Tag Archives: Baxter

009.017

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“Welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy for another night of mystery and imagination. I’m your host, Hank Hanson, and with me is the lovely Zoe Baxter, professor of theory here at Brakket Academy.”

“Thank you, Hank,” Zoe said, trying to keep her smile as natural as possible.

“Now,” he said, “for those of you just joining us, a quick recap of the last event and the purpose of this tournament as a whole.”

As he started speaking, Zoe started tuning him out. Not enough to completely ignore him. She still nodded her head when there was something to nod at or even commented for more elaboration on a few topics he was less familiar with.

He had shown up to several classes over the last two weeks. During the classes, he had always been silent and allowed other students to ask questions. Most of the time, he dutifully took notes. Really, he was probably a better student than half of her actual students.

After class was when the real trouble began. His incessant bombardment of questions was just too much. That wasn’t to say that they were bad questions. Some were quite good. A few even had her needing to do a little research before being able to properly answer.

It was the sheer quantity that grated on her nerves. Since he had started attending classes, Zoe found herself answering questions for up to five hours after school ended. Every single day. A time during which she was generally unable to get other work done. No grading papers. No enigma research. Worst of all, her lesson plans were going to suffer soon if she couldn’t find the time to organize.

After today’s event, Zoe was desperately hoping that he would not be returning for further education. If he was, she would have to set a time limit. A single hour outside school would have to suffice.

On the plus side, he was a lot more confident speaking about thaumaturgical matters. Once the event actually got underway, she might not have to carry ninety percent of the discussion as she had for the last event.

Zoe was still expecting to be the one doing most of the talking, however.

“Last event, neither we nor the contestants knew what the event was going to consist of. I understand that things are different this time around.”

“That is correct,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “The contestants are currently being informed of what they are to do with roughly an hour before the event starts. They can use the remainder of that hour for whatever preparation they feel they need before the event itself will begin. That could mean brewing potions, collecting enchanted items, or simply practicing with their peers.”

“And they’re not the only ones who know ahead of time.”

Again, Zoe nodded. She reached forwards to the small table. Last time, it held a number of refreshments. Neither she nor Hank had actually consumed any. This time, nothing but a few glasses of water and a large pitcher sat on the table. In terms of food, anyway.

The centerpiece this time around was a large green crystal. Roughly the size of a bowling ball, though oblong and with sharp angled ends. Like a plumb-bob with points on both ends.

“This,” Zoe said, picking up the large crystal, “is crystallized magic.” Although the size of a bowling ball, the crystal was earth essence. As such, it was heavy. Really heavy. Zoe cheated with a little bit of air mage telekinesis to lighten the load. Had she not, lifting it would have taken both hands and a great deal of strain. Something that would be entirely unsightly for live television.

Really, whoever designed the set should have used crystallized air essence. The size would be no less impressive yet she could have balanced the whole thing on her little finger.

“It is fairly easy to make through a simple alchemical process, though they’re never made this big normally. Crystallized essence is essentially distilled magic and is used in various potions. Tonight, however, these are the objectives of the event.”

She hefted the crystal up, putting a little more show in the effort than she was actually feeling.

“This is essence of earth. It is quite heavy. Imagine a bowling ball of the same size and you can imagine the weight fairly accurately. However, it is only one of four essences in use tonight.”

She replaced the crystal on the pedestal and clasped her hands in her lap.

“Water, fire, and air make up the rest. Water is cold. Normally we use smaller crystals and they feel like holding ice cubes. One this size has a very real chance of causing frostbite. Fire is just the opposite. Even smaller ones are handled with gloves. For these larger ones, I urge our contestants to exercise caution while handling them. Crystallized air is the opposite of earth. Despite being the same size, they will be almost buoyant in the surrounding air.”

Hank reached forward and, using two hands, grabbed the earth crystal by either end. He managed to lift it, though the strain was evident on his purpling face.

“You weren’t kidding about that weight,” he said as he set it back down.

“Each of our five teams will be given three crystals, which kind will be selected randomly through a lottery draw. They must protect these crystals while attempting to retrieve the crystals from enemy schools.”

“Like a game of capture the flag.”

“With a little twist. For the first twenty minutes, only one member of each school may leave their starting location. He or she may scout out other schools’ camps and, if the opportunity presents itself, steal one or more of their crystals. Of course, with seven members from each school participating and six stuck at their starting locations, it will likely wind up as one versus six. Not the greatest odds, though if they manage to get far enough away from the camp, the pursuing school will not be able to chase the thief without disqualifying themselves.

“The six who cannot leave camp are generally expected to be constructing defenses. Traps, fortresses, pitfalls, and what have you. It isn’t required, but schools who leave their crystals lying about will likely not have the success that others will enjoy.

“Beyond the first twenty minutes, the number of students a school can field will increase by two every five minutes up until all students are allowed to leave at the thirty minute mark. Then the game begins in earnest. The winner will be determined by which school has collected the most crystals after two hours. Just losing a crystal or two does not put anyone out of the game. Though severe injuries or other incapacitations will result in a student being withdrawn for the remainder of the match for medical purposes.”

Hank rubbed his hands together with a grin. “Sounds exciting. And we’re slated to begin in just under an hour. So stay tuned,” he said, looking right at the camera. “After these messages from our sponsors, we will go through the schools and introduce the contestants.”

He held his grin at the camera for just a moment until the live light turned off.

Zoe sighed, sinking into her chair. That had been a fairly long-winded explanation. And the student introductions would just be longer.

She reached under the table and pulled out a small notebook.

At least I did research on the other schools’ students this time.

— — —

Juliana clapped Irene on the back. “There you go. You got it.”

Allowing herself a small smile, Irene stared at her earthen castle. The highest tower only came up to her knees. However, it spread out at least as wide as Saija’s wingspan.

And wasn’t it a sad thought that she was measuring things in terms of Saija’s body.

But, though it was small, it was sturdy. Kicking it with all her might only knocked off small chunks despite it being constructed from dirt. It was like kicking rock. Actually, it wasn’t just like kicking rock. Her foot stung from having kicked it so hard.

“Now let me tell you a little trick my mom does. I can only do it if I’m concentrating really hard. Not really something I can do in battle yet because I’m not good enough at water magic.”

“And you think I am?”

“No, but you have teammates. Six of them. Unless something seriously went weird, at least one should be a water mage. Or an experienced non-fire mage capable of using water magic.”

“Three of them are demons. I don’t know about the other two, but I’m pretty sure that Saija doesn’t know any thaumaturgy.”

Juliana frowned, but held up a few fingers. “That still leaves three others.”

“I think Henry is a water mage, but he hates everyone else on the team. Including me.”

Narrowing her eyes, Juliana turned and glanced around the room. It didn’t take her long to spot Henry—he was off in a corner all on his own, avoiding everyone’s gaze as he looked through that notebook of his.

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. If he wants to play as a team, you can get him to help you out.”

As she spoke, Juliana pulled out her wand. Which Irene found strange. Juliana tended to use her rings even during class. In fact, Irene hadn’t even known that she still carried a wand.

Irene must have had a strange look on her face because Juliana shrugged. “I’m not very good at water magic. Wands are easier than rings.”

Juliana swished her wand and gave it a little flick with her wrist. At first nothing happened. Then Irene noticed dark patches spreading across the surface of the rock-like dirt castle. Some patches even began sweating.

“Any earth mage worth their salt will be able to wave their wand and collapse anything you build. You can fight against it, but then it comes down to a battle of willpower. And you have to concentrate. Not really the best thing if you’re being attacked by several people.”

Once the castle was thoroughly soaked, Juliana snapped her wrist again. Small hexagons of ice started spreading over various points on the castle. The hexagons grew, connecting with each other. The entire surface of the castle had iced over after a few seconds.

“But if you or another water mage infuses the building with water and then carefully freezes it, it will hold its shape even while under attack. Not forever, of course. But it should work long enough for you to fight whoever is attacking you.”

Testing the strength, Irene kicked at the walls of the castle again. This time, not even little chunks of dirt fell off the sides.

“Huh. Neat.”

“The water part has to be done carefully. If you put too much water into it, the whole thing will wash away. Too little and the structure will become brittle. Freeze it too fast and everything will crack and break.”

“Sounds complicated. And not really worth it unless you’ve practiced.”

Irene glanced over Juliana’s shoulder to where Henry sat. He had actually looked up from his book to watch what Juliana had been doing, but made no move to actually come closer. As soon as Irene met his eyes, he shook his head and buried his nose in his notebook.

“And I doubt Henry has practiced much.”

“Probably. There is also a thing you can do with fire magic, but it requires making clay and then firing it like in a kiln. Takes a while. Probably not useful for tonight’s event.”

Irene shrugged. The water thing didn’t sound all that useful either. Still, she got a few tips for both quick constructions and sturdy constructions. Both should help out.

“Fifteen minutes remaining,” a voice said, echoing over the intercom system in the dueling hall. “Contestants should prepare to move to the starting area. Repeat, fifteen minutes remaining for the preparation period.”

“Well, guess that’s my cue,” Juliana said. “Maybe you can get Henry to practice with you for the last few minutes.”

“Yeah,” Irene said as she glanced over Juliana’s shoulder again, voice flat. “Maybe.”

“Everyone else is already at my mom’s house to watch the show on her big-screen.”

“Thanks for staying and giving me tips.”

“No problem,” Juliana said with a wave of her hand as she turned to leave. “Give ’em hell.”

“Oh, we’ll give them Hell alright.” Saija fluttered in from nowhere, landing just to Irene’s side.

It actually made her jump a little.

Juliana just chuckled as she walked off.

Saija offered a casual wave before she spun around and stared at Irene with the intensity of a thousand suns.

“So, I was just talking with Neuro. I wanted to be the first one to go wreak havoc on our enemies’ bases but then he called me a fool! Can you believe that? Anyway, I said I should go because I could fly and cover more ground, scout out the enemy, and return with good information all before the second group can leave. You know what he did?” She put her hands on her hips and stared.

Irene wasn’t sure if she should answer or just wait for her to continue her diatribe.

Waiting turned out to be the right answer.

“He sprouted wings!” Saija’s wings spread out as she shouted. “Big fluffy raven wings. All covered in dark black feathers. It looked really nice—not as nice as my wings, of course—but I didn’t know he could do that. He never grew wings before. And then he was like ‘I’ll be the first one out. Why don’t you be the last one? Be our last-minute reinforcements in the field and protect our base with your mighty prowess until then.’ Which sounds nice but I mean, he just called me a fool. I’m not so sure I–”

“Saija,” Irene said, placing a finger on the demon’s lips. “Calm down. Why don’t you stay with me? If you’re the first one out, we’ll be separated.”

As much as Irene hated to admit it, she was really grateful that Saija had taken a liking to her. As friendly as Saija might be, she was still a demon. And demons were strong. If Irene stuck next to Saija, she would probably be a whole lot safer than if she were on her own.

“Yeah, I thought about that. What am I supposed to do around our base? I can’t build fancy sand castles,” she said, waving a hand at Irene’s castle.

“You can protect the base from anyone who shows up. We might fall under attack early on.” She leaned in close and whispered, “You heard the rumors that Faultline and the Nod Complex were going to team up to ensure we lost this one.”

“Who said that?”

“Eva. She said it at the last meeting.”

“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumped in slight dejection. “It’s probably true then.” After a moment of keeping her shoulders slumped, she suddenly straightened her back. “Oh! It’s probably true then.” A low chuckle escaped from the back of her throat as a shark-toothed grin spread across her face. “That means two people are going to try to surprise attack us early on?”

“Ah, I guess so? They might wait for reinforcements.”

“The first reinforcements would mean six total people could attack us. If we send two people away as soon as we can, it would be six versus four.” She chuckled again and started flapping her wings. “I have to go talk to Sebastian. I’m sure we can come up with a little surprise for them.”

Saija flew off towards the sharply dressed demon.

Which left Irene on her own once again. Juliana really hadn’t needed to take off quite so early. There were fifteen minutes left. Surely she had more tips to impart. But Irene couldn’t complain too much. She had been the one to stop Juliana from heading off with Eva and the others.

Irene glanced over at Henry. He was the only one who was off on his own. Everyone else was talking with each other or obviously practicing something or other. He just read his notebook.

She had half a mind to leave him to it and continue practicing what Juliana had shown her—just because she did it once in a low stress situation did not mean that she would be able to rapidly build a full-sized fortress with all the pressure of the event on her—but maybe Juliana had a point. With ginger steps, she approached.

“What are you reading?” she asked. She had to ask. He didn’t acknowledge her on her way over and even after hovering for a few seconds, he didn’t say anything.

It still took another moment before Henry sighed. “Just information I’ve collected on Nod Complex’s inhuman students.”

Inhuman? Irene wasn’t actually sure if that was racist or not. It was true, but nonhuman seemed a better term to use. Inhuman made it sound like they were inhuman monsters, or something. She probably wouldn’t have questioned it at all had Henry not cared about all the demons around the school, but he obviously didn’t like them.

“Anything interesting?”

“I just don’t want to be surprised by strange magics. Apparently they have a sandman, capable of putting people to sleep with a touch. Don’t let yourself get touched.”

“I see.” That did sound worrisome. “Anything else?”

“Nothing especially troublesome,” he admitted with a grudge. “The vampire and the dryad won’t be participating. Thank the heavens for that.”

“Well, in that case, did you want to try practicing magic with me? Juliana was showing me all about how–”

“I was watching.”

Irene flinched back. This was a mistake. She should have just gone with Saija and talked with Sebastian. And wasn’t that a sad thought, that she found herself able to get along better with demons than humans. Obviously Henry wouldn’t like her. He didn’t like demons and she was friends with Saija. Was she friends with Saija? Probably.

Henry snapped his book shut, causing Irene to jump again.

“I suppose we might try it. So long as it is a purely thaumaturgical exercise, I don’t have problems with it.”

“It is,” Irene said quickly. Too quickly. “I use earth magic and you use water. Nothing else.”

“Very well.” He pushed himself off the floor, using the wall to help him get to his feet. “Build up a wall and let’s see if we can get this to work.”

Irene smiled as she pulled out her wand. She could feel the strain in her smile, but it didn’t matter. There were about ten minutes until the start of the event. As soon as it started… well, she would still have to interact with him. But there would be others around as well.

Other demons and people who had bound demons. The kind of people he didn’t like.

Slapping her cheeks, Irene shook her head. It wasn’t like he was going to attack them. Or her. They just needed to practice.

— — —

Juliana hurried through the empty streets of Brakket City. Fifteen minutes before the students had to be ready to start. Probably another fifteen minutes to draw straws for the crystals. Maybe another five to ten for them to get into position.

In other words, plenty of time for her to get home.

She wished she could teleport. Even blinking would be nice, but her mother wouldn’t teach her until she was older. How old seemed to increase with every year. It couldn’t be that difficult or dangerous. Eva had learned how years ago. Sure, she had mentioned almost losing a limb once or twice, but that was hardly a big deal. If Juliana lost a limb, maybe she could petition Arachne for one of hers.

Yeah right. Her father would never agree to that and she highly doubted that her mother would be any more open-minded.

But still, Eva only almost lost limbs. Surely she could do it.

Juliana paused and focused on an empty patch of sidewalk ten feet in front of her. She knew that theory. Books in Brakket Library held the answers to most everything she had ever wanted to look up.

Shaking her head, she decided against actually trying. If she were trying with other people around, at least she would have immediate help if she left her arm behind. Or worse, if she left her clothes behind. Brakket was a fairly dead city, but there had been more cameras around than ever before. She wasn’t Eva. She didn’t walk around naked and think nothing of it. It would be absolutely mortifying if someone recorded her teleporting out of her clothes and posted it all over the internet.

With a sigh, she continued on her way home.

Only to find her sigh catching in her throat. In an instant, Juliana’s armor turned to liquid. Metal encased her whole head and solidified into a hard helmet.

Something landed behind her with a loud clank. Something heavy and metallic. A chill ran up her spine and it wasn’t because of the cold evening air.

Juliana turned slowly.

The hunter stood behind her. The one with bright red hair and an eye patch. The one Eva had attacked on the roof. The one who, by all appearances, had been a complete invalid just a few weeks before. She stood in a suit of rough armor.

Unlike the now deceased armored hunter, this woman’s was raw and bulky. Put together in a rush and without proper fitting. There was no paint and no finish. Just rough steel and rusted iron. She lacked a helmet, though she had some kind of a molded circlet around her forehead that Juliana was sure hadn’t been there the last time they met.

“You will come with me,” the woman said, “or you will die.”

Juliana clenched her teeth together. What to do? Run? Attack? Obviously she wasn’t going anywhere with the woman. There was a crazed look in her eyes. Her wild red hair hung around her face making her look all the more deranged. If she went with the woman, she would probably die anyway.

With a brush of her fingers, Juliana could destroy the woman’s armor. Eva had said that she had three holes in her spine, paralyzing her. The armor must be holding her up, letting her move. One didn’t just cure spinal nerve damage in a handful of weeks. Especially because the original injury had been inflicted early summer. That had been months ago. She would have cured herself before launching their most recent attack.

Right. Destroy armor. Disable woman. She might teleport away as she had before, but at least Juliana would get away. Then she could warn Eva and her mother and anyone else that this hunter was still hunting. She didn’t know why she was the one being hunted, but that hardly mattered now.

Juliana charged forward.

