Tag Archives: Baxter

010.010

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Hands clasped behind her back, Eva walked around the completed ritual circle. Arachne followed along at her side, as usual, and Zoe had joined in as well. Catherine flew overhead, snapping pictures of the entire thing. They had a few changes to make that Catherine pointed out as errors. After her final check, the circle would be ready.

Ready. An odd thought. They would summon Void. Void would fix the sky. Maybe send Life back into its natural dormancy. And then who knew what? It was an odd feeling. She had been working on the ritual circle since Vektul had arrived at Brakket. Given that it was now the end of December, that had been several months ago. And she had known about the problem since long before that.

With it all over, maybe she could just go back to attending school like a normal person. She doubted it. Things entirely unrelated to Powers had been interfering with her school life from the start. She had no reason to believe that they would stop anytime soon.

Then there was the hunter. Eva hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her since she had kidnapped Juliana. Of course, they had been careful. Nobody went anywhere alone. Not even Zoe or Wayne, as far as Eva knew. When leaving the school, they almost always left with each other. Though, since both were capable of long-distance teleportation, Zoe was able to safely get to the prison without Wayne on occasion. According to Juliana, Genoa had asked a few of her old colleagues to patrol around the city on the lookout for the hunter as well as any enigmas that managed to slip by Brakket security.

Which, as it turned out, happened at least once already. Another stealthy enigma escaped from one of the remnants of Hell from a deceased enigma. Thankfully, Genoa’s friends had gotten the memo to not kill more of them. Capture and containment using Catherine and Devon’s containment scheme from the prison.

If the mage-knights had found anything about the hunter, nobody had said a word to Eva. She had a feeling that they hadn’t been looking all that hard, given the enigma problem. But Genoa wouldn’t have kept quiet about something like that given her daughter’s kidnapping, so they had to be looking out for something.

Unfortunately, they had their work cut out for them. Even discounting the darkened blotches of Hell-land, enigmas kept popping up. Ever since Juliana had summoned Zagan, there had been periodic ‘enigma-falls’ every few days.

“Lynn thinks that the more enigmas on Earth, the faster Hell will be pulled into the mortal realm. Exponentially, with the darkened spots, but even on their own, they’re acting as some sort of anchor. The demonic ones even more so.”

“So I heard.”

Eva blinked. She hadn’t realized that Zoe had spoken with Lynn. Not that it really mattered to her. It just meant that Zoe had gone out to the prison without Eva. She was perfectly welcome to do so, as Eva had mentioned in the past.

“I’m not sure what Anderson is going to do when there are too many enigmas for wherever he is keeping them, but we could try transferring them back to Hell. In fact, we should try. Otherwise, things could get overwhelming.”

Zoe didn’t say a word. She stayed moving alongside Eva and Arachne. So Eva didn’t say anything in response, choosing to stare at the ground and ensure she didn’t accidentally scuff up the grooves in the earth.

“Where your enigma disappeared, the street still hasn’t gone back to normal.”

Eva nodded. “I tried collapsing it like I did with the domain in my dormitory room. Just like Ylva told me. However, it didn’t work. Not sure what else to do about it except maybe ask Catherine and Ylva if they have any ideas. I doubt it though. Catherine has been busy examining this ritual circle. Ylva… sort of does her own thing these days.”

Nel was concerned. That much was clear. Ylva, not so much. When Eva had spoken to her while figuring out where the other remnants of Hell were located, she had merely commented that Eva had the situation well in hand before walking off. Luckily, Nel had been paying attention to the remnants’ locations.

“Let’s not be completely pessimistic,” Zoe said. “We can kill the nondemonic ones without issue. It helps keep containment troubles down.”

“You never know when one will have consumed a demon that was similar enough in appearance to where you can’t tell the difference.”

Eva, Arachne, and all th e other demons should be able to tell the difference regardless of what they looked like. Even if it was subtle, the demonic enigmas still felt demonic enough. But she remained silent on that subject, offering Zoe nothing more than a slight nod of her head. No sense mentioning it. The enigmas would likely just adapt and hide themselves.

If she had to go out and capture more enigmas, the whistle had proven that it worked well enough that she could probably lead them all the way to the prison. A pied piper of enigmas.

Hopefully it wouldn’t be required. The only reason she had gone after the enigma had been because she didn’t want to leave it running around on its own. Enigmas that could turn invisible, or otherwise hide their presence, would presumably be rare in the grand scheme of things.

