Tag Archives: Alexander

010.032

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After ensuring that she was indeed alone within her domain—she hadn’t found any enigmas, humans, or demons wandering around, nor had she sensed the presence of any—Eva returned to the common room to further inspect the column sticking through the roof.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a column. All four sides angled inwards ever so slightly up until high above the roof where the angle bent sharply towards a central point. She had searched every inch that she could see and found nothing. No markings or inscriptions of any kind. Whoever had built it hadn’t even had the decency to slap on a sticky note telling why they built it.

Eva certainly hadn’t built it. Sometimes her domain did odd things related to creating structures or items that Eva felt she needed—such as a potion kit when Genoa had been injured—but this was a bit beyond anything her subconscious would muster up. Unless it was supposed to have been something meant to help her move about with no legs, but if so, it obviously hadn’t worked.

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

Under other circumstances, she might have left it behind and pursued a way to get out of Hell, or to at least get a message out to Devon. He would surely summon her. But the strange obelisk wouldn’t have just appeared in her domain for absolutely no reason.

Rubbing her hand, or the blood making up her hand, over the surface, Eva found it completely smooth. The liquid couldn’t find any holes or seams. Each corner was just as solid as the rest of the structure.

Eva did realize a slight problem with her hands as she moved her hand over the obelisk. While she could tell that the obsidian was as smooth as glass, she couldn’t feel it. She saw it. Just like she saw all sources of blood. Her fingers didn’t have nerves. The obelisk could be scalding to the touch and she wouldn’t know. Arachne’s hands suffered from a similar problem, as they were a hard carapace exoskeleton, but there had still been some tactile sense feeding back to her mind.

There might be a solution buried somewhere in her blood books, but it wasn’t such a big deal that she had to drop everything and work on it right this very second. Just a minor annoyance.

Backing away from it, Eva turned and walked out of the alternate women’s ward. The sandy ground was annoying when grains got caught within the blood making up her feet. Too much and she would lose control of the blood as it became more contaminated. Hardening the soles of her feet solved that problem for the moment, but she could fix it with a little construction work around her domain.

First, however, she had a different project in mind.

Standing clear of the women’s ward building and the obelisk sticking out from the center, Eva concentrated on tearing down everything. Her entire domain needed to return to its base state from coast to coast.

Thankfully, her domain bent a knee to her will. The entire alternate women’s ward cracked and shuddered. Bits and pieces chipped off, falling to the ground where they broke apart further. In seconds, the building was indistinguishable from the sand of the island.

All that was left was Eva, a little tree without any leaves, and the towering obelisk.

Of those three, only two were supposed to be around. Eva still wasn’t sure what purpose the tree served, but it had been there on her very first visit. Staring at it, she couldn’t alter it in any way no matter how much she concentrated. It stayed its same brown twiggy sapling without sprouting leaves or crumbling to sand. Some day, she would ask Arachne or Catherine about it. Maybe they had trees in the center of their domains. Maybe they had built their domains over the top of the trees and had completely forgotten that they existed in the centuries since then. Maybe they had nothing at all and it was something unique in Eva’s domain.

For the time being, however, Eva turned her attention over to the obelisk. Bare now that it didn’t have the women’s ward surrounding it, Eva could see it without obstruction. Which only made it seem larger than before. Like the tree, it remained static no matter how much she concentrated. The women’s ward had crumbled to sand at a mere thought. This thing didn’t seem to notice how hard she was thinking at it.

Neither did it light up, change color, turn from the glossy obsidian to a rough granite, or anything else she tried to do with it.

Which really meant only one thing. It wasn’t a part of her domain. It was something foreign.

Something left over from Life’s assault? A beacon? Except Life had been using the enigmas as beacons. Living creatures fit much better with its theme than cold structures, even if the enigmas didn’t count as living ‘enough’ for the sake of her blood magic.

So Void then? Why would it plop down a big obelisk in the middle of her domain. In the middle of her women’s ward, no less. The island wasn’t large, but there was plenty of space outside the walls of the alternate women’s ward. Void could have put it somewhere else without forcing her to relocate her building.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled as she walked back up to the obelisk. For a moment, she considered digging under the sand just to see how deep it went. A better idea came to her. Reaching out again, she brushed her hand over the obelisk. This time, she allowed her hand to partially uncouple from her body. A skeletal finger’s worth of blood dribbled down the smooth slope of the obelisk. Just before the dribble hit the sand, she formed a crystal shell around most of it, protecting it from the sand.

And it burrowed. Deep. Deeper. So far down that Eva eventually lost control as it went out of her range somewhere around two stories deep. Still, there was more to it beneath that. Maybe only an inch. Maybe a mile. She couldn’t tell.

The obelisk grew larger and larger the deeper it went. The angle of the four sides wasn’t that noticeable, but even a single degree could mean thousands of miles if the distance was far enough.

She started to consider just how deep it could possibly be before realizing that she hadn’t the slightest idea how Hell actually functioned. Maybe the obelisk went on literally forever. Maybe if she dug far enough, she would fall into nothingness for eternity. Something similar to the pit in Ylva’s domain.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change the fact that part of the obelisk was above the surface.

Pressing a hand to it again, Eva started to channel some of her magic into it as if it were a rune array or ritual circle of any type. Mostly on a whim. If it failed to produce any notable results, there really wasn’t much else to do with an inert pillar of stone. However, turning her attentions towards returning to Earth wasn’t really appealing so long as there was any sort of distraction. Hence her whim.

Honestly, she didn’t know where to begin in escaping from Hell. There had to be a way out from the Hell side. It couldn’t be a commonly known way out or even a remotely obvious way out. Earth would have been overrun with demons long ago if any old demon could find it.

Eva didn’t consider herself any old demon. Technically, unless something unintended had occurred during the corruption of Life, she was still a sliver human. And that just might be what she needed to get out. Otherwise, there were things to try. When she teleported, she knew that she at least partially left the mortal realm and dipped her toes into Hell. If she could enter the waters and think of a place filled with meat passageways, she just might be able to break into the tunnel from the Hell side.

Of course, she was just as likely to wind up facing some horrible cleaver-wielding demon constantly on the lookout for fresh meat.

That was all for if this obelisk didn’t do anything. At the moment, with her hand pressed against it, she could feel her magic flowing into it. There was a place for it to go. Something inside it accepted her magic.

But it wasn’t actually doing anything. No lights brightening it up, no mystic portals opening up to spit out demons or enigmas, nor any portals opening up to any other plane of existence.

With a frown, Eva pulled her hand away. The obsidian was just as smooth as it had been before. No hand-shaped mark. As another thought crossed her mind, Eva pulled all the blood of her hand back into her body. With nothing more than bare skin, she reached out.

Once again, she tried pressing magic into the obelisk. This time, she really opened the floodgates. If it needed bare skin contact, she had that covered. If it just needed more magic to fill its massive size, the torrential deluge of magic she was releasing should fill it to the brim. It was like trying to overpower thirty of her most explosive fireballs at once while teleporting. Every scrap of magic filling her veins that was not keeping her legs cohesive flooded into the obelisk.

This time, she got a reaction.

A faint glow. A red light right at the very tip. Barely notable. In fact, the only reason she did notice it was because of the pitch black sky in the background.

But red was a good color. Had it been violet, she might have stopped the instant she noticed. Red, Eva associated with demons. Which meant that it was probably not something Life had left behind to restart the rending of the borders between planes. She didn’t know what it was for.

Perhaps it was a gift. She had done fairly well in averting the apocalypse, in her opinion. It might not have gone exactly as Void had planned, but Void hadn’t seemed too upset during her brief death at the hunter’s hands.

She held it as long as she could. But the dim light never got any brighter. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she tore her hand away. The sweat dripping from her forehead flung through the air as she collapsed down onto the sandy beach.

For a moment there, she almost forgot to keep her blood circulating. Which represented a certain weakness in her new heart—aside from the obvious need to replace it eventually with another bloodstone, perhaps one from her void metal dagger if she could find it. It might take time, but she should heal. She was demonic enough. Her heart would come back sometime. Until then, she absolutely needed to make circulating her blood such a habit, such a regular act of her subconscious that she could circulate it properly while she was asleep or otherwise unconscious.

Something to work on.

Once she was certain that her body wasn’t going to unexpectedly shut down, Eva looked long and hard at the once again dim obelisk. Even straining herself to the breaking point didn’t do enough. There was something, but not enough.

Which made her wonder if two people would do any better. Or four; there were four sides, after all. Unfortunately, as she had been lamenting earlier, she didn’t know three demons in Hell. At least not three she wanted to meet with.

But this was her domain. Why should she need other people? It could conjure up buildings and people-like simulacra like Eva could conjure up fireballs. The entire place was more or less under her control.

Eva took a moment to reform her legs—they had gone a little jelly-like when she had collapsed—before standing and once again pressing her arm against the obelisk. This time, she only let a trickle of magic pass through her arm.

Most of her concentration went into her domain. The magic of the world that surrounded her. She focused hard, imagining a massive hand squeezing it all down into the obelisk, pressing and draining every droplet of magical energy from the ambient air against the pillar.

With the force of her domain behind her, Eva watched the top of the obelisk. The red light increased in intensity. It doubled over, steadily brightening. But it didn’t stop there. It kept doubling its brightness, reaching a point where Eva had to look away to avoid her eyes burning out.

The current of magic charged the air, making the hairs on Eva’s arms stand on end. At the same time, a pressure built up. Opening and closing her jaw made her ears pop like she had been driving up a steep hill.

As she poured more magic into the obelisk, she could feel the receptacle she had noticed earlier filling up. The reservoir, though deep, was not infinite. It had a ways to go. She increased the efforts of her domain to fill it while keeping herself from straining.

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

Eva found herself flying backwards, leaving her legs behind. It took her a moment as she flew through the air to realize what happened. A quick thought just before she hit a bank of sand drew some of her legs back to her body, but a good portion of the blood had already sunk into the sand around the obelisk.

Veins of red ran down the sides of the obelisk, branching and splitting as they moved downwards, becoming individually thinner but densely coating the sides. It became so dense that Eva couldn’t tell that there was any of the obsidian left from ten feet off the sand and below. And it didn’t stop there. It continued downwards below the sand, presumably until it hit some sort of base. Even if Eva could sense that far down, she wouldn’t have been able to see the lines. They weren’t blood. All she could see was a faint glow squeezing between the grains of sand in a short radius around the obelisk.

Eva stared, rebuilding her legs—much shorter now than they were before—as she waited for it to do something. Though, for all she knew, it might take a good few hours before the red reached the bottom. If it ever did.

It had thrown her away like a used washcloth while still drinking of the magic of her domain. She could feel the flow, though only tangentially. Eva didn’t think that she would run out of magic anytime soon. Her domain was a part of her, yet not. Her subconscious and conscious both contributed to how it worked. The amount of magic it would take to build and destroy nearly anything at will, including semi-sapient constructs of people, had to be extreme. Given that she had never heard of a demon running out of magic in their domain, it had to be excessive.

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

But all of Hell was essentially a part of Void. That had been the whole point behind Life’s plans in drawing Hell to the mortal realm. It was a way to get at Void. So unless this obelisk was meant to exhaust the magical ability of a Power, she doubted she had to worry about much.