The woman stood still for just one second. As soon as that second passed, her face changed. Her lips split straight across her face, giving her a maniacal crescent moon of a smile. Her single eye widened but the pupil shrunk to a tiny pinprick.

Her armor moved. And the woman with it.

The next thing Juliana knew, she was looking at the twilight sky. Except… she had just been charging at the woman. Wha–

Juliana crashed into the ground, rolling and tumbling twenty feet down the street. Everything ached. The liquid membrane between her skin and her solid armor acted as a minor cushion, but it wasn’t enough.

She couldn’t even get up before something gripped her ankle. Juliana found herself swinging up through the air in a high arc before having her back slammed into the ground.

Delirious laughter echoed down the street, the last thing Juliana heard as she fell into unconsciousness.

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009.013

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“Construction?” Neuro asked with a frown, toying with of the golden triangles that adorned the tips of the demon’s long hair.

“Yep. Building a house maybe,” Eva said with a shrug. She couldn’t really think up anything else it might be.

Saija’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, glancing off to one side to avoid looking at anyone. Her lips curled back into a teeth-clenched grimace.

“Building?” She nudged Irene in the side. “I told you we should have done that last event. How am I supposed to build things?”

That was a good point. Something the other two demons apparently agreed with, judging by the nods of their heads. Really, even regular mages might find themselves not particularly useful. A fire mage wouldn’t have much to do in a house building contest. Unless they acted like a kiln to harden an earth mage’s structure. Really, it was air mages who wouldn’t have much to contribute.

Maybe not building houses then, but something else that still needed construction.

“For all I know, Redford is going to drop you off in the amazon jungle and tell you to survive for a week, build some shelters and hunt or scavenge for food.”

That would certainly be more exciting for viewers than some house building. Though long. Unless they streamed it on-line and let viewers tune into it whenever. Eva didn’t know how that would work with the television station, but maybe they would show a few hours a night. Or highlights from the day.

Henry crossed his arms as he glared at Eva with narrowed eyes. “And where did you get this information? We didn’t win, in case you forgot. Or did you forget which school we belong to again.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, Eva returned his glare. “Believe me or not. I don’t care.”

She considered taunting him for running off and having a temper tantrum when Arachne disagreed with him about the gorgon, but doing so would probably have him running off again. As she wasn’t participating in this event, she should probably leave the remainder of the team fully intact.

Though a small part of her mind couldn’t help but wonder if she could talk Anderson into swapping him out for someone else.

Juliana would be nice to have. She hadn’t signed up because of her parents, but they might have changed their minds after having seen—or participated in, in Genoa’s case—the first event. Anderson and Redford were obviously taking pains to make the tournament safe.

Given the cameras centered on the event, there were probably even more safety features behind the scenes. Redford would want to make good impressions on mundanes while Anderson wouldn’t want to frighten away prospective new students. Someone winding up mangled or dead would dissuade most normal people.

“Plan for what you want,” Eva said after a moment of silence. “I told you what I heard. Since I’m not allowed to participate, you can deal with it as you want.”

Henry took his eyes off Eva and looked over the rest of the students with a far less hostile glare. At least, far less hostile when he wasn’t looking at a demon or a human associated with demons.

Which was basically just Rachael.

Still, he reserved the majority of his ire for Eva.

And she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe he was friends with the Burnsides. Or simply had a bad experience in the past.

“There’s two weeks before the event,” he said, getting to his feet. “See if you can find something out for yourselves.”

With one last glance around the room, he snapped his notebook shut. Henry moved out of the room before anyone else could even stand. He barely managed to keep from shoulder-checking Eva on his way past.

Though only two days had passed since the night of the first event, Henry had grown far more hostile. During the feast, he had alternated between glaring at her and avoiding eye contact entirely. She could understand him being upset that Brakket Academy had lost, but he was apparently the only one.

At least, the only one of the competitors. A few regular students had alternated between blaming her or Randal.

More so Randal. His dormitory door had been vandalized with several scathing messages about his heritage and bound demon alike. Something about how a demonic elf should have been faster.

As if they would have done better.

The vandalism only contributed to his now obvious depression.

Even now, Randal sat with his head resting on his knuckles, staring at the ground. He hadn’t spoken once during the entire meeting.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say to him beyond her words at the feast the night before. But he didn’t have to participate in the next event, so he should be able to take some time to himself to get sorted out.

As for the next event, the vampire had so far not come up to Eva to beg for blood or to renegotiate their deal. As such, she was torn between whether she wanted Brakket to win or to lose. Losing could take some heat off Randal. Depending on how and why they lost, it might knock Henry down a peg as well.

On the reverse side of things, winning was generally better. Not to mention the potential amusement if the demon-majority team had lost the predominantly destructive event only to turn around and win the constructive one. The only two humans who could participate and didn’t have bound demons were Henry and Irene, and Irene was heavily associated with Saija.

Of course, like Saija had said, demons really weren’t great at building things. She was a succubus. Her talents lay in manipulative magic, though her raw strength could come in handy.

The other two demons, Sebastian and Neuro, Eva didn’t know half as much about. Sebastian sat in his chair, stirring a cup of tea he had procured from somewhere with an ornate silver spoon held in his gloved hand. He had a faint smile on his face as he stared off towards Henry’s vacant seat.

Neuro’s eyes swirled in thought. Literally. They were a brilliant green rather than the usual demonic red. He was supposedly smart, but Eva hadn’t been in a position to confirm it thus far. Maybe he would come up with something.

Unless he was thinking about something entirely unrelated to the tournament. That was a decent possibility as well.

Meeting apparently adjourned, Eva turned and started away from the small conference room that they had been using for tournament related business. She wasn’t the only one. Rachael had been out the door almost as fast as Henry.

However, she stopped as she reached the door. A completely impulsive thought took hold. A somewhat dangerous thought as well.

“Irene,” Eva said, “might I have a moment of your time before you run off to wherever?”

She sat up straight, offering a slow nod of her head. “Did you need something?”

“Just a little training exercise I thought you might be interested in trying.”

“Training?” she asked with a frown. “For fighting?”

Eva shook her head. “You’re an earth mage and I’ve got a project I’m working on that needs an earth mage.”

“Juliana isn’t helping you?”

“She is, but maybe it will help train you for this event. It isn’t a problem if you don’t want to do it.”

Irene’s frown deepened. She crossed her arms, staring at Eva as Eva moved to the side to let another student out of the room.

Saija stood up, strutted over to Eva, and walked around her in a short circle. She hummed to herself as she looked Eva up and down. When she stopped circling, she was a bit close for comfort.

Eva glared at her the whole time. It wasn’t that she disliked Saija, but the succubus was a bit much sometimes. Eva didn’t know what kind of relationship Irene and Saija had in private. Ever since the demon hunters had attacked, the two had been nearly inseparable. Really, she didn’t care what they did.

So long as she was left out of it.

And, at the moment, she really didn’t need Saija’s face quite so close to hers.

“What are you plan–”

Eva snapped her hand up to Saija’s chin, clamping her mouth shut. “Saija. You can ask your questions from a respectable distance. If you want to go with us, just ask.”

Releasing her with a slight shove, Saija sulked back to Irene and desperately tried to look like she wasn’t hiding behind the human.

Really, it had been months since they started going to school. Yet she was still thinking that Eva would bite her head off at the slightest provocation? Sure, she had just grabbed her jaw. But she hadn’t hurt Saija.

Thinking more, if they likened her to Zagan, maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do. Even knowing that Zagan wasn’t going to permanently hurt her, Eva still wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.

“Go with you?” Irene said, still frowning.

“Yep! I’ll show you,” Eva said, starting towards the door.

She paused as a thought occurred to her. As sensitive as she was to cold, Eva had barely felt anything the other night during the event. The entire ward had to have been heated. Just because it hadn’t snowed yet didn’t mean that it wasn’t cold. Eva solved the problem through heating spells, but not everybody was a fire mage.

“Ah. You might want to bring a warm coat,” Eva said with a smile.

“Alright, we’re out here without anyone else,” Irene said as she nearly tripped over a stray branch despite the light spell Eva had thrown out for her benefit. Saija caught her, keeping her from falling to the ground. “You avoided mentioning exactly what you need help with. I assume it was because other people were around.”

Eva turned with a smile, walking backwards through the rough brush. “Thanks for having the tact to not ask about anything.”

“Well I’m asking now.”

“We’re almost there.”

Irene stopped moving. “Eva,” she said. “You’re dragging us out here in the middle of the night and being awfully creepy about it. I don’t want to get involved in anything big again. I’ve had enough as it is.”

Eva sighed, stopping as well. Rather than answer right away, she craned her head back to stare at the sky.

“The night you fought the monsters that came out of my dorm room, those purple streaks appeared in the sky.”

Looking up to the sky as well, Irene let out a soft groan. “I knew it. This is something big.”

“They’re a connection between the mortal realm, Void, and Life itself. Two Powers and a battlefield.”

“Right. Way too big,” Irene said, backing up. “Eva, I’m–”

“Involved no matter what you do. Life is trying to pull Void into the mortal realm. Most likely in an attempt to make Void vulnerable. Unfortunately, Void will be bringing along all of Hell. Maybe Hell will take the shape of another planet or galaxy, or maybe it will catastrophically merge with the mortal realm, or simply unleash all the demons of Hell onto Earth. I don’t know.

“One thing is certain, it probably isn’t going to be good for us. Especially because Life’s reason for attacking Void seems to be because Death and Void are allied. Death might be the next target. Something, believe it or not, that would not be good for anyone.”

Eva took her eyes off the sky, looking Irene in the eyes. “So we’re going to bring Void over without the rest of Hell ahead of whenever Life wanted to do it in the hopes that Void will be able to seal away Life. Or at least remove the mortal realm from the playing field,” Eva said with a smile.

Irene didn’t say anything.

Neither did Saija.

After waiting a full minute, neither had so much as moved. Eva felt her smile start to slip. If Irene got scared and went around telling people, things could go poorly. She didn’t want to kill Irene, so maybe Serena could perform a little memory trick to make her forget.

Except Serena wasn’t in on the ritual’s secret either.

Eva bit her lip before smiling again. “So how is that for a sales pitch?” she asked, trying for a small bit of humor.

“Terrible,” Irene said, voice flat. “But you’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Unfortunately.”

Irene’s hands shot to her hair where she started tugging. “Why me?” she moaned.

“Well, because you’re an earth mage and Juliana–”

“I just wanted to come to school, learn some magic, work on my studies, and other normal things. I wanted to become an enchantress, maybe own a shop. I’m not a mage-knight or some thrill-seeker. And now the world is ending?”

“Apocalypse has been used to describe the situation by some of the people who know, yes,” Eva said with a reluctant nod of her head. “But we’re trying to avoid–”

Irene sank down to her knees, getting her pants covered in dirt, and cupped her hands to her face. She wasn’t crying… but she obviously wasn’t taking the information half as well as Juliana had. Of course, Juliana already knew half of it. The only thing she hadn’t known was Arachne’s mission to bring Void over to Earth without Life’s involvement.

At her side, Saija fluttered a pair of wings that hadn’t been out a mere ten minutes ago. She hovered over Irene, bobbing from one shoulder to the other without quite knowing how to help her troubled friend. Only when she placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder did Irene finally move.

She glanced out of her cupped hands, looking at Saija with a half-hearted glare. “Did you know about all this?”

Her head whipped back and forth in a definite negative. “Sounds neat though. I’ve never seen Void. Do you think Powers are cute–”

“I used to think I was the only sane person who went to Brakket,” Irene said, face back buried in her hands. The low volume of her voice combined with her hands forced Eva to take a step closer to properly hear her. “I was right,” she said with a groan.

Irene popped up, brows furrowed. She stuck a finger in Eva’s chest. “You can’t just say that we’re on the verge of apocalypse all nonchalant-like.”

“Ah huh.”

“‘Ah huh,’ she says.” Irene turned to glare at Saija. “‘Do you think a Power is cute,’ she says. Do neither of you have any sense of gravity?”

“Of course I do,” Saija said with a disarming smile. She spread her wings ever so slightly. “Every time I fly, gravity is there to drag me back down to Earth should I lapse in my gliding.”

Irene stared, gaze deader than Ylva’s. Without even a sigh or a simple shake of her head, she turned and started off in the direction they had been coming from.

Saija gave a questioning glance towards Eva.

Eva had her own frown leveled at the succubus.

Saija let out a little noise from the back of her throat before moving straight to Irene’s side.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. Not really,” Irene said without inflection. “I just need to go have a mental breakdown. Don’t worry about me.”

Eva blinked in front of her, hands up to stop her from going forwards. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to have your breakdown later? There are still a few things to go over. Like who it is safe to talk about this with. Also I’m sure Juliana would–”

“Safe to talk about it with?”

“Well, we don’t want to cause a panic now do we?”

“So you do have a sense of how big this is,” Irene said, hands on her hips.

Eva just smiled, ignoring the panic on Irene’s face. “Come on,” she said. “Juliana should be waiting for us. She’ll probably be mad at me for being so late again, but oh well.”

— — —

Zoe paused as her companion stopped to sniff the air. A vampire’s sense of smell wasn’t good for much aside from the scent of blood. A fact that had Zoe instantly on edge.

“Something wrong?” she asked, hand closing around the hilt of her dagger.

“I don’t think so,” Serena said. “Just a familiar scent heading off towards the forest again.”

“Eva?”

“Yep. Along with a demon who isn’t Arachne and someone else.”

Zoe let her arm drop to her side with a small sigh. Eva and demon likely meant it was nothing to be worried about. Especially because Serena had smelled Eva off in the forests on occasion ever since she arrived. They were probably just training for the next event.

Still, she couldn’t help but ask. “Who is the someone else?”

Serena shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know. A human. I haven’t really interacted with anyone aside from you and Wayne, so everyone else sort of muddles together. No real distinct scent.”

“Could you find them again if they were in front of you?”

“Probably. Why?”

“Just curious,” Zoe said, continuing off towards Wayne’s classroom.

“If you’re really curious, I’m sure you could just ask Eva,” Serena said, skipping up and around Zoe until she was walking backwards down the hall. “Last time I asked, she told me that she was working on a weather ward. Something to keep rain and snow out. I wonder if she’s still working on that.”

“Weather ward,” Zoe repeated with a frown. Maybe something to erect around her women’s ward. She had confessed a certain distaste for snow in the past. Or it could be homework for Chelsea’s class.

Either way, it didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Zoe knocked on Wayne’s door, waiting just long enough before opening it for Wayne to grunt out an answer.

“Come in,” he said. He didn’t even look up as the door opened. A boiling pot of orange liquid bubbled underneath a stooped over Wayne. His eyes never left the pot even as he gathered up a fistful of powder and sprinkled it in the liquid.

The orange liquid turned almost completely clear. Enough for Zoe to see the cast iron insides of the cauldron.

Which was something that struck Zoe as odd. Not the potion. Finding Wayne tinkering with potions wasn’t strange in the slightest. The fact that he was using a cauldron over an open flame was the real oddity. Modern potionwork almost exclusively used modern tools. Flasks and burners that could be found inside mundane chemical laboratories.

“Do you ever wonder why a potion designed to shrink things doesn’t shrink what it’s made in? Or the flask it is stored in, for that matter.”

“Potions are more your specialty than mine, but I would assume that it is because potion making equipment is enchanted to resist magic.”

“That is more of a safety precaution than anything else,” Wayne said, tapping the edge of the cast iron cauldron. “This thing isn’t enchanted in the slightest. No growth, no shrinkage.”

Zoe stepped closer to the pot, looking it over with sharpened senses. “Perhaps the potion making itself imparts some protection while it is being made and shortly after, keeping it from acting until poured onto something unprotected. Have you tried it in regular glassware?”

“Not yet.”

“What brought on this line of thinking?”

“Watching the first event, actually.”

“Eva’s basilisk golem?”

He gave a slight murmur of agreement as he dropped a crystallized essence of water into the potion. The clear liquid expanded instantly, going from half-filling the cauldron to an inch short of the lip.

Zoe actually took a step away. If that was some shrinking solution, she did not want it spilling onto her.

“Growth and shrinking potions are not very useful,” Wayne said, almost more to himself than anyone else in the room. “You can’t shrink a suitcase as the clothes inside don’t shrink. You can’t embiggen a cube of wood and carve out a house because the wood will revert after a time when the magic runs out. As such, I haven’t worked with them often. Seeing that basilisk grow just sparked my curiosity.”

“There are other potions that should affect the flasks,” Zoe said slowly. “Essence of Luminosity, for instance. It doesn’t usually make the glass glow afterwards.”

“Never really thought about it before. Or had assumed it was because of the enchantments. But watching some of Spencer’s potion spill onto the ground got me curious.”

He took a pinch of leaves and dropped them into the pot, turning the clear liquid to a milky white. Only then did he finally take his eyes off the potion.

“Ah, Serena. You’re here too.”

“You didn’t notice?” the vampire gasped, clutching at her chest like she had been shot before collapsing into one of the empty classroom seats.

Wayne didn’t so much as blink an eye, instead turning to face Zoe.

“I assume you’re here about Anderson’s request?”

Zoe nodded. “I haven’t mentioned it to Ylva yet–”

“Good. Don’t. As…” he trailed off, curling his lip into a nasty smile. “Nice as she seems to be, having her anywhere near children seems to be the worst possible idea that man could have come up with.”