And, provided all went well, the ritual would stop them completely. Her attentions were best spent on it.

Now that it was finished, they just needed the go-ahead from Zoe and Catherine. The all-clear regarding possible errors. Eva doubted that they would have time to do a full investigation of the circle and its nuances.

Speaking of which… “Any new input on the ritual circle?”

This time, Zoe let out a long sigh. “Not particularly. I showed the sketches to Wayne, but I think it made his head spin more than anything. Even with my specialization, so much is unrecognizable. Rituals just aren’t used enough these days to give me enough familiarity with it.” She fell silent, staring at the ground for a few moments. “Has Catherine said anything?”

Eva glanced up to where the succubus was flying around overhead. She was taking a lot longer to snap her pictures than she had the first night. She was also using an actual camera rather than her cellphone.

“Not yet,” Eva eventually said, looking back to Zoe. “But she is still correcting errors. If she thought there was a major issue with the circle, I imagine she would stop us before we had even finished the last segment.”

“Maybe,” Zoe said slowly, glancing up as well. “I worry that, as a demon, she is a bit too close to this—or rather, she trusts in her patron Power too much. If there was a problem with it, she might not say right away. Or she might trust her Power to know what it is doing and not look too deeply into oddities.”

“Something I’ve considered,” Eva said slowly. “But we don’t have many other options. We’ve got to do something about…” She trailed off, waving her hand vaguely at the sky. “And I see no reason to distrust the circle itself. If some random demon had come up to me and started blathering on about summoning a Power to Earth, I would have laughed in their face. And then would probably have had to kill them because they would have attacked me for laughing. But Arachne had said that Vektul was coming long before he showed up. Nothing we have done hasn’t aligned with what she said we would be doing.”

Zoe pressed her lips together, glancing at Arachne out of the corner of her eye. “So you’ve said before.”

Eva just shrugged. She trusted Arachne. It didn’t really matter if Zoe didn’t. But their conversation went on pause for the moment as Catherine swooped down at such a speed that angling herself upwards sent her into a back flip. Her wings folded back behind her while she was upside down but she still managed to finish the flip to land on her feet facing Zoe, Eva, and Arachne.

“Give me three days,” she said, hips swaying as she sauntered up to Eva. “Tonight I am running a ritual on myself using a few of the demons from around Brakket. Over the course of the next two days, I will run over every image and ensure that the ritual circle matches the original designs.”

Eva held up a hand. “Hold up, you’re doing a treatment ritual tonight?”

Catherine blinked, slightly tilting her head to one side. “Did I not tell you? I decided to run one ritual with a few random demons. Sorry Eva, you’re not invited to this one just yet. I definitely want to do another with you, but after your next treatment.” She chuckled and waved her hand in front of her face. “Just for a little bit of new blood, you know? Wouldn’t want to stagnate.”

Eva stiffened slightly as the succubus slunk over, wrapping an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Catherine had been in an absolutely insufferable mood immediately following her previous treatment. But between her back flip, her showy movements, and actually touching Eva, she was probably going to be even worse after this one. It would probably still be a good idea to stop by and watch, but Eva might do some Catherine avoiding for the foreseeable future. As much as possible given the ritual project anyway.

“But anyway, provided I don’t find any major issues, everything should be good to go by New Year’s Day.”

New Year’s Day. The day before when Devon wanted to run Eva’s treatment ritual. Would everything be resolved by then? Devon might have to deal with some delays. Something Eva wasn’t too keen on herself. Her latest treatment had already been delayed for so long. All in the name of letting her body stabilize after such rapid and large alterations. Something she felt was entirely unnecessary.

Her body felt fine. She hadn’t collapsed, had anything go wrong, or otherwise keeled over dead. Well, except that one time. But that didn’t count; Ylva had been the one to kill her, after all. As for acclimatizing to her body, there wasn’t much to acclimatize to. She still had the same number of limbs. What were likely horns were still just nubs on her forehead that were mostly hidden by her hair, short as it was. The things on her back that might have been wings were, like her horns, just nubs. And that was assuming that they were even wings and not just her unfamiliarity with her own backside and shoulder blades.

It wasn’t like Devon had run an x-ray on her to see for certain.

