Category Archives: Book 009

009.023

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“Lucy?” Eva called out as she crept into the dormitory room assigned to the demon in question. Unlike the student demons—who were all housed in the Rickenbacker—Lucy’s assigned room was over in the Gillet. Eva honestly didn’t think that she had ever been inside. It was eerie. She was so used to everything being where it was in the Rickenbacker that walking inside its identical twin sent shivers down her spine.

Everything was mirrored. Instead of turning left at the top of the stairs, she had to turn right. The dorm rooms were on the wrong side of the hallway. The doors even opened to the wrong side.

Eva really just wanted to pop in, say sorry, then pop out.

But Lucy was hiding. Or rather, she had pressed herself flat and was hiding between the drawers underneath one of the beds.

“Lucy, I can see you. And sense you, for that matter.” Eva started tapping her foot.

By the third tap, Lucy had started squirming out from under the bed. She didn’t push out a drawer to do so. Tentacles emerged through the thin slits between the wood of the frame and the actual drawer. It was somewhat disturbing to watch at first, when not much of Lucy was actually through. Even knowing how her body looked through her blood sight, Eva didn’t know how she maneuvered around all four sides of the rectangular drawer without either tangling herself up or getting part of her caught on the other side. Somehow, she made it. A moment after piling herself up on the floor, she spread out to a proper humanoid form.

“Here to tear me apart again?”

“I’m not going to tear you apart. And it’s your own fault for not letting go.”

“You could have just pelted me with fireballs.”

“I tried fireballs.”

“I was supposed to let go after thirty direct hits from students’ attacks. You only made it to twenty-two.”

“Did chopping off each tentacle not count as a direct attack? Because I probably chopped off more than that.”

Lucy shrank in on herself—literally—before shaking her head. “I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to get torn apart.”

Eva sighed as she placed a hand on Lucy’s shoulder. Something Lucy initially flinched away from until she realized that Eva wasn’t going to hurt her. “Look, I’m sorry about all that. I might have gotten a little hot-headed. How about this, would you like to go to a feast? You missed the big after-event dinner last time. I bet you could even sit up at the professors’ table with all the other important people! It will be fun! New experiences!”

“I do like new experiences. And fun. As long as it isn’t the hurting kind of experience.”

“Great!” Eva slapped Lucy on the back. “I’ll see you there.”

Time to go visit Anderson and ensure he knew to leave out an extra seat.

— — —

As Eva sat in the middle of the event closing feast, she couldn’t help but wonder if Anderson’s smile could get any wider. The results hadn’t even been announced yet. Brakket was obviously going to win. They wound up with seven crystals. It would have been eight, but one crystal had been taken out of the boundaries of Brakket’s camp right at the last second.

No crystals outside the border of the camps counted for any team in the end, so Brakket was in first place. Second place would be going to Isomer with five crystals. Nod Complex and Faultline had two each, and Mount Hope was left with one. And that was thanks only to Irene being unable to carry that one. All other crystals has been ‘in transit’ and therefore uncounted.

So with Brakket in the clear lead, it wasn’t hard to understand just what Anderson was so happy about. Still, in Eva’s opinion, he could at least have had the decorum to look a little subdued before the results were officially announced. At this point, she would find it hilarious if Redford and his judges had some other criteria for who would be winning first place.

“He’s still there,” Juliana whispered, setting down a fork.

She leaned in so close that Eva actually scooted away. Even still, her voice didn’t quite carry to Eva’s ears despite them sitting right next to each other. Luckily, what little did reach Eva’s ears, combined with her burgeoning lip-reading skills, was enough that she could understand.

In response, Eva didn’t offer anything but a slight hum. Juliana couldn’t lip read. More, she didn’t want to say anything just in case one of the many air mages around was using magic to carry what little air Juliana disturbed to their ears. She doubted anyone was doing so, but she couldn’t be sure.

“I can feel him. And his magic.” Juliana said, apparently not picking up on the reason for Eva’s lack of response. Though Eva couldn’t really blame her. This feast the day after the event and her kidnapping was the first opportunity for them to be together without her parents in the immediate area.

Of course, her parents were still at the feast—Zoe had invited them up to the front of the stage. They weren’t sitting with Juliana though, and apparently that was good enough for her.

“He hasn’t said a single word since teaching me how to use his magic.” She ran her fingers through her hair, tugging slightly as she went. “What if he is upset? Am I not entertaining enough? What–”

“You’re getting a little loud,” Eva said, her own voice still a whisper but not nearly so quiet as Juliana had first been. “Besides, you worry too much. Obviously he hasn’t…” Pausing, Eva considered her words.

Shalise looked in their direction, obviously having noticed that they were speaking. She raised a curious eyebrow to which Eva just smiled. Eva had told her what had happened in the privacy of their dormitory room, so she wouldn’t have a problem bringing her into the conversation—she was the expert of the three of them on having a demon inside her, after all. However, that would just increase the volume of their words. Better to just table it for the moment.

“He hasn’t tried to escape, so nothing to worry about.”

“Easy for you to say,” Juliana said in a much more normal tone of voice, slouching her shoulders as she shoved around her food, mixing the mashed potatoes with the mashed lychee.

Before Eva could say anything else, a certain vampire plopped down in the vacant seat directly opposite Eva. Saija, to his side, narrowed her eyes as she looked over to him.

But the vampire didn’t even notice. His smug face had eyes for nobody but Eva.

“Who are you again?”

His smile slipped into a lip-curling scowl. “Your humor is lacking.”

“Oh, except it wasn’t a joke. I honestly can’t remember your name. Do you know it?” Eva asked, glancing towards Juliana. At the shake of her head, Eva turned towards her opposite side where Shalise also shook her head. Turning back to the vampire, Eva frowned. “There you have it. Nobody knows who you are.”

It took a great deal of effort to suppress her smile as the vampire ground his teeth together. “I’m–”

“Before that,” Eva said, holding up a hand, “Juliana, do you mind if I try something?”

“Ah… that depends. There are a lot of things you might want to try that I do not particularly want to be involved in. Or that my mother would like me involved in, for that matter.”