“You were at the hospital at the time, but she has been around the students before. She disguised herself as a little girl.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Zoe just shrugged as she leaned against one of the tables in the room. “It’s true.”

“Well I’m against it,” Serena said. “And I doubt the other vampire would like having a minion of Death running around, trying to rekill us both.”

“I’m actually more worried for the Isomer students. Ylva has not been kind to the Elysium Order.” Zoe shook her head with a sigh. “Unfortunately, I think Anderson intends to speak with her regardless of my choice in the matter.”

“When you suggested he bring on security guards, I had been hoping he would not go the route of Turner. Let’s just find some nice retired mage-knights and throw them in front of him before he wanders around to all the demons in the area and begs for their help.”

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009.012

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Eva flopped over on her bed.

“Ah, I’m tired,” she mumbled to nobody in particular.

Nobody else was around. Juliana and Shalise had gone over to Genoa’s house to watch the event. Irene, Jordan, and Shelby were all there as well, along with Saija, Srey, and Vektul. A gathering that might have had Eva worried for their safety from demon hunters had she not been so tired. Especially because she was relatively certain that Genoa had participated in the event as an antagonist to one of the groups.

Carlos was supposedly a decent fighter, if Genoa was to be believed. They had three demons, Jordan, and Juliana as well. If anything had come up, they could probably handle it all on their own.

All in all, the event could have gone much worse. Even aside from how it ended. She had honestly been worried that another sky-cracking laser beam would obliterate half of the contestants. Given the vampire’s presence, the Elysium Order might have attacked all on their own. That combined with Eva and Lucy’s presence, it had been an ideal time to attack for just about anyone.

Well, partially. There were a lot of high-profile mages running about Brakket Academy at the moment. Redford, for one. And the event had been televised. A demon hunter might not care, but the Elysium Order did have something of a reputation to uphold.

Her school hadn’t won, but neither had the vampire’s. As it was, he was probably going to corner her sometime and try to bet on something else. Perhaps his school winning the second event or something similar.

Eva didn’t really care. She couldn’t participate in it. That gave her all kinds of free time. With Juliana’s help, they might be able to finish up the ritual circle before she actually had to worry about it being discovered.

Maybe. It was still a daunting task. They weren’t going to do anything tonight, obviously. Maybe not the day after either, as there was supposed to be another feast celebrating the end of the first event and its victors.

Then, she didn’t know when the second event would take place. It might be the following weekend, it might be in the middle of December. Hopefully the latter.

Even once the ritual circle was finished, she would still need to actually find the people to help participate. The demon side of things should be easy enough. She already had half of them helping out either with the creation of the circle or the security of it. A few more could probably be convinced just by saying that they were summoning Void.

The humans weren’t going to be half as easy to find. Juliana would. She was already involved anyway. Shalise as well, probably. Maybe. Maybe leaving her out of it would be for the best. Her mother wouldn’t approve, to say the least.

Though, Genoa probably wouldn’t either. But it was a bit too late in Juliana’s case.

Maybe Irene would come. If she brought Shelby along with her, that would be good. Beyond that, Eva was somewhat at a loss. Vektul had said humans. Eva wasn’t sure that people with demons bound to them counted as human enough, so that ruled out a good number of people who Eva thought might otherwise not have a problem summoning a Power to Earth.

A tapping at the window of her dorm room interrupted Eva’s thoughts.

And yet, being flopped over face down on her bed was nice and comfortable. Did she really want to get up and open the window?

No, not really.

Three more taps rattled the glass before Eva finally lifted her head enough to see who dared to disturb her slumber.

Ah, but the blinds are in the way, Eva thought as she dropped her face back onto the bed.

She wasn’t that tired. Sure, she had used a lot of magic. Especially blinking and fireballs. But that wasn’t too taxing. Maybe she was tired from all the running and jumping around. There had been a lot of that as well.

Or maybe it was the interactions with other people. Other people were always exhausting. Especially ones she had never met before. And nuns.

Eva tilted her head up with a deep frown on her face as the tapping on the window grew louder. Something about that didn’t feel right. She had never had much trouble interacting with people. Other people often had trouble interacting with her unless she dragged them along at her pace, but not the other way around.

If it wasn’t that…

I’m not depressed, am I?

That would be silly. She had accomplished her objective in preventing the vampire from winning. There was nothing to be depressed about.

The tapping rattled the windows enough that it threatened to break the glass.

Eva finally rolled out of bed, stumbling to her feet as she moved over to the window.

“Alright already,” she mumbled.

Pulling up the blinds, she threw the latch and hefted the window up.

A massive spider skittered into the room, barely making it before Eva slammed the window shut again.

“The door works perfectly fine, you know.”

The spider didn’t respond. She couldn’t as she didn’t have a mouth. Not yet, anyway. Her body was expanding back into its humanoid form.

Instead of waiting and watching her, Eva just flopped back down on her bed and buried her face into her pillow.

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

“Yeah, can’t wait to see that vampire’s face,” Eva mumbled.

Arachne stood still for a moment longer, standing over the side of the bed. When she finally decided to move, she just sat on the edge.

Eva let out a little squawk as Arachne fell backwards, laying her head and the stiff tendrils that passed for her hair on Eva’s back. They poked into her for a minute or two before Arachne finally made herself comfortable in resting against Eva.

All the while, Eva just lay there, not minding the sudden contact. Neither spoke, choosing instead to sit in a companionable silence.

“Thanks,” Eva said, absolutely ruining the mood yet still feeling a need to say so. She tried to move as little as possible so as to keep from disturbing the resting spider, though she did lift her head up enough that she wasn’t speaking into her pillow.

“For what? I didn’t do anything.”

“Knowing you were out there following me, ready to jump in at the first sign of anything truly dangerous was enough. I might have been a whole lot more paranoid had you not been there.”

“I wasn’t able to get into the pyramid itself without possibly being spotted on the cameras.”

“Yeah, I figured. But I also figured that not many others would be able to get inside without being seen. I was a lot more worried about demon hunters and the like, not any of the other contestants.”

Arachne didn’t say anything in response. She really didn’t need to.

Having her there was enough for Eva.

Eva dropped her head back into her pillow and shut her eyes.

— — —

“Remember, join in next time for more magical excitement at Brakket Academy.”

Zoe managed to maintain her smile until the little red recording light blinked off. As soon as it did, she couldn’t help herself. A suppressed yawn finally broke free, stretching her jaw as far as it would go for a few seconds.

“Ah, excuse me,” she said as the yawn died off. “Wasn’t expecting that to go quite so long.”

When the schedule had called for her to comment on several highlights after the event had finished, she had expected a half hour of discussion. There had been no final time listed, but three hours seemed a tad excessive. It had gotten to the point where she had been running out of unique things to say for every little display of magic.

Normally, she would have assumed there to be a time limit simply because the station had other programs they needed to get to. They had obviously cleared their schedule. In fact, Zoe wouldn’t be surprised if the station switched to a few analysts—probably unqualified and mundane analysts—who would discuss and replay the event all through the night. Perhaps even into the next week.

There would be backlash, excitement, fear, uproar, wonder, and all manner of people coming out of the woodworks to either praise or condemn everything magical. Mundane people who couldn’t stand the idea that magic existed had been protesting for years and nothing had really come of it. Of course, there had never been such open and obvious proof. Just whispers and conspiracy theories.

But worrying about such things was, quite frankly, not Zoe’s job. She knew that both Wallace and Anderson had public relations people at the ready. Anderson, possibly Wallace as well, had been planning something like this for a while.

The only thing Zoe was truly concerned about at the moment was protesters showing up around Brakket.

Or worse, rioters.

And demon hunters, though enough had died in the area recently to hopefully ward off any more from showing up. Vampire hunters not associated with the Elysium Order might appear, but they were so few and far between that Zoe couldn’t bring herself to be too concerned. Most people who didn’t like vampires joined up with the Elysium Order.

Zoe would be speaking with Anderson in the morning about hiring some new security guards around the place anyway.

“Don’t worry,” Hank said, standing up to stretch his back. “I was thinking we would only spend an hour talking about it. But the viewers just weren’t dropping off, so…” he trailed off with a shrug.

“Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the event.”

“I’m sure they did. Social media is already going nuts over it all. Sorry about your school though.”

“We may not have won, but I think we made a decent showing of it all.” Zoe stood, resisted the urge to mimic Hank’s stretching, and held out her hand. “Thanks for keeping me on track. I have a tendency to go off on tangents on occasion.”

“Not a problem. I look forward to co-commenting on the next event.” He reached out and took hold of Zoe’s hand. He paused for a moment. “I wonder if it might be possible to sit in on a class or two before the next event. With everything going on, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

“That… could be possible. I’ll have to speak with Anderson, but I don’t foresee much of an issue.” Especially if I frame it in such a way that it sounds like Brakket gets something out of it. “I’ll mention it to him in the morning.”

“Excellent.”

“I don’t know how much it will help. These students study for years before performing magic like this.”

“True. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

Zoe couldn’t really disagree with that. She just nodded her head instead. “I’ll send you a date and time as soon as I speak with Anderson. However, if you’ll excuse me for now, there are a few people I should meet with before the night officially ends.”

“Of course. I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Turning, Zoe stepped off the wooden platform and started walking towards the main school building. Four steps later, she had a better idea. Zoe reached into her pocket and took hold of her wand. A slight buildup of magic had her sent through the blinding white of Between, teleported across the city.

She immediately collapsed into Wayne’s couch.

And started groaning.

The television was on. Worse, she was on. Some station was playing a clip from earlier in the evening.

“Is that what I looked like?”

“What’s wrong? You look fine.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes at Wayne.

He just raised his eyebrows as he took a sip from a cup of coffee.

“The station wanted to do my makeup, something about certain colors standing out better on camera.”

Wayne set his coffee down on the table before leaning back in his armchair. He tilted his head back, facing the ceiling of his home as he closed his eyes. “They did a good job, not that I know anything about makeup,” he grumbled.

“I feel like I could dig my finger three inches into my face before I actually touched skin.” She sighed. The sigh trailed off into a self-depreciating laugh. “So how was it? Terrible?”

“Not as bad as I expected.”

“Knowing you, you expected the world to end halfway through. ‘Not as bad’ could still be a complete disaster.”

“The slow motion shots were nice.”

“They were,” Zoe said. “I wonder if we could get the original footage from them. It might come in handy for class.”

Wayne let out a loud scoff that had Zoe narrowing her eyes again.

“Everyone in the world is going to be jumping at the opportunity to get magic on camera. I’m sure you could find someone willing to set their slow motion cameras up while you cast spells at them for hours on end. They would probably pay you as well.”

“Maybe. But I think I would still like the footage from tonight. The original footage, not just what they’re going to show on repeat for the next several weeks.”

“Well, I doubt they’ll be deleting any of it. I’m sure the military is going to pay good money to get their hands on a copy. Probably several militaries.”

“That’s something other people can deal with,” Zoe said, reaffirming her decision to stay out of larger politicking matters. She was a magical theory professor. If there was a danger to her students, she would jump in to defend them without hesitation.

That the United States armed services might want copies of the footage was not an immediate danger to her students. Or, probably, a long-term danger. Though it wouldn’t surprise her if they came up with a magical branch of the military. Or perhaps just wrapped up certain mages into the Army or Navy or wherever they fit best.

More career paths were always a good thing. Fighting in the military wouldn’t be significantly different from most Guild work. It might even be safer. They would have a team, support, and presumably tactical training. Most mage-knights worked alone or in small groups.

Swinging her legs off the edge of the couch, Zoe started off towards the bathroom. “I’m using your shower.”

— — —

Why can’t Brakket just serve pizza. Everyone likes pizza.

Knowing Brakket Academy, their pizza wouldn’t be any more edible than anything else they served. They would put toppings on it that Eva had never heard of. Probably anchovies as well.

It was enough to make Eva shudder from the thought alone.

In front of her, she didn’t have any fish topped pizza. Close, but not quite.

Eva nudged the… squid with the tip of her finger.

The squid nudged back.

Eva carefully slid the bowl a few inches away from her. She didn’t even know where to begin eating the thing. She could presumably just pick it up and bite down. It wasn’t alive, missing its brain, though that didn’t stop it from squirming.

None of the rest of the dish looked all that edible either. The squid sat atop a mountain of vegetables and little red balls that were probably fish eggs. Of course, they could be Lucy eggs for all Eva knew.

Caviar was supposedly some high-class food. The rest probably was as well. Eva just couldn’t see herself enjoying any of it.

She reached for a bread roll. That seemed the safe choice by far. Her teeth glided straight through the soft dough without encountering anything unexpected.

Though she didn’t have too much of a problem with the food served by Brakket Academy normally, Juliana had also pushed her bowl towards the center of the table. Shalise hadn’t. She happily chewed on the end of a squid tentacle.

Looking across the room, Eva noticed Anise looking especially queasy as she stared at the squid. Her fellow nun had no concerns about the meal. She gnawed on the end of a tentacle as she alternated a glare between the vampire and Eva.

Eva put on a polite smile and gave a slight wave of her hand when their eyes met.

The nun held her scowl in place for just a moment before turning it on Anise. She didn’t say anything. She just stared.

Though her gnawing on the tentacle became a little more violent as she gnashed her teeth.

“Welcome back,” Anderson said, moving to the center of the stage where the professors were eating. “I’ll spare you all a large speech and move straight to the judging. Wallace, if you would be so kind?”

Redford whispered something into the ear of the woman he had been sitting with. The same woman who had been sitting with him at the previous feast. Just as before, her eyes were closed. She didn’t respond, simply smiling, though she did tap the side of her mouth with a finger.

He stood, wiping some sauce from the corners of his mouth with a small napkin. He moved around the table. Every other step, his cane clicked against the floor. Once at the front, he stopped and stared out over the assembled students.

“Fifth place,” he said without preamble or prelude, “goes to Faultline School for the Magically Adept. Though all three students made it to the pyramid, none reached the final chamber.”

Looking over to the mentioned school, Eva found every single student sitting with clenched fists and grit teeth. Even up on stage, their headmaster—or principal, or dean, or whatever he called himself—had his brow furrowed and lips pressed into a deep frown.

“Isomer Holy Academy comes in fourth place. Two members of Isomer failed to reach the pyramid. One made it inside, however, granting them a place over Faultline.”

Eva didn’t bother looking at them. The nun not named Anise now had her fist clenched hard enough to dig her nails into her skin.

And she was staring right at Eva.

Instead, Eva licked her lips. She hadn’t been aware that there would be rankings beyond winner and losers. So far, that hadn’t been a problem. But if the vampire placed second and she third, he would probably raise a fuss about her blood much sooner than otherwise.

Eva held her breath.

“Second and third place were difficult. In the end, third goes to the Nod Complex for the Supernatural. Only two members of their school made it to the pyramid. Though the two who did made it to the final chamber first, they squandered their advantage by preemptively attacking the quetzalcoatl and further failed to claim victory.”

Eva had been about to turn to the vampire with a smug grin when she caught a hint of movement.

Just a slight movement in both her sense of blood and her actual vision.

The yellow-haired woman opened her eyes. Not wide, just a slight sliver.

Enough for Eva to notice one being green and the other being violet with a golden pupil.

Eva blinked and the eyes were shut again. The woman looked perfectly average as she smiled her calm smile.

“Brakket Magical Academy had all three members of their school make it to the top of the pyramid, although only two made it inside. They then figured out what to do and made a plan using members of the other schools to enable themselves a victory… Only to have it snatched out of their grasp by our first place school.

“Only one member of Mount Hope Academy made it to the pyramid, but that was enough to place their marble on the activated pedestal. Congratulations.”

He clapped his hands together a few times, prompting most of the staff to begin clapping as well. The Faultline headmaster notably kept his hands at his sides. As soon as the students joined in, Redford tapped the ground with his cane, sending out a silencing click as it hit the wood.

It must be enchanted, Eva thought. The noise was simply too loud to be natural. It had silenced the students during the first feast as well.

“The second event will take place in two weeks’ time. Mount Hope has received a few hints on what might be required for victory. For everyone else, you may be wondering why you were ranked at all. The answer: You will be required to make a selection. Mount Hope will select first. Faultline last.” Redford paused for a moment, looking out over the students. “That is all,” he said, turning to go back to his seat.

Anderson moved to the center to take his place, clapping his hands together to bring attention over to him.

“Exciting, exciting!” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I hope you all are looking forward to the next event. Enjoy the rest of your feast and the rest of your nights!”

As he slipped back behind the table and retook his seat, Eva stared down at the squid bowl.

“Nope,” she said standing. “I’m done.”

Juliana popped up at the same time. “Me too.”

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, putting a hand on Shalise’s shoulder. “We’re just going back to the dorm room.”

Shalise, having started to shovel down as much food as she could, started to slow down. She swallowed up her current bite before looking at Eva with narrowed eyes. “You’re not disappearing again?”

Eva glanced towards Juliana and shook her head. “Not tonight. Take your time, we won’t be going anywhere.”

“If you’re sure,” she said slowly, looking back to her meal with a smile.

With a small chuckle, Eva waved goodbye to Irene, Shelby, Saija, and Jordan as she passed. She did pause as she came up to Randal.

The half-elf sat with poor posture. Something everyone did, but it was notable on the normally appearance obsessed elf. His fork pushed around a few eggs in his bowl without real direction or meaning. Not out of disgust, but out of depression.

Probably.

She knew that a few of the other students had been giving him a hard time about being too slow or… whatever.

