said, “I think you’d enjoy it. Or learn to enjoy it, at the very least.” His eyes glinted once again against the background lights. “I think I shall have to teach you anyway,” his voice dropped low, barely loud enough for Lynn to hear, “teaching you will be good practice for the future.”

Lynn blinked, but did not have time to process what he said.

Zagan launched himself forwards. His wings beat and he lifted off the ground. Long streaks of fire rose from the ground as his feet skimmed over the surface of the street.

During his conversation with himself, Lynn had not been idle. Every second he talked was a second of preparing lightning. It wasn’t as powerful as the first blow that had knocked his bull form across the street.

It was a close second.

Lynn released the lightning, straight at him.

Just before crashing into him, the lightning swerved. It passed just between his body and his wing. A building in the distance behind him received the bolt instead.

Her eyes went wide. Some kind of a shield, Lynn thought. The source was already denying that opinion.

It took a moment for her brain to reboot. He didn’t slow in the slightest.

She dived out of the way at the last second. Lynn rolled along the ground, away from the trail of green fire. The hard ground opened up more skin as her exposed stomach scraped against the asphalt. Her habit further descended into tatters.

“What is the difference,” a silver voice said from just behind her, “between ‘lightning hitting me’ and ‘lightning not hitting me’ hmm?”

Lynn turned and fired another bolt. Like the first, it curved and struck the second story of a building.

“I’ll tell you,” he said with a grin.

From this distance, Lynn could see his incisors were far longer than normal. They brought up memories of vampires.

Without waiting for him to continue, Lynn fired jets of her holy flame. White fire rose up and spread over his body.

No screams echoed through the night air. No writhing or turning to ash.

The source insisted that her fire wouldn’t work. The flames ceased coming from her hands and Lynn saw that the source spoke the truth. Just once, she wouldn’t mind it being wrong.

Zagan stood just a few steps away. Not a lick of flame touched him. It spread over and around him, burning on the streets and buildings.

He stood, brushing a finger against his long goatee.

That infernal grin flashed on his face again. “Are you quite finished? I’ll tell you the answer. It is the word ‘not.’ That answer also works for ‘burned’ versus ‘not burned’ in case you were wondering.” He looked off to one side, smiling more at himself than anything. “I think I’m a natural at this teaching thing.”

A white flare rose high in the sky behind Zagan just as he finished speaking. The sign from her sisters.

Immediately, Lynn attempted to teleport. She felt the magic build up for the few seconds it took and then…

nothing.

It all vanished. Unsuppressed fear gripped her as the connection to the source vanished.

“Nope, sorry.” He held up a long nailed finger and shook it as if admonishing a child. “‘Not’ going to escape now, are you?”

The nails on his fingers dug into her throat as he lifted her into the air.

No lightning, no fire, no connection, no source. Lynn reached for her wand. She could cast, though far less effectively. It would be sufficient for teleporting out.

Zagan gripped her arm and squeezed. “No escaping,” he said. “You still have much to learn.”

Lynn clamped her mouth shut. He would not get the satisfaction of her shouting out in pain. She glared, staring into his golden eyes with all the fury she could muster.

“That is a good look on you,” he said. “Gets me tingly in all the right places.” He leaned forward. A long and flat tongue slipped out of his mouth. It ran from her chin to her forehead, passing over the cut on her cheek.

A trail of slime was left in its wake. It tingled against her face but burned in her cut.

Lynn paid it no heed. She tried to continue her glare with one eye shut.

A white flash at his shoulder on the arm he held her with distracted both of them.

Lynn pinched her other eye shut to preserve as much vision as she could. She fell to the ground a second after.

When she reopened her eyes, Zagan had taken a step back, though his arm was still gripping her throat. Lynn tore the detached arm and flung it to the ground. She scrambled backwards at the same time, placing distance between herself and Zagan.

A black ring formed around the devil king’s throat. It spun around, picking up speed with every second.

Zagan did not look concerned. “Really?” he said, “I’ve survived decapitation before.”

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say. The ring split in two and formed rings that crisscrossed around his head. Spheres flew in from behind him and formed more rings to trap his head in a sort of cage.

Lynn felt the connection to the source return. She did not wait around to see what happened. The world broke apart and fell away. Spending only an instant among the pure white sea, Lynn returned to reality a few miles up the road the rest of Charon Chapter was supposed to be traveling on.

The road was just outside the city, just before the woods the road passed through. She quickly ran through an inspection of herself, before allowing the source to help her heal.

Cuts, scrapes, second or third degree burns on her chest, and a broken arm.

Not bad, she thought to herself. It definitely could be worse. It would have been worse if he hadn’t been toying with her.

Lynn felt the source chastise her for teleporting near her sisters rather than the middle of nowhere. She decided to ignore it for now. If Zagan was planning on pursuing, he’d be able to track the rest of the nuns down with little difficulty after dispatching Lynn.

She slumped against the ground, resting while letting the Psalm level healing course through her body. It wouldn’t fix her broken bone, or her larger cuts, or her burned chest. It was, however, an excellent pain reliever. At least for the minor injuries.

Soft, lush, roadside grass became Lynn’s cushion as she laid back and stared up at the night sky. She watched the stars with wonder. Nothing like a near death experience to make one appreciate all of existence. Not that Lynn ever wished for near death experiences. They just happened, and far too commonly for her tastes.

With a start, Lynn nearly teleported straight back to that street. Shal was still in that city. If that demon decided to go on a rampage when Lynn vanished… Thoughts swirled in her mind. She bit her lip until she bit through it.

Lynn slowly sank back into the grass.

Shal was friends with Eva. Eva had tricks of her own, and was probably in cahoots with Zagan. There were two academy staff standing with them. Those two, at the very least, wouldn’t allow the students to be harmed. One of them had thrown himself at her to protect a student.

On the other hand, Lynn returning could endanger her daughter if another fight started up.

She’d wait. It went against every instinct she had. Lynn would wait anyway.

And if anyone harmed Shal, she’d raze Hell herself using whatever means she could get her hands on.

Headlights in the distance broke Lynn out of her thoughts. She stood up and waved the truck down with a palm full of white fire. Of course, Lynn used her good arm to do so.

The eighteen-wheeler truck that carried artifacts and equipment slowed to a stop. Other, more habitable vehicles behind it followed its example.

Lynn walked up to the artifact truck and hopped into the vacant passenger seat.

“Sister Cross,” Sister Cole said with no small amount of surprise in her voice. Her eyes drifted up and down Lynn’s sorry state. “I didn’t–I mean, are you well?”

Lynn snorted. The snort turned into a full bout of laughter. What a stupid question. “Well enough,” she said. “Get us home.”

“Yes, Prioress,” Sister Cole said. “Of course. Right away.”

Lynn leaned back into the seat as the convoy started up moving again. It took mere moments before she felt sleep take her.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.019

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“Get out of our town!”

“…more damage than…”

“…cost us our livelihoods.”

Martina Turner stalked through the gathered crowd with a grin on her face. Of course, it was well hidden in the shadows of her hood. Plenty others in the crowd had hoods. She wouldn’t be singled out because of it.

Her entire attire changed simply to avoid being recognized. It was amazing how wearing a distinctive costume every day made people’s gazes shift right over her when she changed to more normal clothing. Of course, a cowl and cloak generally wasn’t considered normal, but in a crowd of similarly dressed rioters, it worked.

Rioters gathered around the old warehouse. A decrepit building that was among the earliest abandoned had been made into the Elysium Order’s local headquarters. Thanks to their inhabitance, the building had been cleaned up nicely. One of its walls looked recently repaired.

Four white-robed guards stood outside the building. All four had eyes aglow, but none of them looked ready to attack. So far, the crowd hadn’t given them reason to attack.

Riot was probably too strong of a word. Residents of Brakket gathered around with signs. Protest more accurately described the current situation.

Of course, with a foci, everyone was armed.

Martina felt it was a good time to change the status quo.

Pulling a sheet of paper from her cloak, Martina held it in her hands. She ran a finger down the front. The large wrath rune in the dead center pulsed. Once. Twice. Three times before the faint glow covered the rest of the rune array. The entire paper melted into black sludge that evaporated into the night’s air.

That was it. No other visible changes. No magic signatures left behind to lead back to the source. Not even any evidence of the runic array. The other runes positioned around Brakket would follow this paper’s example before the night was done.

Martina turned and walked out of the crowd.

Voices were raised as she made her way through. Shouts and cries of rage echoed over the soon to be rioters. As Martina reached the back of the group, a fireball struck the brick building.

A well-formed fireball with a good deal of power behind it, if Martina’s eye hadn’t dimmed over the years. She thought for a moment about which resident of the city might have casted such a spell.

More fire, lightning, and even chunks of earth followed. A white blue shield appeared over the half of the building closest to Martina. Each impact caused a brief flash, but not a single fracture formed.

Regular thaumaturgy held no chance against the shields of the Elysium Order.

Martina took the increasing number of attacks as the cue to leave before the sisters decided to react.

She found herself a secluded corner of the crisscrossing streets and channeled magic into her wand. Once full, she tapped it against her forehead.

The angry roar of the rioting crowd was replaced by the serene screams of her own mind.

Shutting her eyes, Martina tuned out everything. Every noise, every smell, and all the feelings creeping across her skin.

Martina found it to be an unpleasant sort of travel, but had long since gotten used to its illusory effects.

She appeared on top of a rug that hid a six pointed summoning circle within her office. Not that she needed the gate. It just lessened some of the more unpleasant side effects.

Flicking her eyes open, Martina walked to and sat at her desk. She kicked her feet up on the desktop before hitting a button on her phone. She waited.

And waited.

Happiness from her plans nearing their end kept her from feeling even the slightest tinge of anger at her insubordinate secretary. Nothing the woman could do would ruin this night for Martina.

Probably.

It wouldn’t do to underestimate the capacity for idiocy amongst her servants.

On the very last ring before the phone switched to voice mail, the line connected. There was no video this time around but Martina could hear the riot progressing in the background. Explosions and the faint crackle of thunder echoed over the speaker.

Yet Catherine did not speak.

Annoying power plays, Martina thought with a grimace. The pissant never spoke first. For a moment, Martina wondered how long her secretary would sit there in silence.

Something to test another time.

Before Martina could speak, a small hissing noise came over the phone’s speaker. It ended abruptly with a loud snap.

“Did you just pop chewing gum in my ear?” Martina asked with a sigh.

“Not gum,” she said just before another pop sounded over the phone.

“Do I want to know?”

“That, Martina, is a question only you can answer.”

Martina grit her teeth together. Thinking about it carefully, Martina decided she did not want to know. Whatever her secretary said would only further grind on her nerves.

After another period of silence, Martina asked, “is Zagan with you?”

“Don’t know,” came the nonchalant reply.

Martina felt her lips form a thin line as they pursed together. “I swear, if either one of you fu–”

“There are a couple of teachers and a few of your students.”

Martina sat up, hoping she did not have to go back out there. There were things that needed doing before dawn. “In the riots? I was told th–”

“No. They’re standing on the roof of a building opposite mine. I watched the students arrive on the back of Arachne. The teachers teleported in.”

“Are the instructors going to interfere? Who are the students?”

Catherine made the popping noise before responding, “don’t know.”

Martina opened her mouth and just sat for a moment. She worried she might crack her own teeth if she kept up the pressure. After a calming sigh, Martina said, “describe them.”

“Well, one looks like a knight in shining armor. Not very well made armor, but it is somewhat shiny. She’s a bit shorter than the–”

“I meant describe their mannerisms. Do they look like they’re going to interfere?”

“One of the students has several large spheres orbiting her.”

Martina frowned at that. Eva mentioned that she might be there to ensure nothing goes wrong. That accounted for Arachne. Yet she dragged her roommate and instructors into it. That was conveniently left out of her plans.

“Arachne has a stupid grin on her face. I can tell it is a stupid grin and not a vicious or mirthful grin because it is the same expression you wear sometimes.”

“Stick to them, Catherine.”

“I’d love to. Sadly, I don’t want to have to go roof hopping. It is too much work.”

Martina cradled an oncoming headache with her hand. This is a good day. Everything will be fine. Ignore her. “Catherine,” she said, “what are the instructors doing?”

“Not looking happy. Talking to the students.”

With a sigh, Martina said, “keep an eye on them. If they look like they’re going to interfere, intercept and keep them occupied. Switch to plan six if Zagan doesn’t show up in fifteen minutes.”

There was a small pause before she responded. “Oh. He’s here. Good thing too, plan six was by far the worst of the plans. It had way too much of me in it.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know where he was,” Martina said through grit teeth.

“That was before you forced me to look around. Apparently he’s been standing to my side this entire time.”

Martina pinched the bridge of her nose. She needed a new secretary. “Just start,” Martina said. “And keep an eye on the students.”

Without waiting for a response, Martina slammed her finger down on the disconnect button.

She concentrated on happy thoughts and possible replacements for her secretary. It took more effort than normal to remind herself that Catherine usually gets the job done. A fact easily forgotten every time she opened her mouth.

No, nothing would go wrong. Catherine would play her part. Zagan would play his. Eva and her cohorts would merely observe. If they did interfere, Catherine would stall or remove them.