“Oh don’t worry,” Eva said with a wide grin, “nothing scary. Just a thought experiment. Let’s say that somebody can jump but we really don’t want them to…” She trailed off and waited.

It took a moment. Not a long moment. Soon enough, Juliana had a similar grin on her face. “I think I can do that,” she said. And then she started mumbling, more to herself than to Eva. “Though we should change it to communicate. That way writing it down or sign language wouldn’t work. I should probably make sure there aren’t any dead man’s switches, though I might have to think that one over for a bit on exactly how to word it.”

“Take your time, I doubt it needs to be done tonight.”

The vampire’s impatience at being ignored peaked. He put a fist down on the table hard enough to clatter the plates and cutlery. A few people glanced over, but no more than what was usual for Eva kept looking for very long. “What are you two talking about?” he said.

“Like I said,” Eva said, turning back to the vampire with an even wider grin. It was almost as big as Anderson’s. “Just a thought experiment. Don’t worry if you’re having a hard time keeping up. I wouldn’t expect a rot-addled brain to comprehend.”

His dead eyes narrowed to thin slits.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at, but try anything against me and you’ll regret it.”

Eva snapped her face back to a serious expression. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Especially not while entertaining the thought that Juliana could use Zagan to get rid of her vampire problem. “Right. I wouldn’t dare so long as you’re holding any secrets over me.”

“And don’t you forget it.”

“So, what did you come over here for?”

The vampire—who still had yet to introduce himself properly—straightened his back as he stared over at Eva. “The third event will be beginning after the New Year’s holidays. The two of us will be able to participate once again. I was thinking we might have another little wager.”

“About my blood again?”

“What else?” he said with a smug shrug.

Eva frowned. Even if Juliana could correct his ability to open his mouth about things she didn’t want said—without him knowing at that—it would still be best to keep him believing that he could say something. If only to prevent him from trying to and potentially finding a way around whatever Juliana was going to do.

Really, it would be so much simpler if the Elysium Order did their job. Though Eva supposed she was partially to blame for that. And then they might also catch wind of Serena, which she didn’t want to happen. Not all vampires are terrible. Just all of them that weren’t named Serena.

Supposedly Wayne’s sister was also a vampire, or so Serena had said, but Eva had never met her. For all she knew, Serena was an absolute anomaly and Wayne’s sister would be insufferable as well. Then again, thinking about it for a few minutes, Serena was fairly insufferable in her own way. It was just that Eva had gotten used to it.

“Why don’t we raise the stakes?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“If Nod Complex comes out on top of Brakket, I’ll supply you with a weekly vial of my blood for a year. Fifty-two vials, in other words.”

“I see no issue with that.”

“If Brakket wins…” Eva tapped her chin in thought. “An equal amount of your blood.”

She had no real concrete plans, but she was a blood mage! If she couldn’t find anything worth doing with it, she probably needed to rethink her choices in magic specialization. The vampire hadn’t done anything really worth killing him over, but she was sure there would be several other annoyances she could come up with.

If worse came to worst and Juliana couldn’t get rid of their problem, she could always try out the sense-sharing spell. Despite her poor experience in using it on Sawyer, two days of spying on him could easily reveal whatever backup plans he had.

“My blood? Why would you want my blood? You don’t drink blood, do you?”

Shalise made a face, looking almost like she was going to be sick.

Eva ignored it. “I don’t drink blood,” she said with a shrug. “However, I’m not averse to making money. I’m sure vampire blood can be used in all sorts of potions and magical reagents.”

“Selling my blood?” He scoffed, shaking his head. With a prideful flourish, he stood from the table. “It won’t matter. If you think I haven’t learned your tricks. And this time, you won’t be allied with the…” His lips curled again as he trailed off, shooting a glance at the Isomer table. “Elysium Order,” he eventually finished, sounding more like he was swearing than actually talking. “But I can agree to your bet. Fifty-two vials. Plus no less than ten direct feedings.”

Did he have to be so creepy about it? It was hard enough to keep her smile from faltering. Shalise had her eyes closed and her nose scrunched up. Even Juliana had shoved her meal away from her as she stared at the vampire.

On the other hand, Saija’s glower at having the vampire sitting next to her reached its peak. “Great. Now that you’re done, do you mind?” She wafted her hand in front of her nose. “Ugh. Dead people. Reeks like raw fish. Or worse. You shouldn’t be allowed around everybody’s meals. It’s not like you can eat it anyway.”

“No one asked you, demon,” he snarled.

“Your breath isn’t doing you any favors either,” she said, turning her head with her nose wrinkled. “Even if you’re dead, you could still have a mint every now and again, right?”

Eva cleared her throat before more snide remarks could be thrown. Not that she really minded, but the nuns had started to stare. “You should probably head back to your school’s table. I’d rather have as little known fraternization as possible between us.”

He gave a slight snort but turned and walked off towards the Nod Complex’s seating.

“Creep,” Juliana mumbled under her breath, to which Shalise gave a few vigorous nods.

“Yeah. I wish Devon would get on with my next treatment already. Apparently my most recent treatment made me unpalatable towards one other vampire. Maybe another would work on this guy.”

Juliana’s back stiffened. “Other vampire? The one from our room?”

“Yeah. She’s been around somewhere. I saw her just after the hunters attacked. Not since though, I wonder where she’s been,” Eva mumbled to herself. “But don’t worry, she’s back to her normal self. No lunging at you and trying to eat you. Too much, anyway.”

“You sure know how to make people feel better,” Juliana said with a sigh.

“I do try,” Eva said with a smile. She was going to say more, but Anderson chose that moment to get up on center stage.

As with the previous event, he introduced Wallace Redford. Redford stood from his seat—he wasn’t next to the quetzalcoatl this time. In fact, Eva couldn’t see the quetzalcoatl anywhere around. Maybe her presence had been a one-off thing. Redford announced the results exactly as Eva had expected. Brakket first, Isomer second, Faultline and Nod Complex tied for third, and Mount Hope fifth.

Throughout it all, Eva barely paid attention. The results were a mere formality at this point. Though she did give Irene a thumbs up when Brakket was announced as first. Had it not been for her, Brakket and Mount Hope would have tied for second underneath Isomer.