So she patted him on the back. “Cheer up. We’ll get them next time,” she said with a false optimism in her voice.

With the rankings given by Redford, Eva was feeling much better than she had the night before. The vampire couldn’t dispute any claim of who won between them. Neither did she actually care about ‘next time’ or anything after that. She was still hoping that the world would ‘end’ before the third event.

He just gave her a sad smile before going back to toying with his food.

Eva and Juliana almost made it back to the Rickenbacker before Eva noticed someone running up behind them.

She turned, ready to blink or toss a fireball depending on the situation. Despite her paranoia, she smiled.

“Emily, did you need something?”

The girl flinched, stopping several paces away. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You guys deserved to win.”

Eva just shrugged her shoulders. She almost told her that they were better than the Nod Complex, but decided to remain silent instead. Mostly because that should be obvious from their elevator trip where Eva had all but told everyone that she didn’t care what happened so long as the vampire lost.

“The next event involves construction. Magic assisted building.”

“That… sounds really dull. I’m glad I can’t participate in it.” Though she supposed she could tell the rest of her team. It wouldn’t hurt any. And if they kept it quiet from the vampire and beat him again, all the better. “Does the rest of your school know that you told me?”

“I– No, they don’t,” she said with a sigh.

“Then better run along before people get suspicious. Thanks for telling me though, we’ll try not to beat you guys too bad,” Eva said with a grin.

As she ran off again, Juliana turned to Eva. “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know. Maybe I made a friend.” Eva watched her go, thinking back to the event.

She had used both flames and earth with roughly equal proficiency. Something that could be handy in construction. Of course, since she was barred from participating in the second school event, maybe Eva could offer her another opportunity to show off her skills.

“Think she wants to help bring a Power into reality to do battle with another Power and potentially end the world?”

Juliana shook her head with a sigh. “You should work on your sales pitch.”

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009.010

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“And there goes group indigo.”

“A shame,” Zoe said with a shake of her head. “They looked like they were doing so well.”

“When the tail swiped the… elf into the tree, I think the other two lost their nerves.”

“Indeed. Dragonkin are not to be taken lightly. Their scales can take a beating that even the finest suit of armor would have trouble holding up against. The students got a little overconfident when they managed to push it back. But if they would have stuck to their attacks rather than turning to flee, they might have forced it into a retreat. Especially the water mage, he should have used water rather than ice. Dragonkin don’t like their scales getting wet.”

“Right,” Hank said with a quick nod of his head.

Zoe doubted he really understood. At least, in general. Her previous statement had been simple enough. But the idea that it would be better to fight many of the things out in the forest rather than run probably didn’t mesh with his general worldview. Or that of most mundane people for that matter.

If they saw something scary, their first instinct would be to run. Even if they were running from something that was obviously faster than them.

Hank did manage to act like he knew what he was talking about. The narrations he gave were mostly play-by-plays, repeating what he was seeing on screen. It gave him the illusion that he was talking about something important, even though everyone could see what he was saying on their own screens.

He let Zoe handle explaining most magical aspects of the fights, of course, and asked intelligent questions when something was particularly odd to him.

“Still, getting slammed into the tree like that had to have hurt.”

“Probably,” Zoe admitted. “But the medical team is already on site and none of the three students were hurt too badly. They’ll be able to patch up any injuries in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s true. I think I’ve seen high school wrestling matches with worse injuries,” he said with a chuckle.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she believed that, but maybe he was trying to play down the violence for the viewers.

Even though more violence would probably mean more viewers. Humans were… attracted to that sort of thing for some reason.

“For those of you who are just joining us or otherwise missed out,” Hank said, sitting up straight as the cameras switched to them now that there was a lull in the action, “you can catch the replays and highlights on the website listed at the bottom of your screens. A quick recap of where each school stands.

“With the indigo group’s summary defeat, five students have been removed from the event. Isomer Holy Academy is down to a single student, currently in group violet. As is Mount Hope, their single student also in group violet. The Nod Complex is down to two students. Brakket and Faultline Academies are the only ones still at full steam.

“Now, two groups have reached the center of the event. Violet is closing in quick, delayed a short while by their encounter with…”

He stumbled, trailing off with a glance towards Zoe.

“Let’s just call her Lucy.”

“With Lucy. Don’t touch that channel. We’ll be back with more excitement from the magical world after a brief message from our sponsors.”

— — —

“Ugh. Blech.”

“Yes, we get it,” Emily said, looking over at the nun with a shake of her head. “You had tentacles in your mouth. You’ve been whining about it for the last five minutes. It’s gross. Can you just stop making those noises?”

“You don’t even know,” Anise snapped. “You only had a few tentacles around your waist. I was completely wrapped up.” She tugged at her shirt, still slimy from being wrapped up in Lucy’s tentacles. “That thing was probably venomous.”

“Poisonous,” Eva said, glancing back over her shoulder with a wide grin. “Venomous is when they bite you. Poisonous is when you bite them. And you were definitely doing the biting.”

Anise groaned.

“But don’t worry. Though she can be toxic, it is an optional sort of thing. With her orders not to actually hurt people, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Why me? Neither of you got wrapped up so much.”

“I got my wand knocked out of my hand and all she’s got are fire spells,” Emily said with a finger pointing towards Eva. “Obviously you are the most dangerous of the three of us.”

Eva twisted her face into a scowl. Anise did just the opposite, brightening up for the first time since having her mouth stuffed full of tentacles.

She was just about ready to turn around and remind the two of them that, even with Lucy barely fighting back, they would both have been carried out of the arena if it wasn’t for her. However, she felt her breath catch in her throat as she walked up a short ridge.

There was no forest ahead of her. No trees and hardly any brush. There was grass, but it had been clipped short. The clearing was far larger than the area Eva had coopted for her ritual. At least twice as large. Possibly more.

Of course, a clearing wasn’t all that shocking. The Infinite Courtyard had a number of clearings dotted around. None as maintained as this, but they probably weren’t used for events very often.

No, it was what occupied the majority of the clearing that had Eva’s jaw dropping.

“You all see the giant pyramid in the middle of the forest, right? It isn’t some illusion.”

“It’s the Pyramid of the Sun,” Emily said, voice soft. “The plateaus on the sides… the stairs running up the middle. Ancient mages would conduct rituals at the very top. But why is it here?”

“I doubt it is the original,” Anise said with a scoff.

Could have fooled me, Eva thought. The brickwork looked haggard and rough, weathered by time and… well, weather. Green vines grew up alongside the stairway, though the stairs themselves were clear of any plant life.

Anise had to be right. Eva didn’t know what the Pyramid of the Sun was, but if it was a real building actually used by ancient mages, it was probably some protected structure like the pyramids in Egypt. For cultural heritage if nothing else. Redford had probably built this version specifically for the event.

Narrowing her eyes at movement on the staircase, Eva’s lips curled into a frown.

“We’re not the first ones here.”

Two figures were sprinting up the staircase as fast as their legs could carry them. Though the moon lit up the area, it wasn’t enough to tell who they were. Their hats were a decent giveaway for which school, however.

“Faultline,” Emily hissed—almost snarled.

Eva had to take her eyes off the temple to glance at her face.

Her teeth ground together, bared in full. Her eyes burned… she wasn’t a demon or a nun, but they were almost glowing as they caught the moonlight.

Glancing over at Anise, Eva nodded her head towards Emily with raised eyebrows. All she got was a shrug from the other girl.

“There are others scaling the pyramid,” Anise said as her eyes went back to the temple.

Eva spun around.

The trainee-nun was right. Another two were running up the stairs. Their silhouettes lacked the pointed caps that the Faultline crew had. She honestly couldn’t identify them. One might be a girl. It could be Rachael. It could be the other pair that had Mount Hope students. Or it could be the other group of three with one member missing for some reason.

It could even be two separate groups that got rid of their partners and had met up.

“Let’s go help them,” Emily said, already starting towards the temple.

“You don’t even know who they are.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, breaking into a run. “They’re not Faultline.”

Again, Eva glanced at Anise. Again she got a shrug in return.

“I guess we better go after her.”

“We are enemies, you know.”

Eva smiled. Not a wide grin, just a polite one. “After all we’ve been through together? How can you say something so cruel. I even rescued you from that evil tentacle monster.”

“That tentacle monster was only there because of you,” Anise said with a scowl. “She said your name, she walked up to you, you two talked. If you had been in a different group, I would never have…” she trailed off, bringing a hand up to her mouth before shaking her head.

“Not necessarily. That could have been her assigned area. Then you would have been antagonizing her without me there to keep her from doing anything worse.”

“That’s… not just…” She shook her head. “Emily is already at the base of the pyramid.”

Eva spun around and moved a single step forwards before hesitating. “I’m trusting you to watch our backs,” she said. “Especially for any vampires. Keep your guard up.”

With that, she blinked forwards three times, crossing the distance to Emily in almost an instant.

And just about got a fireball to her face for her troubles.

Emily spun around the moment Eva appeared, lashing out with flames from the tip of her wand.

Eva slid to the side. She didn’t retaliate. The blast of fire—a good twice as hot as the flames Eva had used on Lucy, at least—blew past the side of her head. Stepping backwards, Eva held up her hands.

Emily followed through on a second attack in a single motion of her wand before finally realizing who she was attacking.

She paused with her wand raised in the air, tip glowing.

“Truce still?”

“I wasn’t the one who almost broke it.”

Her wand arm dropped to her side as she grasped her chest. The tip of her wand was still bright red.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Just startled.” She paused, glancing over Eva’s shoulder. “Anise back there?”

“She’s a bit slower than I am. I told her to watch our backs.” Eva pointed her out to Emily just to prove that she hadn’t broken the truce already.

And really, she wasn’t that slow. Unable to blink, yes. But her sprint carried her at a brisk pace. She was actually almost to them.

But Eva turned and took the steep steps three at a time, leaping up more than stepping as she left Emily behind.

She had a feeling that there would be a fight at the top. Two Faultline boys and two other people, probably not even from the same school. If she had been wrong and one of them was the vampire, she needed to be there and ensure he lost.

Anise and Emily would both have to catch up. Neither had Arachne’s legs.

She passed the first plateau. It really wasn’t that large. More of a landing than a plateau. From the staircase leading down to the staircase continuing up, there was only a few feet of level space. So she continued on without breaking stride.

Neither of her companions were doing quite as well. By the time Eva made it to the second plateau, they had only gone halfway up the first. Their speed dropped drastically. Climbing stairs was never easy and these ones were steep to the point of insanity. Just standing on the edge had Eva feeling like she was about to go tumbling off.

Whoever built the place hadn’t even put guard rails in.

Eva hopped up to the third plateau in three jumps. From there, she was close enough to see everyone at the top through her blood sight. The two Faultline boys were in a fight with Rachael and… the dryad. She was pretty sure. If she hadn’t gotten a look at the dryad back when everyone had been assigned their teams, she would probably be a whole lot more confused.

She took the fourth set of stairs, being only half the height of the rest, in a single bound.

And landed right in the path of a lightning bolt.

Eva shuddered as the electricity ran through her body and out her feet. Steam rose from her shoulders in faint wisps. Her knees hit the stone top of the temple before she could stop herself.

A quick blink had her back on her feet in an instant.

That was probably the first time she had been hit with real lightning. She had been on the receiving end of Elysium Order lightning once or twice, but, although it looked like lightning, Eva didn’t think it really counted. Of course, even air mages didn’t put out a real lightning bolt’s worth of power in their strikes.

The bolt she had been hit with was probably somewhere around the output of a taser. A lower powered one at that. Getting hit with the bolt hadn’t given her a very good view of it. However, she was relatively certain that Zoe’s regular lightning bolt was a few magnitudes higher by default. That was just the impression she got from being in the area while Zoe casted.

Of course, the Faultline student who had cast the bolt could probably increase his output as well.

Four pillars stood around the top of the pyramid, one in each corner. Rachael and the Dryad had taken cover behind the ones opposite from the stairway. The two Faultline students were behind the closer pillars. Eva’s blink after being hit had carried her right next to Rachael, partially using the pillar as cover.

Both sides were flinging magic at each other as fast as they could, essentially at random. Mostly air attacks from one of the Faultline students and mostly fire—of the explosive variety—from the other. Both occasionally switched it up, but not enough for Eva to think they were anything but an air mage and a fire mage.

On her side of the fight, Rachael had a fairly constant wave of flames surrounding the air mage’s pillar. The only reason he hadn’t burned up was because the fire mage kept dampening the flames between his attacks.

The dryad was… doing something. Plants had sprouted straight out of the stone around her pillar and vines wrapped around it. A couple of the flower pods spat seeds around, but Eva wasn’t sure how effective she was actually being.

Having her brief moment to look at the fight, Eva realized that she really shouldn’t have landed between the two Faultline students. Her momentary pause had caused her to get hit. Either she should have attacked immediately upon landing or retreated behind the wall of flames. The air mage couldn’t even see her through the wall of flames.

Eva let out a low growl, igniting her hands as she blinked straight back to the other side.

Her foot stuck one of the Faultline boys in the side, knocking him out from behind cover and knocking the wind out of him at the same time. He wasn’t the one who had struck her, but he seemed the more dangerous of the two. Much like Eva, he was a fire mage. And, much like Eva, he had decided that explosives were the way to go.

Chunks of the pillar providing cover for the dryad were lying around the top of the temple. Enough so that Eva was worried it might collapse. The vines were probably the only reason it hadn’t.

They didn’t seem to like the flames much though.

Really, Eva should just let the dryad get taken out. She was part of the Nod Complex and ultimately allied with the vampire. However, she was currently allied with Rachael. Turning her into an enemy would make it three versus two at the moment. While Eva felt like she could take all three of them at once, she couldn’t be certain.

Best to take out Faultline first and then deal with the dryad on her own. Her seeds didn’t look dangerous, so she shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the dryad would be more of a threat if they were fighting in the forest.

By the time the Faultline students would be incapacitated, Anise and Emily should have made it up the stairs as well. They could help out against the dryad.

So long as they were still allies.

A flower sprouted in front of Eva, just in time to intercept a lightning bolt from the Faultline air mage. Lavender petals exploded everywhere, creating almost a smokescreen between the two pillars.

Eva hesitated in delivering another kick to the flame mage’s chest. Accidentally killing him would probably actually be bad. Really bad. Especially with cameras watching.

Instead, she plucked up his wand and flung it as hard as she could. It disappeared from her sight off the edge of the pyramid. He might have a second, but the way his eyes widened and his arm trailed after it, Eva doubted it.

She might actually feel a little bad about it if she found out it was a family heirloom or something, but for the moment, Eva had other thoughts on her mind.

Namely, her temporary allies.

If her two companions made it to the top and saw Rachael, they might actually side with the dryad. A two versus three scenario in their favor. A preemptive attack to prevent Eva and Rachael from ganging up on them.

Eva still believed that she could take the three of them, but the Elysium Order magic would be far more dangerous than anything a thaumaturge could throw out. Hopefully she would tone down her lightning bolts below the level that hit Arachne, but Eva really had no idea how all that worked.

Of course, if another group showed up, everything would become much more complicated.

The cloud of petals slowly drifted down to the ground. The air mage tried flinging a few spells towards Eva. She had no cover over on his side of the temple, but she really didn’t need any.

She dodged the first lightning bolt, having seen where he was aiming while the petals were still up with her blood sight.

A second and third bolt followed much faster than Eva would have expected. The second hit her in the shoulder. She didn’t get a chance to dodge the third. Lightning caused too many jitters and the mage was casting too fast.

It struck her square in her stomach.

Taken down to a knee, Eva just smiled at the air mage.

She had no need to take another bolt.

The fight was over.

While he had been distracted with Eva, the flowers, and his fallen companion, Rachael had gone around the edge of the temple to come up behind him.

The tip of her glowing wand was pressed to his throat.

“Drop your wand,” she said.

He glared. Mostly at Eva. She could see the fight in his eyes and the tense muscles in his arms.

Gritting her teeth while keeping her smile as genuine as possible, Eva got to her feet.

“I hit you three times,” he hissed, throwing his wand to the floor.

Eva looked down, running a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. It was true, she had a hole in the chest, shoulder, and stomach of her shirt. Black scorch marks surrounded each hole. However, the first had barely hurt her, only bringing her to a pause because she hadn’t been expecting it. The second and third… well, Elysium Order lightning was still much worse despite the extra power he had put behind them.

A few more might have been enough to drop her for a time—or a good shot to her head—but he hadn’t managed that thanks to the flower from the dryad and Rachael’s flank.

“Yeah,” Eva said with a shrug, choosing to downplay exactly how harmful his bolts were. She stepped up to him, picking his wand up off the floor. “Kind of tickled,” she said, almost about to chuck the wand off the roof with the other.

After a moment, she thought better of it and simply slid it into her pocket.

Vines sprouted from the ground around his feet. He didn’t resist as they wrapped up around his legs and arms, binding him. Only when he was down on the ground and completely immobile did Rachael take her wand off him.

Eva had been about to ask her if she had seen Randal around when the dryad walked up. It almost startled Eva. She was just so hard to keep track of with blood sight.

The dryad stopped a good two arm spans away, staring with obvious caution, but also with a small smile.

Eva wasn’t sure how to react. Should she throw the dryad off the pyramid now, before Anise and Emily arrived? Wait?