Of course, there were probably all kinds of metaphysical issues to worry about. Things she had barely paid attention to. Things that Devon would concern himself with in terms of research. Had she been a bit older—or perhaps simply wiser—when Devon had first proposed the treatments, she might have done her own research to find out exactly what she was getting herself into. Now that ship had sailed. It was a bit too late to concern herself with that. Her body wasn’t human and, based on her test with Ylva, neither was her soul.

But he had delayed her treatment for a few months now. Even if summoning a Power to Earth disrupted their plans for a while, it would surely be fine. Devon wasn’t the kind of person to wait until the last available moment. At least not with regards to her treatment.

He might be a little upset that she had gone ahead with the ritual circle. Based on their short conversation the other day, he didn’t sound all that enthused with it. But Eva had a plan for that. If Devon decided that Eva was simply too much trouble or too dangerous to work with, she could probably convince Catherine to finish her treatments. Catherine might insist that she wasn’t friends with Eva, but there had to be some mutual respect.

Shrugging Catherine’s arm off from her shoulders, Eva took a few quick steps away. “Alright,” Eva said. “I’ll make sure we have the requisite humans and demons before then.”

“Make sure they are pure humans and pure demons. No nuns and no humans with bound demons. I don’t think it should matter, but let’s not push our luck.”

“Had already been planning on it.” Vektul had said that they needed humans and demons. Not partials either way.

Though, now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Vektul in a while. He was still around. At least, she was mostly certain that she had seen him wandering the hallways at school, sitting in his room—using Eva’s blood sight—or eating meals at lunch. But he hadn’t really been there.

“If you send me a copy of the pictures you just took,” Zoe said, “I’ll get started comparing them to the plans. Although, I’ve been considering telling Genoa about the ritual. She might actually have more insight than Wayne. Mage-knights frequently travel around ancient sites where rituals have taken place…” She trailed off with a slight shrug, glancing at Eva.

Eva sighed. Figures that the moment she told one person about it, everybody would end up knowing. She waved a hand. “Maybe try to leave Carlos out of the initial discussion? Genoa is fairly easygoing. Carlos hates me.”

— — —

Everyone always said that hard work paid off. Juliana wasn’t so certain she agreed. Hard work hardly meant anything to her since she had been kidnapped. Currently, she could look at an unfinished piece of homework and finish it with a thought. She could go even more mundane if she wanted. Shoelaces instantly tied themselves at her command. Or rather, they didn’t tie themselves. They simply were tied. As if they had been tied all along.

Some people might argue that studying to summon demons in the first place or her experiences in Hell and with kidnappers had been hard work enough. She wasn’t so sure that she agreed with those imaginary people she had conjured up within her own mind to act as a foil. Bad experiences didn’t mean that she had actually put work into something. They just meant that she had bad luck. Or had brought things down upon herself, which was probably a whole lot more true than a simple failure in luck.

Especially when Zagan’s ability was so strong. Juliana wasn’t sure what levels of hard work should be rewarded with such an ability, but it certainly wasn’t something she should have been able to achieve in her sixteen years of existence. She could almost understand how Zagan could act as he did—barely caring about anything and constantly seeking something to amuse himself.

She had tried to make the purple streaks in the sky go away. Glancing out her window, it obviously hadn’t worked. Some things trumped his power. The Powers, apparently. But smaller things?

Juliana was almost certain that she could kill the hunter without ever seeing her or even knowing her name. Just a thought in the back of her head combined with a little will and she might find herself stuck in the center of the sun. After all, she was currently not in the center of the sun and the opposite of not being in the sun was being in it.

The biggest hangup was that she wasn’t sure if she should. Morally. The mage-knights wandering around would likely prioritize killing the hunter over capturing her. At this point, she had done enough to warrant such a reaction. Attacking schools really was not a good way to get people to like her.

But just wishing her dead and having it happen? That seemed wrong. Besides, Zagan would probably like her to fight rather than simply wish her problems way. And if she failed to amuse him, he had already said that he would tear his way out of her chest.

So far, Juliana had not tried to use it on a person. Except the vampire. And she wasn’t sure that her using it on the vampire had actually worked. Nothing had happened. He hadn’t stormed up to Eva and demanded to know what she had done to him. But that could simply be because nothing had gone against his desires so far. So long as he had no reason to try to tell people about the ritual circle, he shouldn’t encounter any mental blocks keeping him from talking. And that was assuming that he didn’t just drop dead or something worse if he tried to tell people. Doing something like that was brand new to Juliana. It was one of the main reasons she hadn’t tried to use it on other people.