In fact, seeing that it would probably take some time, Eva conjured up a chair. The sands around her rose up, molding into smooth leather as she sat down. The soft cushions of one of the Rickenbacker lobby chairs cradled her, taking away the need to keep legs of blood formed. Comfortable, she sat back and waited.

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

“An attack,” Dean Anderson said. “An attack on what we stand for. What we are doing here.” He gazed out, peering over the assembled cameras and reporters. Mostly mundane, but there were a number of obvious mages standing around the crowd. “Make no mistake,” he continued in his most authoritative voice, “there are those who do not agree with the decisions of Brakket Academy, Nod Complex, Faultline, Isomer, and Mount Hope to disclose information about the magical community to the world at large.”

Zoe found herself frowning. If her memory served, and she had no reason to doubt it at the moment, Anderson had sprung the idea on the other schools. Faultline, at the very least, had been upset. Mount Hope and the Nod Complex had far more subdued reactions to his announcement during the initial feast between the schools. They very well might have known beforehand.

Yet framing the incident as an attack against all of them made the other schools far more likely to stand with Brakket Academy against criticism and adversity. Which was more of a public relations move on his part than a real call to action. There was no real enemy. Not in the manner he was implying.

Zoe refrained from interrupting. He had obviously put a some thought into what to say. She would wait and see if anything was morally objectionable beyond lying about the potential apocalyptic situation they had been in. Frankly, telling the layperson about an averted apocalypse would probably be worse than lying about nonexistent terrorists. So, with a sigh, she pushed the imaginary dull pain in her missing arm away and focused on his speech.

“Fools,” he said, making Zoe glad she was sitting behind him along with most of the rest of the various schools’ staff members. A bit of spittle might have escaped his mouth as he spoke. “Releasing dangerous creatures into the city? Creating that ghastly illusion in our skies to frighten off good and wholesome people? What do you hope to accomplish by harming children and innocents?”

He slammed his fists down on the podium, sending a loud crack through the assembled microphones. Zoe could actually believe that he was honestly angry.

“It is too late to go back to the way things were. It has been too late for a long time.” Anderson held up a cellphone, raising it high over the microphone-covered podium. “You, who attacked us, may be unfamiliar with mundane technology given your desire to cling to the old ways. Nearly every mundane human carries one of these. They are getting smaller, faster, and smarter.” He flipped it over, pointing towards the camera. “They record everything, uploading pictures and videos to data servers where the images become nigh impossible to remove. It is a wonder, an absolute shock that knowledge of magic was only as widespread as it was before our tournament.”

He dropped his hands to his sides, putting on an expression of remorse. “And yet you would sabotage this attempt at peaceful revelation. I can only hope that whatever trust has been broken between our societies because of this incident can be repaired.”

Silence befell the briefing area as Anderson dipped his head in a solemn nod of respect. It took a few moments for the silence to be broken.

One of the reporters stood, holding up a hand. He didn’t wait to be called upon before blurting out a question. “Do you know who is behind the attacks on the school?”

“Specifically? No. As a group, they’re terrorists, nothing more. We have people attempting to uncover their identities.”

“Hank Hanson,” Hank said as he stood up with an award-winning smile.

Among all the reporters in the audience, very few had actually been present for the ‘attack’ with the exception of Hank. The only real evidence of that was the matted gauze pad on his face from where he had gotten a bit too close to an enigma in his overzealous attempt to get an up-close story. Frankly, he was lucky to have survived. One of the various demons had apparently saved him.

And yet, he was still smiling. Perhaps more impressively, he hadn’t run off screaming.

“You say that you have people looking into their identities. Is it common for schools to take care of constabulary duties?”

“The magical society is not as large as our mundane counterparts. We don’t have anything like a standing army or police force. The Royal Guild of Mage-Knights,” he said with a vague wave of his hand towards where Redford sat not far from Zoe, “are trained bounty hunters who we are working closely with us to bring these terrorists to justice.”

Redford’s hands rubbed over the top of his cane as he stared out with a deep scowl on his face. Zoe had told Anderson the truth, but she had no idea what he had told Redford. Were the members of the Guild looking for terrorists that didn’t actually exist?

“One more question,” Hank said before another reporter could stand up. “Have you…”

He trailed off. Zoe couldn’t figure out why until she noticed the ashen faces of the rest of the crowd of reporters. Most were staring at some point over Anderson’s head. Anderson realized that something was wrong as well and turned to look along with most of the staff.

On the horizon of the city, a faint red glow had encompassed the rooftops. The center point, the area that glowed the brightest, was straight towards where the obelisk was.

Panic quickly set in. Of course it had. They were in a meeting discussing the actions of terrorists. Whether or not those terrorists actually existed didn’t matter. The reporters didn’t know the truth. And that horizon looked an awful lot like another attack.

A thunderclap coming from Redford’s cane as he slammed it down onto the ground silenced the slowly mounting noise. In the same motion, he created a dome overhead. “Do not panic,” he shouted out. “We will keep everyone safe.”

Anderson looked to the staff, to all of the remaining professors, but especially the security guards. “Ensure the students don’t come to harm,” he said loud enough for the reporters to hear.

Zoe shared a look with Wayne. Just a brief look. They wouldn’t be heading to the dormitory buildings. A silent agreement passed between them. Wayne teleported away first.

“It’s always one thing after another,” Anderson mumbled just before Zoe disappeared.

She reappeared on the far end of the street from the obelisk—no sense teleporting into the middle of a hundred enigmas or demons if it was some sort of invasion. Wayne apparently had the same idea. He wasn’t standing far from Zoe.

His eyes twitched back and forth in the tell-tale signs of mental acceleration, so she didn’t bother saying anything for the moment. Instead, she surveyed the situation.

The obelisk was covered in veins of red lines, all lit up like a Christmas tree. A very ominous and slightly evil Christmas tree.

But that was it. No monsters running about attacking people. The dark area of sand around the obelisk wasn’t spreading. Or, if it was, it was spreading so slowly that Zoe couldn’t tell. The few mage-knights who Anderson hired to watch over it were backing away slowly, but none of them were being eaten alive or disintegrated by some wave of magical energy.

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

Still… perhaps it was time to evacuate Brakket City. Anderson might not like it. Then again, he didn’t like much of anything. It could be temporary. Catherine had been concerned over the obelisk for about a day until her search for more came up with nothing substantial. It was entirely possible that these obelisks were merely benign remnants from the ritual.

Better to be safe than sorry.

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007.021

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“Well that… that… that just rains on my parade!”

Clement pulled the binoculars away from his face to glance towards his partner. Gertrude was leaning half over the edge of the roof with the visor from his armor pressed against her eyes. Her mouth was twisted into a pout.

With a gentle hand, Clement pulled her back. She wouldn’t die from the fall. They were on top of some sort of dancing club for the students to waste time in, it was only a few stories high. The idea that she would even be injured was laughable. Still, he didn’t want to jump down after her. Neither did he care to wait around with their guest until she climbed back up.

Once sure that she wasn’t a stiff breeze away from falling, Clement brought his binoculars back up.

It wasn’t the best view. The roof of the club was a bit lower than the floor of their apartment. He could still see most of the room. Better yet, he could see the demons through the walls. Just faint outlines, enough to track them. A similar enchantment was on his visor, though of slightly higher quality.

Though there wasn’t much to see anymore with the naked eye. Before he had put his binoculars down to deal with Gertrude, the demon that they had captured had already been in the process of being carried out of the room. The only thing he could still see was their original target, the hel. She stood, gazing around the room with eyes as dead as a soulless corpse.

At first glance, she was a beautiful woman. Long hair, regal features, smooth skin. She had everything needed for a classical sort of beauty. But that all disappeared the longer he looked. The iced over lips, skin too smooth, dark veins barely visible underneath her skin, and her lifeless eyes. All of it added together to give the hel an unnerving quality.

Clement jumped back, jerking away from his binoculars.

She had stepped towards the window. In doing so, she had put most of her body into the early morning sunlight.

Watching her skin vanish as if a bucket of paint thinner had been dumped over a sheet of freshly painted glass was the worst. Clement had seen skeletons before. They didn’t bother him. But this hel… there was intelligence behind those empty sockets that just shouldn’t be.

With a shake of his head, he pressed the binoculars back to his eyes. This time, he angled towards a movement at a street-level door. Faint outlines were near the door.

The girl, the one who had been first on the scene and had broken the seals on the door, walked out of a side entrance. Her bright red eyes glanced around, but didn’t spot anything suspicious. With a wave of her hand, she gestured to her companion.

Some person wearing a poor imitation of his armor followed her out. Between the two of them, they had a bundle of blankets.

It didn’t take many guesses to figure out what was squirming around inside. It took even less guesses when a few tentacles slipped out into the air.

Clement reached back. His armored hand curled around the hilt of his sword.

“Shall we intercept?”

Gertrude hummed. Then she hawed. She hummed some more while running her fingers through her red hair.

With a frown, Clement released his sword. If she was pretending to think about it, the answer was no. Gertrude often came to quick, near instant decisions. Her current actions were just for her own amusement.

“Nope,” she said after a few more indecisive scratches of her head. “We could end the tentacle monster easily enough. Possibly the girl as well. We just don’t know enough about her at the moment to say for certain. Somehow, she learned of the tentacle demon’s presence and ruined everything. How?”

Clement did not respond. He had no insights to offer. Gertrude was the magic specialist. He couldn’t create even a small spark if his life depended on it. Luckily, with the armor that she had made for him, his life never depended on his magical abilities.

Merely his swordsmanship.

“Besides,” Gertrude said with a nod towards the apartment window, “the hel is still watching. Fun as it might be, we’ll get her attention and possibly attract every other demon in the area. I don’t think the girl is any kind of big shot, but there is a reason we tried to trap the Hel instead of fighting.”

“We could–” Clement cut himself off with a frown. The hel was powerful, true. Not so powerful that a well placed swing of an enchanted sword couldn’t lop her head right off. With both him and Gertrude, he doubted that she would have much of a chance.

If other demons joined in, even if only as distractions to him and Gertrude, that slight chance grew immensely. It was why they had gone with the trap plan in the first place.

And that was assuming that the devil stayed content to merely watch.

There was a tingle going up Clement’s spine. Some small shiver as if he were being watched. Glancing around, he couldn’t see anything that might be the source.

The hel and everyone else at the apartment building were too far away. It couldn’t be them. There was a reason that he was using binoculars. Of course, someone there might have enhanced vision. Peeking through his binoculars again, he couldn’t find anyone looking in his direction.

Every time he thought of the devil, he felt the hairs on his neck rise up.

It was that devil. It had to be. The only question was whether or not the devil was actually causing the sensation. It was entirely possible that everything was all in his head.

Gertrude never felt anything. He had asked. She was certain that whatever magic she was doing was enough to keep them off the devil’s radar. It worked for the rest of the demons. No one really noticed them while wandering around. So far, he hadn’t seen any sign that the devil actually was watching them. As far as he knew, it was working.

Glancing around, Clement still couldn’t shake that feeling of being watched.

Gertrude paid no mind to his unease. She spun around with a bright smile on her face before resting against the raised lip of the building’s roof. “Anyway, all is not lost. We’ll just have to modify our plan for the other one. It wouldn’t be good to face them all at once. Besides, with him around, we can try trapping the hel again.”