Her plants shouldn’t be dangerous to Eva. At least not the ones she had seen. Even the vines shouldn’t pose any more of a problem than Lucy’s tentacles had. They might trip her up, but blinking would solve that problem easy enough. Or just igniting her legs. The vines wrapped around the pillar hadn’t taken the heat well.

“Thanks,” the dryad said, breaking Eva out of her devious plots on how to deal with the situation. “I thought that pillar was going to collapse on me. And then the fire–” She cut herself off with a shudder. “I don’t take fire well.”

Eva wanted to groan. Everything would be so much easier if the dryad just up and attacked her. Instead she decided to give thanks? And offer up an obvious weakness to go with it?

It was enough to make Eva sigh.

“No problem,” Eva said with another sigh. Rather than do anything else, she turned her head to Rachael. “Randal?”

“Haven’t seen him.”

“He’s got a demon in him. I doubt he would get taken out. Wonder what is taking him so long?”

“We ran into an earth mage. Some crazy strong lady. Pretty sure she let us go in the end, though she looked like she was pretty tired. He might have run into something similar and didn’t get so lucky.”

“My group ran into Lucy,” Eva said. “Speaking of, they’re still climbing the stairs.” Though it was taking them a really long time. Mortals. “I should probably check on them.”

Rachael stepped forward and dropped the volume of her voice. “We’re going to have to take them out at some point.”

“Yours too,” Eva said without glancing over her shoulder.

Rachael shifted her weight, looking off and down to the side. “I think she’s afraid of my fire. She has been very compliant of everything I ask. Makes me feel like the bad guy here.”

I know how you feel, Eva thought with yet another sigh. Raising her voice from her whisper, she turned slightly to address both members of the green group. “Stay up here, I’m going to find my companions. Keep them contained,” she said with a nod towards the Faultline students. “Fight off anyone else. If you can figure out what we’re supposed to do here, great. Though wait for me if you can.”

Without really looking at the plant girl, Eva walked over to the stairs.

And frowned.

The first plateau was fairly far away. It also had flashes of light coming from at least four different sources.

Blinking up the staircase was difficult. Because of the angles, it was almost impossible to see where to blink. There could be uneven terrain or plants growing that would splice her up if she teleported into them.

She was under no such limitations in blinking downwards.

Eva landed between Anise and Emily and promptly ducked to dodge a glowing white battle axe.

“Seems a bit deadly for a friendly competition,” Eva said, grabbing hold of Anise’s hand before she could try to swing again.

Recognition lit up in her already glowing eyes. She shook her head, pulling her hand out of Eva’s loose grip. “Tell that to those monsters.”

Eva moved slightly closer to the waist-high wall of stone at the edge of the plateau that hadn’t been there her first time up. Emily’s handiwork no doubt. A bit of cover for any spells that might come their way. Peeking over the edge, she realized that the stairs weren’t even there. A steep slope had replaced them.

Though he had lost his cap, another of the Faultline boys was flinging shards of ice around. Water appeared out of nowhere, rushing over the earth towards his opponent. All the while, he was doing flips and jumps that a trained gymnast might find troublesome.

Eva couldn’t think of a single other mage she had encountered that moved so much. Genoa came close, but even she was more like a rolling boulder than a circus performer. The demon hunter that Eva had killed moved fast, but lacked showy flips.

Actually, Eva thought, the other hunter might be similar. Eva had only fought with her once before Arachne paralyzed her. And even then, not for very long. But she had been fairly animated.

So he wasn’t the only mage. But a kid?

Then again, it wasn’t hard to see why he was moving so much.

Randal was at the base of the pyramid with him. Large black orbs flew from his fingertips, wilting the grass beneath them as they moved. If they came near any ice or water, it vanished in an instant. Everything thrown at him simply got eaten by the orbs.

Eva wasn’t sure what would happen if one of the orbs actually hit someone, but it probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight for the three camera drones circling over the fight.

“They ran up, flinging spells at each other. I managed to slow them down with a few lightning bolts.”

“And I turned the stairs to a slide.”

“After that, they just decided to fight each other down there.”

“What is that magic he’s using?”

Eva glanced to Anise, half expecting her to respond with some insight gleaned from her hive mind.

Instead, she shrugged and gave Eva an apologetic look.

“Your third eye doesn’t tell you?”

Emily blinked, turning her head. Eva ignored the other girl for the moment.

“I don’t think I can find out without getting closer. I don’t really want to get closer.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said. “It’s demon magic. I can tell you that much. No clue what it’s doing.”

“It’s like a black hole,” Emily whispered with a shudder.

“Demon magic,” Anise said with narrowed eyes. “Friend of yours?”

“He goes to my school. Be back in a moment.”

Eva blinked down again, making sure to land where the black orbs were not. She conjured fire marbles and flung them out almost immediately. They were even lower power than the ones she had first used on Lucy, but they were also surprise attacks on an unsuspecting target’s back.

At least, she thought she had been launching a surprise attack. The student flattened himself against the grass, rolling over to one side.

The marbles flew over him. Several were eaten by one of Randal’s orbs while the rest exploded harmlessly off to the sides.

Eva blinked, putting herself facing the pyramid with the student between it and her. Just a movement to keep him on his toes.

She was about to launch another volley of orbs when a crack split the air. White lightning struck him square in the back.

Eva winced.

He collapsed to his knees, moaning in pain.

As much as she could empathize with him, she didn’t hesitate. Personal experience taught her that as painful and debilitating as it was—and deadly if they meant it enough—he could very easily get up and continue fighting if he collected his wits enough. Devon had gotten back to his feet after being hit and Devon was a wuss.

She blinked up to him and pocketed his wand.

After ensuring that Eva had the Faultline student’s wand, Randal pointed a finger towards the pyramid.

Eva blinked to him, gripped his arm, and yanked it skyward.

A black orb flew from his fingertip, hit one of the circling drones, and… passed through without hurting it.

Eva shook her head.

“They’re friends,” she said in a rush. She needed to stop him before he killed someone.

He just stared at her.

Conceding the point, she added, “For the moment. I know we should have talked about this beforehand, but what are you throwing around? You can’t kill people.”

“It destroys magic. Most magic anyway. Wouldn’t hurt a person.”

Eva opened her mouth, paused, snapped it shut, and opened it again. “How were you planning on winning against that guy if you couldn’t hurt him?” Or anyone else for that matter. “You’re lucky he didn’t realize that.”

“It isn’t the only thing I can do. Plus regular thaumaturgy. Besides, I figured you would save the day.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Rachael is already at the top. We should hurry and win this thing.”

“Lead the way.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.009

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The red light flickered out.

Garbed in white, the boy from Isomer unleashed his spell. Five minutes of doing nothing but pouring magic into his wand manifested itself as a field of ice. It spread around him, flash freezing everything in a small bubble of space. Plants and insects alike died in droves. Even tiny drops of water in the air crystallized and fell to the ground in an explosion of snow.

Standing next to his fellow red marble holder, the other boy should have been caught within the ice as well.

“Frostbite is no laughing matter in the short-term. Not particularly painful as it tends to numb the senses, but it would make moving difficult. With proper application of ointments and potions, all but the worst effects can be reversed before permanent damage is done.”

“He–He doesn’t seem affected by it at all!”

The vampire shook his head with a chuckle. A few flakes of snow fell from his hair as he moved.

“You know,” he said, locking cold eyes with his companion, “I was perfectly willing to honor our truce. But after that, I think a light snack is in order.” A feral grin spread across his face.

The Isomer student realized his mistake as soon as he saw the two sharp fangs dangling from the smiling mouth. He tried to conjure up a wall of ice between the two of them, but the vampire was behind him before the wall could grow more than a few inches.

Taking hold of his victim’s shoulder and head, the vampire made room for his head and dipped his fangs into flesh.

He didn’t drink for long. To the Isomer student’s credit, he managed to coalesce a few icicles and toss them towards the vampire, over his shoulder.

The vampire was fast enough to dodge. He did end up releasing the other student.

Clutching his neck, the Isomer student spun around. He conjured a large wave of water rather than ice, attempting to push back and wash away the vampire.

The vampire didn’t even get his feet wet. He jumped out to the side, planting both feet on a tree. The entire trunk cracked and snapped as the vampire kicked off. Splinters of wood fell to join the snow on the ground. As he flew overhead, the vampire grabbed hold of the stunned student’s collar. He gripped tight as his feet hit the ground and used his continuing momentum to fling the boy out of the ward.

Hank winced, making an audible note of empathetic pain as the kid slammed into a tree. It didn’t shatter like the other one, but this tree hadn’t been flash frozen either.

From somewhere inside his pocket, a faint red glow lit up the Isomer student’s white uniform. The same pocket that had held his marble, if Zoe remembered correctly.

The student wasn’t done, however. He staggered to his feet. After shaking his head, he charged forwards, ice flowing around him as he prepared another attack.

Crossing his arms, the vampire just smiled. A few drops of blood still stained his teeth red.

Ice and a body hit the invisible sphere of a ward a few paces away. Blood drained from the Isomer student’s face as he tried slamming a shoulder into it. Anger bled away to worry as his fists pounded into the ward. Icicles hit, glancing off without leaving a single mark in the air.

“Thanks for the meal,” the vampire said with a wave of his hand. He turned and ran into the forest.

And left the Isomer student disqualified.

“Wow,” Hank said softly. “Two students have already been taken out of the game.”

“In less than two minutes,” Zoe added with a smile.

“Isomer Academy and Mount Hope are both down one student each. But will we see a third?”

The screens changed from the medics rushing up to the Isomer student to Eva and the rest of the violet group.

“A tense standoff by the looks of things,” Hank continued.

Zoe wasn’t so sure. If Eva hadn’t attacked them by now, they would probably reaffirm their truce.

“Both groups of three have no pairs from the same school. Which means that as soon as one person attacks another, they leave their backs open to possibly getting attacked in return. I doubt…” Zoe trailed off as Eva held out her hands to the other girls. She started speaking as well.

It was a mere moment before both girls were shaking her hands.

“Ah, see. They’ll have to betray each other later.”

“Well, no third then,” Hank said, sounding almost disappointed. He perked up almost instantly as a voice came over the earpieces saying that they were going to display that previous battle again. “But, with how far apart the students are, that gives us time to go over those two fights. Let’s start with the most recent.”

The screen flicked backwards to a still image of the ice spell.

Except it wasn’t a still image. Zoe leaned closer, watching the snow form in the air in slow motion.

And extremely high resolution.

“It is a very beautiful spell,” Zoe said, deciding to voice her thoughts aloud. “Not something a student would likely be able to cast in an instant. He had probably been preparing it for some time.”

“I’m slack-jawed watching this footage again,” Hank said, only exaggerating slightly, “but it didn’t seem very effective.”

“Against a human, I imagine it would have instantly incapacitated them. Even if he hadn’t known that he was walking with a vampire, he should have realized that things aren’t always what they seem with the Nod Complex. And,” Zoe started, doing her best to hold in an exasperated sigh, “he really shouldn’t have stood around doing nothing after his first attack failed. The vampire taunted him for a good ten seconds during which he could have done plenty more.”

The footage on the screen sped up until the vampire’s fangs were half into the human’s shoulder.

“He was a vampire then?” Hank asked with a slight somber tone to his voice.

“It seems I was wrong earlier,” Zoe said slowly.

Given that, largely thanks to Wayne, most of the mundane world believed that vampires had been responsible for the incident in Lansing, they were likely to be a somewhat touchy subject. Though it had been more than a decade ago, an entire city had been wiped off the maps. Family and friends of those who had perished were probably watching the broadcast right now.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she should say something. Or what she should say, even. Some platitude about how all the vampires involved were dead? That wasn’t even true. She knew of at least two survivors, though one was a victim and the other hadn’t had anything to do with the incident itself.

Not to mention that such a statement wouldn’t make anyone feel better. Knowing what had happened from first-hand experience didn’t make her feel any better about it. Had it not been for Wayne, she would have died along with her parents.

Zoe pressed her lips together into a tight line. Saying something would be crass. Politicians and spokesmen for magical societies could say more careful words at a later date.

Thankfully, or perhaps noticing that Zoe had gone silent, the image switched to the first fight.

“Ah, this was a particularly interesting fight in terms of air magi,” she started with a smile. Air magic was a safe topic and, best of all, she could talk about it for a few minutes at the very least.

“I’ll say,” Hank started. “The way the student from Faultline moved…”

Perhaps she could become an announcer at events like these when she retired. It was a lot like teaching. Going over uses of magic and the like. That and the slow motion lightning bolt was a beautiful sight to see. She could definitely get used to seeing magic performed in front of high quality cameras.

Of course, that assumed the world would still be around in the far future.

Zoe pushed that sour note from her mind.

“Using air magic, one can essentially wrap air around one’s body…”

— — —

Eva slowed her run, sniffing at the air. She held up a hand and waved it in a silent gesture for her companions to slow down. They did so, though Eva couldn’t tell if it was because of her hand motions or simply because she had stopped.

Frankly, she didn’t care so long as they weren’t charging ahead and weren’t attacking her.

A few more whiffs of air had Eva thoroughly confused. There was something familiar in the air. Something she couldn’t quite place. A slimy feeling. Or maybe more spindly.

“What’s wrong?”

Eva glanced back at Anise. “Do you smell anything?” she asked in a nearly silent whisper.

The nun-trainee wrinkled her nose with a frown, staring at Eva as if she were setting up some trap. She did eventually try smelling at the air.

“Nope,” she said with a shake of her head. “I smell pine and wood. Maybe a little rotting plant-life? Nothing too unusual for where we are.”

Eva frowned and looked towards Emily.

The other girl shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe it is some demon thing?”

“I don’t think so. My sense of smell isn’t much better than most humans.”

Eva paused, thinking to herself. She actually hadn’t ever tested such a thing. Really, Devon should have thought of it. Her statement still held true. She hadn’t noticed any significant changes in her sense of smell.

While it was possible that it had been a gradual thing that she wouldn’t have noticed over the years, the large leaps with her recent treatments had brought drastic changes. If her sense of smell had been enhanced or just altered, she likely would have noticed along with everything else.

“Just keep up your guard,” Eva said, moving forwards again at a far more cautious pace.

The two followed after her, Emily turning her head this way and that while Anise’s glowing eyes had started up again. Emily’s wand darted around everywhere she looked. So far, she hadn’t used a single spell. If they did end up fighting, Eva really hoped that she would use a spell before then just so she knew what kind of mage she would be fighting.

Anise didn’t have a wand out. With the eye in her chest, she really didn’t need one. Assuming she was like other nuns and relied on the Elysium Order’s magic, Eva had a good idea of what to expect. Though she was very well aware that they could use thaumaturgy if they felt like it.

Though the sensation was growing stronger, Eva glanced back over her shoulder as a thought occurred to her. “I don’t suppose either of you know of any creatures with platinum scales?”

Emily shook her head in a negative.

However, Anise froze for a split second. Her eyes lit up a few shades brighter, filling the surrounding forest with light before returning to their normal luminosity.

“I don’t know of any creatures with literal platinum for scales. None that are still around,” she added, effectively confirming Arachne’s experience with the gorgon. “There are a number of reptile breeds that have scales that might appear metallic. In fact, almost every magical reptile can be specifically bred for specific scales.”

Eva groaned. “That doesn’t narrow it down very much.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just something that is in here with us might have scales looking like platinum. A few friends of mine suggested gorgon–”

“But they’re extinct.”

“I know.”

If she actually had the scale, showing it to Anise might be enough for her hive mind to identify. Unfortunately, Randal had kept a hold of it. Assuming he had even brought it with him. If he had, she would need to run across him out in the forest.

Something that would be much easier if she could just sense the demon inside him.

Eva froze. She stopped suddenly enough that Emily bumped into her back. Not hard enough to knock either of them off balance. Enough for Emily’s heart rate to briefly spike as she jumped away from Eva with her wand raised.

“I’m so stupid,” Eva said, ignoring the wand at her back.

Both girls blinked, glancing at each other before focusing on Eva.

“It wasn’t a smell. Why would I think that? How does something even smell slimy?”

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a demon out here with us.”

Anise immediately turned to scan the surrounding area. Her fingers started to crackle with white lightning.

Emily didn’t take her wand off Eva. “Friend of yours?” she asked with narrowed eyes.

“Normally. Used to be?” Eva wasn’t quite sure. “At the moment, I doubt it.”

“We should move,” Anise said. Her voice was tinged with actual fear. It even trembled slightly. Emily’s heart rate had risen, but Anise was in a whole other league. “We don’t– I can’t– A real demon?”

Eva frowned. Do I not count? Sure her treatment wasn’t complete, but it was close enough.

Then again, Anise’s hive mind likely labeled her as an abomination rather than a demon.

“Yes a real demon,” Eva snapped. What was she so worried about anyway?

The answer came almost as soon as she wondered.

The Elysium Order had found themselves embarrassed by demons several times over the past two years. Not a single engagement had gone well for them. At least none Eva had been involved in. Lynn Cross and the Charon Chapter had been driven out of town with a few losses. Ylva had demolished their inquisitorial squad after they had abjectly failed in their mission to recover Nel. Eva had stolen an artifact right from under their nose and dumped it on their front porch after she had finished with it. Which was probably a fairly large embarrassment on its own.

The only damage they had really done to demons in return had been killing Arachne.

Perhaps Anise, being a mere student and trainee, didn’t have the power necessary to pull off a similar stunt.