And, frankly, Irene deserved a little praise. Getting carried around by Saija all night didn’t look like the funnest thing that could have happened.

Irene didn’t look all that happy at the minor praise. Though she smiled, she quickly ducked her head and stared down at her plate, avoiding eye-contact with everyone else for a few minutes until she thought nobody was looking.

To be fair, nobody was looking. Eva only observed her through her blood sight. However, her thoughts were interrupted before she could consider Irene more.

“The next event will be held the second week of January. As with the other events, you will be unaware of what is required to succeed until immediately before the event. Enjoy your holidays, though do not neglect your training. It just might mean the difference between success and defeat.”

“Thank you Wallace,” Anderson said, stepping back into his spot as Redford headed back towards his seat. “Now, before we all disperse for the evening, I do have a few… announcements to make. I do not wish to imply that Brakket Academy may be unsafe; however, there was an incident recently that I feel it is necessary to make everyone aware of.”

At Eva’s side, Juliana shifted, she moved her hands down to her lap and mimicked Irene in avoiding people’s gaze.

“There was an attempt at kidnapping a Brakket Academy student over the weekend. Mage-knight Genoa Rivas, Eva Spencer, and the demon Arachne managed to recover the student unharmed shortly after the incident; however, the kidnapper managed to escape. Until the situation can be resolved and the perpetrator captured, students are not to wander Brakket City unaccompanied. Anywhere beyond the dormitory buildings is considered off-limits for the time being. If you need to shop for clothing, supplies, or anything else, please ask one of the professors you see up on stage,” he said with a wave of his hand back to the assembled teachers and headmasters.

Lucy, Eva noted, waved right back with a bright smile on her face. Eva wasn’t certain if she was supposed to have been included in that grouping, but maybe someone would ask her. That might be amusing to watch.

“Finally, if you see a woman with bright red hair down to her shoulders and an eye patch over her right eye, please keep your distance and contact help immediately. She may be wearing metallic armor.” He lifted his wand into the air and drew out a series of flaming numbers. They hung in the air just above his head. “I highly encourage everyone to add this number to their speed-dials. There will always be someone manning the phone ready to dispatch assistance.”

He clapped his hands together. The numbers kept hovering over his head, but his morose expression shifted back to a bright smile. “However, we expect to have the situation well in hand. Be aware, be safe, but try not to worry too much. There are a few more lighthearted announcements to make before I let you all go.

“We’ll be hosting a special event on the twenty-eighth. Optional to attend, but if you wish to intermingle with your fellow schools outside a school or contest setting, this will be the event for you. There will be a number of games and prizes–”

Eva’s attention waned. Her interest in holiday events for the various schools rated somewhere between being stuck in Sawyer’s head for a weekend and being strapped to Sawyer’s operating table. If everyone else wanted to have some fun party, that was perfectly fine with her. She had other things to think about.

Catherine for one. The succubus was going to stop by Brakket later on to inspect the ritual circle. Eva still had yet to describe its purpose to Catherine—she wanted to see if the purpose was evident in the design. If Catherine said that the circle was designed to split apart the Earth and send both halves cascading into the Sun, then she might be speaking with Vektul about some miscommunication regarding the ritual.

If she did divine just what the ritual was for, Eva was really hoping she wouldn’t have too many concerns over it.

Of course, that was assuming it got finished anytime soon. With Juliana’s parents both going into a completely overprotective mode, she might not be able to help out much. Eva had considered asking her to use Zagan’s power to instantly complete it, but considering a second time, she really didn’t want any magic-induced errors to appear. The circle was almost finished. With her non-Juliana help, it wouldn’t take forever. Then they could go over the entire thing by hand, double checking it all.

Might still be a good idea to recruit someone else as well. And then she still needed the actual people to help power the circle. A combination of demons and humans. Juliana probably wouldn’t work anymore with her having been bound to Zagan. She could check in with Vektul, but better to be safe than sorry.

But that was still a little further off than even the completion of the circle.

The other big issue was the hunter. Despite Anderson’s claims of having the situation well in hand. Frankly, she just didn’t believe that he would do much of anything. He might believe it, but not Eva. In her opinion, Genoa was far more likely to do something.

Which might have been what Anderson was counting on.

Still, the possibility of him actually doing something didn’t mean that Eva would sit idle. The hunter was after her, after all. And she had just the idea in mind. She would wander around on the streets and get herself captured.

Her thoughts broke as the dinnerware before her began clattering. It was a small thing. The clattering didn’t last more than a few seconds. The only reason it was audible at all was because the entire room fell into a brief silence. Eva scarcely felt it herself.

“An earthquake?” Anderson said from up on the stage, confusion marring his features. He waited a moment as if listening for anything else. But nothing came. “Huh. Well, probably nothing to worry about. Brakket Academy isn’t just brick and mortar. It’s magic. It won’t fall to something as mundane as an earthquake. As I was saying, celebrations!”

Again, Eva tuned him out as she glanced to her side. Shalise had her arms wrapped around her and trembled. “You alright,” Eva asked, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“There were enough earthquakes in Hell,” she whispered.

Ah, right. Eva rubbed her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Like Anderson said, it was probably nothing. Some slight ripple from a far-off quake. And even if it is less benign, we’re all here this time,” she said, gesturing to the whole table.

Still… Earthquakes were rare in Montana. Not unheard of, but not exactly common either. And Eva wasn’t the type to believe in coincidence. It was probably that hunter. Since her sky beam had been destroyed, she was probably trying something else. This time from below.

Eva definitely needed to deal with her.

>>Author’s Note 009<<

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009.022

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“To be fair, if she hadn’t summoned a demon, Arachne and I wouldn’t have known where to look. In fact, we had been heading in the wrong direction prior to her summoning.”

Both Genoa and Carlos turned away from their daughter to glare at Eva. Behind them, sitting in the living room chair like it was the hot seat in an interrogation room, Juliana looked up and gave Eva a slight smile. A smile that did nothing to offset the intensity of her parents’ glares. Under other circumstances, Eva might have wilted under their combined stares.

Not today.