Clement turned to face their guest. He couldn’t see anything. Morail were annoying like that. There was no doubt that the demon was trapped within the shackles on the roof. They had been hastily constructed, but they were no less effective. Even better, they were suppressing his demonic aura. None of the other demons should be able to sense him.

Of course, that hadn’t helped with the girl. As Gertrude had said, she had found out somehow. She hadn’t been concerned going into the apartment complex. Clement could guess that there was some range limitation on whatever ability she had. If not, then this morail would already be known to them.

Since they weren’t under attack, no one knew.

“They’ll be wary if we try the same trick again, Gertrude.”

“Ha! They’ll be wary no matter what we do. Still, just need to draw them out to where we’ll have the advantage. Otherwise…” Gertrude trailed off, rubbing a finger over the ring on her hand. “Well, we might just have to straight up fight them. No tricks or traps. But that’s for later.”

“And where will we try again? Not the original location?”

Gertrude’s smile grew ever so slightly. “Pack him up,” she said with a nod towards the apparently empty set of shackles. “Tight. Compact. I doubt he’ll need limbs. Then meet me at that little gas station on the edge of town, right near the highway.”

With that said, she pushed back with the tips of her toes, falling over the edge of the roof backwards.

Clement didn’t bother with checking over the edge. She would be fine.

Instead, he gripped his sword, hefting if off its mount and readying it in front of him.

And he paused. Gertrude wanted his limbs off, but the rest of the demon should probably be intact. Somewhat of a difficult prospect while his target was invisible.

She had taken his visor as well.

With a frown, he brought the binoculars up to his eyes. It was dizzying to look at something so close, but he could see a thick outline around the demon through the lenses.

It would be hard to aim. One of his hands had to keep the binoculars pressed to his face.

Oh well, he thought as he started his advance, it might be a bit messier than otherwise.

— — —

Eva and Juliana set Lucy down on a bed in one of the Brakket Academy infirmary rooms. They hadn’t known what else to do with her. At least not before talking with Martina Turner.

Nurse Post stood to the side, watching with a frown on her face. “You know,” she said, “I remember a time when it would be seen as odd to walk into the infirmary with a bundle of tentacles. I don’t even know where to begin with treatment.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, you probably won’t have to treat her. She’ll heal on her own over time.”

Nurse Post made a face. It was a bit hard to see behind her surgical mask and gauze covering one eye. The blood behind the coverings didn’t lie. Her lips were twisted into a grimace and her nose had wrinkled.

Eva wasn’t sure why she felt the need to don a surgical mask. Maybe she thought that she would be operating on Lucy.

Upon seeing her when first entering the nurse’s office, Eva actually had to do a double-take. Both Nurse Post and the woman who had likely kidnapped Lucy had eye patches. It was such an unusual trait that Eva’s eye had been drawn to it first while her mind jumped to conclusions.

Stupid conclusions. Nurse Post had much darker hair. The woman’s was red. Their facial structure was different. Nurse Post lacked that somewhat disturbing smile as well.

“She?” the nurse asked, face still wrinkled in a mixture of confusion and discomfort.

“Oh. Right.” Eva rested a hand on the bed near Lucy. “Meet Lucy. The security guard,” she added when Nurse Post failed to show any recognition. “This is what she looks like when not doing her poor impression of a human.”

Narrowing her eye ever so slightly, Nurse Post said, “that should surprise me. Somehow, it doesn’t.” She sighed as she shook her head. “She and the other specialist went missing. Shall I prepare to receive another wad of tentacles?”

“Oh no. Daru looks like a human for real. Lucy is something of a special case.” Eva paused for just a moment before continuing in a more somber tone of voice. “Also, we haven’t found him yet. I don’t even know if he is still… around.”

Something of a depressing silence fell over the group, only to be broken by Lucy knocking a tissue box off a table next to the bed.

Eva turned to find Lucy squirming a whole lot more than she had been just a moment ago.

Figuring that there was no harm in asking, Eva said, “I don’t suppose you know where Daru is?”

The thrashing tentacles stilled. Eva took that for a negative, but that was mostly a guess.

As Eva watched, Lucy started trying something. Her few remaining tentacles were winding around each other. Lips, or something vaguely resembling them, started to form as the tentacles tightened together. Unfortunately, as she tried to form a throat and some lungs, the lips started to come unwound.

Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t form enough of a face to speak while still having lungs to draw in air needed to create the sound of words.

So much of her body was missing that she couldn’t even put together half of a head to speak. It was amazing that she was still alive at all. Decentralized nervous and circulatory systems were awe inducing.

Eva grimaced at the sight. Absently, she noted Juliana glancing off to the side while trying to not look like she was disturbed. Nurse Post placed a hand over her masked mouth after gasping.

“Alright stop,” Eva said, placing her hands over Lucy. “You’re not helping. If you could write, that might work better.”

The tentacles ceased their formations of various organs, instead just flopping out onto the bed. Eva, once again, took that as a no.

“Just focus on getting better.” Turning back to Nurse Post, Eva said, “you should know that she was taken by demon hunters. They might not be so excited that she got away.”

“So you bring her to a school?”

Eva shrugged. “Summer time. School is out. Most students aren’t even back for the summer seminars yet. If they come back at all. Besides, I can feel Zagan nearby. I doubt that they’ll come here. Still, something to be aware of.”

“And if they do come back?”

“Hide. Let them take Lucy. She won’t die even if they kill her. You will.”

There was a bit of squirming from Lucy at Eva’s suggestion, but Eva paid it no mind. A thought entered her mind about whether or not her statement was true.

“I think, anyway,” Eva said. “The red eyes throw me off, are you a demon or are you not?”

Eva couldn’t sense anything from her. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Zagan was nearby. Probably just down the hall in Martina Turner’s office. With him so close, Eva could barely feel Lucy and they were just about touching. Inexperienced in her ability to detect demons, it was entirely possible that one she hadn’t known about would slip through.

“I’m not a demon.”

“Then leave her to the hunters.”

If she caught wind of the hunters coming after Lucy again, Eva would jump in without hesitation. Asking the same of a school nurse was not really something that she could do. She was counting on the fact that Zagan was fairly intimidating when he wanted to be.

“Now,” Eva said, “I don’t supposed you know if Martina Turner is around?”

“Last I heard, she was in her office.”

With Zagan, Eva thought with a nod of her head. “Right.” She glanced back towards Juliana. “Coming along?”

“I–Yeah.”

As they headed out into the hallway, Juliana let out a long sigh.

“Figures,” she said, “I’m back and in less than half a day, big things are going on.”

“I imagine your little vacation wasn’t quite so eventful,” Eva said with a chuckle.

“Not really. Aside from Zagan showing up, about the only interesting thing was watching this town on the news.”

“About the sky?”

Juliana glanced around the empty hallway. “I know it isn’t some agricultural thing,” she said in a low voice. “What is it?”

Eva shrugged. Juliana had been there when Zagan had explained about the situation with Hell. Of course, her mother had a hole in her chest at the time, but Eva was fairly certain that she had heard enough to get the gist of it. As such, she didn’t feel a need to explain all that.

“Don’t know for sure. The idea that Wayne, Zoe, Devon, and Ylva came up with is that it is some form of attack on Void. It and the enigmas–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “The creatures that your dad came to inspect are the enigmas. I can’t remember if they had their name when you were here last. The idea is that they’re designed to weaken the barriers between the mortal realm and Void. Whether the sky is the cause or a side effect is still up for debate.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“I try not to worry about it.”

“That seems…. irresponsible.”

“It’s sort of like knowing that a meteor is careening towards the Earth. What am I really supposed to do about it? Devon and Zagan don’t seem particularly worried. Devon is a coward as well. If he isn’t running around like a chicken without a head, I don’t know why I would.

“I prefer to focus my energies on things that I can actually affect. Sawyer, for instance. These demon hunters for another.”

Juliana made a small humming noise. Not really one of agreement or derision, just of acknowledgment.

Inside the main office area, Eva paused with a frown on her face.

Catherine’s desk was empty.

She could sense her somewhere. That probably meant that the demon hunters didn’t have her. But she wasn’t nearby. At least, she wasn’t inside Martina Turner’s office. Zagan was. Now that Eva was closer, she could sense someone else inside as well. A demon that Eva found familiar, but couldn’t quite place. It was probably her imagination. She hadn’t run into very many demons since her latest treatment anyway.

With no one around to wave her into the dean’s office, Eva pushed open the door without hesitation.

“–can’t allow them to–”

Martina’s voice cut off as soon as the door opened. She turned away from Governor Anderson to glare at the interruption. As soon as she saw who it was, her face twisted. As if she couldn’t decide whether to soften her features or to glare harder.

For his part, Anderson merely turned to regard Eva with a raised eyebrow.

Zagan was leaning against the wall just to the side of the door. His golden eyes were already staring at Eva as she entered, obviously expecting her. He hadn’t needed to turn his head.

One of his hands was fiddling with the cufflinks on his other wrist. His hands dropped to his sides as he spotted who was behind Eva. His lips split to reveal teeth that a dentist would be hard pressed to find a flaw in.

But Eva paid him no mind. Zagan was a known demon. A devil and a scary one at that, but one that Eva could at least somewhat predict.

Her eyes were drawn over Martina’s shoulder.

The other demon that she had felt was standing there, staring at her.

Eva immediately realized her mistake.

She had seen this demon before.

“Prax?” Juliana said from behind Eva. “What are you doing here?”

The cambion huffed, crossing his beefy arms in front of his bare chest while glancing off to the side.

“What indeed,” Eva murmured with an aside glance towards Zagan.

The devil shrugged his shoulders. “I heard he got loose from his fleshy prison and wanted into the mortal realm. For a time, I considered torture and execution. Now I’ve decided to have him serve out his insult to me by taking over so many of my duties. Marvelous idea, yeah?”

“I only saw him just a few hours ago. He asked to get out of Hell then.”

Just how quickly had Prax been summoned up by Martina? She could understand if Zoe had let slip that Prax was out, but wanting to get out of Hell was another matter entirely. Eva could understand him being able to hear conversations while he wasn’t immediately present. Zoe could do the same through enhancing her hearing beyond human limits.

Even her enhancements didn’t reach Hell.

“Have you been spying on me?” Eva asked.

“Of course I have.”

Eva blinked, not expecting the blunt response.

“I told you before, I have a vested interest in you. A few simple enchantments on your person and…” he trailed off with another shrug and a nod towards Prax.

For just a moment, Eva had half a mind to protest. To demand the removal of whatever enchantments he had applied to her.

Those protests died off when she caught sight of his eyes.

He wasn’t glaring or anything, but Eva couldn’t help the shiver running up her spine.

Ignoring her discomfort, Zagan turned back to his original object of interest. “Juliana,” he said as he reached out a hand to ruffle her hair. “Welcome back.”

She just sat there and allowed him to mess up her blond hair. “Thanks.”

Her voice came out as a whisper as Zagan withdrew his hand.

Eva yearned to ask. Juliana’s earlier request to not talk about Zagan held her tongue. For now.

With a slight shake of her head, Eva turned to face Martina Turner.

“I rescued Lucy.”

“So I’ve heard,” she said, eyes flicking towards Zagan. “No sign of Daru?”