“It won’t matter anyway. She already knows where we are. Following us won’t be difficult.”

Especially given other demons’ ability to sense Eva. Not that she was going to admit that to her companions.

“We can’t fight a demon. Are you insane?”

Eva glanced at Emily, pointing a finger at herself with an incredulous look on her face.

The Mount Hope student just shrugged and turned a pitying look on Anise.

While they sat around talking, the demon closed in on them. The slimy sensation grew stronger and stronger.

Right up until Eva’s sense of blood registered something other than the few animals and insects that were still around.

Thin tendrils, each no thicker than a pencil, swarmed across the forest floor. They managed to maneuver through the trees and brush without winding up tangled around anything despite being spread out enough to half-surround Eva and her group. The care they took in crawling through the brush kept even a single leaf from rustling.

If it weren’t for her ability to sense both demons and blood, it was entirely possible she wouldn’t have noticed until it was too late.

Though, as she had just said, she doubted there would be an escape.

Eva crossed her arms and sighed.

Tendrils snapped out of the brush, all of them leaping as one.

Emily managed to get off the ground, leaping from a pillar of earth that hadn’t been there a moment ago. She wasn’t quite fast enough. The tentacles caught her in the middle of her jump, wrapping around her waist and pinning her arms to her side.

Anise didn’t fare half as well. Lightning crackled at her fingertips, but she didn’t get a chance to actually fire it before becoming wrapped up like a mummy.

Eva didn’t bother to move. She could have blinked away. She could have fought back with explosive fire. But escaping would have wound up with her leaving Anise behind. Something she really didn’t want to do at the moment. Not until the vampire had been incapacitated.

Neither did she want to fight.

So instead, she simply stood still with her arms crossed. Even as a bundle of tendrils wrapped around and snaked up her leg, Eva didn’t move. The tendrils lifted her up, swinging her upside down. Eva kept her arms crossed.

And just glared at the main mass that was slowly approaching.

— — —

“T-tentacles?” Hank said with a nervous chuckle.

Zoe pressed her face to her palm, not willing to meet his eyes. “She’s actually pretty nice once you get to know her,” she said slowly.

“That’s… a she?”

“She’s employed by Brakket Academy as a security guard. Or was in the past. I believe her contract expired. I’m guessing that Wallace picked up her contract for this event.”

“Ah hah ha.” Again with the nervous laugh. “Well, precarious situation for our young ladies.”

— — —

“Eva!”

The cheer filled voice came from the main mass of tentacles, filled with far more gurgles than Eva remembered. Of course, she couldn’t see a humanoid body formed in the mass, so she was probably just forming up a mouth in the middle of it all.

“Lucy. I think you have some explaining to do.”

Before the tentacle demon could even start to respond, Eva’s head snapped to the side as she heard rapid chanting from the nun.

“Stop!” she cried out.

But Lucy was already one step ahead. A number of tentacles pressed into Anise’s open mouth and wrapped around her tongue.

The way Anise’s eyes bulged and she started choking almost had Eva feeling sorry for her. Almost.

She tried to keep her voice as firm as possible. “Don’t banish my friend. Please,” Eva added after a slight pause. “She’s not going to hurt us. Right Lucy?”

The main mass of tentacles quickly formed up into the familiar shape of a more humanoid Lucy, Brakket security uniform and all. Mostly. From the waist up. Below her waist, the mass of tentacles remained as it was. Eva wasn’t too surprised. A good portion of her body was still spread out across the forest floor.

“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head left and right far further than anyone with a proper skeleton could manage. “Wally said that no matter how much I get attacked, I can’t break anyone.”

Wally? Eva thought with a confused blink of her eyes. They’re on a first name—no, nickname basis?

In a hushed whisper, Lucy added, “He’s scary.”

“How long have you been healed for? I visit you every other week!”

“I… don’t know. A long time. Wally wanted me to pretend,” she said. “After seeing me, he asked if I could stay pretending to heal until he had a job for me.” Her face rippled like a drop of water in a smooth pond, goofy smile turned to a sad frown along with the ripple. “It was so boring. But the nurse was nice. She played with me sometimes.”

“That’s great and all,” Emily shouted from somewhere around, “but since she’s your friend, think you can get her to let us go?”

Eva, still hanging upside down, looked up to her feet. Emily was stuck in the middle of a web of tentacles. Her hands were empty, lacking the wand that had fallen to the forest floor.

“Good point. Lucy?”

The tentacles started to lower Eva down. They didn’t make it more than a few inches before Lucy paused.

“I forgot,” she said. “I’m supposed to take anyone I find out of the wards.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

Though it struck Eva as odd. Whoever Lucy found would almost assuredly be ejected from the match. She wasn’t really the kind of thing that even a group of sixth years could face. Eva had only personally seen Lucy fight on one occasion, back when the half-demon half-zombie golems had attacked the dormitory. Even then, she had only seen her fight for a few moments.

Though she had effectively torn apart her target at the time.

Of course, Irene had told her of two other times Eva had missed Lucy fighting. Once during the same incident, tearing apart and flinging the golems at Ylva. The other time had been more recent. Enigmas within Eva’s domain had escaped through her dormitory room. They made the unfortunate mistake of treading on Lucy.

From Irene’s description of them being peeled apart like an orange, Eva had no doubts about Lucy’s strength.

Even limited to not harming anyone, she would easily be able to capture anyone just as she had captured Eva and her companions. It was as simple as walking out of the arena from there. The only one who might stand a chance at facing her was Anise, and that was simply because of her ability to banish demons. Even her lightning probably wouldn’t do too much damage to such a disembodied creature. Maybe others if they could blink.

Unless Redford wanted her to thin the groups no matter who she came across, he had probably told her to retreat under certain circumstances. Maybe managing to run away.

Maybe…

Eva blinked out of Lucy’s grasp, righting herself using the blink. She appeared right in front of Lucy’s main body.

Her fist went straight into Lucy’s face, sinking in without much resistance. The tendrils making up Lucy’s head started to constrict around her fist as expected.

Eva’s hand burst into flames.

Lucy’s face split in two, avoiding the fire.

It probably wouldn’t hurt her. Lucy was constantly covered in a greasy sheen. A little flame might dry her out, but not cause any permanent damage. She was a demon, after all.

But the way she avoided the flames had Eva smiling. Almost confirming her theory.

Eva blinked a short distance away.

“Alright Lucy. Let’s fight.”

“F-Fight? But–”

“Or you can let my companions loose.”

The two halves of her head twisted to independently look at each of her captives.

Anise glared with her burning eyes only enhancing the menacing look. The effect was somewhat ruined as tentacles still filled her mouth. Not to mention that she looked about ready to throw up.

On the other hand, Emily actually looked interested. Her eyes were following Eva with rapt attention.

“I can’t,” Lucy said.

It was probably part of her contract. Eva would have to free them or they would have to escape on their own.

Perfectly acceptable conditions.

“Alright,” Eva said with a smile. A wide, teeth-filled smile. “Since you can’t hurt me, I’ll go easy on you.”

Eight marbles of explosive fire appeared between each of Eva’s fingers. None were high-explosives. She had only put a small bit of magic into each one, enough to make them unstable. Nothing compared to the room-destroying explosion she had used to free Lucy from the hunters’ trap.

She pulled her hands back, crossing her arms over her chest with each hand open and clawed around her shoulders.

So long as that drone was hovering around overhead, she might as well be theatrical.

She flung her arms out, throwing the marbles as she did so.

Before the first even touched Lucy, Eva blinked away.

Reappearing in front of the main branch of tendrils holding Emily up, Eva lifted her claws high and swiped downwards. The sharp tips of her carapace didn’t quite cut through the entire branch of tentacles. She only made it about halfway through.

It was enough. Emily dropped out of the main mass of tendrils.

Several explosive pops sounded behind Eva as she bent to flick the wand upwards. Emily caught it without issue.

She started casting as Eva dove to the side, avoiding another bunch of tendrils after her.

Looking up at Lucy’s main body again, she was actually smoking. A number of black scorch marks marred her skin—or the masses of tendrils that were pressed together to appear as skin.

Eva felt a little guilty. More about cutting off some of her tentacles than anything else. But her fingers weren’t Elysium Order lightning or cursed with whatever was on the demon hunter’s sword. She should be able to regenerate a few severed tentacles with relative ease.

Raising her arm, Eva skipped the explosions entirely. A stream of sticky fire flew from her fingertips.

The wave caught Lucy square in the chest.

Or it should have.

Lucy split again. The bulk of the fire passed straight through her, landing on the trees and brush beyond her body. A good amount still splashed around the edges of the hole, clinging to her body as Eva had intended.

Still, it was enough of a distraction to let Eva blink over to Anise.

Unlike Emily, Anise was wrapped up with so many tentacles that almost nothing of her could be seen from the neck down. Slicing through the thick bunch of tentacles would be not only impossible, but also cruel. One or a few, Eva could give herself a pass on. Not a full tree trunk’s worth.

“Can’t you blink or teleport?”

Anise, eyes wide and pleading for release, shook her head.

With a groan, Eva blinked out of the way of another group of tentacles.

Despite telling Lucy that she would be going easy on her, Eva really didn’t have all that much else she could do. Her fingers traced along the scales of the snake wrapped around her wrist. But she shook her head. Basila probably wouldn’t be too helpful at the moment. Not against Lucy.

Anything else she could use wasn’t something she wanted to reveal on camera. She did have her dagger with her, but it was hidden inside the lining of her jacket. Arachne had helped to create the hidden pouch. It wasn’t easy to get to, but her fingers should be able to sever the lining if there was a desperate emergency.

And, while she did have one other trump card, she really wasn’t willing to play it without being in absolute mortal peril for fear of being disqualified.

Emily, though freed from her entrapment, wasn’t much help. Her concentration was solely on avoiding being recaptured. She ran circles around the area, using her earth magic to create pillars to jump off or to boost her around. Never once did she try sending even a single blade of earth towards Lucy.

Comparing them side by side as earth mages, Eva would much rather have Juliana at her side. While Emily was proficient in spell casting, she didn’t have much in the way of a tactical mind. She couldn’t win without attacking. If she wasn’t going to attack, she might as well run away and remove the danger of being recaptured.

She wasn’t even that good of a distraction with how Lucy could split her concentration and tentacles between the two of them.

“Alright Lucy,” Eva mumbled to herself as she conjured another eight marbles of unstable flame between her fingers.

Unlike her first volley, these might actually do a bit of damage. Still not to room obliterating levels.

She held onto them as she sprinted around, using her blood sense to keep one step ahead in dodging tentacles. Every second that passed, another bit of magic poured into them.

Once ready, Eva flung them one-by-one at the tree truck of tentacles holding up Anise. Each rumbled the forest with the noise as they tore into the tentacles.

“Stop,” Lucy cried out just after Eva released the fifth bomb. The tentacles holding onto Anise withdrew, dropping the nun a few feet down to the ground.

Eva half expected her to jump to her feet and start flinging around white lighting. Instead, she got to her hands and knees, gagging and retching on the ground.

While Emily stopped by her, patting her back with a pitiful expression, Eva kept her eyes on Lucy.

A very quickly retreating Lucy. The tendrils, those still attached to her, had all pulled back to join with the main body.

Eva tried to tell herself that the sobbing she heard was just her imagination.

I’ll have to apologize after this, she thought with a sigh as she turned to her companions.

She flung three three remaining bombs between her fingers over her shoulder as she walked towards both them and the camera, not looking behind her as they exploded in the background.

“Are you alright?”

Emily gave a shallow nod of her head.

Anise spat against the ground another five times before pulling a wand from the pockets of her jacket. She touched it to the tip of her tongue and closed her mouth. A few seconds later and she was spitting out a mouthful of water.

She repeated the process half a dozen times before Eva had enough.

“We’ve wasted enough time,” she said, hooking her hands underneath the girl’s arm and lifting her to her feet. “Let’s go. And maybe next time we don’t try banishing the tentacle monster that already has you in its grasp and, therefore, has its tentacles near your mouth.”

Anise gave a few rapid nods of her head, still not talking and still filling her mouth with water.

At least she was on her feet and moving.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.007

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Today’s spectacular spectacle will be beginning shortly. The judges are being briefed on exactly how things are going to be going down. So far, neither we nor the contestants are aware of the specifics. However, that does not mean we are not prepared to bring you any action that may take place.”

Stepping away from the camera, the announcer waved his microphone-less hand towards an array of small flying machines. Several of them bobbed in the air at his gesture.

“Twenty drones flown by our team of experts will be out recording everything. Each has multiple cameras, operated independently by professionals. There will be a slight delay before the footage reaches your televisions. That delay is to allow our editors to select the best angles of any particular scene for your viewing enjoyment.”

Standing out of frame just to the side and slightly behind the announcer, Zoe let a small frown cross her face. She had no doubts that the broadcast station would be using the delay to do just as he had said. However, the delay had been imposed by Anderson. Not for any editing purposes, but just in case something went wrong.

They weren’t broadcasting a snuff film, after all.

Both Anderson and Redford had given countless assurances both to the television station and to Zoe that any appearance of danger was just that, an appearance. A device to enhance the event.

Zoe had her doubts.

Eva on her own was potentially a danger to all the other contestants. Even if she wasn’t going to use her blood magic. Her claws made her incredibly dangerous in close quarters, the explosions she seemed to specialize in were a hazard at long range. However, neither was enough to really make her dangerous. Magically—thaumaturgically—Eva wasn’t that special. The older students would definitely have the advantage in that aspect.

The real danger came in Eva’s temperament. Zoe had seen time and time again just how ruthless Eva could be when she wanted to. The fight with the hunter and her descriptions of fighting Sawyer being the two most recent examples that came to mind.

Of course, Zoe didn’t believe that Eva would intentionally harm her opponents. Even if they were fighting. At least, she didn’t want to believe it.

The fact was that Eva had been… cagey in recent weeks. Since school started at the very least. Zoe had barely seen her for the most part. It seemed as if she was always disappearing. Always with Arachne, sometimes one or two of the demons would disappear as well. Juliana was even starting to disappear with her after school most days.

Of course, she had yet to see Arachne today. Considering the spider-demon hadn’t strayed far from Eva since her return, even going so far as to attend most classes with Eva, Zoe had a feeling that something was up. Arachne might already be snooping about within the designated boundaries of the Infinite Courtyard. Or perhaps she was attached to Eva, hidden beneath her clothes.

Whatever the case, Zoe hoped that Arachne wouldn’t be causing any problems with the night’s events.

Zoe hadn’t inquired about the students’ disappearances. The school hadn’t burned down yet, so they probably weren’t up to anything too terrible.

That and the fact that she had been busy with her own problems. While she would like to say that she had fully investigated and found a solution to the problem of Life and Void, she could not. Powers were not well researched. A great number of mages didn’t believe in them in the first place. Just looking into them was essentially inventing a whole new branch of magical science.

Unfortunately, even that research topic had been set on the back burner. A combination of lack of results and other responsibilities had taken over.

Namely, what she was doing at the moment.

“–our website. There, you can select which camera feeds you wish to view, all on your own. Of course, there will still be the delay. Can’t have some people knowing things before others. But unless you’re here in person, you won’t notice the delay in the slightest.”

He stepped backwards, moving a few steps over towards Zoe. As he moved, the guy behind the camera turned it to face the two of them.

“After a brief message from our sponsors, we’ll have an interview with the Magical theory professor here at Brakket Magical Academy. This has been Hank Hanson, don’t change that channel.”

Every time he said the word ‘magical’ was like the first time he had heard the word. It was amazing that he managed to refrain from winking at the camera.

He remained frozen with a smile on his face for a good ten seconds after talking before he finally dropped his arms to his sides. Taking in a deep breath, he let it out as a long sigh.

“Nervous?” Zoe asked with a quirk of her lips.

“You have no idea. Twice as many viewers as the moon landing and the number is still climbing, yet about ten thousand times more things that can go wrong. All the drones are still operational. We haven’t needed to dig into our backup supply. I’m amazed that the website hasn’t crashed yet.”

Zoe kept silent. Her thoughts had just been along the same lines. Though she was far less concerned about their infrastructure.

Of course, she should be. At least partially.

The cut from the advertising that Brakket Academy was getting was not insignificant. Almost to the point where this one event would justify the past and future ten years of free scholarships given to every student. Really, if Brakket Academy could strike such deals in the future, they could continue to give out scholarships for a long time to come.

Except for the impression she got from Anderson about the future of Brakket Academy. With the publicity from the event, their days of free scholarships were likely over. Especially if they won a good amount of the events, or possibly the entire contest. Hunting for new students wouldn’t be necessary if they started getting genuine applications.

“Advertisements will be ending in sixty seconds,” Hank said. “Let’s take our seats.”

Together, they moved to a wooden deck that had recently been constructed just inside the Infinite Courtyard. A large square of wood with no walls and no roof, lit by several standing columns of light. Magical lights, of course.

A good segment of the Infinite Courtyard had been lit up with larger versions of the lights just behind the deck, staving off the darkness of the soon to be setting sun while giving a lovely view of the forest. The television company had been somewhat upset that the first event would be occurring at night. At least until Anderson brought in an enchanter to touch up the camera lenses.

They now functioned about as well in the dark of night as they did during a sunny day.

Opposite the lit forest was a bank of cameras and monitors. At the moment, most of the monitors were blank. Two showed two different angles of Zoe and the set she stood on. The rest would be showing feed from the drones once they were out and in the air.