“It worked,” Eva said. “She got away and she is unharmed. Do you really need to berate her quite so much?”

Genoa’s face softened ever so slightly, though Carlos was exactly the opposite. He opened his mouth to say something. Genoa beat him to the punch.

“Eva, I appreciate what you did to help tonight. But Juliana is not your child. I’ll thank you to leave her raising to us.” She shared a brief glance with her husband, who still looked like he wanted to complain, before turning back to Juliana.

“Juliana is safe. You can berate her later if you really feel the need,” Eva said, keeping her voice firm and ignoring the sudden look of betrayal on Juliana’s face. “More importantly, a demon hunter is out there targeting my friends.”

And wasn’t that a scary thought. Eva was quite confident in her ability to fend off a majority of threats, perhaps even to the point of self-admitted overconfidence. Her friends? If that had been Shalise instead of Juliana, things could have gone very differently. Even if Juliana got kidnapped again, the hunter was sure to take more drastic precautions against demon summoning or other escapes.

Though depending on exactly what Juliana had done with Zagan, that might not be too much of a concern anymore. At least not for Juliana.

So far, she had just been sitting in silence, only speaking when spoken to or to clarify exactly how the events had gone. All the while, her parents talked at her and managed to argue with each other despite never quite addressing the other. However, she had yet to mention Zagan by name, only referring to the demon she had summoned as ‘the demon’ and overtly insinuating that it had gone back to Hell shortly before Genoa broke down the walls.

Eva couldn’t tell if her parents believed her or not, but she wasn’t going to be fooled so easily.

“You’re right,” Genoa said with one last glance towards Carlos. “We need to prepare. And inform the school. The hunter could decide to attack just about anyone under the assumption that you might be involved with them.”

Anderson was going to freak out. Eva could see it now. Doubly so if the media got wind of it. He really should have just taken out a bounty on the woman after her first attack, though news of a bounty around the school would have likely gotten out, ruining his media presence anyway.

In fact, if he took out a bounty now, he might even be seen as proactive depending on how much information about old incidents got out.

“I’ll go send a message to Zoe,” Eva said. “A detailed one explaining everything Juliana told us.”

Genoa gave Eva a curt nod. “I’ll send one to Wallace and Anderson. Though I can’t say I have much hope that Anderson will be willing to do much.”

Pulling out her cellphone, Eva slipped out of the room before Carlos could go back to explaining how Juliana was to be escorted to and from school every single day, how she wasn’t ever allowed out of his sight, and how happy he was that she was alright. Really, she didn’t need to be there for that.

She had gotten the information she needed.

The hunter had been after her. And had been walking around on two feet, though Juliana thought that her armor was helping her move rather than any real healing having been done to her back. Which was good for Eva. But potentially also bad. If her armor could do the things that the dead hunter’s armor had done, she could prove to be quite the troublesome foe. Especially because this time, it wasn’t very likely that the doll would show up to distract the hunter while she murdered them from behind.

“So what happened?” Jordan asked as Eva slipped back into the theater room. He, Shelby, and Shalise were all standing around the doorway talking as she entered. Despite the television still being on and showing Irene being hoisted up on Saija’s shoulders before she went flying off into the sky, none were watching.

“Juliana got herself kidnapped by the partner of the hunter who attacked a month ago. She freed herself mostly, with myself and Genoa helping out. Watch out for hunters sneaking up behind you in the dead of night as they’ll likely go after anyone who is friends with me. And that’s it, I think.”

“Concise,” Jordan said as he looked at the other two.

“B-But, wait. Coming after us, you mean?”

Eva gave Shalise a sorry smile. “Yeah. Though don’t worry too much. I don’t have a definite plan just yet, but I’m not going to let this woman run amok while threatening everyone.” She would have cracked her knuckles, but her knuckles didn’t work like that anymore. “I’m going to tear out her throat. In the meantime, just stick with others and don’t wander around the city without an escort.”

Juliana’s father was right about that much, at least.

“Oh. W-well…” Shalise was stuttering again. Eva hadn’t really heard her stutter much since before she got trapped in Hell. Though, Eva had to admit that she hadn’t spent all that much time around Shalise since then. And, in Hell, she had had Prax with her.

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to leave this person to run around for any length of time.”

— — —

Wind blew past Irene’s face, throwing her shoulder-length hair back behind her head. Trees whizzed past down below and wisps of clouds drifted overhead.

All the while, Irene could only think of how much she hated flying. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad under other circumstances. Airplanes didn’t bother her. But there was something about cutting through the air with no windshield, walls, or floor to keep her from falling to her death that just rubbed her the wrong way.

“I’m going to drop you!”

Irene, one hand in a white-knuckled grip around Saija’s horn as she rode on the demon’s shoulders, took a moment to process exactly what Saija had said. She focused entirely on using her wand to tear down an earthen shell around the Mount Hope crystals while Saija flew them through the air, weaving and dodging the fireballs, icicles, and whatever else the enemy mages were tossing up at them. Or, to be more accurate, Irene’s focus was on holding tight to Saija while occasionally considering the possibility that she really should be thinking about sometimes attacking the earthen shell.

Just because she was an earth mage didn’t mean she was afraid of heights. The two were entirely unrelated.

But Saija’s words eventually registered in her mind.

“Wait, drop me?” she shouted, grabbing on to both horns and almost dropping her wand in the process. “Saija! Don’t you dare!”

“It’ll be fine! You can do more if you’re not trying to shake yourself off my shoulders. I’ll keep distracting them and I’ll even be free to pick some of them up and drop them farther away.”

“Then just set me down somewhere.”

“And give them time to target me?” Saija scoffed with a shake of her head, just about throwing Irene off her shoulders in the process. “Get ready!”

“Wai–”

Saija banked upwards, carrying them high into the sky. She didn’t flap her wings or otherwise try to keep her momentum going. Once gravity caught up to her, she turned and embraced the dive. Irene didn’t. She gripped Saija even harder, wrapping her legs around her neck. Only pure fear of biting off her own tongue kept Irene from screaming.

Five feet from the ground, Saija pulled up at a sharp turn, spreading her wings. As she did so, she shrugged her shoulders and slipped out from under Irene. Her head twisted just enough for Irene to lose her grip.