Hopefully stall. Eva was already a step in the right direction for the academy. She’d lead her friends right along with her. Losing such an asset would slow everything down.

And I, Martina thought as she pulled the first paper off a stack, will play my part.

— — —

No chance this will turn out well.

Zoe Baxter looked over the edge of the roof onto the streets below. There had to be a good portion of the population gathered. Not that a good portion of the population was saying much when talking about Brakket.

She scanned the crowd.

Some had hoods or cowls on. Some faced away from Zoe. A few even had masks, though no theme was present between them; it was doubtful they were related.

Relief flushed through her as she failed to recognize any students. None of her fellow instructors from the academy seemed present either. Aside from Wayne and the residents of dorm three-thirteen.

A few people looked familiar. Shopkeepers and a handful of the more well-known residents stood amongst the mob. The few that Zoe knew better than others were just regular people. At least one, a recent graduate, Zoe knew would never participate in something like this.

Zoe’s heart sank as she recognized a kindly barman shouting and shaking his fist at the warehouse. There was no trace of Tom’s ever-present charming smile on his face. Unlike those around him, he seemed more indignant than outright enraged.

Something was going on. Zoe’s eyes flicked over to her students on the roof of an adjacent building. Whatever was going on, they had something to do with it.

A grunt to her side tore her attention from the students and the crowd. Zoe glanced at the scowling Wayne.

“Nasty business down there. Knew we got angry letters. Knew the Elysium Order got more. Didn’t know they were this mad.”

Zoe shook her head from side to side. “I don’t think they are.”

“Mind control then,” Wayne growled. “I’ve heard of demons that can do that.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Have you talked to them?” Zoe nodded in the direction of her three students.

“Your girl’s pet demon has been staring at me since I arrived with a nasty smile on her face. I’m not keen on approaching.”

“I don’t think she’d hurt you.”

Wayne let out a soft snort. “Oh? You can guarantee the actions of a demon now, can you?”

Zoe shifted where she stood. She never wanted Wayne to find out about any of the goings on with Eva. A near impossible task that failed far too fast for Zoe’s liking. “I’ve had conversations with her and have spent time around her and Eva. I honestly don’t think she cares unless you’re a threat to Eva.”

“If she has anything to do with this mess, I’ll definitely be threatening. It will take a single dunderhead casting a spell at the nuns to spark off a full-blown fight.” He stepped forwards, placing one foot right on the edge of the roof. “I fought one of them just a few weeks ago. Her shield shrugged off some of my strongest fire. I might as well have been trying to tickle her.”

Zoe blinked and glanced at him. “Your strongest?”

“Well, I didn’t want to level the building,” he said with a grin, “but no thaumaturge’s shield would have held up for more than five seconds under my attack.”

“I’ve been studying their magic where I can. It is really quite amazing. I had to dedicate two whole notebooks to it and the third one is filling fast. They don’t use any foci, and what I’ve seen of their magic is odd. The lightning they shoot is designed to unravel ench–”

“I’m not here for a lecture, Professor Baxter.” He flashed a small smile. Not something Zoe was used to seeing since their argument. It vanished as quickly as it came. “We need to defuse the situation before this turns into a slaughter. I reckon those four guarding the front door are more than enough to take out this entire mob.”

Zoe gave a nod of agreement and glanced back to her students. “Let’s speak with them. If Eva is here, she likely knows what is going on.”

“I’d say it is more likely she caused what is going on.”

“Maybe so,” Zoe said as she flicked her dagger. The cool embrace of between took hold of her. The sensation lasted a scant few seconds before she appeared on the rooftop her students occupied.

Wayne, Zoe noticed as she glanced back, chose to simply run and jump the gap between the buildings. It wasn’t that far. Zoe could have jumped the distance herself. Doing so added unnecessary risk of landing wrong or even tripping and falling.

He did not approach. Wayne stopped just at the edge of the building. The tome focus in his hand was open to a page as he stood in a defensive stance. His hard eyes never left Arachne.

The demon herself appeared entirely relaxed. She half slouched on Eva’s shoulder. All eight of her red eyes remained focused on Wayne. And she smiled. The sharp, interlocking teeth bared full against the lights carried by the crowd below.

Not wasting any time, Zoe closed the short distance between herself and her students.

“Arachne,” she said, “could you not antagonize Wayne? He is upset enough about the situation as it is.”

“Antagonize,” the demon said in a faux innocent voice, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just watching to make sure he wasn’t about to do anything foolish.”

“Being watched makes him nervous.”

“That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be watched.”

“Arachne,” Eva said as she patted the demon’s arm with her own clawed hands, “I’m sure he won’t hurt us right now. Not if he hasn’t already tried something. Isn’t that right, Zoe Baxter?”

Zoe sighed as she looked to Wayne again. He hadn’t moved, still standing with his tome out. Judging by the few spars she’d done with him over the years, she’d guess he would shield and try to run based on his defensive stance.

“I don’t think so,” Zoe said. “Not unless you attack first.”

“Well,” Eva said, “it is good that you are here. I can’t say I expected it, but good nonetheless. Just in case things do go pear-shaped, you and Wayne can teleport Juliana out of here.”

Zoe spared a glance at the other students. Juliana had her armor fully covering herself with only a few holes in the front and her blond ponytail poking out the back. She sat with her legs dangling over the edge of the building. Two metal spikes jutting from her backside seemed to be anchoring the girl to the roof.

“Not you?”

“I’m confident everything is under control. If things do go wrong, I need to be here to keep people from dying.”

“And what is happening–no.” Zoe shook her head. Students first. “Juliana, are you alright?”

“I asked her to be here. I don’t have any eyes,” Eva tapped the leather band around her head, “so I asked her to keep an eye out for things I might miss.”

“And that’s fine with you?” Zoe asked with a glance towards Juliana.

Metal covering her face melted off. Zoe had to marvel once again at the control she had over her ferrokinesis. That skill alone could get her through her class four exam despite her age. Zoe held herself up as the best during her school days. Whatever Genoa did to get her daughter to this level was a wonder indeed.

The blond looked up to Zoe and gave a light nod of her head. “I trust Eva not to get us killed.”

That gave Eva a laugh. “I don’t know that I’d trust myself,” she said. “It was only a few months ago I found myself in a situation to lose my hands, eyes, and toes.”

“That was different,” Juliana said. “You were ambushed, alone. Here we’ve got both of us, Arachne, and now two professors. And we’re not going to be ambushed.”

“Keep on your guard anyway. Neither the Elysium Order nor myself ever found Sawyer. He could very well use what happens tonight as a distraction for his own purposes.”

“And what,” Zoe said, “is happening tonight?”

“Running the nuns out of town, of course.”

“That… I don’t… Are you sure that is a good idea? You just said yourself that Sawyer is still on the loose.”

“They weren’t searching for him,” Eva spat out. “I spoke with Nel and another nun. I know that they had no interest in anyone but us.” She gestured her hands towards her roommates and Arachne. “The other nun was unhappy with that fact, so we’re doing all them a favor anyway.”

“And you got the whole town in on it?”

“Sort of.”

Zoe sighed and gave Eva her best stern teacher glare. “Sort of?”

“Well, they were already angry with the nuns. A few wrath runes placed around the town might have made them angrier. That was followed by an inverted sloth rune to spur them into action.” Eva gave a bright smile. “That is heavily simplifying it, of course. It really was some of my best work. Figuring out all the nuances of timing everything and keeping students and staff from feeling the effects.”

“You brainwashed them?”

“Let’s not be silly.” Eva crossed her arms. The action somewhat destabilized her, but Arachne held her tight. A good thing too, they were right on the edge.

“Can’t you move back from the ledge a few steps?”

“Nope. This is the furthest I can be while still being able to turn on shields around the people if things go bad.”

Zoe blinked. “Shields?” she asked.

“First,” Eva held up one pointed finger, “not brainwashed or mind controlled or anything silly. Simple amplification of specific emotions–in this case, anger towards the nuns.” She held up a second finger. “I’ve got an array of blood shields lined up between the crowd and the nuns’ headquarters. Or I will, in a moment or two. I didn’t want to be too obvious too soon.”

Zoe blinked again. It took a moment to process what she said. “Right. Blood mage. I forgot. Distracted by the diablery, I suppose.” Zoe sighed. That was another thing she had been meaning to broach with the young woman. “Wayne is very accomplished with thaumaturgical order shields and he said that his shields went down very quickly against Sister Cross. How would yours hold up?”

“I guess I can get ready and show you some of it.”

Eva leaned down to her feet. Plunging her fingers into the cork of a jar resting near the edge of the roof, Eva pulled back and uncorked the jar. It was fairly large and made of glass. What was inside blended with the darkness too well to see.

Zoe flicked her dagger slightly. Immediately, her senses flared. The crowd below became almost deafening in their shouts. Zoe tweaked her sense of sound down to more manageable levels. Her hearing remained enhanced, just not to the maximum level possible.

Vision, she left at full. With her vision, she looked into the jar at Eva’s feet. A midnight black liquid filled it to its brim. The jar was about a gallon in size, if her estimate was correct.

The liquid jumped out of the bottle. The large glob quickly split down to golf ball sized orbs.

“Arachne kindly donated a large portion of her blood. I bled her out for half the night.” The demon to Eva’s side nodded vigorously at that. “Some is down on the streets already, ready just in case. This is all backup.

“As for shield strength,” Eva gave a light chuckle, “blood shields are, for the most part, impenetrable so long as I have blood. And I don’t just have blood. I have Arachne’s blood. Demon blood is several orders of magnitude better than human blood which is still better than my… Well, the shields will be strong.

“Personal experience has taught me that a golf-ball sized orb of blood can withstand several bolts of lightning. With all this backup, we’ll have plenty of time to evacuate the crowd if anything goes wrong.”

Zoe sighed and glanced over the assembled crowd once again. Even with her enhanced sight, she couldn’t pick out any students. Her eyes did spot a woman atop the building opposite from the one Zoe stood on. It took several seconds before she recognized the slouching woman as Martina Turner’s new secretary. Cathy something.

Martina had become increasingly vocal about her dislike for the nuns during staff meetings over the course of the semester. It didn’t come as a big surprise to Zoe that the dean had some sort of hand in this.

“No one is going to die,” Zoe half asked, half stated.

“Not if I can help it.” Eva pulled several papers from a book bag at her side. “I have a few ways of influencing the emotions of the crowd already drawn up. Some less subtle than others, but I’ll use them if the people need to evacuate in a hurry.” Eva turned her head from the streets below for the first time since Zoe approached. Her empty eye sockets honed in on Zoe. “I’m not a monster,” she said.

Eyes were such a huge part of reading emotions on the face. Eva lacked that key detail. The rest of her face was blank and stony.

Zoe wasn’t sure how to respond to her statement. Keeping the people from harm was good, and she seemed to be taking several precautions. Of course, she dragged them into the mess in the first place. If anyone did get hurt, it would be on her head. And Martina Turner’s head.

Their heads and Zoe’s head, if Zoe did nothing to stop it. No ideas came to mind for stopping Eva safely, try as she might.

Arachne saved her from having to respond. “I am a monster,” she said.

Eva turned her head to her demon with a smile. “Yes, but you are my monster.”

The demon all but preened at that. She rested her head against Eva’s shoulder in a very awkward position that would have sent both tumbling to the ground. Only two legs jutting from her back and digging into the roof stopped them from falling.

Eva ignored Arachne’s actions. She turned her head back to the streets below.

“If things get dire, Arachne and I will personally intervene.”

“And me,” Juliana said.

Zoe turned to the armored woman. “Your mother–”

“Would be very happy to know I helped save lives.”

“You helped put them in danger.”

“Nope,” Juliana shook her head. “That was all Eva. Neither I nor Shalise knew anything until Eva asked me to keep watch. Well, Shalise still doesn’t, but we both unknowingly helped. Of course, that doesn’t mean I like them much. They forced us out of our dorm. That’s the second time this year.”

“I will agree that that was irksome indeed. There was copious amounts of blood everywhere, though I doubt that was directly the fault of Sister Cross.” She eyed Eva. “Not a good reason to go to battle with them. Dorm rooms are easily fixed, you should be able to move back in by the–” Zoe shook her head. “Not important right now. What about the Elysium Order’s nuns? Are they to make it out of this night unscathed?”

“The nuns have been a pain in my backside since they showed up and I’m not going to let them continue to walk over me. Sorry Shalise,” Eva added half under her breath.

“But, and I will admit that this is mostly because of Shalise, I don’t want to see them come to further harm either.”

Zoe sighed, but nodded her head. “I understand where you’re coming from. Can we not defuse the situation and discuss it more peacefully?”

Eva gave her own sigh at that. “I’d say it is too late.”

Steeling herself into instructor mode, Zoe said, “then all I can say is that I am disappointed, Miss Eva. I approve of the lengths you’re going to protect people. That they needed to be protected in the first place is where my real disappointment lies.

“I am truly sorry you do not feel you can trust me enough to talk to me about matters of this severity. I hope you will come to trust me more in the future. At the very least to get a second opinion on your plans.”

“Perhaps next time, Professor Baxter.” Under her breath, though not quiet enough to avoid Zoe’s enhanced hearing, Eva said, “didn’t have much choice this time.”