Currently, one had an advertisement of a soft drink playing. Not being a connoisseur of television, Zoe couldn’t be sure if the tagline ‘It’s just like magic!’ was normal or specifically designed for the event.

Hank took a seat on a large couch. More of a bench, really. While it had a back, it was so low that it might as well not be there at all.

At least the padding was decent.

Zoe took a seat on the angled bench opposite Hank, crossing her legs and resting her hands in her lap.

Between the two couches was a small table. A number of refreshments had been laid out along with two full pitchers of water, though Zoe—and presumably Hank—had been asked to avoid partaking of much of it before the event started as the cameras would be focused entirely on them.

“Ready?”

“I suppose. Just try not to ask too many questions that aren’t on the script,” Zoe said with a slight smile.

“No promises.” His chuckle cut off part way as he pressed his hand to his ear.

“And welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy. To those of you just joining us, I’m here with Zoe Baxter, a professor of magical theory here at the academy. She will be joining me in commentary once the event gets underway, lending her knowledge and expertise in the ways of magic to enhance your enjoyment of the event.”

“Thank you Hank.”

“Now, I’m sure that many people have questions. Especially questions regarding just what it is you do here.”

“Brakket Magical Academy is, as the name suggests, a school for magic. Specifically thaumaturgy.”

“And for our viewers, just what is thaumaturgy?”

“The manipulation of what are commonly referred to as the classical elements. Air, earth, fire, and water. There are a number of other options one might pursue with thaumaturgy. However, the events of tonight will most likely only involve elemental thaumaturgy.”

At least as far as the humans go, Zoe thought. She had no idea who had been selected to participate from the Nod Complex. Eva was participating, but she would be using thaumaturgy. The only other non-human who Zoe knew was participating was Randal the half-elf. Which wouldn’t be anything to worry about except for him being one of those with a bound demon.

Then there were the two girls with Elysium Order magic, assuming Eva hadn’t been exaggerating. Though Zoe didn’t know if they had actually been selected as their school’s representatives for the first event.

“Is that dangerous?” Hank asked.

“Learning and using it? Not particularly. Like most everything in the world, it can be used for harm. Just as a hammer can be used for constructing a building or striking someone, magic can be used for good or ill.”

Reaching out to the short coffee table, Zoe picked up a plate after sliding the crumb cakes off onto one of the other plates. She was messing up the visual aesthetics of the set, but hopefully they wouldn’t mind. Something that she couldn’t help but notice were the monitors displaying back what was being recorded. They were carefully following her movements, obviously expecting some sort of show.

“By focusing air into a tight razor and propelling it forward,” she said as she drew her wand, “a cutting edge can be made.”

With a flick of her wrist, the plate split cleanly in two. One side fell down to her lap while the other remained held in her hand. She offered it to Hank who turned it over in his hands for a moment, staring with wide eyes for almost a full minute. He jerked slightly. Zoe caught a slight noise with her enhanced ears, someone over his ear piece was saying something.

“Ah,” Hank said, looking towards the cameras. “I should mention for the benefit of our viewers: there will be no camera tricks or editing special effects. Everything you see at home will be what we see here in person.”

“I apologize,” Zoe said. “My specialty is air magic, yet it isn’t the flashiest of the elements.”

Though she could fire lightning off, she was a little worried about ruining the recording equipment. Perhaps it was for the best. The event was for the students. Overshadowing them with dazzling displays of theatrical lightning would make her remiss in her duties as a teacher. It was their time to shine, not hers.

For that same reason, she wouldn’t be throwing around any fireballs despite her proficiency in that element.

“The students should be able to give a better show once the event begins,” Zoe said.

“I was under the impression that there would be some sparring among the students. Seeing what I just saw, I find myself somewhat worried for their safety.”

“This event is likely to include practical tests of their magical skills against one another, yes. However, most students should be at a point where they can employ a decent range of defensive spells. For the inevitable injuries, we have a fully staffed team of medical personnel ready and waiting. With potions, even severe injuries can be treated away by morning.”

Zoe paused, about to allow Hank to ask his next question. After a moment of hesitation, she interrupted him.

“Before we proceed, I feel it would be irresponsible towards your viewers to leave that statement without further context. While potions can be used to cure many ailments, they will not be effective on individuals without the ability to perform magic. The magic within mages fuels the effect of the potion. Without it, a potion designed to cure will be likely toxic.”

Zoe turned towards the camera, adopting a morose expression while keeping her voice as serious as possible.

“If you or a loved one is suffering from an illness or injury, please do not seek out magical cures. Whoever is selling you the potion is likely to be a swindler out for your money. Perhaps not even real mages, just those looking to profit on a confusing new idea.”

A brief moment of silence passed before Hank gave a deep nod of his head.

“Thank you, Zoe. You may have saved many families from grief and suffering at the hands of con artists.”

Zoe pursed her lips into a flat smile as she turned to him.

“Today, however, we are here for the more exciting aspects of your magical academy. I’ve just received word that the schools’ candidates will soon be ready to begin. We should have time enough to introduce the schools and their students after these messages from our sponsors.”

As before, he froze with a smile on his face for a few seconds before relaxing.

“Sorry to bring the mood down like that,” Zoe said with a wan smile. “I didn’t want people to feel hope where there was none.”

“Our viewer count is high. Absurdly high. I honestly don’t know if any other magical event along these lines would get as many viewers. The first time carries with it a novelty that will fade as time goes on.

“But a couple million people heard the message. It will spread. And, as I said, I’m sure a number of people will be grateful that they didn’t buy vials of snake oil. Or poison.”

“That’s what I was hoping for.”

“Is there a reason it works like that?”

Zoe paused, considering her words.

She had always been primarily a thaumaturgical theorist, only really branching out to diablery in the recent years. Potions were not technically thaumaturgy. Both worked well together, but there was a more important reason potioneering and alchemy were taught at the same time. Potions covered an aspect of magic that thaumaturgy lacked. Namely healing and other more esoteric effects.

It was never a subject that she had delved much into. She could brew adequate potions if the situation required. However, potions had always been Wayne’s domain.

Still, she had an answer for Hank’s question.

“Magic acts as a catalyst. An infusion of energy into the potion to force the components to react together, creating the intended effect. Theoretically, someone without magic could consume a potion and have it work so long as they could keep their body from breaking down and absorbing the potion. For how long, I can’t say. Potions can be stored in a stable state for long amounts of time in most cases. I imagine potions with a shorter shelf life would work better, but I would still advise against it.”

Her words left a silence in their wake. She half expected Hank to ask more questions. Questions of a personal interest to him. However, he remained silent for a full minute before placing his hand to his ear.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, shifting slightly in his seat.

Zoe remained where she was with her hands resting in her lap, counting down the seconds in her head.

The television switched from an advertisement to a live camera out in the plaza between the dormitories, performing a slow sweep of the buildings and fountain. It faded back into their little platform, prompting Hank to begin speaking.

“And welcome back. I’m here with Zoe Baxter, professor of magical theory here at Brakket Magical Academy. The contest of magical showmanship between academies is about to begin. First, why don’t we go over the event as a whole. Zoe?”

“Five schools are participating in this year’s event. It is a fairly standard tournament to pit the schools against one another and give the winner… well, bragging rights mostly. Winning is generally seen as a sign that your school has a high quality learning environment and professors. The event is essentially a practical test in the students’ usage of magic.

“Today, each of the five schools were asked to select three of their ten participants. These three will be unable to participate in the next event. They do not know what either event consists of, so putting all their best students in the first event could be a needless risk or an excellent tactical decision.

“The winners of today’s event will receive foreknowledge regarding the second event in addition to the victory itself, which will count towards being the overall winner of the tournament.”

The televisions displaying the live footage changed, turning into a view from an overhead drone as it slowly sweeped over a group of students. Their gray-blue uniforms instantly identified them to Zoe, even without needing the text that appeared at the bottom of the screen.

“Faultline School for the Magically Adept participated in last year’s tournament. Well known for being a highly disciplined academy, their students took the tournament by storm and won decisively.”

The camera panned over each of the three students walking out of the dueling hall. Each wore a large, high-peaked cap on their head. That combined with their sleek uniforms made them look like they were straight from a mundane military academy.

A name appeared along with each person, but Zoe decided not to comment on the individual level unless Hank made a motion to do so. She honestly didn’t know enough about the foreign students to speak on them for any length of time. Not to mention the fact that without names on the screen, it was doubtful that anyone besides their mothers would recognize them. Identical uniforms. Identical hats. Even identical hairstyles.

She could, however, speak generally.

“All ten of their students are in their sixth year of schooling, making them the oldest students able to participate.”

“The older they are, the more unique magic they can learn, right?”

“Indeed. Though only fielding three students at the moment, I expect to see all four elements of magic used between them. They may offer us some excellent uses of less common magic as well. Order shields and perhaps even short-range blinking.”

As she finished speaking, the drone flew off towards another group of students walking out of the dueling hall.

“Isomer Holy Academy,” Zoe said, identifying the pure white uniforms before the name could appear on the screen. “A school primarily operated by members of the Elysium Order, a group dedicated to hunting down undead such as zombies and animated skeletons.”

Hank made a slight choking noise but didn’t actually manage to get any real words out.

So Zoe just went on talking.

“I don’t imagine that they will be facing many challenges along those lines as raising the undead is typically grounds for having a bounty placed on your head. Not to mention that it is a fairly tasteless act.”

“I can imagine,” Hank said, looking a little green around the gills.

Speaking of undead, Zoe thought, pressing her lips together into a thin line as she saw who was leading out the next group of students.

“The Nod Complex for the Supernatural is one of the few magical academies to enroll non-human students, along with Brakket Academy. I should mention for your viewers’ sakes that the other academies are generally not racist against non-humans. Most non-humans have their own unique brand of magic they practice, leading to a lack of applicants. The Nod Complex has spent a great deal of money designing their facility with unique infrastructure required to support beings of other races.”

Hank stared at the screen for a moment before reading something off a smaller display hidden among the refreshments on the table.

“Caithe,” he said slowly. “The one in the middle. I don’t mean to be rude, but is she made of plants or merely wearing them as decoration?”

Zoe leaned forwards slightly, watching the larger camera. As it switched off the vampire and on to the pale-green skinned woman, she nodded her head. “A dryad,” she said. “The white leaves making up her hair are indeed part of her, though I’m not sure about the cattails. They may be purely for decoration.

“The one behind her,” Zoe continued, “is an elf. The pointed ears, narrow eyebrows, and thin chin are telltale signs.”

“And the one in front?”

“Possibly a human,” Zoe lied.

Serena had told her about how romanticized vampires were in modern mundane media. She did not want to set off a million teenagers on a quest through dark alleys in some attempt to become a vampire.

“Not all non-humans have obviously distinguishing characters,” she said after a moment of silence. “The Nod Complex does enroll humans as well as non-humans, so it shouldn’t be surprising.”

“Well,” he said as the camera shifted on to the next group of students, “I think the dryad is surprising enough at the moment.” He said the word unnaturally, though not necessarily in a disrespectful manner. Merely an unfamiliar one.

He definitely had questions. Zoe could see it in his eyes.

But she was already moving on to introduce the next school.

“Mount Hope Academy,” she said as three younger-looking students walked out of the dueling hall. “I believe all three of those students are fourth years. To be selected, they must be quite capable. I look forward to seeing them in action.”

She really didn’t have much more to say about the school or its students. None of the three were familiar to her, even when their names popped up on the screen. The school itself was… average. Though she thought for a few moments, she couldn’t think up a single interesting fact about them.

If she were honest with herself, she wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing them fight. It was highly doubtful that they would perform well. Mount Hope had two fifth years on the team with the rest being sixth years. Perhaps they had decided to send in their worst three students, hoping to gain an advantage in the second event with their best.

None of them looked all that confident either.

At the same time, she almost wished that the camera had lingered on them just a few moments longer before flying over to Brakket’s students.

“Brakket Magical Academy,” she said, trying to ignore Hank’s wide open jaw upon seeing Eva.

Despite repeatedly telling Zoe that she hadn’t wanted to participate, Eva was actually smiling at the camera.

A wide, tooth-filled smile.

Zoe had to resist pressing her hand to her forehead. Eva’s face would be the first student from Brakket that everyone in the world saw. And she was deliberately making herself look unnerving.

An idle part of her mind wondered how Anderson was reacting. Being press-ganged into the tournament was probably why Eva was acting how she was in the first place.

“You said that Brakket Academy accepted non-humans,” Hank said before Zoe could continue introducing the school. “I take it that the girl in the front is not.” His words came slow as if he were trying to pick them with extreme care.

Zoe decided to save him from trying to figure out a proper question.

“Believe it or not, Eva was born a human. Beyond that, it really isn’t my story to tell. Something fairly personal happened to her. If she wishes to divulge it, that will be her choice.”

“I see,” he said, unable to keep the dissatisfaction out of his voice.

“Brakket Academy is fielding the youngest students in this tournament. Two third years, though only one of them is participating in this event.”

Behind Eva, Randal Hemwick and Rachael Davis followed.

Together, with the candidates from the other schools, they lined up before a large wooden stage. The judges were seated atop on one side while the headmasters of each school were seated on the other. Wallace Redford, who had been sitting in the very center, stood and moved to the front podium.

All the cameras focused on him.

He ignored the hovering drones in favor of looking over the students.

“The event will soon begin. Lots will be drawn to determine your starting location,” he said, holding up a large colored marble. “There are seven starting locations with a maximum of three students per location. Each student will pick one marble. You may find yourself among friends from your own school, but you’ll likely find yourself with an opponent.”

He paused for a moment. The cameras switched to a wide shot of all the students.

Zoe watched their expressions. Specifically, Eva’s still-wide smile. She didn’t flinch in the slightest. Of course, if she had Arachne on her, she would have very little need to fear starting with even two opponents.

Her eyes flicked to Eva’s wrist, catching sight of a small snake wrapped around just behind her hand. Something she might have mistaken for a bracelet had she not known that Eva never wore jewelry. The two flasks at her hip were notable as well. If Eva really wasn’t using blood magic, the flasks likely lacked blood.

Zoe could imagine what potions were inside.

“And make no mistake, they will be your opponents. Only one school can be the victor in this event. Will you try to take them out at the start and brave the dangers of the forest on your own? Will you backstab them at a critical time? Or will you fight together, raising your chances of reaching your objective, and have an honorable fight to determine the true victor?”

He said the word with a slight sneer.

Zoe just rolled her eyes. To say that Wallace Redford had an issue regarding honorable fighting would be putting it lightly. Though she wanted to scoff, Zoe couldn’t quite bring herself to demean him that much. Wallace was the leader of the Guild. Before becoming the leader, he had been quite the adept mage-knight. It was entirely possible that something in his past had given him such a cynical view.

Still worth an eye roll, however.

“The starting locations are positioned around a ring. Once you enter, leaving will disqualify you. A ward has been set up along the perimeter that will cause a slight push against you if you try to leave. So do not fear becoming turned around in the forest and accidentally disqualifying yourself.

“Your goal is to reach the center of the arena. Once there, what you should do will become obvious.”

Wallace paused one more time, looking over the group of students.

Satisfied with whatever he was looking at, he drew his wand. Flicking out seven different colored orbs of light from his wand, he finished with a wide wave of his hand.

A large and fairly plain sack materialized before the podium.

The way it appeared with a brief tinge of white light had Zoe narrowing her eyes. Things she pulled from Between had a remarkably similar effect. She hadn’t been aware that he could use the Elysium Order’s magic. The people outside the Order who could were those who had stolen the knowledge. Wayne and herself, for example. While they could teach people, she hadn’t and highly doubted that Wayne had.

“Come,” Wallace said, unaware of Zoe’s thoughts. “Select your marble and stand by the associated light. Once ready, they will lead you to your starting position. As soon as everyone is in place, the lights will flash white three times before moving within the arena boundaries. When they disappear, the event will begin.

“Straying too far from the light or attacking anyone else before the light disappears will result in immediate disqualification.”

As he gave the final instructions, the students all broke their lines and moved up to the sack. One by one, they reached into the bag and pulled out colored marbles.

The television snapped back to herself and Hank, seated on their benches. Zoe, who had been leaning forward to get a better view of the students’ selection, casually stiffened her back to regain her proper posture.

“Exciting times,” Hank said with a broad smile towards the camera.

She could swear that his teeth actually sparkled.

“We’ll be back to go over the chosen teams after a word from our sponsors. Don’t change that channel. The event will be starting next.”

He finished with a finger pointing towards the camera, freezing for a moment until the commercials began.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.007

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Welcome. To some of you, this will be a welcome back. To others, an initial greeting.

“This year, we will be making history with our students and among other schools around the country. We will be blah blah blah.”

Eva filled in her own words in place of the new dean’s speech. She already knew what was happening. For the most part, at least. Really, she didn’t know why she had bothered attending. Beginning of the year speeches were never interesting, this one least of all because of her foreknowledge.

And yet, Juliana and Shalise had dragged her into the auditorium for the assembly.

There was one thing that might get her to listen. If he started explaining how he was planning on summoning demons while Devon couldn’t, she would start paying attention. That seemed far too specific for a speech like this.

No new demons had popped up around the academy since Martina Turner’s demise. If he had success in summoning any, he had sent them back while Eva was off at the prison or otherwise gone. More likely than him having any success was that he was either hoping to get lucky or hadn’t even tried yet. Eva was leaning more towards the second option of him simply not having tried in a while.