Irene bounced on the ground butt first, barely feeling like she had dropped much farther than if she had fallen off her bed. Not that she fell off her bed often enough to really know. Above her, Saija continued her flight, aiming straight at one of the Mount Hope students.

Unfortunately, while she had survived the drop, Saija hadn’t dropped Irene off in an isolated patch of the enemy’s camp.

She was right in the middle of all the defenders.

A half-sphere of earth covered each of the four crystals that Mount Hope had acquired. Someone far more experienced in earth magic than Irene had formed the dirt into solid shells as tough as granite. Likely that same earth mage had erected walls around the four spheres, partitioning off their camp from the rest of the Infinite Courtyard.

The walls weren’t continuous. A single wall stood in front of each of the four spheres that protected the crystals. All four together were more like barricades than anything else. At the very center of each wall, the coat of arms for Mount Hope stood out in gleaming blue. Apparently their water mage had been a bit bored and fashioned the coat of arms from ice four times over.

Each sphere reached up roughly to Irene’s shoulder, only slightly lower than the walls protecting them. Which made the spheres perfect cover.

Ignoring the student Saija had charged towards and carried off into the sky, she focused on the three that were still standing around the makeshift walls and barricades. One fired off fireballs towards the sky, apparently not caring if he hit his companion. She felt safe in ignoring him and leaving him for Saija.

The other two both started launching projectiles at Irene. One fire and the other ice.

Irene scrambled around the half-spheres, putting their own crystals’ defense between them while barely peeking around the side to watch what was happening.

Shards of ice swirled around the mage’s wand, forming a silver chain-like whip that dangled from the end. Pointed spines grew from each link in the chain, making her whip look far more vicious than anything Irene wanted to see in what was supposed to be a friendly competition. The mage held tight to her wand, waiting and watching while her fire inclined partner slowly circled around the dome.

Much like the water mage, the fire mage started spreading around flames. His, however, weren’t orbs of fire like what she might have expected. He traced out burning embers into the dirt. They formed into patterns, but Irene didn’t know what they were. Some kind of runes. Traps, most likely. Something to explode in her face if she stepped on them.

But the ground was her domain.

Sort of. She wouldn’t claim to be an expert or anything, but that didn’t really matter at the moment. All that did matter was the runes.

Her first thought was to simply disrupt them. Mixing around the earth should render whatever he had done inert. However, that was just a stalling tactic. The mage was still coming closer and his partner was still watching and waiting for her to emerge.

Pointing her wand out from around the dome—just the very tip—she aimed right at the small patch of earth that held his most recently drawn rune.

His eyes were glued on the dome she had taken refuge behind, not his feet. His footsteps paused as her wand poked around the side.

But when no attacks came and she withdrew her wand, he continued moving.

And stepped right on top of his own rune.

Irene raised her arm, shielding her eyes and face from the sudden light and heat. It only lasted for an instant. That instant had probably been long enough to get a mild sunburn from. When she finally felt safe enough to open her eyes again, the fire mage had been knocked clear back against one of the earthen walls. Maybe ten feet or so.

Though charcoal covered his entire front side, his chest still heaved up and down. That combined with some coughing and moaning meant he was still alive. Probably just fine.

Probably.

So it was nice to know that accidentally stumbling over his traps wouldn’t be fatal. She still disrupted the land around the rest anyway.

The water mage, still with her ice whip, ran to his side. She knelt down to check on him.

But Saija didn’t give her the chance to even touch him. Swooping out of nowhere, Saija hooked her arms underneath the mage’s armpits and carried the now screaming girl off into the night.

Not knowing if the fire mage was in any shape to stand up, Irene pointed her wand at him. The dirt around him turned to a murky soup, sucking him in. As soon as he was a few inches into it, she went ahead and hardened it as much as she could. It wasn’t quite the stone-like granite that made up the spheres around the crystals, but it was good enough for a few moments. She felt relatively safe considering she also moved the mage’s wand away from his hand.

With a sigh, she turned to the spheres. Now that she wasn’t flying around at dangerous speeds and heights, she had a moment to actually examine the crystals’ granite shields. Conjuring stone or turning regular dirt to stone was an advanced technique. Way up there at the end of sixth year kind of advanced.

However, breaking it back down into dirt wasn’t. Destroying things was always easier than creating.

Irene cracked the shell. She didn’t turn the entire thing to dirt, that would have taken far too much effort, she just created hairline fractures in the rock and then pried away the dome like it was a hardboiled egg. And found nothing.

Nothing at all. The hollow shell didn’t have any crystals within. Just an empty patch of earth.

Turning, she cracked open each of the other domes. As with the first, she found nothing inside any of them. Just in case they had decided to be a little tricky, she dug down beneath the spheres for a good ten feet.

And wound up with nothing to show for her efforts.

Neither could she find anything underground between and in the very center of the spheres.

Saija dropped down at her side, startling her half to death. “No crystal thingies?”

“They have to be here somewhere,” Irene said, pointing a finger up to the sky.

Overhead, a massive magical billboard displayed a list of all the schools and how many crystals each had in their possession. Only two were listed under the ‘in transit’ section. Mount Hope supposedly had four still.

“The crystals have to be within the boundaries of their camp or they don’t count. So they’re somewhere around, just hidden.”

Saija frowned as she craned her neck to see the billboard. “We’re running out of time. Need to find them fast.”

Only six minutes left on the clock. Even with Saija flying them back, it would be tight.

“But don’t worry,” Saija said, puffing out her chest in undeserved pride and spreading her wings out. “I’ll handle this.” Turning from Irene, she sauntered over to the soot-covered fire mage.

Irene followed a few steps back, frown on her face as she wondered just what Saija was going to do. She had a pretty good idea, but…

“Hey there hot stuff,” Saija said, obviously suppressing a slight giggle as she leaned over the trapped mage with one hand on her hip. Her other hand tugged slightly at her neckline. “My friend and I were just wondering if you might be willing to help us with a little problem. If you could tell us where you hid the crystals, I would consider it a personal favor,” Saija breathed more than spoke.