“None. Ylva is convinced that it was a trap for her. I’m inclined to agree.” Eva raised an eyebrow in Zagan’s direction. “Perhaps Daru is intended to be a trap for someone else?”

“A trap for me?” Zagan said with a chuckle. “I’d like to see that. Perhaps I’ll walk into it just to see what happens.”

“Well, I can’t imagine people fighting you in a fair fight. Even if you went as easy on them as you went on Sister Cross.”

“Dammit.” Martina slammed a fist on her desk. “I thought you were keeping these hunters off my back,” she said in a half shout.

“I told you that it wouldn’t last forever,” Anderson said, keeping his voice carefully controlled.

Picking up a large glass off the desk, she downed the dark brown contents in a single swig. A long and harsh sigh escaped her lips as she set the glass back on the desk. “Should have been longer than a handful of months. I expected a year at least. We’re not ready for hunters.”

Eva cleared her throat. Just a light cough before speaking. “You summoned Prax, right? I feel a few others too.”

“Replacements,” Martina said through grit teeth. “With Brakket’s security force decimated, I had to get more in a hurry.”

“There are three of them including Prax?”

“A second morail and a hellhound under his command.”

Eva nodded. The hellhound wouldn’t be sentient, but it made sense that she could sense it. Still, Martina had Catherine, Lucy, Daru, this new morail, a hellhound, and Zagan all contracted to her. The most she had seen Devon summon was three, and that had just been half a year ago or so. Before that, his highest was two at once.

She could only imagine what Devon would say about Martina. Her imagination filled in several uses of the words idiot, menace, and suicidal.

But, it wasn’t her problem. If Martina wanted to surround herself with demons, that was her choice.

Eva just hoped that she had a bag of popcorn nearby when Zagan decided that he didn’t want to take orders anymore.

“Anyway, I think Ylva is wanting to hunt down these hunters. I’m going to help her. Any resources that you could spare would be appreciated, I’m sure.”

Martina went silent for a moment. Her finger ran around the edge of her now empty glass. “Take Prax and Catherine. Zagan will stay at my side. Cereth and the hellhound will remain patrolling around Brakket Academy.”

Eva expected Zagan to stay with Martina. Unless she was far more altruistic than Eva knew her to be, Martina wouldn’t want her strongest asset away from her. Though he could probably kill the hunters in one shot, it would leave her far too vulnerable. The other morail, Cereth, would likely be a backup. Or, he would be sent in to die first while Zagan watched and laughed.

Maybe it was a good thing that Zagan wouldn’t be at her side.

Standing up, Martina placed the palms of her hands against the top of her desk, leaning over. “Get these bastards out of my town.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.019

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Irene sat in her seat, shifting back and forth.

Her first day back in diablery class had her feeling intensely nervous. She had been the one to cause the brief intermission in their lessons.

Surprisingly enough, the rest of the class wasn’t staring at her in one way or another. She had expected a glare or two at least. She did almost cause them injury–from their perspective. Or worse.

Perhaps those that were the type to glare had already been kicked out of class.

Those that were left tended to all sit on their own. Few spoke with one-another. In fact, only two were whispering amongst themselves. Susie Bobo and Rachael Davis. Everyone else was either writing in notebooks, reading, or staring towards the front of the classroom.

It wasn’t hard to guess what they were staring at. Catherine was back to her demonic form–sans clothes and all.

Irene was trying to ignore her as much as possible. Catherine, Irene had decided, was pure trouble.

At least Eva was present this time. She was far more sensible than Catherine.

“Mind if I sit here?”

Irene glanced up. She only managed to suppress a groan through biting her tongue.

Randal.

She wasn’t sure how to feel about the white-haired boy. On one hand, he was obviously an idiot. What with wanting to ‘spruce up’ a summoning circle. On the other hand, he had saved her from Drew.

Anyone who didn’t like Drew had to be a good person, right?

The question was a matter of whether or not he could overcome his idiocy and learn from his mistakes.

“Sure,” Irene said. Might as well give him a chance.

At the first sign of him causing unnecessary danger with his antics, Irene would be speaking with Eva.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?”

Randal took his seat and pulled out a book. “Still have a good three minutes,” he said, flashing a smile. “Plenty of time to get some emergency studying in before tomorrow’s test.”

Irene shook her head. How irresponsible. Leaning forward, she tried to catch a glimpse of what subject he had a test in by the cover of the book. None of her professors had mentioned any tests, but Randal was a full two years ahead of her. What subjects would an older diablery student be taking?

Printed in a floral manuscript on the cover of the tome were the words Enchanting and Warding, the Entwined Arts.

“You’re taking enchanting and warding?”

“Just warding, though I took enchanting intro last year. Interested?”

Irene shifted. “I was interested in them. Now I’m reconsidering just how respectable they are if someone like you is taking them.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“You strike me as the sort of person who is lazy to the extreme and who insists on doing things their own way. Someone who would succeed in more free-form artistic subjects.”

Harrumphing, he said, “I’ll have you know, warding requires plenty of artistry and imagination. If you just follow the book, any two-bit ward breaker can unravel your wards in seconds. Out in the real world, nothing is more respectable than a good warder. Except, perhaps, a ward breaker.”

“Ward breakers are respected?” That didn’t sound right. Criminals breaking into places they shouldn’t had to be on the opposite end of the respect spectrum. But then, anyone in diablery class had to have their perspectives skewed.

Irene had a brief thought about whether or not that applied to herself as well.

“Of course,” Randal said, oblivious to her thoughts. “Someone dies and their family can’t get into their home, or room, or safe. Who gets called? Ward breakers. Can’t sell a house with half the property warded off, can you? Or think about the villainous hideouts, ancient crypts, and other such areas that regular mage-knights can’t break into easily. They’ll hire on a breaker to get them in.

“But don’t take my word for it. Sign up for warding next year. It’s a blast. And the professor is completely insane.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good quality for a professor to have,” Irene said with a frown.

Randal shrugged. “Oh, she’s good at her job. Don’t doubt that. Just don’t be surprised when you walk into class and find her standing on the ceiling. Or wind up going through class backwards.”

Irene blinked. “How does–”

“Alright,” Eva said, interrupting their conversation. “I heard you all had an interesting class last time.”

You could say that again.

“Unfortunately, I was off being attacked by an insane nun of the Elysium Order. But don’t worry, I, and a few experts, had a chance to examine the thing. I thought I’d give you a little update on the creature that we’re calling an enigma.”

Irene blinked. Again. Elysium Order? What?

“You can’t just say that and expect us to ignore it,” someone said, echoing Irene’s thoughts.

Eva had the audacity to look confused. Clarity lit up in her eyes after a moment of thought. “Oh, sorry. It was a tautology, I know. What member of the Elysium Order isn’t insane?

“Anyway, that creature is something that has been infesting Hell as of late. They are not demons and, in fact, share more in common with zombies than actual living creature. They don’t have a virus that will infect you upon contact with their blood, but they’re almost impossible to kill permanently. Their organs will keep working even after their apparent death and they’ll slowly regenerate. Freezing it solid was probably the best choice, so good job to whoever thought of that.”

Irene had to agree there. While she was sure that Catherine could have done something more than get held up by its tentacles, locking it in a block of ice tidied everything up without much mess.

A dislocated shoulder was comparatively easy to explain away to the nurse and anyone she could have passed by in the halls. Being covered in blood was not.

Catherine set her phone down for the first time since she walked into the room. Looking out over the classroom, her eyes narrowed.

Until her gaze crossed Irene. Then, she smiled.

Irene shuddered.

“From now on,” the succubus said, “anytime we do any summoning in class, you must use what your books call tier three shackles. Those should hold the ‘enigmas’ without issue. At least long enough for us to deal with it.”

Eva clapped her hands together. “Now, since your summoning was interrupted last time, I’d feel bad if the rest of you didn’t get to at least make an attempt.”

Irene groaned. Eva was supposed to be the sensible one. The one who says that they still need more studying before any more attempts.

The class really needed proper supervision.

— — —

Martina Turner sat at her desk. The reports coming in were all positive. Not a one had her feeling down.

Average student attendance was up. Either the professors were being more interesting than normal or there was less reason to skip class.

Some of it might be related to the fact that zero teachers were on leave for any reason. No illnesses or worse. Less substitutes meant the students were less likely to skip. The regular teachers held more authority in that they could easily see who was absent and give them penalties.

No one wanted to flunk out of what was commonly seen as one of the worst magic academies on the continent. If they couldn’t succeed here, they couldn’t succeed anywhere.

The only substitute who managed to retain her students was Catherine. That was something of an interesting data point, though not wholly unexpected. Succubi simply had that certain allure that drew people to them.

Perhaps it would be a wise idea to order Catherine to sit in on classes randomly. Students would attend more in hopes of being in her presence.

Had to keep the numbers up, after all.

Especially with all the troubles plaguing the academy in the last two years.

There hadn’t been an incident in almost four months.

A record, Martina thought with a sarcastic tone.

Despite that long stretch of relative peace, word had definitely spread. Especially regarding the zombie incident under Dean Halsey’s tenure and the more recent demon-hybrid attack.

Established families, even those that couldn’t afford it, were looking at other academies to send their children to. Safer academies.

Pathetic.

The magical side of the world was a dangerous side of the world. Maybe that wasn’t true, and it was just that mages were more aware of the dangers that existed, but there was no reason to coddle children. Best expose them to it while in a relatively safe environment. Smash any preconceived notions about their safety as a mage early on.

Based on her security team’s handling of the hybrid incident, Martina felt confident in saying that Brakket Magical Academy was safe.

Relatively.

There were a handful of families that were not afraid. At least, not more afraid than they were interested. Her strategically leaked information about the diablery class was drawing in a few new student applications for next year, even a few prospective transfers for the later years.

Martina set her reports down on her desk and leaned back in her chair. She took out a bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk. Pouring herself a small glass of Hellfire, she pondered just what to do about school attendance.

They didn’t need money. The school governors had ensured that much. As such, families with a good amount of disposable money were not required.

But they did need fresh young bodies.

The parties interested because of the diablery were not enough to outweigh those leaving. Just enough to mitigate the damage, somewhat.

They still needed more.

Those extra bodies would have to come from first generation mages inducted as freshmen.

Martina scrawled a note down to ensure that the professors were well aware of their targets before the next round of student-hunting.

Not a hard task. Many first generation mages slipped through the cracks every year, condemned to go through their lives ignorant of the fact that they could be one of those rumored magic users.

Of course, having first generation mages wasn’t a bad thing. They would come into the magical world with open minds.

And would be far less prejudiced than their more magical-lineage-inclined counterparts.

No parents to tell them what magics were good and what were bad. No stories passed down to ‘warn’ them of certain types of magical creatures.

In other words, first generation mages would be far easier to induct into diabolical methods of magic.

Of course, it was dangerous. Not so much because of the demons, but because of fellow humans. Too noisy, and they would attract the attentions of demon hunters.

Eventually, such a thing wouldn’t be a concern. They would become powerful enough to defend themselves. A handful of students, all able to order multiple demons into battle, would wipe the floor with most assailing forces.

Unfortunately, that would be far off, relatively speaking. There were–Martina glanced down at one of the reports–a mere eight students remaining in the current class. None of them had formed any kind of proper contract yet.