Zoe pretended to ignore it. It wasn’t meant for her to hear, though it raised questions. Her eyes flicked back to the secretary that now appeared to be tapping on a cellphone. “If you’ll excuse me,” Zoe said, “I should speak with my colleague.”

Turning on her heel, Zoe walked right up to Wayne. He didn’t appear to have moved during any part of the conversation. His book was still out and he looked ready to run at the first sign of trouble.

“I warned you she’d be trouble,” Wayne grunted out.

“I know.” Zoe nodded. “But I’m not ready to give up on her.”

“Give up on her? Zoe,” Wayne sighed, “I know all this stuff must be fascinating to you. It isn’t safe. Not for you and not for Brakket.”

“Think of what an asset she would–”

“She would slaughter everyone.”

“I disagree. Just look,” Zoe waved her hand at the crowd. “Not a single one is a student nor are they staff. There is not a single child either. She didn’t explain how she kept kids away, but I can’t imagine that wasn’t planned as well.”

“Those are still innocent people, Zoe.”

“And she’s taken steps to protect them. She’s not a bad person.”

“She might not be. I can admit that.” That was the most grudging admission that Zoe had ever heard from his mouth. “The company she keeps is what makes her a danger to herself and everyone around.”

Zoe nodded. There was really nothing to argue about that. “At the moment, I’m more concerned about her,” Zoe said as she pointed a finger across the street.

“I can see someone. Can’t make them out.”

“It is our beloved dean’s secretary.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Not sure. I forgot to ask.” Zoe headed back towards the side of the roof that Eva stood upon. Wayne followed at a more sedate pace. “Eva, the–”

A thundering boom accompanied by small shock waves interrupted Zoe. Zoe steadied herself against a second shock wave.

Zoe ran up beside her students. Eva had knelt down with her hands hovering over three sheets of paper. One of the sheets had glowing runes covering the entire top.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said before anyone could ask, “this isn’t unexpected and the nuns are playing nicely.”

Zoe glanced up.

Four nuns stood outside the building with their arms raised. A shimmering blue bubble encircled the warehouse. Part of the building was on fire where a fifth nun used a thaumaturgical wand to conjure water.

None of them looked like they were going to attack despite more attacks from the crowd. The crowd’s attacks failed to penetrate their shield. Most pinged harmlessly against the bubble.

“This was planned?” Wayne asked with his voice raised over the attacks and shouts from the crowd.

“One of the plans,” Eva said. “Not my favorite one, but the one she was most interested in.”

Zoe’s eyes flicked up across the street. ‘She’ had to be Cathy. Or her boss. The figure who appeared next to the secretary surprised Zoe. He looked like Rex. The same suave hair and fancy suit, though it was a different suit than the one he wore earlier.

Their eyes met for just a moment. He flashed a smile and a casual wave of his hand.

Of course he would be in on it too, Zoe thought. He had ties to Martina and a background in combat. She’d have to interrogate him later. Zoe shook the thoughts from her mind and turned back to Eva.

“She?” Wayne asked at the same time as Zoe said, “what happens now?”

“Now we wait, watch, and hope the Elysium Sisters do not attack the crowd. Arachne, Juliana, be ready to intervene.” Eva turned her head backwards, but did not remove her hands from the two papers that were not glowing. “If you professors want to jump in, that’s fine. Just be careful of the bull.

“He isn’t the king because of amazing politics or lineage.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.018

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe Baxter had been feeling off-balance the entire day. There was a weight in her pocket unlike anything she’d felt before. It didn’t hold back her movements or tear through the threads holding her pocket together. For all she knew, the weight was nothing but her imagination.

Symbolic, most likely.

Cursed metal, otherwise.

When she first put the ring on in the presence of Ylva, it shrunk down and latched onto her finger. She nearly went into a panic. It took a lot of self-control not to pull out her dagger and chop off her own finger. It was only because Zoe had the presence of mind to simply try pulling the ring off that she still retained ten fingers.

It stretched to its full size and could be pulled off easily. She left it on until the moment she left Juliana behind in the cell house. After that, Zoe tore it off and dropped it in her pocket, much to Eva’s amusement.

Since then, Zoe kept it in her pocket. If it actually offered protection, especially against the current troubles plaguing Brakket Academy, it was too useful to leave in a desk or throw away. It could help should students find themselves in trouble, though she doubted it would work with anyone else given her name was engraved on it.

Wearing it and standing between her students and threats would have to suffice.

At least, that was how Zoe justified carrying it around and how she justified allowing Juliana to wear hers. Juliana at least wore several other rings, mostly to use their metal in the case of an emergency, so one extra ring seemed to have gone by unnoticed by the students and staff thus far.

She had no such justifications for experimenting with the metal. The fascinating properties had her mind whirling every time she thought about it.

Aside from the obvious weight discrepancy, it acted almost like a focus. Magic could be channeled into the ring. If it went unused, the magic would simply vanish. Regular foci disperse excess magic into the environment. The void metal would be able to channel exceedingly dangerous spells with very low chances of either exploding or catastrophically dumping the magic.

Of course, it was only a ring and not a large one at that. The total capacity for holding magic at that size was severely limited. A full, proper focus made out of the material would be invaluable.

That was far from the strangest property of the metal.

“Professor Baxter?”

Zoe blinked. She glanced around the class until her eyes came to rest on the speaker.

“Yes? Mr. Harrison?”

“You were telling us about magic numbers.”

Zoe nodded. “So I was. I fear I’ve been distracted today.” She glanced at the clock hanging in the back of the room. “Only three minutes left of class. Remember your essays on theoretical alternate types of foci are due on Monday and have a good weekend. You’re dismissed.”

The students gathered up their belongings. Half of them were already packed and ready to go, waiting on the edge of their seats. Those ones were out the door the second the words were out of her mouth.

Others, the more respectful students, politely cleared their desks. They lingered, talking with their friends or simply enjoying the time. Soon enough they filed out as well.

One seat was never pushed away from its desk. Its occupant hadn’t shown up for class. It was doubtful Susie would be back any time soon, if at all. The burns she suffered were treatable. The elves were known for their potion brewing skills; they had access to materials that they worked hard to keep out of everyone else’s hands.

The school received more than a handful of complaints from the permanent residents of Brakket. Most of those complaints were directed at the Elysium Order. The injury of Susie worried the town more than the parents of other students, for the most part.

If the school shut down over all the parents pulling their students, the town would dry up soon after. It was already a parched town. Most people left living in Brakket wouldn’t be able to afford to leave.

Prospects like that scared a lot of people.

All the more reason to keep the ring close at hand. As an instructor, it was Zoe’s first and foremost job to protect her students. Teaching them was a good second. By protecting the students, she’d also be protecting the town.

As the last student filed out, wishing Zoe a good weekend as she went, Zoe headed back to her office. There she sat upon her couch–the same one Nel sat on a mere month before.

Nel looked… alright. In truth, most of Zoe’s focus had been on the demon. From what little she saw, there were no tear streaks nor any harm that Zoe could see. She even smiled once or twice and sported a very happy looking open-mouthed grin when Juliana asked to stay for a few moments.

If Juliana was to be believed, the former nun was very lonely but otherwise doing fine in her service to Ylva. They apparently had a long talk before her questions with Ylva. She didn’t speak of what questions she wanted to ask. The only real information Zoe had about their meeting was about Nel.

Zoe wasn’t opposed to meeting with Nel every so often. It seemed entirely too cruel to leave her with nothing for company but a demon. The demon herself was the biggest holdup in agreeing to let Juliana meet Nel.

Fondling the ring in her pocket, Zoe thought, that demon seemed to have taken a liking to us. Zoe hadn’t forgotten about her words about Death on their first meeting. It was probably safe to be in her presence. Physically, at least.

Mentally, Zoe worried about possible corruption. Tempting and encouraging her students towards darker paths was simply unthinkable.

Of course, Eva herself probably counted as a worse corrupting influence than Ylva.

Zoe sighed, resting her head in her hands with her elbows on her desk. Things were getting so out of control. First it had just been Devon, or so she thought. Then it turned out that Eva had her own pet demon.

Now Juliana and Zoe were getting wrapped up in this mess. Juliana had taken to all the aberrations far better than Zoe had. Every little thing that happened grated on Zoe’s conscience.

Coils bound tighter and tighter with every passing day. There was no one to turn to. Wayne had been exceedingly terse since their rather heated discussion the other day. For a long while, Zoe thought he would simply report everyone who had been to Eva’s prison.

He never did.

Instead, Zoe had been given one hard slap against her cheek. Not even for being involved in all the diablery but for not telling Wayne in the first place.

Zoe had half a mind to just get up and go talk to him. She told Wayne the goings on, but she had neglected to mention all her fears and worries. She had put on the strong Zoe Baxter and kept her calm throughout their discussion.

But she couldn’t. Not for a while at least. Zoe maintained office hours for one hour after the final class of the day. Students rarely showed up, but there was always the possibility that today would be different.

Lightly slapping her own cheeks, Zoe straightened up and prepared to work on her lesson plan for the next week.

Zoe scratched down a stream of notes in her notebook. Like all of her research projects, Zoe started with a blank tablet. It never stayed blank but this project became ridiculous somewhere along the line. It was getting to the point where she almost needed a new one and not even a week had passed.

At first, Zoe had been extremely hesitant with her experimentation. She only had the one ring and, while she never wanted to meet Ylva again, she didn’t want to risk destroying the ring and offending the demon. Slowly she ramped up her experiment’s intensity.

No matter what she tried, nothing even made the tiniest scratch on the surface of the ring.

Placing it in a pit of the hottest magical fire she could produce did nothing. The parts of the flame that touched the ring simply vanished. It wasn’t so much extinguished as the flame just disappeared.

Ambient heat still forced Zoe to keep a short distance. When the temperature ramped up as hot as Zoe could make it, it reached around two-thousand kelvin. Hot enough to melt steel with heat to spare. Not as hot as Wayne could do, but he was class one, not a lowly class three.

Zoe watched as the ring sat in her kiln. It remained black. Not a hint of the glow expected from molten metal.

After cooking for ten minutes, a panting and sweating Zoe released her magic. The flames died down and vanished. Zoe plucked the ring from the kiln with a long pair of tongs. She dropped it on ceramic tiles and took temperature readings.

Room temperature.

Zoe frowned as she waved her hand over the ring. Lower and lower she moved her hand without feeling any heat radiating off. With a deep breath, she touched the back of her hand against the ring.

Shock ran through her nerves. She drew back almost immediately. With only a moment’s hesitation, Zoe gripped the ring in her hand. Not even the slightest heat touched her fingers.

It felt much like it had been stuck in the freezer. Unpleasant only in that it was colder feeling than room temperature.

Her next experiment consisted of leaving it in the freezer, of course.

She half expected to pull it out white-hot. It lay on the ceramic tiles, perfectly black. Not one to ignore caution, Zoe pulled it out with tongs once again. After a few temperature readings–room temperature once again–Zoe carefully touched her fingers to the metal.

Again, it felt much like it had been in the freezer.

Should have expected that, Zoe thought with a small amount of humor.

Magical ice might act differently. Unfortunately, while she may have been a class one aerothurge and a class three going on class two pyrokinetic, Zoe barely scraped by her class five hydroturge exams.

She’d need help for that experiment. Help might ask questions.

With a sigh, Zoe leaned back in the couch of her home. She rolled the ring between her fingers, occasionally slipping it on one of them. The ring’s ability to resize to fit any of her fingers was a mere footnote in her notebook. She hadn’t even started investigating that property.

A hammering on her door had Zoe on her feet in the blink of an eye.

No visitors were expected.

Her dagger whipped out, aiming at the door. The ring she had been fondling found its way onto her finger. She slipped it off and into her pocket, keeping one finger half way in.

Ready to cast a shield or a lightning bolt at a moment’s notice, Zoe approached her door. A small part of her wished it was enchanted like her office door–one way transparency. Her pitiful teacher’s salary wouldn’t cover the cost and she wasn’t adept enough at order and chaos magics to do the enchanting herself. Not permanently, at least.

Still, there were other methods of seeing through solid objects.

Zoe drew a line in the air with her dagger. Rippling magic seared the bindings of reality. The line of magic pulled apart at the midsection creating a vertical eye shape. Nothing but the pure white of between lay inside. With a thought, the white changed to the scene just outside her door.

Blinking twice to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, Zoe allowed reality to mend itself. The eye-shaped tear stitched itself back together and vanished into nothingness.

Zoe palmed her dagger, though she kept it at the ready, and walked up to the door. It swung open to reveal a dark-haired, golden-eyed man with a smile full of pearly-white teeth.

“Rex?”

A flicker of disgust or even hate passed over his face. It came and went so fast that it might have been her imagination. Rex’s face turned to the polite and slightly roguish smile she first saw on him.

Zoe tried to keep her face as neutral as possible. She maintained her slightly surprised expression without mirroring his flicker.

Zoe trusted herself far too much to believe it had been her imagination.

“Hey, Zoe. Just got back into town after some business.” He hefted up a bottle of wine. “Thought we might catch up, yeah?”