The mage, whose eyes had already been slightly glassy—a concussion, maybe?—fell entirely into Saija’s sweet words. Trapped as his arms and legs were, he could do nothing but nod his head. “The domes are decoys.” His words came slow and slightly slurred. “They’re in the center of each wall. Behind the school’s logo.”

“Aww,” Saija cooed, reaching forward to brush his cheek. The moment her long fingernails grazed over his skin, his head slumped forward and his eyes fluttered shut. Smiling, Saija turned to smile at Irene. “Well, what a nice young boy.”

Irene rolled her eyes. Since the mage had collapsed against one of the walls, she got to work right away.

Only to find her magic not working quite as well. Shattering the domes had been easy enough. The icy coat of arms… It was exactly what Juliana had said to do except disguised as an emblem. But it wasn’t as complete as what Juliana had done to the miniature castle. The icy emblem only covered the outsides of the wall. Knocking down a portion of the surroundings exposed a few inches of pure rock.

Splitting that revealed a hollow cavity and a glowing green crystal.

“Earth,” Irene said with a click of her tongue. “Too heavy. Just leave it.”

“I could carry it.”

“Yeah, but I can’t. Not if I want to carry the others. And you’re going to be carrying me.”

Running over to the next wall segment, Irene didn’t even need to break the wall to get at the split in the middle. Water ran off the emblem, pooling on the ground below. As expected, opening the wall revealed a fire crystal. Coating it in a thick layer of dirt provided enough insulation to handle it with her bare hands for a few seconds at a time, but she still handed it off to Saija while running to the next.

The last two were air crystals. Neither required any special preparation to hold on to. In fact, they were the best of all the crystals to carry. They wouldn’t freeze or burn whatever they touched and they didn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball.

Taking off her jacket, Irene wrapped all three of them up for easier carrying. A single large bundle was much simpler than three separate items. And it would help keep the air crystals from flying off like a feather.

“Alright,” Irene said, “four minutes. Think you can make it back?”

Saija grinned. A vicious Eva-like grin filled with sharp teeth. “Just who do you think you’re talking to?” She scooped Irene up into her arms and took off in one smooth motion.

Irene managed to suppress her yelp of surprise. Being ready to be picked up helped quite a bit. “No shoulder ride?” she said after they were well underway.

“That was attack position. This is comfort flying. For both of us. Do you know how annoying it was having you jerk my head around?”

“That’s… well, sorry. I suppose I can’t argue against the comfort though.” Riding on her shoulders had carried a constant feeling of being one slip away from falling off. So long as Saija held tight, that was almost gone. Still no windshield. Her hair was whipping around all over the place and she couldn’t even fix it without dropping the crystals. Some even got into her mouth.

Really, she was lucky it was winter. There weren’t any bugs out to get splattered across her face.

“Looks like a fight at our base.”

“Just circle around overhead inside camp boundaries. We’ll keep our three safe. The others on the ground should be able to keep the three there safe for the last few minutes. Then we win!”

“That sounds good,” Saija said, flapping her wings a few times before her flight shifted to a far more languid drifting than the high-speed rush it had been before. “We should do this again sometime. When there isn’t all this fighting going on.”

Irene hesitated for a moment before allowing her head to nod up and down. She wasn’t afraid of heights. Just the falling part. Like this, with Saija’s arms wrapped around her, flying wasn’t so bad at all.

Finally feeling her heart rate drop down to more normal levels, she just watched and waited for the clock to run down while hiding from the cold air in the warmth of Saija’s body.

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009.021

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Eva slid to a stop on the sidewalk a few roads away from where they found Juliana’s cellphone. She waited just long enough for Arachne to catch up.

“I feel it too,” Arachne said before Eva could ask. “Or rather, I no longer feel him.”

“Just checking to make sure I wasn’t broken,” Eva said with a slight nod of her head. “Think he got banished again?”

Arachne’s tongue ran across the edges of her carapace around her mouth, wetting them slightly. “It would be awfully embarrassing if he did. Not that I would say so to his face.”

“What is it?” Genoa asked the second she blinked next to Eva. Her heart was beating slightly faster than normal and her breath came a bit heavier, but overall, she was doing alright. Much better than she had when the hunters attacked the other week. “Why did you stop?”

“Zagan disappeared again.”

“What does that mean?” she said with a frown. When Arachne didn’t respond and Eva shrugged her shoulders, that frown only deepened. “You still haven’t explained why you thought he might be with Juliana in the first place.”

“Nobody has seen him in months. Then he shows up now?” Eva gave her a pointed look. “I believe in coincidences but this seems a bit suspicious. But we were close, no sense not checking out… Is that smoke?”

At her question, both of her companions turned to look down the street. A plume of black smoke billowed above the neighborhood, lit by an orange ball of fire against the evening sky somewhere just beyond the nearest row of houses. Even if it wasn’t in the same direction that Zagan had been, it still would be worth checking out.

Genoa started blinking first. She moved away well before Eva could even suggest they move on. The former mage-knight was probably experienced enough to avoid the traps that were bound to be littering the area. Still, Eva wouldn’t have minded the opportunity to reiterate a warning first.

“Come on,” Eva said to Arachne. “And keep your eyes open. Martina is dead. Zagan might not be as friendly as he once was.”

“He used to be friendly at some point? Must have missed it.”

Eva blinked after Genoa without dignifying Arachne with a proper response.

As soon as she made it to a nearby roof, Eva set her mind and magic to quelling the flames. Her expertise with fire magic generally lent itself to exploding things rather than calming them, but she had enough practice to be at least marginally effective. Genoa, standing next to her, helped out as well. When she landed on the roof, Arachne did not help out. She stood and stared. Not that Eva was going to complain about someone watching her back.

She could sense a few wards around, but nothing in the immediate area. Down towards the building, in and around it.

Inside the building, Eva sensed something else. A familiar circulatory system. Hers was the only one around that Eva could sense. Immediate company excluded. No hunter around. No other innocents, though this was towards the outskirts of Brakket and, as such, wasn’t wholly unexpected.

“Juliana is inside the basement,” Eva said, raising her voice to be heard over the rush of flames and cracking wood. “As far as I can tell, she isn’t injured. There is some blood around the room she is in. Quite a lot, in fact. I don’t see any cuts on Juliana though.”