For the time being, Martina would have to rely on herself, Catherine, the security force, and Zagan. And Zagan was far from reliable.

After his antics involving the missing students, Martina was almost doubling the priority of finding a way to dismiss him without winding up killed herself.

Aside from them, Eva had a small contingent of demons following her. A force that she might be inclined to use to help out the academy in the face of danger. But, like Zagan, Martina did not find the young diabolist reliable in the slightest.

Martina started as her door opened with a click.

Catherine hadn’t said a word.

Slacking again?

Martina shook her head, shaking off both the unexpected arrival and the missing Catherine.

Obviously she was off tending to her class, thereby allowing Anderson to walk in unannounced.

There goes my good mood for the day.

Anderson never brought good news.

“Something I can do for you, Mr. Anderson?”

He took a moment to dally about the entrance of her room. Removing his coat and hat, placing them on the rack, and then straightening out his suit gave him plenty of time to change up what he wanted to say based on who was in the room. He had a markedly different personality whenever Zagan was present.

It also meant that he was planning on staying for some time.

With a barely concealed groan, Martina reached down into her desk and withdrew a second glass. She tipped it in his direction, a silent question.

He, thankfully, shook his head. “No thank you, Martina. I’m here on business. Afterwards, I must depart for a meeting with the other governors.”

“Suit yourself,” she said as she replaced the glass. The less Hellfire liquor she had to waste on others, the better. “This business?”

He didn’t appear outwardly angry with her. That was good at least. Ever since he had shown up talking about two missing students, they hadn’t been on the best of terms.

Or rather, Martina was fairly certain that she only managed to keep her job through being the one holding Zagan’s contract.

“Unpleasant,” he said.

Of course it is, Martina thought.

“The Elysium Order has suspended operations in North America.”

Martina winced. “The entire continent? I was unaware that we had such a large impact on them.”

“One of our other ‘test runs’ down south may have had a brief run in with them as well. But this has two direct implications, neither pleasant and both affecting Brakket.

“First and most obvious, the pressure on everything they hunt will be off.”

“And that includes necromancers. Including the one that attacked the academy twice.” Martina reached out to her glass and took a long drink. “Why did they have to announce it? This is only going to make their job harder when they restart their crusade. Vampires will be out of control. Liches too. Even ones that aren’t here already will be looking to move to where the Elysium Order is not.”

“As of this time, the Elysium Order has submitted several bounties to the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. Time will tell how effective the guild is in keeping undead under control.

“More importantly, they explicitly cited demonic interference as their reason for suspending operations.”

Martina froze mid drink.

That was… bad.

Downing the rest of her Hellfire in a single gulp, Martina slammed the glass on the desk, shattering it. She swept the shards off of her desk, ignoring the small cuts she got on her hand.

“Any two-bit hunter will easily be able to glance at recent Elysium deployments and make guesses at what they are talking about.”

“Indeed,” he said. “Keep your head down. Act like everything is normal. Gather students as usual and continue with the program. The others have agreed, given Zagan’s revelation, the program must continue. A handful of hunters aren’t going to save us from an apocalypse.”

Martina grit her teeth.

Anderson had stood up, but she was only scarcely paying attention.

The stooges of the board of governors now thought diablery lessons were a good idea? Just a few months ago, they were considering terminating the project.

Saving the world? Is that what they expect of me? Even ten thousand diabolists wouldn’t be capable of stopping an uncountable number of demons. And she had eight? Assuming no more dropped out, that is.

Well, it will certainly get me in the history books, Martina thought. If there’s anyone left to write them, that is.

Martina shook her head. Problems for later. For now, she had more immediate problems.

Hunters.

As if sensing her thoughts, Anderson glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ve put in motion a handful of projects that should keep the hunters off your back for a time. Hunters will find pockets of demons suddenly popping up all around the country. But don’t count on it occupying them for long. Sooner or later, someone will look into Brakket.” He plucked his bowler from the rack and placed it on his head, adjusting it side to side, slightly. “Be prepared.”

Martina scoffed as he walked out the door. “Be prepared,” she mocked.

Easy to say.

But what to do?

Pulling her spare glass from her desk, Martina started to pour herself a new glass. Halfway through, she stopped.

She drank straight from the bottle until it was half empty.

“I think I need more security personnel.”

— — —

Laughter.

Maniacal laughter.

It was about all she had heard in the recent weeks. Enough to drive her insane.

“It’s a gift,” her father shouted. Fingers stained purple, her father held up what she would guess was a heart. She had seen plenty of hearts in her life. Most came from humans, but she had dissected animals under the strict guidance of her father numerous times before moving on to humans.

The blob of meat held in her father’s hand was far too smooth and spherical to be a proper heart. The only imperfections that she could see from the neighboring table were the arteries and veins that jutted from the orb.

“A genuine boon from a Power,” her father continued, grin stretching from ear to ear.

Des wanted to ask just what he was talking about, but her father had yet to see fit to remove the stitchings binding her mouth closed. Left only to watch and speculate, Des spent most of her time waiting for the next outburst of a discovery to help fill in what exactly he was so excited about.

She didn’t have to wait for long. If there was one thing her father loved, it was talking while working.

“Look,” he shoved the heart straight over her face.

Up close, Des could see the pulsating flesh as the heart beat in his hand. As experienced as she was, she didn’t feel the need to count the heartbeats. It should have already stilled based on how long her father had held it in his hands.

Yet it wasn’t even slowing.

“The magic does not merely animate the whole, as is the case with zombies, skeletons, and such. It animates everything. And I can not stop it.

He spun back around to face the body lying on the other table, laughing as he turned.

“Watch the panel, honey.”

Des strained her neck. A panel of lights sat at the head of the table. Her father had designed it to connect to a subject’s brain through wires and monitor activity. In this case, however, the creature’s brain was no longer attached to the creature’s body. It sat on a small shelf, wires running into it.

The rows of blinking lights weren’t too surprising. The human body maintained some level of activity for a handful of minutes after death. There were more lights blinking than normal for a human brain five minutes postmortem, but that didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a human brain. They had no benchmark for creatures like this.

As she was watching the blinking lights, her father grabbed a scalpel, spun it between his fingers a few times, and jammed it straight into the severed heart.

Des’ eyes widened of their own accord. A spike of red lights lit up the entire panel.

“Not only is the creature still alive–even demons die upon removing their hearts and brains–but it still feels pain. It is still connected.” He waved his hands around the heart, as if double checking that there weren’t any strands of flesh connecting the organ to the brain.

Satisfied with whatever he found, he turned again to face Des.

“And then it starts healing itself. Slowly, perhaps not as fast as the healing ability most demons possess, but steadily.”

Her father’s eyes caught a glint of the operating theater’s lights, giving them a sinister look. Her father’s too-wide grin widened further as he looked down at her bare, stitch-covered chest.

Des’ heart sank as she watched him lift up his scalpel.

“Time for another installation, honey.”

She had the strangest feeling that her heart wouldn’t be hers for much longer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.017

<– Back | Index | Next –>

It was no wonder that Zoe Baxter had run off. Human children were menaces. The entire lot of them.

Even the quiet ones.

In fact, they were the worst of all.

The others tended to be more honest with their disinterest. They would twiddle with their phones, or their thumbs, or simply ignore her while talking–loudly, more often than not–with their friends.

The quiet ones sat, taking notes in their notebooks. They waited for dismissal before gathering their supplies and they always turned on their homework on time.

Fools, Catherine thought, as if I would waste my valuable time actually grading their work.

Catherine had found a novel method of paper grading. Rolling a six-sided dice. The students tended to complain if their grades were lower than a seven or so, so Catherine subtracted the dice roll from ten. It kept them happy and far less likely to bother her outside of the classroom hours that she was required to be there for.

Even on occasions where they scored lower than a seven… well, at least they couldn’t get lower than a four.

In that, the students who did not turn in homework to the lowly substitute were actually ahead of the game.

It hadn’t always been like that. She used to have the students wrapped around her little finger. All of them hung off her every word at one point.

All until Mr. Anderson heard about the exciting contents of her lesson.

Catherine shot him a glare.

He just sat there at the back of the room. It was nice that he had the good sense to not pay close attention. Whatever was in that folder and notebook of his was far more interesting than what she had to say.

Which wasn’t hard to accomplish. The principles of esoteric weakening? Boring. It wasn’t even something that applied to everyday magic. If a single one of these children actually thought about esoteric weakening even once in their short lives, it would be a miracle of the universe.

It took Catherine, a magical being several millennia old, the entire first lesson just to remember what it was. That it didn’t apply to demons in the strictest sense and that Catherine knew it by a different name didn’t help.

Simply put, it was the idea that magic of the past was stronger than the magic of the present. The theories on why varied. From more mages meant less magic to go around, less ambient magic in the air over time, the fact that many powerful mages failed to share their secrets, all the way to the laughable idea that electronic technology was ‘stealing’ magic.

Sighing, Catherine flipped through the binder of lesson plans and notes left behind by Zoe Baxter. It wasn’t like she needed to watch the class while they were taking an exam. Catherine found it exceedingly difficult to muster up the energy to watch for cheaters.

Esoteric weakening wasn’t the first thing that left her wondering just what it was. A number of the items listed in the notebook had been lost to her memories.

Some of them, Catherine had never before considered. A theory to create a magical computer? The idea was only briefly outlined in her notes as an example for some older students about how innovation and invention were still perfectly viable career paths. She likely had proper diagrams elsewhere.

It used large blocks of enchanted quartz–the material held the magic intensive enchantments long enough to be useful for a short while. While it wasn’t intended to do anything but add a few numbers and report the outcome, it was only the start. Electronic computers had started somewhere similar and look what they had become.

According to those notes, Baxter had thus far been unable to actually get just her basic adding working, but the idea was novel. What was more, Catherine could see a way to get it working. Well, a possible way to get it working. She would have to test it first.

Being employed by Martina gave Catherine a unique perspective that she doubted many other demons possessed. As such, she could see the potential in a magical computer. Electronic computers could be hooked up to massive machines of destruction. And machines of massive destruction. If a magical computer could be hooked up to large enough reserves and be given the agency to cast spells similar to tome-type foci…

Well, that was a far cry away from what Baxter had outlined in her notes.

Catherine placed the binder back down on her desk. The clock ticked by slower and slower with every second. Even an eternal being could feel the effects of time.

These days, Catherine found herself with plenty of time to think. As busy as the mortal realm was compared to the usual empty state of her domain, almost everything here gave her something to think about. Her domain gave her endless time with peace and quiet, but nothing worth considering.

This, Catherine decided as she rested a hand on the binder, was what Eva was talking about.

She couldn’t see much reason to want the computer, at least not as it was, but there had to be something. With the professor gone, it was the perfect time to snoop around her apartment and go through her belongings. There had to be something worthy of learning in there.

If the professor could come up with something as unique as a magical computer, she would have come up with plenty other fascinating ideas.

The bell ringing startled Catherine out of her thoughts. She didn’t allow it to show on her face, of course.

Slowly, Catherine rose to her feet. She placed one hand on her desk, leaning over slightly. The class had lost interest in her lessons since Mr. Anderson showed up, but ever so slightly leaning brought plenty of attention her way.

It helped that her shirt didn’t cover much even while seated normally.