“So you came straight to my home late in the evening?”

“Well, I got your address from Martina. I thought about stopping by in the morning.” He brought his free hand to the side of his mouth. In the loudest stage whisper Zoe heard, he said, “I’m not much of a morning person.”

Zoe allowed a polite smile to touch her lips, though she kept careful watch for any more flickers of emotion. “I spoke with Martina about you, you know.”

A lopsided grin split his face. He brushed one finger along his chin, almost as if stroking a nonexistent beard. “Did she mention what a handsome devil I am?”

“More like, ‘don’t get yourself involved with that pathetic display of walking pestilence. I regret the day I met him everyday,’ or something along those lines.”

He leaned back and let out a roaring laugh. “That sounds like Martina.”

It didn’t sound like half the joke he apparently thought it was when Martina said it.

“So,” he said, “this a bad time?”

A brief thought of slamming the door in his face crossed her mind. She wasn’t quite sure where the thought came from. Even with his flicker of emotion, Zoe wasn’t such a rude person.

“Not as such, no.” Zoe opened her door wider and stepped to one side. “Though I’ll let you know this: I intend to keep our interactions strictly professional. No relationships in the workplace.”

“Me as well, me as well.” He took one step into the door way before leaning over in his stage whisper pose. “Trust me, you don’t want Martina’s hellish breath on the back of your neck.”

“I’m sure I can imagine,” Zoe said as she led him inside. “There’s a lasagna in the oven. Should be done soon. I think there will be enough for two.” So long as I give up leftovers for the weekend, Zoe thought with a mental sigh.

“Excellent, Excellent. It smells lovely,” he said after a long breath through his nose.

“Take a seat.” Zoe gestured towards the couches. She tried to ignore the sudden realization that they were incredibly cheap and not very comfortable. If she had a proper dining room setup, she’d have led him there instead. “I’ll get us some glasses,” Zoe said and quickly stepped into the kitchen.

Zoe sighed as she retrieved two glasses. They weren’t even wine glasses, just cups. Rex would look at them, look around at her home, and run off. He’d wisely decide to find a career that paid more, even though Zoe made more than enough to live off of. Most of her money went towards research.

Freezing halfway back to the sitting room, Zoe had a thought. What were they going to talk about. Not many people considered magical theory to be an interesting line of discussion. Sure, they would politely nod along and pretend they understood or cared about what she said–they never actually did.

Many of her projects, especially the current ring project, she couldn’t even talk about with anyone. They were simply too dangerous or too incriminating.

Resigning herself to a night of awkward silence, Zoe headed back to Rex. She dropped the glasses on the coffee table and took a seat across from him.

He politely smiled, no traces of any disgust on his face. With a flourish Tom would be jealous at, Rex popped open the bottle and poured a healthy amount in both glasses. Her glass slid across the table with a flick of his finger.

Zoe lifted the glass, swirling it around with her wrist. It had a faint scent of alcohol and bit of a floral smell to it. It wasn’t that she thought Rex Zagan would poison her, but she waited for him to take a swig of his own glass before she took a small sip of hers.

Paranoia never hurt anybody, after all.

The drink was a tad dry. Not to her tastes at all.

“So,” Rex said after she set the glass back on the table, “everything is lined up for me. I’ll be finishing the paperwork tonight to finalize my teaching position next year.”

“That’s good,” Zoe said. The words felt, for lack of a better word, lame in her mouth. “I’m sure the students will enjoy another practical class,” she added.

“Ah, yes. I am sure I will enjoy teaching them. It should be,” he paused, “fun.”

During that pause, Zoe was sure she saw a flicker again. Not of disgust or hatred, but of elation. The barest hint of a grin before his face resumed the mannerly smile he had on before.

That’s a good sign, Zoe thought. At least he seemed happy about teaching. Instructors who did not have fun and were not happy teaching generally did not teach much at all.

Beeping of the oven echoed throughout the small house before Zoe could continue the conversation. Zoe excused herself and headed into the kitchen, shut off the timer, and pulled out the lasagna. She scooped a third onto her plate and a third onto another plate. One leftover meal would have to suffice.

For a moment, Zoe thought about moving the lasagna into some sort of visually appealing arrangement. That thought quickly vanished from her mind. Not only did she not know where to start, but she decided she didn’t care. If Rex wanted a fancy looking meal, he could go find a restaurant.

“Looks delicious,” Rex said as Zoe set out the plates on the table. He said it sincerely if Zoe didn’t miss her mark.

She took her own seat and started eating.

A few bites in and Rex was all smiles. Zoe couldn’t detect the slightest flickers of any other emotion on his face. He dug in like a man possessed. Eating the way he did made Zoe wonder if he had been eating much at all in the past few days.

“This is absolutely exquisite. You’ll have to give me the recipe sometime, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Zoe said, “maybe. It might be a family secret.” It might also be from the frozen food aisle.

“Ah,” he said, “I know a lot about family secrets.”

“Oh?”

“Yep. My family has a whole slew of them. ‘Never speak of these to others,’ I was always told growing up. Quite the pain if I say so myself.” He took a large bite of his lasagna leaving not much left.

Zoe hoped he wouldn’t ask for seconds.

“Then again, all my family secrets are about magic and other magery. Not many culinary secrets in the Zagan family.”

Zoe couldn’t help herself. She had to ask. “And what secrets are in the Zagan family?”

“Now, now,” Rex said slowly, “just because it is a pain doesn’t mean I can go around spilling the secrets of my ancient magical knowledge. They wouldn’t be secret for very long if I did that.”

Ancient magical knowledge sounded very much like something she wanted to get her hands on. Zoe frowned, prompting a laugh from Rex. “Any hints?”

“Well,” he shifted his eyes from side to side as if checking for any eavesdroppers, “I suppose I could say that a lot of them are fairly tantric in nature.”

Her eyes narrowed, prompting another laugh from Rex.

“There are plenty of secrets that are more normal, to someone like you at least.”

Someone like me. Zoe wasn’t sure what to make of that. Instead of thinking, she downed the entire glass of wine.

“Perhaps we can trade. One of your secrets for one of mine.”

Zoe frowned. “I might have to get back to you on that one.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to be about your culinary expertise. I am certain there are other secrets held by a fascinating individual such as yourself.”

Flattery. For what purpose? His earlier statement came across as an insult. Now he covered it up with flattery.

“I suppose I had best be going,” he said.

“It seems like you just got here. Did you not want one of my secrets?”

“Yes, but you’re not weaseling my secrets out of me in one night so I’ll give you some time to think over what secrets you have,” he said with a chuckle. “That and I’d like to be home before the riot tonight hits its climax.”

“Right,” Zoe let out a terse sigh, “that’s not the only thing–”

Zoe blinked. She blinked again. Cold water dripped down her spine as she jumped to full alertness.

“Riot?”

“Oh yeah, nasty little thing,” Rex said with a wide smile. “Saw it on my way into town. Seems like half the population is gathered around some warehouse just outside town. They’re all up in arms with torches and pitchforks.”

“Torches and…” Zoe let out a short laugh. “You’re joking. You are, right?”

“Well,” he said as he flashed his grin again, “maybe about the pitchforks. They have wands instead.”

Zoe frowned and pulled out her cellphone. Four missed calls in the last half hour, all from Wayne. How did I miss these?

She immediately called him back.

“I’ll just see myself out then, yeah?” The door slammed and he was gone. Zoe didn’t even notice him walking to the door.

She was too distracted with waiting for Wayne to pick up.

By the sixth ring, a click sounded in her ear.

“Wayne?”

“You’re missing the party.”

Zoe gripped the cellphone in her hand. “There is something going on then?”

“Something. You could say that,” Wayne grunted out. “I tried to tell you earlier.”

After taking a deep breath, Zoe said, “I must have silenced my phone.”

She’d done no such thing and Zoe knew it. Wayne’s mirthless chuckle seemed to agree.

“Your girls are here.”

“Of course she is.” Zoe stopped and blinked. “Girls–plural?”

“Yep. Along with the pet demon.”

Zoe grit her teeth. Eva was one thing. Juliana was another. If Eva dragged Shalise into some mess, there would be words.

“Just tell me where.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.017

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Rapid breaths echoed inside her helmet. Every breath in was warm, stuffy, and stale. Every breath out moistened the air further. Juliana blinked away the extra liquid on her eyes.

With a quick thought, she widened up the mouth holes in an attempt at sucking in more oxygen. A few slits for extra ventilation opened up around her cheeks.

Figuring out the exact balance between protection and breathability was more of guesswork than anything. Acquiring a book on medieval knight helmets might not be such a bad idea.

Acquiring one in the middle of a fight was, sadly, impossible.

Juliana dodged to one side, allowing a shard of rock to fly past her.

More of float than fly.

The rock lazily drifted through the air. Juliana actually hit it with her shoulder as she moved back to where she was before the dodge.

“You’ve got to work on that speed,” Juliana said. She ignored the small echo in her helmet. “An attack like that isn’t going to scare a cat let alone another mage.”

Jason Bradley grunted as he pointed his wand at the stack of premade rocks. One split into an arrow shape. With his wand trained on it, it lifted up in the air around chest height.

While she waited for her sparring partner to send another attack her way, Juliana hopped back and forth on her heels. She kept her heart pumping and her breath ragged. Armor was not light. Even with her muscles growing from carrying around several pounds of metal for several months, moving quickly still wore her down.

Professor Kines’ class had been enlightening in that, at the very least. They didn’t seem to be much good for anything else. She still wasn’t sure why half the students bothered to show up. Hardly anyone actually managed to put up any kind of fight, let alone a decent fight.

Jason was actually ahead of the curve. For a first-year earth mage, that is. Jordan might have him beat. Of course, Juliana herself was on par with at least third-year if not fourth-year students.

Out of the corner of her eye, Juliana saw Jordan send a rock shard flying at Shelby. His shard actually flew, though only just.

Shelby knocked it out of the air with a well placed gust of wind. Unlike Shalise, who seemed to focus entirely on lightning, Shelby embraced the air aspect of aerotheurgy.

A rush of wind hit Jordan square in the chest. Rustling of his clothes and a few locks of his brown hair–which he quickly smoothed back down–were the only indication. It didn’t hit him hard enough to cause even a stumble and it wasn’t sharp enough to damage his protective vest.

Most of the first year aerothurges were much the same way. All of them had more trouble forming their element into actual attacks.

The rock Jason tried to attack her with finally reached Juliana. She ducked out of the way and continued her quick hops from side to side.

Jason groaned as the rock shattered into the floor. “How can you have so much energy. You’re just toying with me.”

“Knocking you on your back in a second isn’t going to help either one of us.”

“You did it to that one kid on the first day.”

“Tony?” Juliana glanced off to one side where the third-year ice mage was engaged in a rather heated duel with his fourth-year brother. “He wasn’t taking this seriously. You’re at least putting an effort in.”

He scuffed his shoe against the ground. “Not a good enough effort.”

“Now, let’s not get whiny or I might knock you down. You’re better than most of the first-years.”

“Not better than you.”

“I was trained by my mother.”

“How did she teach you?”

Juliana paused their dialog as she racked her memories. Eventually she shrugged, though she wasn’t sure how much of the shrug was visible through her armor. “Don’t remember.”

“How can you not remember?”

“I was a little girl. Do you remember how you learned to walk or talk?”

He shrugged back at Juliana.

“You cast an invisibility spell on one of your pranks, right? That’s some high level magic. Use it on those rocks,” Juliana gestured towards the pile next to him. “It is much harder to defend against something you can’t see. Even if it doesn’t hit hard, at least it might hit.”

Jason took off his helmet and ran a hand through his red hair before replacing the protective gear. “My dad taught me that,” he said with a light blush. His small smile slipped off his face. “It won’t work on these. The enchantment disguises an object using its surroundings. It falls apart as the object is moved.”

“Focus more on power then,” Juliana said after a minute. “When I do it, I put a huge burst of power behind the rock and leave it alone. Physics takes care of the rest.”

Juliana flicked her wand at the earthen floor. Three blunted spearheads burst from the ground. They angled themselves at Jason and launched off, one by one. Once the final spearhead fired off, Juliana raised both her hands in the air to show him that she wasn’t controlling the projectiles anymore.

Surprise showed clear on Jason’s face as the rocks closed their distance. Despite the speed that Juliana attacked him with, he managed to bring up a shield. The first spear hit it, sending huge fractures through the bubble. The second spear shattered the remains of the shield leaving the third to strike him square in the chest.

Jason let out a grunt and fell back on his rear.

“Hey,” Juliana said as she crossed the small dueling ring. She offered out a hand to the fallen red-head as she said, “that was a pretty good shield and pretty good reflexes with it.”

“I wasn’t even thinking,” he said as he gripped Juliana’s hand and pulled himself to his feet.

“A dodge would have been better, tactically, because I wasn’t controlling the spears beyond the initial launch. Good nonetheless.”

“Thanks,” he said with a small smile.

The sound of shattering glass echoed behind Juliana. A bolt of white lightning shot mere inches from her shoulder into a wall.

Juliana did not hesitate for one moment. She shoved Jason back to the ground and followed him down. Only then did she dare to look back at what happened.