“Where in the basement?”

“She’s beneath that section,” she said, pointing out the corner of the house closest to them.

“Right.”

As soon as she spoke, the earth moved. A full room worth of dirt pressed to the fence line, building up into a miniature mountain. The revealed basement all looked like a bunch of rough rocks all packed together with some mortar. The rocks quickly followed the dirt as the wall exploded outwards.

Genoa blinked down into the pit before the dust had even cleared. Eva lost her visual sight of her but followed along with her sense of blood, watching as Genoa charged in, took in the scene for a split second, scooped up her daughter into her arms, and charged back out. She didn’t blink away while holding Juliana, but she did leap using the earth to springboard her back up to the roof Eva and Arachne were on.

Juliana coughed and hacked as she rubbed at her eyes. “In case–” She sputtered out a cough. “In case you were wondering. The opposite of a little fire is not no fire. It’s actually a lot of fire.”

Despite her apparent choking problem, her clothes were pristine other than a little soot and rubble, but that could have very easily been Genoa’s fault when she burst into the room. Though her clothes were intact, her armor was gone entirely. Her slightly baggy clothing that normally hid the metal skin hung off her like she was wearing hand-me-downs from a much heavier sibling.

“Are you alright?” Genoa said, voice unnaturally laden with tension. “You’re not injured?”

“I’m fine, mom. Just a little kidnapping. Nothing I haven’t been through before.”

“Don’t you dare joke about such things,” Genoa said as she pulled Juliana into a tight hug. Tight enough that if she hadn’t been injured before, she probably would be walking away with a bruise or two.

Hanging half over her mother’s shoulder, Juliana’s hands wound up pinned to her sides. She finally blinked her eyes.

Arachne actually took a step back. Eva didn’t, but she did narrow her eyes. While Genoa’s back was still turned, Eva lifted her finger up to her own eyes. Then she pointed at Juliana. ‘Your eyes are gold,’ she mouthed.

Juliana visibly stiffened. Enough for her mother to notice. Pulling back, Juliana pinched her eyes shut again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just dust in my eyes,” she said, blinking her eyes open again. This time, they were back to her usual blue.

Which just had Eva narrowing her eyes further. But she kept her mouth shut. Juliana obviously didn’t want her mother to know about her eyes. And it had to be Juliana still. There was no chance in Hell Zagan would act like that. Of course, that didn’t mean that Zagan was actually gone.

“Did you see the hunter?” Juliana asked before anyone else could say anything. “It was the same hunter. The one from the roof last month. She was stomping around threatening me not too long ago, but I think she left when she lit the house on fire.”

“We didn’t see anything. Nobody is around except the four of us.”

“Srey hasn’t said anything recently, has he?”

Eva shook her head as Genoa asked, “Srey?”

“A demon that can detect people watching him with hostile intent.”

“Ah, I see.” Genoa kept her tight grip around Juliana’s shoulders, but did move slightly so as to not completely crush her in a hug. “It could have been an attack of opportunity. They saw Juliana walking around alone and thought to get revenge for her foiled attack and partner.”

“She said she would let me go after killing Eva. I didn’t believe her.”

“Good instincts,” Genoa said with a firm nod of her head. “Though I don’t know if I approve of you starting a fire to attempt to get out. If we hadn’t shown up–”

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

All the tension that had mostly left Genoa came rushing back in a flood. Her back stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the surrounding area.

“I think she ran off though,” Juliana said, voice soft. It dipped even quieter as she continued. “After I summoned a demon.”

Despite the nearly silent whisper, Genoa’s eyes snapped to her daughter. “You what?”

“It’s okay! I’m okay. Nothing bad happened.”

Genoa’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. It only lasted for a moment before she sighed. “We should leave this place. This hunter has already proven willing to use long-range bombardment magic. We don’t want to be sitting around when she decides to again.”

Eva just about opened her mouth to say that she had the metal encased idol in her possession back at the prison. A single look into Genoa’s eyes told her that she did not want to draw any attention to herself. The Rivas matriarch was not in the mood.

Apparently missing the memo, Juliana let out a soft sigh.

“Don’t think you’ve gotten out of talking about you summoning demons, young lady. After what happened before… I just… I don’t… Your father will be wanting to have words as well. Come on.”

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

For just a moment, Eva watched them hop off the roof and back to street level. She didn’t move to follow. Or do much of anything that might draw attention to herself. As the still smoldering house collapsed in on itself behind her, Eva just took a moment to be happy that she didn’t have parents to disappoint. Or, at least, no parent she cared about disappointing.

In fact, sticking around and searching through the rubble to find Ylva’s ring was starting to look appealing. Juliana would be yelled at for the next several hours if the look on Genoa’s face was anything to go by. Sitting around in the general vicinity would both be a waste of time and the antithesis to fun. With Arachne at her side, they should easily be able to take care of a crippled hunter if she dared to return.

But, at the same time, that hunter had managed to kidnap Juliana. And, according to Juliana, that crippled hunter had been stomping around.

Which meant that Eva should really find out more before throwing herself into danger. And then there was Zagan’s presence and Juliana’s eyes. She might be less willing to talk while her mother was around, but Eva needed to know.

With a sigh, she started following. Though she made sure to keep her distance. Eva pulled out her cellphone as she moved. Zoe would probably appreciate knowing that Juliana was safe for the time being.

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

She hadn’t signed up for kidnapping human children. Even if they were friends with the abomination. It was a concept that lent itself to the more drastic tactics that demon hunters occasionally employed. Gertrude failed to use this child, so what would she do next time? Try to take the whole school hostage?

Riley wouldn’t put it past her. The woman was insane. She had thought as much when they had first met, but then Clement had been around. Riley couldn’t be sure whether he had kept Gertrude’s insanity in check or if his death had been the trigger for her becoming so unhinged, but either way, Riley wanted out.

It wasn’t like she was a stranger to killing innocents. The Elysium Order was far more familiar with the concept than anyone would like to admit. But undead were different. Undead spread like the plague. Zombies, vampires, mummies, all of it, they were contagious. Regular humans often had to be put down before they succumbed to whatever disease they had come in contact with.