“Place your essays in a neat and orderly pile on my desk. If you failed to finish, I am required to babysit you for up to one hour on Saturday. That group can pile their essays on the lectern.”

Four blushing boys dropped off their papers on the lectern.

Fools. The test was easy enough that anyone who did not finish absolutely had to have intentionally failed. They knew that she was required to babysit them. Probably hoping for more personal interactions. As if she would lower herself to their levels for anything other than utter domination.

Then again, they looked the masochistic type. They would probably enjoy her presence even if she ignored them entirely.

Catherine’s lips curled as a thought occurred to her. Hiring out a goblin to stand in as her substitute might be good. An especially ugly goblin.

Everyone else dropped off their papers at her desk. They filed out the door, some giving brief farewells while others walked out talking with their peers. All except for one student and one adult.

Catherine glared at both.

Who to address first?

One was a student and, by definition, had nothing important to say. The other was Mr. Anderson. Catherine doubted he would have anything important to say either. Probably more complaints. Likely about how she was dressed.

Again.

It wasn’t like she could help it. Succubi didn’t normally wear clothing. Even wearing the thin scraps of cloth she had on felt chafing.

And he knew it too. He insisted on bothering her about her nature.

He didn’t give Lucy half the crap he gave Catherine. Lucy couldn’t pass for human if Void depended on it. There were already plenty of rumors around about how she was some monster hired on because of budgetary reasons.

The stupid students were closer to the truth on that than they could hope to imagine.

Compared to Lucy, Catherine was Jane Normal the perfect–if immodestly dressed–human.

And yet Anderson had the gall to attack her on a daily basis about every little thing.

“Well?” Catherine growled out far harsher than she had intended.

Now she had gone and made herself angry. She quickly shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Her eyes were the hardest part to keep human in appearance. Catherine was fairly certain that she hadn’t ever slipped in front of the students–there were no rumors about her after all–and she had no intention of slipping up in front of a student while Anderson was in the room.

Catherine waited for just a few calming moments before speaking again. “What do you two want?”

Let them figure out who would talk first.

The two glanced at one another. Anderson put on a sickeningly suave smile–one that a few incubi that Catherine knew might be jealous of–and gestured with his hand for her to speak.

She didn’t speak right away, instead fumbling with a sheet of paper in her hands. The back had a distinctive diagram.

The exam.

“Um, I just wanted,” she said. After a few unintelligible words, she started trailing off. With a glance up at Anderson, she shook her short brown hair side to side. “Nevermind.”

She ran up to the front of the room, dropped the exam on the lectern, and sprinted out the door.

As soon as the door swung shut, Anderson gave a look.

“You’re too intimidating,” he said with a shake of his head.

Catherine grit her teeth together. “She left because of you. Obviously,” Catherine injected some sultry vibes into her voice, “she wanted me alone.”

The polite smile on Anderson’s face vanished in the blink of an eye. “I hope you are joking. In case you are not, I will say this once and only once. Insinuate such things about the students again and you will be forcibly removed from this plane of existence.”

Putting on an amorous smile, Catherine slid around her desk and walked up to him with a sway in her hips. She placed a single finger on his shoulder and ran it down his chest. Leaning in close, Catherine whispered in his ear.

“Adults are still on the menu, aren’t they?”

Leaving one light breath on the edge of his ear, she turned with a roll of her eyes and walked away. For a moment there, she had been considering licking his cheek. In the end, the breath of air had probably been the wiser choice. His face had reddened before she turned.

It had the added benefit of not having his disgusting taste on her tongue for the next who-knew-how-long.

He didn’t move a single muscle until after Catherine reached her desk, half-sat half-leaned against it, and blew him a kiss. And then, the only movement he made was to lean his head to one side and back again. As if dodging the imaginary projectile.

Pathetic.

Once he had thoroughly cleared his throat, Anderson said, “I’ll have you know that I am very happily married.”

“Ah,” Catherine said with a false wistful sigh, “a shame. I’m certain that I could have shown you things your wife could never have imagined in a hundred millennia.”

That was true enough, though Catherine didn’t have to imagine much. Such things were mere propensity for succubi. There wasn’t a single doubt in her mind that seducing a married man could prove to be even the slightest challenge. It couldn’t be that difficult with how he was acting.

Catherine suppressed a shudder. Disgusting thing. Just brushing up against him gave her an irrational desire to stick her hand in a boiling pot of water. As it was, she had to settle for a little jar of hand sanitizer on Baxter’s desk.

“Now,” Catherine said in her regular tone of voice, “if that was all you wanted, get out. I have to grade these foolish children’s exams.”

Rather than walk out the door, he approached her desk. Bringing himself to his full height, he towered over her slight lean against the desk. “Nice try,” he said as shadows darkened in the background. “I’ll not be so easily distracted.”

He wanted to be intimidating? Fine. Two could play that game.

Catherine’s eyes flared bright red and she didn’t care in the slightest. In fact, she allowed herself to go a step further. Her eyes lost the circular human-like pupil as they stretched into the full demonic slit. Two slightly curved horns sprouted from the edge of her hairline. Her wings and tail–

She had to suppress a wince. Stupid human clothing. Horns and eyes would have to suffice. And skin. Catherine smiled with sharp teeth as her skin turned to her beautiful pale violet. It was nice to feel like herself again.

No upstart human with a bound haunter was going to treat her like a fledgling.

“Zagan was here.”

“He was,” Catherine confirmed. “What’s it to you?”

“This school is missing students as you well know.” The lights flickered as he spoke.

Catherine didn’t even blink.

“We have managed to keep it quiet for the most part, but Christmas is fast approaching. Some students will be returning home for a few weeks and they will talk. I have an interest in seeing the missing students return alive and well before the flights leave.”

“So that the children will tell their mommies and daddies that everything is just dandy?” Catherine rolled her eyes. “Please. The brats don’t care. That class that just left? It was the class those missing students were from. Did they look worried or sad or whatever emotions humans are supposed to feel in situations like this?”

Anderson pursed his lips but remained silent.

“No they didn’t. Martina personally came in and told the class that they were simply ‘taking a brief respite after the hectic incident in November’ and something about how they would be back soon. I,” Catherine paused. For dramatic effect, she curled her fingers in front of her face as if she was inspecting her nails.

Actually, Catherine thought, they could use a sharpening. And a painting. A nice midnight black this time I think.

“I,” Catherine repeated, “may have been sowing some of my irresistible charms–”

He scoffed.

Asshole. “–to help keep the more troublesome students from caring.”

“Will they?” he asked after a moment of silence.

“Will they what?”

“Be back soon.”

Catherine shrugged. “Zagan said something about an experiment. Martina yelled at him a lot, but the only real responses he gave was that they were alive and that he didn’t intend to interfere with their current situation. She yelled harder after that.”

Mostly at Catherine. Zagan–that bastard–didn’t have the decency to stick around long enough for Martina to get her anger out of her system.

“What is their current situation?”

Again, Catherine shrugged. “How the hell should I know? If you are so interested, go summon him up yourself.”

Anderson stared at her for just a moment. Turning, he started towards the door. “Maybe I will,” he said before disappearing out into the hallway.

Catherine blinked, not quite sure she had heard him correctly. In the end, she shook her head. It didn’t matter to her one way or the other. Maybe if she was lucky, the idiot would actually summon Zagan. If she was really lucky, Zagan would be in a murderous mood for being disturbed.

Without Anderson hanging over her shoulder, she would be free to return to properly educating the ignorant mortals.

Sighing, Catherine turned to the short stack of papers on her desk.

“Now,” she mumbled to herself, “where did I put those dice?”

Sterile.

If there was one word to describe Zoe Baxter’s apartment, Sterile would be it.

The apartment building itself was of the seedier type. Probably the best one in Brakket despite that. There really were no good apartment buildings in Brakket. Most were half-abandoned at best.

But the difference between one step inside Baxter’s room and one step out in the hallway might as well be the difference between a desert and a jungle.

Someone had done a real number on the place. Catherine’s nose couldn’t detect the faintest trace of any sort of remains she had expected to find–from past tenants if not Baxter herself.

Catherine pressed the door shut behind her, cushioning the noise with a small bit of air magic. As much as the apartment was supposed to be empty, Catherine didn’t feel like taking too many chances. At the same time, she wasn’t exactly trying to hide her presence. She could have made a stealthier approach than walking in through the front door.

Still, since Martina had delegated the acquisition of the room to Catherine, getting a second key had been child’s play–human children at that.

Why the school had to buy her an apartment, Catherine never bothered to ask. She had learned enough about the mortal realm to understand that normal employees whose houses had burned down were essentially left to fend for themselves. There might be a community pot to chip in, but rarely more.

Dismissing the tangent, Catherine crept into the apartment proper. It was minimalistic. A table, two chairs, and a couch pressed up against the window were the only pieces of furniture in the room. The kitchen had appliances, though those had come with the apartment. No decorations, paintings, plants, or anything to suggest that the place was actually lived in.

She brushed her fingers across the top of the dining room table. Her fingers came off clean.

Ignoring the main room, Catherine moved into the bedroom–the only other real room in the place.

Much like the rest of the apartment, the bedroom was clear of most personal effects. Her bed had plain sheets–picked up in a hurry no doubt. The only thing that really stood out was the desk and the heavy-looking safe at its side.

Ignoring the safe for now, Catherine pulled out the chair, sat at the desk, and started rifling through. A good deal of the papers were actually students’ work. That would explain the small gap in the grade book between Baxter’s vacation and Catherine taking over.

Catherine tossed the papers to the side. That small gap had already been resolved through repeated application of dice rolls. Whatever was written down was, therefore, worthless.

The next notebook gave Catherine pause. The title was simply Black Metal Ring. It didn’t take much to guess what this was about. Catherine had felt the effects of the ring more than once over the last several months. Baxter didn’t have it on constantly, which defeated the purpose for the most part, but she wore it often enough. Especially after her house burned down.

Sure enough, the first entry was about her initial contact with the ring, how it felt, and other such details. It quickly delved into experiments on the ring itself as well as a few tests involving creatures from the Brakket Academy zoo–all inconclusive or complete failures with regards to fending off some of the more hostile creatures.

From there, Catherine had to widen her eyes. According to the notes, Baxter was attempting to recreate the initial effects that she had felt. The ones that, if Catherine understood correctly, not only ‘keyed’ Baxter to the ring but were the exact thing that caused intense foreboding in demons towards the bearer.

Ambitious. Catherine would give her that. Doomed to failure of course. The magic that powered the rings was Death’s magic. Not just anyone could toss that around.

Sure enough, the next page was riddled with failure notices. Zero successes unless Catherine was going to count her finding out all the ways in which applying Death magic did not work–and Catherine was not about to give her that.

Chilly air caressing her skin broke Catherine out of her thoughts. It was a very unnatural chill.

Catherine snapped the notebook shut, slid it back into the desk, and stood from her seat.

Her breath caught in her throat as she turned to face possibly the second worst demon in the area.

“Little miss Death herself,” Catherine said, quickly recovering from her shock. “Though you aren’t so little at the moment.”

Ylva frowned down at her.

Condescending bitch.

“You are trespassing.”

“Yeah? What’s it to you? This place isn’t yours.”

“Is it not? We find this information… surprising.”