It was the bull. Eva’s winged bull lay sprawled out on its side in front of one of the windows. Sickly black liquid left streaks where it slid across the ground.

Four white-robed nuns jumped through the window as the beast lumbered to its feet. They wasted no time in slinging lightning at the beast.

A bleat from the beast all but shattered Juliana’s eardrums. It rattled around inside her helmet just as much as it rattled her skull. The ringing in her ears died down after a moment and the sound of the room returned to Juliana.

Professor Kines’ voice faintly drifted over the sounds of panicked students, lightning, and the bull charging. He shouted at the students, ushering them out a door.

Eva ignored him. She stood in her dueling ring with a blank face. Even as Shalise ran towards the door, Eva merely watched in her usual, eyeless manner. A few globules of black liquid hung in the air just above her outstretched hand.

Juliana looked down at Jason. Her dueling partner crawled away from the battle on his hands and knees. Figuring he could take care of himself, Juliana turned towards Eva.

With a flick of her wand, earth pushed against her feet and hands. She surged forth in the direction of Eva. Juliana’s balance failed her half way there. She tumbled and rolled to Eva’s feet.

There would be bruises in the morning. It was the first time she’d ever tried anything like that.

Eva barely registered her. Her face remained blank through dodging a bolt of lightning. Juliana felt a tinge of pity for any who dismissed the girl on account of the band of leather covering her eyeless face.

“Shouldn’t we be getting out of here?”

“There are students stuck there,” Eva pointed across the room.

Sure enough, several pairs of students were trapped between the wall opposite the door and the battle that was slowly moving to the center of the room. Most huddled together or were as far away from the fight as possible. None looked in a good position to get up and run around the edges. Not with all the lightning that missed the bull.

How they missed, Juliana couldn’t fathom. The bull was as big as a small shed. Missing the broad side of a barn definitely applied here.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Juliana said.

Eva turned her face down to look at Juliana. “I don’t really. None of them are my friends.”

“How heartless. We should leave them to Professor Kines and get out.”

“I’m curious. I’ve never seen the Elysium Sisters use anything other than lightning, fire, and their–admittedly powerful–shields. This is a rare opportunity to see if they have any other tricks.”

“We could get killed,” Juliana said. Even so, she turned her eyes towards the unfolding conflict. “How is this a rare opportunity?”

“Well,” Eva said slowly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “this time none of those attacks are aimed at me. A stark difference compared to every other time I’ve seen the nuns fight.”

The nuns were putting up quite the fight.

Juliana hadn’t been present for the battle in the cafeteria. She had other matters to attend to that day. This wasn’t one on one. Irene described the cafeteria fight almost as a Spanish bullfight. Except bulls used in bullfighting tended to not have the wings that contributed to that nun’s downfall.

So far, all but one of the nuns stuck with lightning. The spare held a battle-axe made of pure white light in one hand. Staring at it caused Juliana’s eyes to sting. Like staring at a bright light after spending too long in the dark. She could feel her pupils trying to constrict. Despite the pain, it took an effort to pull her eyes away from the axe.

Juliana didn’t know whether or not Eva could even detect the axe. She’d describe it later.

Apart from the lightning, scorch marks–from fire by the looks–lined one side of the bull. If so, it had been extinguished.

None of the nuns seemed keen on testing their ‘admittedly powerful’ shields.

As soon as the bull came anywhere near one of the nuns, that nun would turn and run, dodging if she had to. Her sisters would move in and distract.

The bull did not do the long charges that Irene had described. It tried to get close and crush the nuns with its horns.

“You’re crazy,” Juliana said as she flattened herself against the ground. A lightning bolt crackled overhead a moment later.

The bull used its wings to close the distance between it and one of the nuns leading to the other nuns firing into empty space.

Without making a sound, the nun dove to the ground and rolled a short distance just as the bull landed where she had been standing. With a kick in the air, the nun went straight from her back to her feet and immediately continued the assault.

“People may have mentioned that before.”

“So what if the nuns start losing?”

“I’m not going to jump in and help either party. I have no love for the nuns and I’m sure that demon can take care of himself.” She motioned towards the black blood floating near her hand. “This is just for a shield if things get too hot.”

Juliana balked, eyes wide as her head whipped towards Eva. “Demon?” She didn’t stay looking to gauge Eva’s reaction. Getting hit by a stray lightning bolt simply wasn’t worth it.

Out of the corner of her eye, Juliana saw Eva tilt her head back down before cocking it to one side. “Did I not tell you?”

Juliana shook her head.

“Oh.”

“Oh? That’s it? Did you summon it?”

Eva let out a loud scoff. “I am not so suicidal. That thing could probably take on both Arachne and Ylva at the same time without breaking a sweat. I don’t know how or why he is here, other than him having some sort of issue with the nuns.”

“So it isn’t going to attack us?”

“Well, let me put it this way,” Eva said, “I am not going to go anywhere near him if I can help it.”

The battle raging before them seemed far too ‘near him’ for Juliana’s tastes. Still, she stuck by Eva. Or knelt by her. Too many lightning bolts flying around for her to want to be higher.

All four nuns glanced between each other before nodding in unison. All four raised both hands. Lightning–at least twice the size of their regular lightning–burst from their hands and struck the bull in the side.

The bull flew through the air–not because of its wings. It crashed into the floor. Dust and debris scattered around as the bull dug into the ground. It skidded to a stop mere feet from a few of the frightened students.

One of the nuns did not seem to care. She sprinted forward. As she neared the downed bull, white flames spurted from her hands.

Pulling itself to its feet with haste, the bull merely stood there. The flames engulfed the beast as its wings unfurled. Not a drop of the fire got past.

Juliana stared on in shock. She glanced up at Eva’s unperturbed face. “Is it protecting the students?”

The black-haired girl simply shrugged. “Maybe it thinks demon on fire is scarier than demon not on fire.”

If that was the case, Juliana couldn’t argue with its effectiveness. From one tip of its wings to the other, the demon burned. White fire danced across it so hot that Juliana could feel it through her metal armor.

It simply stood there. No bleating or screeching or whining. The glow of its yellow eyes brightened against the flames.

The nun ceased her flamethrowing. They stared for just a moment before the beast begun scratching its hooves against the ground.

It charged.

Rumbling earthquakes shook the ground as it trampled across the dueling arena.

The nun hurled herself out of the path. Her arm met the ground hard enough to make Juliana wince. It might even be broken. She turned and fired more fire as the beast lumbered past her.

She missed.

The demon charged too quickly and the fire flew through empty air.

And landed on one of the cowed students.

Screams filled the air. Not of fright or fear, but out of pain and agony.

Before Juliana could blink, a shield formed around the student. A black-red shield. Eva’s shield.

It was too late. It caught some of the fire, but too much had gotten through.

The nun’s eyes immediately lost their fire. Flames on both the student and the bull rapidly diminished to nothing. The damage was done. The student continued screaming as she held up bright red, raw arms in front of her face.

Gazing in horror, the nun locked up. Her sisters shouted out at her.

The nun did not hear. She took a head-butt from the bull straight on. A red smear appeared on the floor in her place.

She never saw it coming.

It was too much. The scent of charred skin. The nun. Juliana retched as she turned to one side. She tried and managed to hold it down. Her helmet was still covering her head and mouth.

As the remains of the nun settled on the ground, Juliana felt a hand on her shoulder.

“You need to get out of here,” Professor Kines’ voice came from just behind Juliana.

“Don’t worry about us,” Eva said calmly. She raised her hand and pointed past the battle. “She needs far more immediate attention.”

Professor Kines followed her finger. “Susie,” he said softly as his eyes came to rest on the burned student. The shield around her had vanished. His voice hardened as he spoke. “I’ll handle her. You two get out of here before anything else happens.”

The professor ran off, skirting along the edges of the room.

Cold sweat formed on Juliana despite the heat. She could feel her skin turn clammy within her suit.

Slowly, she turned her head back to the fight. A small bit of metal moved to obscure the red stain on the ground.

How could Eva just watch without reacting?

Fury at their sister’s death seemed to engulf the remaining nuns. The fire in their eyes brightened as they launched attack after attack. They also seemed to disregard their surroundings. Every one of their attacks seemed far more reckless than before.

As two lightning bolts came far too close for comfort in a short amount of time, Eva looked down at Juliana. “Well,” she said, “even if they aren’t aimed at me, I think I’m done watching.”

Finally, Juliana thought. She scrambled to her feet and backed away from the fight as fast as she could. Juliana paid careful attention to where the nuns were aiming their fists.

Eva didn’t bother keeping an eye on the battle. She turned her back to it and casually walked towards the door.

The moment they were out, Juliana collapsed to her knees. She barely managed to move the metal away from her mouth in time.

Juliana greedily sucked in oxygen the moment she could. A small, clinical portion of her mind told her that she indeed did not have nearly enough airflow into her helmet.

A wave of lightheadedness passed over Juliana as she tried to stumble her way to her feet.

She almost fell.

Two arms wrapped around her, steadying her.

Barely.

Juliana didn’t know when Shalise had appeared at her side. Possibly the moment she first collapsed to her knees.

At the moment, she didn’t care. Juliana fell into the offered arms as another wave of nausea ran through her system.

“You’re heavy,” the brunette mumbled.

“Don’t call me fat.” Juliana tried to laugh. That was a mistake. Her tongue moved and tasted. She needed to scrub out her mouth. The strong taste of half digested vinaigrette she had for lunch would have sent her to her knees again had it not been for Shalise.

She didn’t seem to be doing so well. Shalise leaned back, almost tipping over before she managed to slowly lower Juliana to the ground.

“What happened in there?” Her voice was soft and very slow.

Juliana managed to shake her head. “Later.”

— — —

Notice: Attack on Brakket Academy

At approximately 7:15 Thursday evening, a magical creature, a winged bull relative to the African lamassu, was attacked by nuns of the Elysium Order. Their engagement spilled over into Brakket Dueling Hall located within the Infinite Courtyard. Students from all years were attending an optional extracurricular activity within the building at the time.

During the engagement, one of the nuns performed a spell commonly known as Holy Fire. Students at the scene reported the magical creature attempting to protect students from the flames which were spread wildly and without regard for innocent bystanders by the Elysium Order nun.

One of the students was severely burned before the flames could be extinguished. She is currently receiving medical treatment at the Fallaner Medical Center under care of the elves.

The staff of Brakket Magical Academy wish to remind all students and citizens of Brakket not to antagonize the Elysium Order nuns occupying our town. They have shown plain disregard for the wellbeing of any but themselves. Approaching may be hazardous to your health.

Despite eyewitnesses stating that the magical creature protected students, Brakket Magical Academy wishes to remind all that approaching the creature could be as dangerous as approaching any wild animal. Even should the creature prove to be docile or even friendly, so long as the Elysium Order remains in our town, we cannot be safe.

It is unknown what other creatures may entice the Elysium Order’s rage. Brakket Magical Academy encourages all residents to stay clear of anything unknown. Anyone wearing the garb of the Elysium Order should be avoided and considered dangerous.

This is a public announcement.

Martina Turner

Dean

Brakket Magical Academy

Catherine turned away from the bulletin board in the Gillet lobby with a sigh. The Rickenbacker had already been done, as had several notice boards in Brakket Academy’s main building.

That left a stack for the rest of the town.

All major businesses were required to have bulletin boards easily visible for announcements to be posted. Normally notices would simply be emailed or faxed. These notices were ‘special’ and needed to be hand delivered. That damnable Martina Turner wouldn’t even give her help.

Catherine let out a string of curses under her breath as her high heels clicked down the sidewalk. There was no reason why Zagan couldn’t help, or the stupid little girl, or any one of Martina’s other minions.

But no, the woman had to give it to Catherine.

Catherine had dropped to her knees in front of Martina. One patch on her thrice handed down pants tore loose. She clasped her hands together and looked up at her tormentor. “Please missus,” she had definitely said, “the nuns stalk the streets. They hunt for black blood. I’ll never survive.”

“You are my familiar. You will do as you are told,” Martina had said immediately before laughing in the most evil manner possible.

That laugh might have been impressive under other circumstances. It would have been more impressive had it not rested firmly within Catherine’s imagination. She might not have minded serving someone with a laugh that good.

The actual conversation may have involved several undocumented uses of specific fingers on the human hand, but that wasn’t how Catherine would be repeating the story.

There was one specific element she had actually been worried about. Apart from her general distaste for menial labor, that is.

Walking through the town in the early morning alone with those abhorrent nuns stalking around was going to get her killed.

Worse, Catherine’s clothes itched. Every step she took rubbed some part of it against some part of her. It was supposed to be real fur, yet it brushed against her skin in the most unnatural way.

When she had first been appointed as Martina’s secretary, Catherine tried to minimize the amount of cloth touching her sensitive skin. Martina put a stop to that. Apparently it wasn’t appropriate for a secretary to dress in such a manner. Parents would look down on a school that had one of its staff dressing in such a revealing manner.

Prudes.

Every last one of them.

Her current attire seemed to be pushing the limits if Martina’s expressions meant anything.

Catherine would push them more, if only to annoy Martina. She’d find the exact limits and go one step further. A new dress was set to arrive in the early days of next week specifically for that task.