While there weren’t any new demons, there also weren’t as many professors sitting up alongside the dean. Zoe and Wayne were there of course. Bradley Twillie, the magizoologist was there as well. But Yuria and Alari Carr were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had resigned. Whether because of fear or because they didn’t want to support Anderson’s plan, Eva couldn’t say without asking.

At least, Eva assumed that Anderson had told the staff what was going on. It was possible that he hadn’t, but hopefully he had planned for more resignations when he revealed it all.

To her sides, Juliana and Shalise were paying a great deal more attention than she was despite Eva having explained this year’s ‘contest’ and new demons to them. Dean Anderson hadn’t actually mentioned demons yet. He had barely touched on the contest, choosing to start with a far more generic greeting.

More of Eva’s friends sat slightly farther away. Irene was next to her sister, chewing on her thumb as she glanced between the dean, Jordan, and Shelby. For her part, Shelby appeared at ease. Far less worried than Irene at the very least.

Eva’s eyes met with Irene’s for just a moment. For a bit of reassurance to the obviously distressed girl, she gave a closed-lip smile—something she had taken to doing since the treatment.

No one had mentioned her teeth. Or her mouth, for that matter. Eva was still not sure if they were being polite, too scared to say anything, or honestly hadn’t noticed.

Irene shook her head before looking back to the front of the room.

Next to her, Jordan was sleeping. Leaning back in his chair, he had his eyes closed as he took in deep breaths.

Eva wasn’t the only one looking around. They were sitting as far back as possible which gave her a decent view of everyone. And everyone had a decent view of her. If she had to guess, hardly anyone was actually paying attention to the dean.

It probably had something to do with Arachne and how she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed just behind Eva. She was only in her humanoid form, so it wasn’t like she was a gigantic spider hogging all the attention.

No one was particularly fearful. A few, obviously. That was to be expected given Arachne’s look and the look Arachne gave people who stared too long. The simple fact of the matter was that all the squeamish people had been filtered out. They were all off attending different schools.

Which made it somewhat amusing that this contest was starting up. They would be meeting with schools—hosting events even—where former Brakket Academy students who had fled or who been pulled out of school would be forced to confront their fears.

Another portion of the student body was staring at the figure next to Arachne. Specifically the figure. Eva doubted that anyone even realized that she was a demon. And that was in spite of the horns, wings, and tail. Catherine’s physical appearance hadn’t changed. It didn’t really need to in order to draw the eyes of pubescent humans.

Eva wasn’t sure what she was doing at the school. Showing off, perhaps. Anderson had to know that Martina was dead and Catherine unbound by her familiar bond.

Now that Eva thought about it, Lucy’s contract had likely terminated with Martina’s death as well. Something should probably be done about her. While Eva doubted that she would go on a rampage, it couldn’t hurt to be safe. But such a thing could probably wait. Lucy wasn’t the malicious type. She was just curious about the world outside her domain.

The real question was whether or not Anderson realized that anything was different about Catherine. She didn’t look different.

She felt different.

Before her ritual the other night, Catherine had had a presence to Eva’s senses. Nothing big. Eva could pick her out from the other demons so long as Zagan wasn’t too close. Now she was different. Bigger. Zagan would still overpower her entirely. Even Ylva was far greater than Catherine.

But Catherine was crisp and clear. A sort of sultry presence filling the auditorium.

While there hadn’t been any physical alterations like Eva had gained, Catherine had certainly not come out of her ritual unchanged. Even discounting her new emanating presence.

Catherine stood against the back of the room, chin high as she drank in the attention the students were giving her. She kept a haughty air about her, never quite glancing at any one student in particular.

Her attitude wasn’t anything new. Ever since the completion of her ritual, Catherine had been absolutely insufferable.

Being unable to sense her own presence, Eva couldn’t say how she stacked up to Catherine. Arachne insisted that Eva was far higher than Catherine in terms of power, but Eva wasn’t sure how far she could trust her friend not to exaggerate. Catherine hadn’t shown off any greatly enhanced abilities, so Eva wasn’t sure what she was acting superior over.

Initially, Eva had been somewhat put off by Catherine’s new haughty attitude. After thinking about it more, perhaps even a slight change was worthy of celebration after an eternity of stagnation. Because of that thought, Eva had decided not to complain too loudly. Catherine could have her moment of happiness.

For a while at least. Insufferable Catherine could only last so long before Eva took the word literally. If she kept it up… well, supposedly Eva was kneel-worthy now. Getting Catherine to kneel might be enough to knock the smug superiority out of her.

As for Eva herself, she didn’t really know if she had any new special abilities, but walls had bled around her multiple times in the past. Trying to consciously make that happen was her current project and an ability that still eluded her.

Arachne saying that she had been stuck in her largest form for a hundred years before figuring out how to shrink into a humanoid form hadn’t helped Eva’s mood.

“They are demons.”

Eva’s attention snapped to the dean, breaking her out of her thoughts. Whereas before only the few rows in the back had been facing in Arachne and Catherine’s direction, the entire auditorium swiveled around to gawk at Anderson’s words.

It wasn’t hard to guess what he had been saying immediately before, but Eva still wished she had heard what he had said. Probably just pointing out their guests to anyone who hadn’t noticed. The ones who had already been seated and forward facing when Eva, Catherine, and Arachne had come in towards the end of the seating.

“You need not fear,” Dean Anderson said, voice extra loud through the microphone to talk over the crowd’s growing noise. “Demon is a poor word filled with all sorts of negative connotations. They are beings from another plane of existence, true, but not necessarily evil and certainly not about to steal souls.”

Eva rolled her eyes. Most of the faces still turned in her direction paled at his words, turning all sorts of sickly colors.

More than a few gazes went from Arachne and Catherine straight to Eva.

Great job reassuring them, she thought, glancing off to one side to avoid all the eyes.

“In addition to the interscholastic contest of ability, we will be taking this year to assist in integrating a number of demons into human society around Brakket. Some as students. Others merely as residents. A few have expressed interest in more… contractual bonds with students who have the permission of their parents.” He added the last line after a brief glance towards Zoe.

The theory professor gave a firm nod of her head.

Eva frowned, staring at Anderson as he went on to quell more fears of the student body. Or attempting to, at least. He even took a few questions from the front row.

She didn’t need her fears quelled. She just needed to think for a few moments.

Maybe he didn’t need to summon demons at all. His words sounded like he already had a warehouse full of them that he’d be distributing around the city later on. Which, now that she was considering it, might make a great deal of sense.

It would be foolish in the extreme to just summon up a host of demons and expect them all to play nice. If he summoned them in advance, it would have given him time to watch them. Any that seemed unstable or overly hostile towards humans could have been sent back before even bringing them to Brakket. Assuming he didn’t want to kill the entire student body. But as long as he was careful in picking demons and had warehouses full of Lucys and Catherines, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Were they all under contract to not harm anyone?

But Eva wouldn’t like to see an assortment of Arachnes running around. One Arachne was fine. Eva trusted her not to act out against people. However, that likely depended on Eva. If Eva were gone or were to say that she didn’t care, Arachne might not be so kind to those around. She would probably still ignore humans for the most part, but ones that particularly got on her nerves might find themselves in the infirmary.

If they were lucky.

Zagans would be even worse. Hopefully Anderson wasn’t so foolish as to summon more pillars of Hell.

Some demons that Eva had summoned in the past weren’t ones she would like to see around regular people. Some she wouldn’t want to be around herself. The haunter, for instance. Just about anything that Devon summoned as well. If Anderson was planning on having a dozen of those waxy demons running around the place, Eva might just skip school for the rest of the year.

“Lynn wouldn’t be happy about this,” Shalise said in a near whisper.

Eva glanced to her side but didn’t say anything. Shalise was right, most likely. Eva could ask after school if she really felt like having a conversation with the former nun.

To the best of Eva’s knowledge, Lynn hadn’t actually gone to visit Shalise even once after her little rescue from the forest. A simple letter to say that she was alright was the extent of their communication. She had spent the rest of the time around the prison.

Much to Eva’s chagrin.

Lynn had decided to be useful by continuing her research into enigmas and Life itself—as strange as that sounded. Though cordial at the moment, neither liked or got along with the other. Eva tried to avoid her as much as possible and, judging by the fact that Eva had barely seen Lynn since chopping off her arm, Lynn was doing the same.

“Just wait until my family hears about it. I’m going to be grounded for sure. Or have dad escort me everywhere. He already threatened to do so, you know.”

This time, Eva raised an eyebrow as Juliana groaned. “They already know, don’t they? That was the whole point in having a meeting with Anderson and your mom.”

“He didn’t mention a word about ‘integrating’ demons into society. There are going to be demons everywhere. It’s going to be impossible to hide it from them.”

“Maybe he means only one or two,” Shalise said, voice lacking any sort of conviction.

“There are twelve.”

As one, everyone turned their heads to glance at Jordan. Even Irene and Shelby turned to look.

“Though seven are looking to find a suitable master for a familiar bond. Eagerly looking.”

“You’ve met them then?” Eva asked. “Any that seem… troublesome?”

“I can’t say for sure. None have been homicidal in my presence. Most were content if given tasks by my father. Busy work, things to pass the time. Of course, they might be deceiving me for all I know. Father has a contract with each of them at the moment to dictate their behavior while around the academy, so we shouldn’t have to worry too much.”

“At least until one manages to get out of its contract.”

Arachne had managed to get out of her contract with Devon and create one with Eva thanks to a wording error on Devon’s part. If Devon, the master of demonology, could make an error like that, who was to say that Anderson couldn’t?

Of course, Devon had likely been lax in his vigilance. Arachne was a demon who he had frequently summoned in the past for more than just Eva’s treatment. She was the only demon that Eva had known him to have summoned, allowed out of the shackles, and not dominated. At least until the carnivean. Had he used another demon that night, he would have probably been more careful about the wording of the contract.

Jordan didn’t respond to Eva’s suspicion. He just shrugged his shoulders before looking back to his father up on the stage.

“None of them are named Willie,” Juliana said after a few moments, “right?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Good. Then I’m fine with it.”

Anderson continued his speech, never quite giving out enough information to interest Eva while still allaying fears of the rest of the students. It took a while, but he eventually moved off the subject of demons. The rest of his speech consisted of simple announcements and notifications that would be standard for any school. Changes in staff and important dates.

Whatever was happening with the interscholastic contest was still to be decided.

The only thing that immediately stood out to Eva was the date the demons were arriving.

Two weeks from now. Halfway through September.

— — —

Catherine grit her teeth together. The moment Anderson’s speech had ended, swarms of mortals encircled her, blocking off any and all avenues of escape as they invaded her personal space. Their mouths opened, spilling forth inane questions and comments.

None were showing her the proper fear and respect that she deserved.

Even Arachne had taken on a more respectful tone while speaking to her. Somewhat. Probably.

It was really hard to say. They didn’t speak all that much. Before or since.

Glancing to her side, she found Arachne gritting her teeth almost as much as Catherine was. Maybe more.

The children were mostly avoiding the armored spider. That was to be expected. Even before the ritual, few demons could hope to attract as much attention as a succubus. Even one as lowly as Catherine had been. It was only natural that she be the center of attention.

But whatever Arachne’s opinions towards Catherine were, they barely mattered. The ritual had worked. Catherine could feel it deep within her chest. A swelling of something more than she had been before.

The thing that did matter was Arachne’s slowly clenching and unclenching fists. She was about to tear somebody apart. While Catherine really didn’t care what happened to most of the mortal children, she really didn’t want to get into a fight. She had ritual circles to improve and maybe a game or two to play.

Now that this first ritual was complete, she felt like she deserved a little bit of unwinding downtime.

Letting out just a hair of that swell within her chest had the entire auditorium falling silent. The children looked at her with lovestruck eyes, mouths still gaping open yet silent.

“Do me a favor,” Catherine said, injecting just a hair of magic into her voice. “Go to your classrooms and leave me alone.”

A few vacant nods followed before the children started scrambling off to follow her orders.

Catherine started chuckling. She couldn’t help it. The spell would wear off after a few minutes, but she had just charmed an entire auditorium full of mortals like it was nothing.

The adults at the far end of the room were still around. Catherine had specifically excluded them from her spell. Some were staring at her with mild disapproval. Others were the opposite; perhaps because she hadn’t killed anyone.

Really, it was absurdly easy to exceed expectations when expectations couldn’t possibly be any lower.

Zoe had her lips pressed thin. Despite her obvious disapproval, she gave Catherine a brief nod of her head.

Catherine rolled her eyes. She didn’t need the professor’s approval.

There were a few others in the auditorium. A couple of the students who had participated in the diablery class the previous year. They would have spent enough time around Catherine to understand what she had done and were able to resist it. Catherine had no doubts that she could ensnare them should she wish. All it would take was a little more power.

Eva and her group of friends hadn’t moved either. Catherine had not expected her spell to work on Eva and wasn’t sure that more power would be the answer. Though Catherine had become stronger, Eva felt stronger still. Even if the girl didn’t act like it.

More worrying was that Devon said that there were still treatments to undergo. At least one though possibly as many as three. His original schedule had been thrown off with the death of Arachne. He hadn’t locked down the exact functions or limitations of the new one just yet.

And if Eva decided to perform more rituals of the type that Catherine was doing…

Catherine shuddered. She didn’t want to think of what might result. There had to be a limit to the power one could gain. But where was that limit? For all Catherine knew, it was far enough out that it wouldn’t really matter that there was a limit because nothing but a Power would be able to stand up to Eva.

Of course, if Catherine continued with her rituals, maybe that would be her instead.

Whatever the future held, Catherine was still just a little giddy at the moment. She walked up to Eva and glanced around.

Jordan, Irene, and Eva had all come out of that unaffected. Irene had her arm clamped around her sister’s shoulder, keeping her from wandering off to class. Eva’s blond friend was rubbing her forehead while Eva had an arm on the other’s shoulder, similar to Irene.

Catherine didn’t much care for any of them. She looked right towards Eva and grinned. “Did you see that? The whole room fell under my sway in an instant.”

“You couldn’t do something like that before?”

“Maybe to a small group of people. This was a whole auditorium. At least a hundred people, right?”

Eva glanced over to her friends before she shrugged. “No idea. Do that many people even attend Brakket?”

“They do. Trust me. I used to be the secretary here.”

“You never even did your job. You just played games the whole time.”

“She did enough of her job to cause trouble now that she is gone.”

Catherine scowled as she turned to Anderson. He had left the stage and was walking straight towards her. Or as straight as he could walk with all the auditorium seats in the way.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come back?”

“Quite certain,” Catherine said. “Replacing me cannot be that difficult. A monkey could do the job.”

“Even monkeys get nervous when hearing about demons around. Truly an unfortunate name for your species. Imagine if you were named ‘hoogoozlaps’ instead of demons. No one would fear you or take you seriously in the least.”

Catherine, and the children still around, stared. Anderson wasn’t one to make a joke. At least, Catherine hadn’t known him to. Perhaps he had always been so ticked off with Martina that his humor had fled.

That was something that Catherine could understand.

But if this was his sense of humor, perhaps he should have left it alone.

“I think I will stick with demon,” she said after a moment of awkward silence.

“Very well. Anyway, thank you for coming. I know you don’t have to follow my directions at the moment.”

Catherine narrowed her eyes. She didn’t much like his phrasing. At the moment sounded like he intended to get her under his thumb. “I don’t appreciate being made into a zoo animal for your students. I came solely because you offered a computer.”

“Don’t worry. You served your purpose well enough. Dismissing the students as you did helped immensely as well. It calmed a great deal of my professors, though I did hear a comment demeaning mind control. But I can see that this does not interest you,” he said as Catherine just glared. “If you’ll follow me, I can get the computer I promised you.”

Finally, Catherine smiled. She took a single step before a thought crossed her mind.

“Eva,” Catherine said, “if you and Arachne would accompany me. Perhaps along with your mortal friends.”

The semi-demon in question blinked before slowly nodding her head. “I don’t have a problem with that. Zoe is my first class and I’m sure that she would understand. Why?”

“Computers have many small components. I’m strong enough to carry just about anything, but carrying so much can be tedious. A few extra hands would be appreciated.”

So Catherine said. In truth, she did not want to be alone with Anderson after that comment of his. It might be completely innocuous, but Catherine was unwilling to take chances.

Anderson didn’t look upset in the slightest, lending credence to the idea that it had been an innocent comment.

Their entourage had made it through the school and into the offices area unmolested. With the classes starting, the hallways were empty.

There was a cardboard box on top of Catherine’s old secretary desk. From a brief glance inside, she found it to be full of her the secretary computer. That suited her just fine. Everything was already customized for her.

Though her excuse for having Eva come along with her now sounded somewhat weak, but Catherine really didn’t care what they thought so long as she was left free.

“The other reason I asked you here was to ask a favor,” Anderson said. “I wanted to ask if you might meet with the demons I have coming in. Address a few questions and concerns.”

“Demons have concerns?” Catherine didn’t believe it. A nervous demon? Preposterous.

“This is something of a special batch. Selected specifically with the help of Zagan before his untimely disappearance.”

That had Catherine on edge. Anything Zagan came up with had to have some catch.

But maybe some of them would work well for her next ritual. Zagan had been the initiator for her ritual research. Perhaps he had thrown in a few demons that had special characteristics.

“What would I have to do?”

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