A sinking feeling hit Catherine’s stomach like a dump truck full of bricks. All the cleanliness and the sudden atmosphere change upon entering. It all made sense.

And sarcasm from a hel? Zagan was right, Void is ending.

Catherine took a step back, almost tripping over the chair she had just vacated. She raised her arms in a placating gesture. “Now let’s not be rash or anything. We’re on the same side right? Fighting the evil necromancers and saving Brakket and all the mortals or whatever?”

“We distinctly recall your presence during the rescue of my servant. We do not recall your assistance.”

Forcing a laugh, Catherine said, “you guys looked like you had that in the bag.”

Ylva tilted her head to one side. “In the bag?”

Catherine bit her lip. “Just slang,” she said. Her voice grew quieter as she continued. “I might have picked it up from some mortals recently.”

She made a small hum noise. “In addition, Zagan was at your side.”

Of course, Catherine thought, it all comes back to that bag of dicks.

Ylva took a step closer. “He has made poor choices in dealing with Our property. Now he hides himself from Us.”

“He had good reason to,” Catherine blurted out before Ylva could move any further. Probably not the best thing to say, in retrospect. Denying all responsibility would have been a better choice. In fact, it still was. “I had nothing to do with any of that. The kids in Hell was not my idea and I didn’t even know about it until after you did.” Probably.

“But,” Catherine said–no, pleaded. “I’ll tell you everything I know about his reasons and you let me go. Right? I wasn’t hurting anything here.”

Ylva stared.

Time dragged on in uncomfortable silence.

Catherine didn’t sweat unless she wanted to. She rarely wanted to. At the moment, she could feel a bead of liquid dripping down her forehead.

It promptly froze and fell past her eye, shattering on the floor.

“We will see,” Ylva said.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.027

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Has she woken up yet?”

Shelby stirred at the soft voice. She pulled herself out of the puddle of drool that had gathered on her sister’s bed. Wiping off her cheek, she looked towards the doorway.

“I don’t think so. What–” An involuntary yawn drowned out her words. “What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning,” Jordan said as he pulled up a chair. “I was just talking with Nurse East. He said that she should be waking up anytime now.”

“That would be nice,” Shelby said as she looked back down to her sleeping twin.

For the first time in weeks, Irene lacked the furrowed brow. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning either. She seemed… peaceful.

“She’s going to be alright, right?”

“He said it was just a concussion. A bad one, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few potions.”

“She’s not going to be like, possessed, is she?”

“Those weren’t demons,” Jordan said. His features darkened, looking like he wanted to spit. A look of pure disgust. “Just parts of them.”

His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.

Shelby shook her head. “And you knew about that Ylva girl? And Professor Za–”

A finger pressed to her lips. She felt her face heat up even as Jordan shook his head.

“Don’t say his name. There are ways to find out if someone talks about oneself. I don’t know if he is doing that, but I’d rather not give any excuses to draw his attention.”

He sighed, pulling his finger away as he glanced off towards Irene. “I knew about Ylva. She wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding herself. When you’ve got a family like mine, you notice things like that.”

“A family like yours,” Shelby said with a half-suppressed yawn. She didn’t know what time she had finally fallen asleep the night before, but it was clearly too late.

As she thought over what he said, Shelby slowly put her head back down on her sister’s bed. She had to wiggle a little in her chair to avoid the damp patch of her own drool. “You’re like Eva then? All into demons or something?”

“Well,” he said. His voice had an audible smile in it. “I like to think I can keep a secret much better than she can.”

Shelby snorted into the blankets. “I’ve known you my whole life. I’ve only known Eva for a year and a half. It’s clear who the secret keeping winner is.”

That got a small laugh from Jordan. “But my family values knowledge and an open mind, I guess you could say.”

“Irene knew, didn’t she. That’s why she freaked out about Eva last year and kept her at an arm’s length since then. She asked you, or you just told her.”

Jordan took in and let out a deep breath. “She stumbled upon me in a fairly compromising position a few years ago.”

Shelby snorted again. It came out slightly pained. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

“Not like that,” he said. “She just walked in on me manipulating shadows like I did yesterday. My family Swore her to secrecy. That’s Swore with a capital ‘S’ otherwise we would have told you too.”

“That doesn’t seem like something Mr. Anderson would do.” Shelby frowned as a though occurred to her. “Are you going to do the same to me?”

“We’re older now. I’ll have to tell my parents, of course, but that was mostly so that Irene couldn’t talk about it. Kids are known to talk about things they shouldn’t, after all.

“I actually wrote to them last night about Eva, all the demon-things, and Juliana and Shalise. I completely forgot to mention you.”

Shelby reached out and jabbed him in the stomach, eliciting a small grunt. That had to be one of the most offensive things she’d ever heard.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can tell my dad yourself. I got a call this morning. He said five words: ‘I am on my way.’ I don’t think he is very happy.”

“That’s not the point, Jordan Anderson. You’re not supposed to forget about your gi–” Shelby cut herself off with a barely disguised cough, “–your childhood friend.”

They weren’t officially going out. They hadn’t even been on a date. He didn’t pay extra attention to her. Their entire relationship felt entirely one-sided.

It was entirely one-sided. They were friends and nothing more.

Shelby sighed. He’d probably prefer going out with someone like Eva anyway.

“I couldn’t help it. So much went on yesterday. I decided to e-mail it instead of texting it because it was so long.”

“That’s just–”

Shelby froze as a light groan came from the sleeping patient.

“Wha–”

Irene didn’t get any further than that before Shelby wrapped her arms around her. Carefully, of course–Irene wasn’t supposed to move or be moved much until the nurse signed her off.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shelby said when she finally pulled herself away. She had to wipe something away from her eyes. Her vision had gone all blurry. It certainly wasn’t tears.

“What happened?”

“Long story,” Jordan said. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll go let Nurse East know you’re awake.”

Shelby watched Jordan’s backside as he walked out of the room. She shook her head and looked back to her sister. “What do you remember?”

“I was–” Irene’s half-lidded eyes burst wide open. Her face heated up to the point where Shelby was wondering if some of the old Irish blood wasn’t showing itself.

“Are you okay?”

“Nothing!” Irene squeaked. She shook her head and immediately winced. “I was just in the hot springs with Eva.”

Shelby frowned and quirked her head to one side. “We don’t have bathing suits.”

Irene’s already red face turned roughly the color of an overripe tomato.

“Oh,” Shelby said with a nod. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“That’s not–It wasn’t–” Irene devolved into sputtering while Shelby tried to keep her face straight. “There were monsters! I was running and then… I don’t know. What happened?”

“Nurse East said one of the security force people brought you in. You’d have to get the full story from them, but I guess Eva was fending off the monsters until the security guard got to you.”

“Oh.” Irene went silent for a moment. “Where is she?”

“The security guard–”

“Eva.”

“I don’t know. I heard Professor Baxter herself say that Eva had been stabbed with a cursed knife, but I haven’t seen her. It’s only been a day.” Shelby paused, but decided to add, “Juliana and Shalise are missing.”

She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to reveal where they went missing. Juliana’s mother was a scary woman and Shelby wasn’t about to disobey, even to her sister.

“One of the school nurses died. A different security guard is in critical condition, I guess.”

“Start at the beginning.”

Shelby shifted to be more comfortable in her chair before speaking. It could take a while.

— — —

The amount of paperwork involved with the recent incident was beyond staggering. Every form that Martina filled out and filed was replaced by three new ones. Catherine just kept digging out more.

While she wasn’t about to complain about her secretary’s new-found work ethic, Martina couldn’t help but think that it was yet another method of getting under her skin. Half the forms were only tangentially relevant. Half of the remainder were so out of date, Martina couldn’t see how they applied to the modern school.

Still, Martina filled them out. The attack was a large incident that had occurred on Brakket property. She wasn’t going to get herself fired over a misplaced RF-Two-Three-Three form.

It helped matters that Gregory had finally delivered his personal report over the incident. Martina Turner set the report down on her desk. It wasn’t everything she had hoped it might be.

While unexpected, the incident proved to be an effective test. Only Daenir, the elf, had been injured among the security team. Gregory’s claim that the addition of several unaffiliated allies had ‘saved the day’ was unneeded.

She’d be sure to leave that bit out when the time came to make a report to the administrators and whatever they ended up telling the public.

The specialists performed their task most admirably. Neither had been on either end of a friendly-fire ‘accident’ which, if Martina was being entirely honest with herself, was a concern she had had. Lucy even dragged that delinquent that had skipped class to an infirmary.

Without eating her. That was a success all on its own.

If it hadn’t been for that nurse, the day would have been almost perfect.

That was the biggest disappointment of all. If only Lisa Naranga had found a proper place to hide or simply escaped…

Nothing to do about it now. Catherine had already notified the next of kin.

The door to Martina’s office burst open, slamming into the wall.

A man wrapped in a black winter coat walked in. He stood in the doorway, taking in the room with a slow sweep of his head from one side to the other. Every inch his head moved only served to deepen the man’s frown.

Martina caught sight of Catherine. The succubus was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp points. As if feeling eyes on her, Catherine looked up and threw a glance in Martina’s direction with a nasty smile. The secretary’s eyes flashed red for a brief instant before the closing door cut off Martina’s view.

“Governor Anderson,” Martina said. She kept a scowl off her face and even managed to turn it into something of a mournful smile. “You should have sent word that you were coming, I would have arranged–”

“Spare me your pleasantries,” he snapped. “The administrators did not put you in charge so that you could run Brakket’s name further into the ground.”

Martina felt her smile slip. “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” she said slowly. “The new security team I assembled defended the academy against an overwhelming force with only one loss and no major student injuries.”

Governor Anderson shook his head. He folded his hands behind his back. “Have you done a headcount on your students?”

“Not as such,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I know that there are three students not currently at Brakket Academy. All three are known to… disappear at times.”

“Irresponsible. After an incident such as this, the first action you should have taken was to ascertain the location of all students. I don’t care where you think they are. If a student took a week off to visit relatives in Europe, you find out for sure that that student is actually there.”

Martina thought for a moment about calling in Zoe Baxter. That woman would have information about the girls. She stopped before her hand had even twitched towards the phone.

Something was wrong about the whole situation. A member of the board of administrators doesn’t just show up and start talking about missing students after a hundred hostile monsters show up on the school’s front porch. Perhaps the conversation would lead there, but he immediately went into the students.

“I take it you know something.”

“Two of those students are no longer on the mortal plane.”

Martina nodded. “One of those students is only human by the loosest definitions. It is somewhat alarming that she left our plane of existence, more so in that she took a friend with her. Their actions are not the business of Brakket Academy.”

Governor Anderson’s eyes turned dark. “I backed your plan. Convinced the others that there was merit in broadening the scope of magical curriculum. You assured me that you could keep your minions in line.”

“I’m not–”

“Find Zagan. Ask him about your missing students.” He turned on his heel and opened the door. It slammed into the wall with as much force as he had entered with.

Catherine did not look the slightest bit perturbed as he stalked by with his shadow curling up the wall. Rather, she looked interested. Her eyes turned a unique shade of red before she reined herself in.

“Find Zagan,” Martina repeated to herself as the outer door to the offices slammed shut with Governor Anderson on the other side.