With any luck, it would be more comfortable too.

That might as well have been forever away. Walking through the town in her current clothes would have to be dealt with for now.

Using her sharp fingernails, Catherine ran her fingers down the seams at her sides. The dress split straight down the sides. Only a thread at the very top of her dress, just beneath her arms, kept the back and front of her clothes from peeling apart.

Far more maneuverable.

Modesty stayed intact as well. For the most part. The dress might have swung too far apart from her belly and her legs as she walked. But who cared about that anyway. Even if someone did care, it wasn’t like anyone else was going to wake up at such a horrible time in the morning.

Anyone aside from nuns, that is. Catherine kept a careful eye on the early morning shadows.

She’d be teleporting out at the slightest hint of a nun. Martina could go screw herself. Her familiar status protected her from banishment, but she wasn’t willing to risk having to claw her way out of the depths of the void if they attempted more hostile actions.

Catherine opened the glass cover on the first bulletin board outside the nearest building off Brakket campus. She carefully pinned the sheet of paper up with four thumb tacks exactly on the designated points.

Messing that up would just bring more ire from her employer. And not the good kind.

With the paper firmly in place, Catherine double checked that she hadn’t damaged the paper in any sort of excessive manner. Nodding to herself, she pressed her palm up against the paper. She was sure to keep her sharp fingernails from scratching or puncturing the thin paper.

A light push of her magic charged the intricate runic array printed on the backside.

Catherine gave a vicious grin as she slammed the glass cover shut. Sadly the stack of notices did not seem to decrease in the slightest with only one missing. A hundred left to go.

She ignored the flapping of her dress as she walked to the next bulletin board.

Now she just had to survive the rest of the distribution. Hopefully, the nuns would be too busy with the aftermath of the previous night to notice her.

At least that problem would be taken care of soon.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The last few scribbles made their way from one paper to the next. Eva wasn’t using her good ink. This was just a test.

Besides, the less of the good ink Eva used, the more funds she had. While the privacy rune packs were profitable to be sure, it was still money from kids. Kids without a lot of money for the most part.

Drastically overestimating the budget for her supplies to her new employer was like taking candy from a baby. A really rich baby that had no identifiable source of income.

Funny how getting paid made her care much less about the money’s origins.

A mystery to solve later.

Eva took a drink of her… whatever it was. Some sort of bitter fruit drink. She’d told the man at the counter to recommend her a drink. Being unable to read had made menus very inconvenient.

It wasn’t a menu she was familiar with either. Eva had chosen this particular restaurant for her test due to the possibility of violence. The Liddellest Cafe wouldn’t do.

The place had also been chosen for the lack of patrons. Apart from Eva and the man behind the counter, there was a single other person.

A nun.

Any time Eva tried to leave Brakket’s campus on foot, she acquired a nun escort from out of nowhere. They never interacted with Eva. Instead, they chose to hang back and watch. None of them were ever very good about concealing their presence, though it helped that Eva could easily detect them by the little orb in the chest. Likely one of the eyes that Nel was covered with.

Eva had considered asking for or outright taking two of the eyes. The fact that all the nuns had them in their chests and Nel’s eyes squirmed around her body with minds of their own had turned Eva off to the idea.

The eyes were likely some sort of conduit for the nuns’ powers. That was an extra complication that Eva did not need at the moment. She had enough complications to go around.

Not to mention that Devon would be angry at further anomalies to account for in his experiment.

The nun that followed Eva into the shop today didn’t even bother trying to hide. She brazenly walked just a few steps behind Eva until they reached the restaurant. Without even an acknowledgement of her obvious spying, the nun sat at one of the other tables and ordered her own little brunch.

Exactly as planned. Eva needed her for an experiment of her own.

After ensuring the canceling runes on Eva’s hand and Arachne’s back were active, Eva readied the sheet of paper in front of her. The blood-tainted ink on the paper identified the runes as test thirteen. It was also the one she felt the best about.

Eva channeled her magic into the runes and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long. The magic of the wrath runes took hold almost immediately.

The man behind the counter tensed up. His heart rate increased as he glared at the nun.

The nun did not react in any way, Eva noted with no small amount of satisfaction. Not to the runic magic nor to the man’s glare. She was much too focused on her meal.

Keeping the nuns from feeling the effects was one of the main problems she’d had in her early testing. Eventually she settled on the wrath rune exclusively affecting humans while targeting nonhumans. She had to strictly define human and nonhuman with runes because while the nuns were human, they had that extra organ. Regular humans didn’t have weird eye things embedded in their chests. Strictly defining nonhuman was required as well.

Hurting kittens because of wayward runic experiments would be unforgivable.

The canceling runes kept Eva and Arachne from both sides of the rage effect.

Eva started to mark test thirteen as a success in her notes.

A sudden roar from the man behind the counter froze the pen in her hand.

He climbed on top of the counter and launched himself at the nun.

Eva activated the disintegration runes. Test thirteen crumbled to dust that Eva scattered with a brush of her hand.

That did nothing to stop the man. He reared back a hand and punched the confused nun in the face.

Several vessels in her nose broke as it bent inwards.

The man tried to follow-up with a second punch, but his fist encountered resistance.

The nun activated her shield.

And promptly used her own fists on the man. He went flying over the counter and into the back wall. The landing was not soft, but Eva could see he wasn’t seriously injured. He collapsed and didn’t make the effort to get back up.

Huh, Eva thought as she quickly covered up all the rune papers with homework from Alari Carr’s class. I did not know the nuns possessed enhanced strength.

Eva tried to pretend she had nothing to do with anything when the nun turned her harsh gaze in Eva’s direction. She could tell that the nun’s eyes were blazing with their white fire.

“You…”

“Now let’s not be–”

Eva was lifted out of her seat and flew against the wall. The lightning hit her and crackled around her, but it didn’t hurt nearly as much as Sister Cross’s attack. Lower power?

No.

It hit Arachne.

The spider tore herself through Eva’s shirt as she launched at the nun. Arachne twisted into her humanoid form and had her claws out and around the nun’s shield by the time she landed.

Blood leaked out of a massive gash that ran all down her back.

Eva shuddered. If the lightning could damage Arachne that much, Sister Cross was definitely holding back. She did not want to get hit by a full power blast.

“You,” the nun growled again. “You’re the one who killed Sister Stripe. I banished you.”

“You have my thanks for that. Now you are going to die.”

“Arachne!” Eva shouted. This was bad. “We can’t kill her. Too big of a mess. The man behind the counter might wake up. Someone might come in.”

“You’re worried about inconvenience rather than preserving human life?” The nun let out a loud scoff. “So glad I wasted my time being nice to you.”

Eva frowned. She couldn’t remember any nuns being nice to her in any sense of the word. It clicked. “You’re the one from the lunchroom. The one who told me to go kill myself.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No. Your exact words were ‘I hope you go off yourself. You’re a blight on humanity.’ Then you proceeded to tell me that doctor assisted suicide would be the right choice.”

The nun grit her teeth. “I didn’t say that,” she ground out.

Apparently, Arachne did not believe the woman. She renewed her efforts at puncturing the nun’s shield.

Her efforts abruptly ceased as she went flying across the room.

“You cannot beat me.”

“Empirical evidence shows we can beat you. We just don’t want to,” Eva said as Arachne grew to her full size and charged the nun once again.

Tables, chairs, and food all went flying as Arachne barreled over it all. Eva had to grab her notebook before it got run over.

The nun staggered back within her shield as Arachne rammed into it. She pulled herself back to her full height with a brush at imaginary dust on her shoulder. Her heart rate didn’t even pick up.

“You are not convincing.”

“Arachne! Stand down or you’ll be back in prison for the foreseeable future.”

The spider-demon let out a loud growl. She swiped against the nun’s shield one last time before taking half a step back.

“Now, let’s all just calm down. I’m sure it would be bad for your order to have attacked a schoolgirl unprovoked. Again.”

“Unprovoked?” The nun wiped a finger across her upper lip, pulling away some blood that dripped from her nose. “You call this unprovoked?”

“I don’t remember giving you a nosebleed. Arachne? Did you punch her in the face?”

“I’ll tear off her face.”

Eva sighed and shook her head. “We didn’t touch you.”

“That man,” the nun said with a gesture over the counter, “was perfectly courteous when he served me food. You–”

“You didn’t even think the service was bad and you still threw him over the counter? Is he even going to be okay?”

That was more or less a genuine question. He still hadn’t gotten up. Nothing appeared wrong–his heart was still beating and all the blood flow appeared normal. But he hadn’t gotten up. Eva wasn’t a brain surgeon, there may be some trauma to the brain that caused him to fall unconscious without her being able to detect it.

He was an excellent example of why she didn’t want to test anything in a place she liked. If the man remembered anything, the nuns would assuredly be banned. Possibly Eva as well.

“You know what? Fine. Sister Cross wants you constantly monitored? She can do it herself.” The nun started to walk past Arachne and towards the exit.

“What, just like that?” Eva knew she shouldn’t be questioning the woman. Stopping her might invite further attacks.

But she didn’t attack. She sneered over her shoulder. “Our magic is designed to fight undead. We know how to banish a demon. We’re not trained to fight them. If Sister Cross continues to occupy this abominable little town under the pretense of finding a necromancer–a necromancer who has fled by all evidence–then I’ll be happy to accept my promotion when she is excommunicated.”

A small smile grew across Eva’s face. “So, you are saying that you wouldn’t mind if Sister Cross–”

“Do not seek to tempt me into your heretical ways.”

With that said, the conversation ended. The nun walked out with her head held high.

“Well,” Eva said with a turn of her head towards Arachne, “it was worth a shot.”

“You should have let me kill her.”

“Far too messy. We’d be found out too easily.”

“She’s going to run back to the nuns and tell them that I was the one to kill their other member.”

“And that,” Eva said, “is the main reason I wanted you at the prison. You just had to come back.”

“I couldn’t leave you here with nuns and demons running amok.”

Eva didn’t bother to bring up that Arachne didn’t help much with the latter. She’d been angry enough about being tossed halfway across the Infinite Courtyard. Jokingly bringing it up the first time ended up with Eva wrestled to the ground.

That Arachne returned on the verge of panic about Eva’s encounter with the pillar had her feeling slightly guilty.

Eva merely sighed as she pulled out her notebook to strike out the partially written success. She made a short note detailing a few changes for the next version.

Far too many pargon runes.

Testing would be harder without a nun following her around, but she’d manage.

“I’m amazed by the elegance you displayed in handling the nun.”

Eva turned towards the most sarcastic voice she’d heard. In recent memory, at least. The lesser succubus sat in one of the few upright chairs. She casually took a small sip of a drink that she had acquired from somewhere in the ruined restaurant.

“Catherine.” Eva tried to smile. It came off a bit strained. At least Arachne wasn’t trying to take her head off this time. “How are you today?”

“I’d be better if you wouldn’t leave large messes for me to clean up.”

“All in the name of progress.” Eva nodded her head towards the ruined counter. “Is he going to be alright?”

Catherine shrugged. “I’ll drop him off at the school’s medical facility. If he doesn’t remember anything, we’ll say he slipped. If he does, well, we’ll fix it.”

“And the nuns?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem provided that you come through. We want you to be finished by Tuesday.”

“Tuesday?”

The succubus sighed and rolled her eyes. “I spoke clear enough for you to understand.”

“That’s just–I mean…” Eva ran her gloved fingers through her hair. “You mean next Tuesday, right?”

There was a sudden rush of blood to her eyes for the briefest of instants before they returned to normal. If Eva had to guess, they would have flashed red–perhaps even turning her pupils into the typical demonic slit. Her polite smile turned somewhat mocking.

“I thought you were on our side. You even forced all those restrictions on us.”

Arachne growled as she took a step forward.

Assuming succubi hearts were at all similar to humans, Catherine was scared. She tried not to show it on her face. Her smile slipped just long enough to confirm Eva’s suspicions.

“Catherine, Catherine, Catherine. I want the nuns gone as much as anybody else. But it isn’t ready yet. I have a plan for blocking out the students, but it won’t be ready until tomorrow. Then it will take a few days to propagate.”

The demon turned back to Eva–though she kept her eyes on Arachne–and put on a small smile. “Tuesday, Eva. That gives you all day tomorrow plus whatever is left of today to work on it. If you aren’t part of this, I don’t think we can continue to adhere to your conditions.”

“Unacceptable,” Eva said. “I’ll be ready. Though I am still confused on why you need me.”

“Aside from the ‘gesture of goodwill,'” Catherine said with air quotes, “that oversized bovine claims that nothing would be interesting if he handled it all. ‘Why do something yourself when you can force others to do it for you?'” She shook her head. “If I had that kind of power, I wouldn’t be slaving away for some no name human.”

“You want power?”

“Everyone wants power.”

Eva thought back to her meeting with the bull. He had questioned her desires. She hadn’t been able to answer, more due to his interruptions than anything else, but it brought up a good question. What did demons want?

All demons had an enticement–something to draw them out of Hell. That could end up being almost anything. A golden coin, a vial of raven’s blood, or several sacrifices in the case of Ivonis.

That raised the question of what would be required to draw Eva out of Hell, but that was not immediately pressing.