That and she hadn’t had Zagan’s help in trying to stop the vampire from talking. Since the night she had been kidnapped, he hadn’t said a word. He was still there. She could still use his magic. He just wasn’t talking. Juliana imagined him sitting on a couch in the back of her mind, watching like her eyes were televisions with a bucket of popcorn in his hands.

Which only served to make Juliana nervous. He wanted entertainment but all she was doing was sitting around, trying to avoid giving her parents reasons to lock her up in the basement for her own safety. Maybe he found amusement in that. Surely it wouldn’t last.

Really, she just wished that something interesting would happen. Something to ensure just a little excitement, even if it were only temporary.

A knock at the front door broke Juliana out of her reverie. Not many people stopped by their home. It was located out in the boondocks of Brakket City. Eva and everyone else she knew would have sent a message if she had been coming over.

But both of her parents were home. If she hadn’t gotten a message, it wouldn’t be for her. That wasn’t to say that she wasn’t curious. She stood, opened the door to her room, and leaned against the frame.

By the sound of the heavier footsteps, Juliana’s mother had been the one to get up and open the door.

“Zoe,” Genoa said as the door creaked open. “You took long–”

Her mother’s voice clipped short as a tremor ran through their house. Paint on the walls cracked. Small flakes wafted down to the floor. The door to Juliana’s room just about knocked her upside the head as it swung shut. Only a quick jump into the hall kept her from being crushed.

She didn’t stop with her jump. She kept going, half sprinting down the stairs. That shake wasn’t an earthquake. Something had slammed into the house. Her mother was in trouble.

Sliding down the stairs, she skidded to a stop just in front of the main entryway.

Her mother was lying on her back, looking like she had half of the door embedded in her chest. Juliana only stared for a second before she blinked. Between her eyes closing and reopening, the door was back in its proper place. Her mother was still on her back, but it was like she had never been injured otherwise.

It hadn’t even been a conscious decision on Juliana’s part. She might have thought that Zagan had done it had she not known how altruistic he was. Which was to say, not altruistic in the slightest.

Juliana just about ran up to her mother to ensure that she was alright.

A growl from just inside the doorway stopped her cold.

She only got a second to stare at the humanoid form before its skin fell to the ground in long strips. Its muscles fell from its bones before the entire thing collapsed into a puddle of violet blood. Organs no longer attached to each other, it fell forwards into a disorganized pile of bones.

A queasy feeling rose up in Juliana’s stomach as she stared at what had once been a living creature. The spots in her vision grew until she collapsed into her mother’s arms.

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010.008

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Eva froze, staring at the creature. It scampered off to hide the moment she snapped her head over, but she continued staring. The thing had spoken. Words—her name—had come out of its mouth.

“I thought you couldn’t get it to talk,” Eva said without taking her eyes off the thing.

“It didn’t do anything but growl and slobber when I tried speaking with it.” Catherine leaned forward, nearly touching the bars of the cell with her face.

“That was my name, right?”

“I doubt it actually knows the context of what it said. I’ve said Eva once or twice during our conversation. Devon has as well, right? I probably said your name while trying to get it to speak as well. Like a parrot, it is merely repeating what it heard. Eva has been a fairly common word around it. Likely when you first captured it as well. Arachne or Zoe probably said your name.”

The enigma pressed itself to the floor behind the twisted remains of the bed frame. The frame wasn’t doing much at all to hide the creature’s body. Only its face. But its two pointed ears, which had been lying flat against its skull, perked up and twitched every so often as Catherine spoke.

Eva spent several minutes attempting to coax the creature out of hiding. It didn’t speak once. None of her words to it seemed to do a single thing.

“If it was just repeating a common name, it would have said ‘the’ or ‘I’ or something else that we say far more often than my name,” Eva said with a deep frown.

“Perhaps it is that human thing.”

Eva finally took her eyes off the enigma—it wasn’t doing much of anything at the moment—and stared at Catherine. She had a slight sinking feeling in her stomach. “What human thing?”

Catherine grinned. “Human babies’ first words are often calling out to their parents. A similar thing could be occurring here.”