“Ah,” Catherine said. She stood from her desk, grabbed a sheet of paper off the top, and tottered over through Martina’s open door. “Zagan stopped by last night, wanting you to have this. Slipped my mind until now.”

“A leave of absence?”

“He is taking a few days off, citing the traumatic incident as the cause.”

Martina tore the sheet of paper in two. She tore it again and again before scattering the pieces in Catherine’s face.

“Find him. And find all residents of Rickenbacker three-one-three.”

The lascivious grin on Catherine’s face died. “Is that an order?”

“Don’t try my patience.” Something had gone on. Something that the governor knew about despite not even living within Brakket city.

Something that involved a king of hell.

— — —

“If the immediate family would gather around for the final prayer and rites.”

A husband, a father, a mother, two older brothers, and a little sister all stood from their seats and approached the closed casket. Before a single word could be spoken, the mother broke down into sobs. The father pulled her into a tight hug while the eldest brother placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The other brother stood off to one side with an unreadable expression. Boredom? Perhaps shock. The reality of the situation might not have hit yet.

The sister stood back with her brother. Her face was twisted in an expression of confusion as she watched her mother. She had to be in elementary school. Probably too young to understand everything that was going on.

Especially since the casket had been kept closed. The body was in no state to be displayed. Only the parents and the husband had been allowed to look.

The husband stood apart from the family. Silent tears streamed down his face as he waited patiently for everyone to collect themselves.

Zoe Baxter watched the proceedings from the back of the room. She hadn’t gone up an introduced herself. None of Lisa’s family knew her and she’d only met Lisa’s husband once at their marriage nearly six years ago.

She’d considered pleading to Ylva. What about, she wasn’t certain. Restoring her to life or a last chance to talk, maybe. In the end, she decided against it. Even if Ylva could do something–and Zoe wasn’t sure she could–it didn’t feel right.

Lisa and her family were highly religious. Even if it could return her to life, Zoe doubted that they would accept it if it came through a bargain with a demon. Would Lisa herself accept it?

Zoe shook her head. She couldn’t get caught in that loop of thinking again. There was nothing to be done about death.

The family prayer had gone on while Zoe was distracted with her thoughts. She only realized that fact when the undertaker and pallbearers started taking the casket out to the hearse. The family followed and soon after, so did the rest of the congregation of Lisa’s friends.

Zoe remained in her seat until the last person had filed out of the funeral home. She pulled out her dagger.

Dirt and grime coated the blade. Normally, it would have easily caught and reflected the dim light in the funeral home. She hadn’t had the time to clean it after everything.

Or rather, she forgot. There was so much going on.

Still so much going on.

Zoe ran her thumb over the flat of the blade. Most of the dust was crusted onto the blade. It would need the full works when she found the time.

She took a deep breath, wincing at the jolt of pain in her side. Break over.

Rising to her feet, Zoe picked up her cane. She wouldn’t need it in a few weeks–she barely needed it now–but it was nice to have something to lean on during long hours of standing. The nun’s lightning was problematic to heal.

It actively undid any magical attempts to heal the affected area. The magic simply fell apart. Trying to remove the lingering magic from it had suffered similar failures.

Devon had said it would disperse on its own after a week or two and then magic-assisted healing could begin. He spoke from personal experience, apparently.

The effect was something that she’d normally be overjoyed to experience, in a manner of speaking. Figuring out how such a spell worked, especially given that it wasn’t thaumaturgical in nature, would have made an excellent project.

She’d only had time to do a cursory analysis. A theory had almost immediately popped into her head about how to replicate the effect using thaumaturgical chaos magic, but not without also unraveling the spell itself. She had yet to even write down her theories let alone solve the issue.

With a sigh, Zoe teleported through between to the prison.

The place still looked like a battlefield. Half-scorched body parts were still scattered around. All belonged to the minions of the ‘Lord of Slaves’ that no one had bothered to pick up. No one cared, not with their other worries.

Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.

Ylva and Arachne were one thing. Arachne was a psychopath, plain and simple. Plenty of humans were psychopaths, and plenty more were worse than she was. Ylva was more of an enigma. While she did somewhat enslave Nel, it wasn’t the same thing.

The very concept of the Lord of Slaves was fundamentally disgusting. She would be all too happy if Devon never felt the need to summon such a creature again.

A shout echoing through the empty compound pulled her attention away from her thoughts.

“Why can’t you send me?”

Zoe turned and stalked off in the direction of the noise. She tried not to look like she was hobbling, an endeavor she wasn’t sure was entirely successful. Every step sent pain up her leg and around her chest.

Teleporting was, unfortunately, not an option. Genoa had been on a hair-trigger temper since she had been informed about her daughter’s status. Teleporting around her was liable to result in injury at best.

Both Devon and Ylva had advised them not to confront Zagan or Martina over the matter, or even let on that they knew. Not until they could recover the girls.

That irked Zoe more than anything. She was once again considering resigning in protest. And once again coming up with a lack of results that resigning would achieve.

Zagan would have to go.

Later. And with a lot of planning.

Zoe rounded the corner of Devon’s cell house. Genoa, Devon, and Carlos all stood outside. The latter was in the process of trying to calm the two down.

Carlos was looking thinner than normal. He looked far more weary behind his coke bottle glasses. An older look. The lines on his face were pronounced and deep.

It had only been a few days and he was already looking ill.

Her daughter’s absence took a different sort of toll on Genoa. In addition to her hair-trigger temper, she’d become irritated with everyone at the prison. She was eating healthy and took proper care of herself, all in the name of mounting some kind of rescue mission.

Even when the attitude turned in her direction, Zoe couldn’t fault the woman. They weren’t her children, but they were her students. Leaving them in Hell was not an option.

Zoe at least possessed the ability to acknowledge that she was so far out of her element that she wouldn’t be much use. She was willing to heed the advice of Devon and Ylva.

“I didn’t say can’t, woman, I said won’t.” He thrust a sheet of paper at her. The drawing, or a copy, of the transference circle Zoe had taken a picture of. “Draw it yourself if you’re so desperate. But you’re throwing yourself away.”

Genoa snatched the paper from his hands. “I won’t abandon my child.”

“You’ll be abandoning them no matter what you do. You might as well use the connection in Ylva’s domain. That circle has no destination sigil. You could wind up anywhere. Hell is a big damn place. The odds that you’d wind up with your kid are astronomical.

“Then we have to figure out how to get you back, potentially delaying the rescue of your daughter. What a pain. Damn Ylva and its damn payment. I don’t have the time for this shit. It was going to save Eva anyway, I could tell.” Devon devolved into muttering under his breath.

Zoe stepped forwards, ensuring that Genoa saw her before she spoke. She didn’t want to wind up attacked on accident again. “Is Ylva still gone?”

Both Devon and Genoa turned to glare at Zoe. Carlos was the one to finally respond. “Still gone. Is she really going to help get our daughter back?”

“I think so,” Zoe said. And she honestly believed it. Ylva had been protective of her ‘things’ if nothing else. “How is Eva?”

“Unchanged.”

“No one is watching over her?”

“Arachne was with her when we left.”

No one responsible then, Zoe thought with a small sigh.

Genoa crumpled the paper into a ball and turned away. Without a word, she stalked off towards Ylva’s building.

Carlos started after her, but paused and looked back. “I-I better keep her from doing anything rash.”

“Is that true? About the destination thing,” Zoe said as soon as Carlos and Genoa were safely out of earshot.

“I consider myself an expert in these kinds of things. Demons and such. Frankly, that circle shouldn’t work. It’s like a mirror of a proper summoning circle. But if it does work, it will work the way I said it does.”

“You haven’t tested it?”

“Of course not. I don’t want to tip anything off and I definitely do not want to have anything to do with any of the seventy-two. I warned Eva.” He descended once again into mumbling complaints about seemingly everything he could think of as he turned and walked away.

Zoe stood there in the prison courtyard, leaning on her cane, wondering just what she could be doing to help her students.

— — —

Des sat in her chair without moving. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, but struggling would only make things worse.

She did glance over towards Hugo. Unlike Des, he wasn’t strapped down. He even had clothes on. Hugo simply sat and stared with his usual vacant look.

A second chair sat in the room, though it was facing the wrong way. The back was tall enough that she couldn’t see anyone, but it was probably there for a reason. A new test subject for her father, perhaps.

“You disappoint me, Des.”

Her father was smiling. Not at her and not because he was happy. In fact, that was one of the worst smiles she’d seen.

“Don’t worry, we can fix that. But first, let’s discuss why you disappoint me.”

Everything had gone so wrong. Des couldn’t even point out where things failed. Eva wasn’t supposed to have gotten away. She wasn’t supposed to have been an enemy in the first place.

Des was willing to admit that she had let her anger get the best of her. But it wasn’t her fault. If Eva had just played nice, none of this would have happened.

They were supposed to have been friends. Two outcasts joining together against mutual enemies.

That was what her father had said anyway.

“You took our little friends, Des, and got all of them killed. You didn’t tell me first. There was no plan.” Sawyer hung his head in mock sadness. “Worst of all, you ran. You got scared. They were held off by six people and a demon or two because no one was controlling them.”

His voice was soft. Calm. Completely unlike what happened when other people got mad. That was the fifth scariest part of the whole situation.

“That was the whole point in making them. Demons have far too much agency, but they’re strong. With us controlling our demon-golems…” he trailed off with another shake of his head.

“And Hugo helped you.”

Hugo blinked and glanced up to Sawyer. His eyes focused for a brief moment.

Her father snapped his fingers.

Hugo slumped forwards, falling out of his seat. He collapsed to the floor without attempting to catch himself.

Des tried to scream out. She struggled against the chair’s restraints.

They didn’t budge.

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll build you a new toy. A better one!

“But that is the price he had to pay. Don’t disappoint me again, Des.”

The restraints didn’t even allow Des to slump back in her chair. She didn’t want a new toy. Hugo was hers.

“Not all was lost. I noticed your errant actions fast enough to act myself. I caught us a little souvenir.”

He spun the spare chair around.

There was a woman sitting in it with wide eyes and short, messy hair. Milky white eyes were inset in her body everywhere Des could see. At least, between the straps. Some of the spots shouldn’t even be possible. There was definitely not enough meat on her wrist to support an eye and have a functional bone structure.

A small spot on her other arm had dried blood crusted over a hole that might have held an eye at one point in time.

“I’m going to have to change my original plan. There were unexpected complications, but all will be well. We might have to move quickly over the next few days until I figure out how to hide us from the other nuns. Their inquisitorial squad is reeling from losing half the members and one other augur, but they’ll be back.”

As she tore her eyes from the woman’s eyes, Des noticed one odd thing. When her father strapped in subjects, he stripped them to ensure they had no hidden items on their person.

The woman had a choker around her neck. A small, obsidian black skull dangled from the front end. It was highly detailed. For all Des knew, it was fashioned from a real skull. A real tiny skull, but a real one nonetheless. All the teeth were perfectly detailed, the cheekbones had all the proper shapes, and the eyes…

It drew her eyes in. She couldn’t look away even if she tried.

And she tried. She wanted nothing more than to not have to look at the necklace.

Two tiny white pricks were set so far back in the eye sockets that they could be on the opposite end of the universe.

Two tiny white stars, fueling their burning with sheer anger.

>>Author’s Note 003<<

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