Enticements didn’t seem like the kind of desires or ambitions that a mortal would have. It certainly did not seem like power. Not unless feeding Ylva raven’s blood would increase some arbitrary measure of strength.

“What options are available for you gaining ‘power?'”

Catherine blinked as she set her cup down on the table in front of her. It took another second or two before she quirked her head to one side. “What?”

“Well, you’re a lesser succubus, right?” The demon narrowed her eyes but did not dispute the claim. “Can you become a full succubus? Or perhaps something else entirely?”

There was a moment of silence as Catherine tilted her cup back and forth. Eva did not miss Arachne’s odd glance in her direction.

“I am what I am,” came the eventual reply.

“You can at least become stronger amongst your peers, can’t you? Even Ylva offered to teach Arachne how to–”

A quick and forced cough from the spider-demon interrupted Eva. Was her being unable to create void metal some stigma?

Eva shook her head and changed her line. “How to do something she hadn’t known how to do.”

“Where are you going with this?” Catherine asked with a frown.

“I’m just curious about you and your motivations, I suppose. You said it yourself. You’re slaving away for some no name human. Does doing so grant you power or prestige?”

Catherine’s frown wordlessly deepened.

After another few moments of silence, Eva shrugged her shoulders. “At the very least, you could be following the old adage of knowledge equaling power. Surely you don’t know everything. I bet there are plenty of books in Brakket’s libraries that you’ve never read.”

The cup in her hand shattered. Shards fell to the table. Not one cut her delicate fingers.

“Tuesday, Eva.”

A strong smell of brimstone replaced the woman as she vanished from her seat. It took Eva a moment to realize that the man behind the counter disappeared as well.

Eva sighed. Catherine was certainly more personable than many demons, but she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d offended the succubus.

She definitely got Arachne to stare at her.

Eva turned towards Arachne and raised one eyebrow.

“What was that all about?”

“Like I told her, just curious. It has come to my attention that I don’t know nearly enough about demons. Especially given my close proximity to so many.”

“You’re putting ideas into the mind of a creature that likely hasn’t had an original thought in several millennia.”

“So what?” Eva made a couple of last-minute notes about the rune system before she forgot. As soon as she snapped the notebook shut, Eva glanced up to the silent demon. “Is she going to become some sort of super succubus and try to destroy the world? Because I told her to read a book?”

“You laugh now,” Arachne said with a feral grin. “You won’t think it is so funny when you’ve got a super succubus running her fingers down your spine.”

“That is a possibility then?”

“Doubtful. She’ll run off, grab a book, start reading, and then stop. She’ll remember that she hates doing anything not involving copious amounts of bodily fluids and continue brooding about how miserable she is.”

Eva frowned. “That sounds like a dreadful existence.”

“She–most demons know nothing outside their own little domain. They found their niche long before the dawn of time and haven’t changed since. Those that do get out,” Arachne waved her arms around the shop, “treat it as a brief vacation.

We are different. I might be old, but compared to a creature like that,” Arachne pointed a finger at the empty chair, “I might as well be a baby.”

“How much have you changed over the years?”

Arachne went silent. She glanced off to one side for a moment before she shrugged. “It is hard to see your own change. When did you notice you stopped being a six-year-old girl and became what you are today?”

Eva just shook her head with a frown.

“Exactly.”

That wasn’t the answer she had hoped for. Surely Arachne could look back on the thousands of years and see something different in her past self.

Even if it were impossible to notice the day-to-day changes, Eva could see a clear difference between herself of today and herself of the past. A small shudder ran up her spine. Especially the six-year-old who called herself Evaleen.

Eva shook her head, trying to disguise the shudder with a brush of her hand. “We should get going before someone else walks in. Not to mention all the work I need to do before Tuesday.”

— — —

“Free? I can’t believe it.”

“Not just to our customers. Every student. Every room. Both the Rickenbacker and the Gillet.”

“Even the boys?”

“Almost everyone has already discovered the scrying packets,” Eva dismissed with a wave of her sharp fingers. “Besides, shouldn’t their privacy be protected just as much as ours?”

“Well, I mean…”

“Unless you’ve been scrying on some of them.”

Juliana felt her face heat up despite the ridiculousness of the accusation. “Of course not.”

“Then there is no problem,” Eva said as she shoved the box into her arms. “Your job was to collect money and distribute the packets. Hop to it.”

“But, free?”

“Consider it this way: we’re expanding our market. We’ll be charging for the next round, that’s for sure. Think about it. Twice the customers; twice the money.”

“Twice the work,” Juliana mumbled as she peeked into the box.

It was nearly full. It felt nearly full. Her heavy training sessions, both personal and in Kines’ class, made the box not difficult to lift or carry. Her training did not help relieve the pressure on her hands. Using one of her rings, she activated her ferrokinesis. The liquid metal provided a modicum of cushioning between her fingers and the heavy box.

“When did you even find the time to make all these?”

“Shalise helped,” Eva said as she rested her hand on the brown-haired girl’s head and gave a light scratch.

As much as she trusted Eva not to murder her unnecessarily, Juliana wasn’t sure she wanted those claws anywhere near her head. She’d seen what they could do to brick.

Yet Shalise just beamed up at Eva from her desk chair. Almost leaning into the petting.

Juliana just shook her head. “Do we need to refigure our cuts of the profits?”

“Shalise’s payment will be me teaching her a little about runes. Most of what she did for the packets was merely copying, but I’ll be teaching more in the future.”

That’s good. Juliana barely had any responsibilities in their little venture, but she wasn’t looking forward to getting a reduced income from it.

Not that she had much to spend the money on anyway. Still, mom always said to plan for the future.

“What is in these packets anyway? I noticed you added a whole extra sheet that normally isn’t in the things.”

“Additional protection, specifically against certain emotion altering magics.”

“Emotion altering magics? That sounds bad.”

“It is mostly just a test. I don’t plan to leave them in the packets permanently. Way too much work.”

“A test?”

“Of my skills,” Eva said with a shake of her head. She mouthed ‘later’ with a nod towards Shalise.

The brown-haired girl was entirely oblivious to the action.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I need them fully delivered tonight. Just tell people that we’re having a special. If no one is home, leave them at the door. All of them have a brief note about the ‘special’ and why they’re free.”

“So soon?” Juliana said. That put a hamper on her plans. There were a lot of packets. And she’d have to go to the Gillet. She had never been beyond the lobby of the Rickenbacker’s mirror dorms. All their customers had arranged for pickup in the lobby.

This would take the rest of the night.

“Can I recruit help?”

“Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Good,” Juliana said. It wouldn’t save her plans, but maybe she’d have some spare time at least. She put on her best smile and her biggest puppy-dog eyes. “Shalise?”

The brown-haired girl shook her head. “My hand is killing me,” she said with a flick of her wrist. “I don’t have some tireless demon arm to write with.” All of her excitement quickly deflated into a look of pure horror. “And I haven’t finished the essay for Professor Carr.”

Juliana nodded, quite glad she had finished said essay a week ago. “Eva?”

“Even if you weren’t taking a huge cut to perform this one job, I’ve got plans. Still have more work to do.”

Juliana frowned, but nodded anyway. She turned to the last occupant of the room. “Arach–” Eight red eyes glared out from beneath the covers of Eva’s bed. Every one of them spoke of copious amounts of pain. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.” She turned towards the door of their dorm. “Maybe Irene will help me, since none of my roommates are at all reliable.”

One of them threw a pillow at her. It struck her shoulder and almost made her drop the box. Juliana spun around to find all three of them looking intensely busy in their own tasks. Eva and Shalise at their desks, engrossed in papers, and Arachne under Eva’s covers, still glaring.

Arachne was the only one near pillows, but…

Juliana shook her head as she left the room. It couldn’t have been her.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Marble makes nice flooring, Juliana decided. It wasn’t as warm feeling or looking as hard wood, but it looked nice. Especially when the floor was as well polished as the flooring in Ylva’s throne room.

Zoe looked distinctly uncomfortable as she knelt before the throne. It was an odd sight to see the stern and relatively powerful teacher kneel down. She probably took it as a blow to her pride. Kneeling in the presence of her students couldn’t help; one of whom knew Zoe from before school started while the other didn’t even bother kneeling.

A small part of Juliana wondered if kneeling was even necessary. The way Eva stood in the back with a small smile on her face and Arachne draped over her shoulder made it seem less important. Zoe likely knelt on reflex simply because Ylva had forced them to kneel when they disrespected her.

The experience seemed to rattle the professor.

Still, Zoe fell to her knees almost as soon as the door shut. Juliana followed suit. At least Juliana could use the liquid metal flowing over her knees as a sort of padding. Zoe had to rest her knees directly on the floor.

Zoe took in a sharp breath of air. It didn’t take long for Juliana to figure out why.

The skeleton atop the throne stood and strode forwards with confidence. Ylva’s posed look only increased as she stepped out of the ring of light that was ever-present over her throne. Her platinum hair glinted on her way down.

A single step behind Ylva was her attendant. Her presence only emphasized Ylva’s unnatural height. When alone and at a distance, it was difficult to tell how tall the demon was. The very human looking attendant–though Juliana wasn’t about to make assumptions about her species–stood just above half Ylva’s height.

The attendant wore a red and white dress, very similar to Ylva’s without the cut from her chest to her navel. A black, hooded robe covered the sides of the dress while leaving the front open. The hood was lowered just enough to shadow her eyes.

In her hands was a pillow. A large pillow that looked like it belonged on Ylva’s gigantic throne. The attendant carried the red velvet pillow with both hands, keeping the top flat.

“Rise,” Ylva’s voice lacked the overwhelming boom that dominated most of her speech the last time Juliana was in her presence. “This is a time for rewarding tasks, not subjugation.”

Juliana all but jumped to her feet as the demon and her attendant crossed the empty space between her platform and the edge of the building. Her mind raced over the possibilities of what reward they’d be given. It was hard to keep the eagerness out of her appearance; Zoe would surely disapprove.

Her nerves were also running high.

Ylva was supposedly a demon who served Death. Far scarier than the little intelligence she had summoned on her own. But Eva stood just to one side and Juliana doubted Eva would throw her in harm’s way. As such, it probably wasn’t some ‘eternal reward’ followed by mad cackling and a swift end.

Immunity from death would be interesting, if Ylva could grant such a thing. Their task was a minor one that was also completely unnecessary given that Eva already accomplished her task by the time Juliana actually saw her. Still, it was a possibility. Who knew how demons ascribed value to things.

Power of any kind was what Juliana was really hoping for. What power a demon of death could grant, she didn’t know. Something like Eva’s blood magic, hopefully.

“You performed a service to Us.” Ylva stopped just in front of the two. “Just as We do not allow slights against Ours and Ourself to go unpunished, We do not allow favors to Ours and Ourself to go unrewarded.”

Juliana blinked at the odd wording. She shook her head to focus on the happenings.

Ylva gestured towards her attendant. The robed girl stepped forwards, her flat-heeled, brown boots clomping against the marble as she did so. With practiced flourish, she held out the pillow towards Juliana and Zoe.

Sitting on top were two black rings. Each had a caricature of a skull embossed on the side facing Juliana. On the inside edge were their names. Their full names. Juliana Laura Rivas and Zoebell Baxter.

She never used her full name. It wasn’t that she disliked her middle name–her grandmother’s name–she simply didn’t use it. It was doubtful that Eva knew it. Zoe might, but she wouldn’t have told anyone.

And Zoebell. Juliana had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She never knew there was more to the professor’s name than just Zoe Baxter.

Her mother would love to know. Fuel to tease Zoe with.

The ring felt heavy as Juliana picked up the one with her name. It was an odd sort of heavy. The ring took no effort to lift, but it felt like dropping it might break her toes.

Zoe shot Juliana a disapproving glare as she slipped the ring on her middle finger. Juliana didn’t care. She didn’t want to wait. In fact, it was dangerous to wait. Accidentally dropping the ring and having it roll off down the giant pit in the center of the room seemed like it might insult Ylva. Juliana didn’t want to risk any ‘slights’ against her.

The metal tightened around her finger, though not enough to cut off circulation. Juliana could feel a pulse in the metal every time her heart beat. An odd sort of feeling, but it went away after ten or so pulses. If she concentrated, she could feel it, but only just.

Despite her glare, Zoe plucked her ring off of the pillow.

Ylva’s attendant tucked the pillow in the crook of her arm and stepped backwards behind Ylva.

Juliana watched her professor’s face turn to one of surprise as she held the ring. Zoe tossed the ring in the air, catching it a few times. “Fascinating,” she said. “What is–” Zoe cut herself off as her eyes turned back to Ylva. She quickly cleared her throat and said, “sorry.”

“It is void metal,” Ylva said. “A type of metal only denizens of the void can fabricate.” Her eyes flicked over Juliana’s shoulder for a brief second. “Some denizens of the Void.”

“Hey,” Arachne called out, “I could–”

“Arachne,” said Eva in a quiet voice. “Not now.”

“The rings offer a modicum of protection,” Ylva said, pointedly ignoring Eva and Arachne. “A great number of beings will recognize the emblem and leave the bearers alone where they otherwise would not.”

Juliana let out the barest hint of a sigh. It wasn’t quite what she was hoping for.