Demons weren’t.

A year ago, Riley had been on fire. High on adrenaline and furious at the attack on her home, she had been ready to march out and seek vengeance. But now, that fire had died off.

In fact, watching the broadcasts from the school, Riley was wondering if demons were such a big deal at all. They acted like children. Menacing children with far stronger powers than most adults, but still children. The vampire from the other school was a far more grievous offense. The way he stared at the other students put Riley on the edge of her nerves. She couldn’t believe that the Elysium Order hadn’t sent a smaller chapter to covertly kill him.

Maybe they were waiting for the end of the event. Killing him right in the middle would not make them look good, especially while he was apparently playing nice. So long as he did continue to repress his baser instincts, they would probably leave him be for the time being. It wouldn’t surprise her if there was a small chapter waiting in the shadows just in case he did choose to spread his disease.

Gertrude didn’t see things the same way. The television program hadn’t even progressed to the actual event this evening before Gertrude had stormed off, mumbling under her breath about all the things wrong with the world. Then, less than ten minutes later, she had called Riley up.

Riley had known that something would go wrong before even answering.

When Clement had been alive, it had been impossible to get the time of day from either one of them. Now Gertrude had her phone on speed dial.

Which only added to Riley’s desire to not be a part of her mad schemes anymore.

But she didn’t have anywhere else to go. The Elysium Order would likely excommunicate her if she tried to go back. Gertrude was just insane enough that she would probably try hunting her down too.

So Riley sat in the second floor of their little hideout, waiting for Gertrude to return and start ranting and raving about how she had been this close to ending demonic oppression and tyranny once and for all.

Sure enough, it took less than five minutes after the abomination and her friends left for Gertrude to teleport elsewhere into the building. Floorboards creaked under the stomping of her heavy armor as she made her way through the house. A fairly fierce creaking. The wood holding the house together had not been meant to take the strain of such a weight. Gertrude had already accidentally put two holes in the floor.

Riley sensed a few more appearing by the end of the night.

But it really couldn’t be helped. Gertrude could barely move without the armor.

“What happened?” Riley asked as soon as the door opened. Getting the first word in let her control the pace of the conversation. Somewhat.

“The little bint summoned a demon,” Gertrude growled as she stalked over to the window. She snatched the binoculars from Riley’s lap and peered out the window. All despite her own assessment that her watching triggered the observant demon’s danger sense. That was half the reason Riley was even there, apparently.

With another sigh, Riley asked a question she knew she probably shouldn’t. “I would have thought you would be able to ward against demons.”

Another low growl escaped Gertrude’s throat. “I wanted demons to come. Warding them off, even warding summoning might have tipped them off. I needed them to come to her rescue. But not everything had been set up.”

Her armor clad hands steadily tightened their grip on the binoculars as she spoke, right up until the point where one of the lenses exploded in a shattering of glass. Gertrude clenched her teeth and tossed the binoculars into the corner of the room. They punched a small hole into the drywall while black plastic and glass littered the corner of the room.

“Too soon, nun, they came too soon. It was that demon she summoned. Whatever it was, it acted like a beacon to the others. She probably didn’t even need to let it out of the shackles before sending it back, just keep it out for a few seconds for the others to notice.”

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

“It was that demon. It did something. Illusions or something. I couldn’t break through the floor either. By the time I made a few scratches into the floorboards, the others were showing up.”

“Sounds like a sturdier place than ours,” Riley mumbled, more to herself than Gertrude.

The armored woman heard anyway if her narrowed eyes were any indicator. She turned from the window, staring into the space behind Riley. “Just be ready. We’re going to move against them soon. In fact, this little step back might just work to our advantage.”

Riley waited, but Gertrude didn’t bother elaborating. She did start chuckling. A fairly unpleasant chuckle. The tone set Riley’s nerves on end.

Really, she didn’t see what was so funny. Before tonight’s impromptu and failed operation, Gertrude had been lying low. Her enemies thought her to be crippled. If they even thought she was around at all. Now they had laid out half their cards and she was still expecting to win?

Riley really needed to get away before she found herself killed simply because of association.

But for the time being, she just smiled and pretended she wasn’t looking for opportunities to run away. She had thought Gertrude to be insane before. Watching her laugh while staring off into space only confirmed that thought. Riley did not want her supposed ally to lash out at her.

— — —

“And Faultline has lost all of their crystals to Brakket!” Hank shouted from the edge of his chair. “This puts Brakket firmly in the lead.”

“We still have plenty of time left,” Zoe said. “Though Faultline has a much greater difference to make up than the other schools.”

“Right you are Zoe. Let’s take a look at– Our commercial break!” he corrected as a voice came over his ear piece. “Our editors are hard at work preparing a few highlights from that last battle. We’ll look in on what they have for us once we come back.”

As soon as the camera switched over to the commercials, Zoe stood. “I will be back before the break ends,” she said, not waiting for a response before heading off stage.

Nothing bad had happened so far. The demons all freezing at the same time could be nothing to worry about.

Zoe worried anyway.

She pulled out her cellphone. Two messages. Roughly fifteen minutes apart from each other. She read the latter one first, hoping for the most up to date information.

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

Well that… was good news. Probably. She quickly switched over to the first message.

Juliana missing. Kidnapped? Looks like a fight went down. Genoa, Arachne, and I are on the case.

Zoe stood, staring at the message with a frown. Kidnapped? But problem resolved fifteen minutes later? You have to tell me more than this, Eva, Zoe thought as she typed out a message. And what were the demons staring at?

“Miss Baxter?”

Zoe jolted, glancing up to one of the station’s interns. She blinked. It took her a moment to realize why he was standing there in the first place. “Sorry. Commercial ending?”

“Hank can carry the program for a few minutes if you need more time.”

Shaking her head, Zoe smiled. “Oh no. I’m alright to continue. The problem I was worried about has been resolved. Apparently.”

The stagehand looked like he wanted to say something more, but Zoe moved back to her seat, offered a nod to Hank, and folded her hands across her lap just in time for the commercial break to end.

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