Ylva apparently noticed. “Does Our gift displease you?”

“No, no. I was trying to guess what it might be. I didn’t even think of protection.” Juliana bowed to the towering woman. “I extend my thanks.” That sounded suitable for Ylva.

Zoe actually followed Juliana’s lead. She bowed and thanked the demon as well. The thanks that she gave came out more as a mumble than any kind of sincere thanks.

Ylva didn’t seem to mind. Her head slightly inclined in a sort of nod. “Until I require your assistance once more.” She turned on her bare heel and started walking back to her throne.

“Come along, Juliana,” Zoe said in a whisper. She started walking back to the door, examining her ring without even watching her surroundings.

After taking a step or two to follow after her, Juliana stopped. She turned back to the demon. “Mrs. um, Ylva.”

Everyone froze. Zoe spun back around as she hissed something under her breath that Juliana did not catch. Ylva and her attendant both stopped and looked back. Only two among them looked more or less calm. Eva and Arachne, though the latter sported a maniacal grin.

Ylva did not question Juliana. She merely stared. Her cold eyes seemed to pierce Juliana’s very being.

Licking her suddenly dry lips, Juliana said, “I was wondering if I might ask a question or two.”

“Juliana,” Zoe hissed, “we should be going now. I don’t think we should,” Zoe paused for a second as she glanced at Ylva, “take up any more of her time. I am sure it is very valuable.”

“We do not mind.”

A deep, almost disappointed sigh came from Zoe.

Juliana ignored it. “Alone,” Juliana said. She quickly added, “if possible.”

The sigh from Zoe turned into a sharp breath of air. Before she could protest, Eva said, “Juliana is a friend of mine. I’d ask that you do not make any sort of arrangements similar to what you made with Nel, Ylva.”

Ylva didn’t mull over the request for even a second. She turned to Eva and immediately said, “We possessed no such intentions. However, We request an unrelated, minor favor to be served at a later date.”

“Oh?”

“A minor issue regarding Nel’s needs. We do not believe you will find it problematic.”

“So long as I can veto this favor if I deem it unreasonable or beyond minor, I accept.”

“We acquiesce.”

“Zoe Baxter and I will wait back at my place. Come find us when you’re done.”

Eva had to drag Zoe out of the room. To be fair, Zoe wasn’t fighting too hard. Juliana got the feeling she was still scared of Ylva. The two were whispering to each other just quiet enough that Juliana couldn’t make out a word they were saying.

A resounding clang of metal echoed through the massive chamber as the door shut.

The attendant got on her tippy-toes yet only reached Ylva’s shoulder. She was only a head taller than Juliana, yet Ylva towered over the both of them. It took a lot of her willpower to keep from looking too cowed.

Ylva bent over slightly as the attendant began whispering.

“Acceptable,” Ylva said as she rose to her full height. “Nel will lead you to a side room where we may converse at length. Unless you had a scant few questions that are possible to discuss in a very short length of time.”

“I don’t know how long it is going to take nor how long you’re willing to entertain me.”

“You find Us entertaining?”

Juliana hoped that wasn’t offense leaking into her voice. “I’m sorry. It is a figure of speech.”

After a tense moment, Ylva nodded. “We understand. We will be with you shortly.”

With that, the demon turned and began walking back towards her throne.

The attendant, Nel, took Juliana by the hand and led her off through one of the archways around the ring.

“Come on,” she said, “it’s just over here. We have snacks and drinks if you’re interested.”

The tone of her voice made Juliana think the attendant was slightly too excited. While her eyes were still shadowed by her cowl, she sported a large smile.

“We don’t get many visitors apart from Eva and she never spends all that much time here. Technically I’m free to leave and wander–”

She continued talking, but she also pushed open a set of doors. Juliana lost all track of Nel’s voice as she stared, open-mouthed, straight up.

Walls of books stretched so high into the sky that they faded off into the clouds. There were no ladders and no staircases, just endless walls of books. The room itself wasn’t that large, perhaps half the size of the school’s cafeteria.

The sheer height made Juliana dizzy. She had to force herself to look back down.

Dark wood made up most of the floor. A dark red rug had been laid out in the center. Three human sized chairs and one Ylva sized chair were arranged around a small coffee table.

“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” Nel also stared up at the sky. Her hood had fallen off of her head to reveal short black hair. “There are tons of places like this here. Some rooms are more plain, but then you come across things like this and it is just like, ‘wow.'”

Juliana approached the nearest section of the bookshelves. Her hand ran over the spines of the books. Not a single one had a readable title. She walked around the entire room to find none of the ones she could reach had English titles.

Turning back to the center of the room, Juliana found Nel seated in one of the chairs. Once again, her hood was pulled down to cast most of her face into shadow.

“Tea?” Nel asked with a tilt of her head. She was already pouring a glass from a very ornate, silver teapot that Juliana must have missed when she first walked in. A small plate of cookies sat out as well.

“Sure.” Juliana walked over and took the seat nearest to the attendant. “You weren’t here back in November.”

“Nope. I have only been here two… three… has it been a month already? What day is it?”

“Last weekend of March. Saturday the twenty-sixth.”

“Almost a month then. It’s hard to tell without any clocks or sun. I sleep when I’m tired which I think is different from my usual sleep schedule. Whatever that means. I can’t say I had any kind of regular sleep schedule since before November. It is much nicer this way, I’d say.”

Juliana took a sip of her tea as the girl continued to talk. It had a slight tangy taste to it, not one she could place. Not surprising; Juliana didn’t consider herself any kind of tea sommelier.

The girl herself twittered on about her living conditions at such a rapid pace, Juliana could barely understand half of it.

“So,” Juliana said as Nel’s ramblings died down, “am I to ask you questions?”

“No. I mean, not unless you want to. Like I said, I’m new to all this stuff. I’m sure Lady Ylva will answer any questions about herself far better than I could.”

“Ah,” Juliana said as she took another sip, “I’d have expected someone who constantly lives here to know about the owner.”

“I inadvertently bound myself to her service for an indefinite period of time. It isn’t bad,” she said quickly. “I have yet to catch her trying to murder me.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“You could say that I’m well versed in knowing when the person I currently serve is trying to get rid of me.”

Juliana didn’t know what to make of that. She took another sip of her tea instead of commenting.

Without a conversation going, Juliana sank into the surprisingly comfortable armchair. She leaned back and stared at the sky. It wasn’t blue, but white. It looked a lot like a wide version of the column of light over Ylva’s throne.

“Um, you’re Eva’s friend, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“I don’t–I mean, she doesn’t seem to like me very much.”

Juliana took a long drink of her tea while she waited for the attendant to continue.

It took a lot longer than Juliana expected. The girl fidgeted and sighed several times before she finally continued.

“I’d have asked your professor since she seems closer to my age, but I don’t think she likes me much either. She definitely doesn’t like Lady Ylva.”

“So I noticed.”

“Lady Ylva is very kind to me, far kinder than I expected in any case, but she isn’t much for talking. It’s been a long time since I’ve had regular conversation, you know?”

Juliana didn’t, but she nodded along anyway.

“Even before I got here, I was practically isolated from everyone. I was just wondering if maybe you would stop by once in a while.”

“I don’t have a way of getting here on my own. I can’t teleport or anything.”

“Oh,” Nel’s shoulders slumped down and her face hid further beneath her hood, “I understand if you don’t want to.”

After a long, mostly mental sigh at the depressed girl, Juliana said, “maybe I could ask Eva or Zoe to bring me here once in a while. It would be less ask and more convince in Zoe’s case, I think.”

“Oh,” Nel repeated though with a very different tone in her voice. She stuck out a gloved hand. “I’m Nel, though I hope you don’t tell anyone. There are people trying to kill me.”

“Juliana,” she said as she shook the attendant’s hand. “I won’t tell anyone other than Eva and Zoe. I assume they already know?”

Nel nodded and opened her mouth to say something.

The door to the library boomed open before she could speak.

Ylva stood in the doorway, wearing her deep-cut, white dress. She stared at the two, calmly observing them. All her flesh vanished the moment she stepped into the light of the room. She slouched down in the large chair and rested her skull on her bony knuckles.

“You have questions.”

Juliana swallowed to try to wet her dry throat. With the barest hint of a nod in the affirmative, Juliana began her questions.

Floaty feelings tickled the back of Juliana’s neck as Agiel wolfed down an apple. Either she had gained some resistance to the feeling or the little demon was getting tired of eating apples. Either way didn’t matter much to Juliana.

It would be the last time she summoned him.

“So,” Juliana said after she waited for the last splatters of apple pulp to stop flying around, “I had a long talk with a… a friend of mine. I’d just like to confirm a few things.”

The little demon waved a tiny, clawed hand from one side to the other.

“If you did make a contract with me, would you destroy my mind and puppet my body?”

A faint, almost hesitant tickle of joy tingled at the base of Juliana’s skull.

As expected. Juliana merely gave a light nod. Ylva mentioned that this particular demon could not lie when asked one of its three questions. The hel did not give the answer to the question Juliana asked, but Ylva even giving the question was basically an answer in her mind.

“Two more questions.” Juliana leaned back against the wall of the small bedroom and shut her eyes. All her drive to ask more questions went down the drain with that one question. Power was worthless if she wasn’t around to use it.

“How about this,” she said without opening her eyes, “is it possible to grant me power while leaving me intact?”

Again came the light floating feeling.

“Would you grant me power without destroying my mind or body?”

Needles pierced the back of her neck as the demon shook its head.

“So I expected.” Juliana opened her eyes. She blinked a few times at the sight before her.

Agiel stood near the edge of the shackles, one hand offered out before the creature.

Was it seriously asking what she thought he was asking.

“Nope.” Juliana ticked a finger back and forth. “Should have offered weeks ago and I would have been none the wiser.”

Agiel merely shrugged and withdrew his hand.

Before he could vanish in the summoning circle, Juliana tossed him the last apple from her bag. He deftly caught the giant apple, sinking his claws into it. Confusion spread across his face as he crooked his head at Juliana. At least, it seemed like confusion; hard to tell when he has no face.

“For the road,” she said, “or whatever passes for a road beneath that circle.”

He gave another shrug before tipping straight backwards and falling through the floor, apple and all.

Juliana did not move until the last ripples in the floor ceased. With a long sigh, she moved into the circle and started erasing. Everything had to go. Almost everything–the shackles on the outside could stay so long as Juliana took care not to smudge or otherwise bump any part of it.

Disturbing the shackles would be incredibly easy. Too easy. Juliana erased it as well. New shackles would not be a problem to redraw.

Talking with Ylva had turned into something of a wakeup call. If he had offered, Juliana would have jumped to accept Agiel’s contract. A knot had grown in Juliana’s stomach all through their discussion.

It didn’t, however, deter her in the slightest.

Eva could wipe out entire hordes of skeletons in seconds. Eva had Arachne–powerful in her own right–hanging off of every word she spoke. Eva walked around without eyes like it didn’t even matter.

Comparing herself to Eva so much couldn’t be healthy. Not comparing herself to Eva was near impossible. They were roommates after all. Every time she disappeared to the prison or took off her gloves was a reminder of all the abnormalities surrounding the girl.

That wasn’t to say that Juliana wanted more stares and glares. She had enough as it was–most of which occurred in Professor Kines’ extracurricular combat class. And most of those happened every time she dueled an older student.

She wasn’t stupid; Juliana knew she was considered something special to her peers.

In a few years time, that wouldn’t matter. The students would catch up to her level while Juliana floundered about. Not for the first time did Juliana wish she had accepted her mother’s advice to skip a few grades.

Halfheartedly wished.

She didn’t skip grades for almost exactly the reason she received glares in Professor Kines’ class. A younger student in a higher age bracket would just be ostracized at best, relentlessly bullied at worst.

At least now she had her roommates and Jordan’s crew as friends. Juliana was blatantly more powerful than any of them, yet she managed to avoid alienation.

With the floor scrubbed clean enough to eat off of, Juliana wiped the sweat from her brow and leaned back against the wall. She took a long drink from a cool water bottle and let herself rest.

Not for too long. She had work to do.

Flipping open the tome she had borrowed from Eva, Juliana found the page for Agiel and crossed out the word ‘benign.’ She took out her pen and wrote ‘will answer questions truthfully, but will destroy mind if contracted with’ in its place.

That finished, she flipped through the pages. There were a handful of others labeled as benign. Just because they were labeled benign didn’t mean Juliana would accept that label blindly. She liked to think she learned from her mistakes.

Gently rubbing the black ring on her finger with her thumb, Juliana browsed the few entries she had marked out earlier. One, Arioch, looked interesting, but Juliana didn’t have anyone she needed ‘vengeance visited upon’ at the moment. The fertility demon, Ishtar, definitely held no use for Juliana anytime in the near future.

She thumbed through until she found one that looked useful. Her hand froze before she could turn the next page. With a slight licking of her lips, Juliana stopped and read through the page.

“This might do,” she said as a smile worked its way onto her lips.

Juliana set down the open book and pulled out her chalk. She started the arduous task of copying down the circle. Carefully, of course. Summoning something wrong and having it escape would never be forgiven.

If she even survived such an event.

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