Shaking her head, Eva said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a proper response. Besides, if that were the case, its first word should have been Catherine.”

“Very funny.”

“Still, if it said a word, maybe it can say more. Maybe to the point where it will understand what it is saying and what is being said. Of course, you might have to teach it like a human. It will take time, effort, love, and care and nurturing.”

That wiped the smile right off Catherine’s face. Taking a few steps away from the cell, she paused with a shake of her head. “I believe this ‘communication’ experiment has run its course. No valuable data can be gained from continuing attempts to meaningfully interact. Lynn wanted to dissect it. I think I will tell her that she is free to do so.”

The tone Catherine spoke with had Eva wondering if she was serious or not. On one hand, the enigma probably didn’t have any answers to questions that she might ask. If the creature had only recently gained sapience—if it was even sapient now—then it probably wouldn’t be able to tell much of its goals, purpose, or its patron Power. On the other hand, it might be amusing to convince an enigma to fight against its creator.

Eva ran a finger over the whistle in her pocket. Depending on exactly how Sawyer’s whistle worked, it might not take much convincing. She had actually forgotten about it until a few minutes before going to check on the enigmas. Despite having them ready to be the perfect test subjects, Eva was a little hesitant to use it.

It looked like it had been carved out of bone. Knowing Sawyer, it had to be human bone. Anything less just wouldn’t fit with him. But she wasn’t hesitant because it was bone, rather because it had belonged to Sawyer. Eva couldn’t help but shudder. It was a whistle. That meant his lips had touched it. In fact, she had seen his lips on it.

Still, she might have to use it. If not on the hellhound-enigma, then on the one still lost in the city.

Leaving it in her pocket, Eva threw one last look at the still cowering enigma before following Catherine out of the cell block. The enigma was probably not going anywhere. If Devon thought his containment was close to failing, he would have stayed behind and fixed it up. However, Catherine was going somewhere and Eva still had a few things to discuss with her.

Only for Eva to nearly bump into Catherine as she stepped out the main door.

She only had a moment to realize that Catherine was staring up at the sky before actually bumping into her. Though it wasn’t Eva’s fault.

The ground shaking sent Eva straight into Catherine’s backside.

“Oh no,” Eva said, pushing herself away from Catherine to stare at the sky. “Not again.”

Catherine, having maintained perfect balance despite Eva, just turned her head back to the sky. “I didn’t see anything fall before you bumped into me.”

“Things could have fallen beforehand. Last time, there was a good hour between things falling and the earthquake. Call Nel,” Eva said, patting Catherine on the shoulder as she moved around her to get out of the cell block. “see if she found anything. I need to grab my dagger.”

She had promised herself, and Anderson a little, that she wouldn’t use blood magic while the other schools and cameras were around. However, there came a point where pragmatism won out over caution. If there were more enigmas running around, she didn’t want to come out unarmed. A few vials of blood and her dagger would make her feel much better. So long as she kept her dagger hidden, she could probably pass off the blood as some demon thing.

As for the whistle… well, if more did fall from the sky…

Eva really needed to put it through an acid bath. That would clean off any remnants of Sawyer. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the time or the acid.

Maybe she could coat her mouth with semi-solidified blood that she could just obliterate later on. Did it say something bad about her that she would rather have demon blood in her mouth than a whistle that might have lightly brushed against Sawyer’s lips a time or two? Probably not.

“Eva!” Arachne called out. Eva had barely made it halfway to the women’s ward before Arachne made it to her. She ran up, placing a hand on either of Eva’s shoulders. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Nothing happened here. Grabbing my dagger and some blood. Then we’re heading over to Brakket.”

The carapace making up Arachne’s mouth curled back into a teeth-baring grimace. “Must we?” she said, voice low. “You have no obligation to keep those humans safe. There are security guards and bounty hunters there. We have already captured one enigma for any testing we could possibly need. There is no reason to throw yourself into danger.”

Eva sighed. It was true. She didn’t need to do anything. Genoa would be keeping Juliana safe. Shalise as well. Irene had Saija constantly shadowing her and Jordan could take care of himself. And, as Arachne had said, Brakket had a security force. Apparently.

In that light, there might not be much of a reason to run.

“Except,” Eva said slowly, patting Arachne on the arm. “What happens if an enigma crash landed right on the ritual circle?”

Arachne’s grimace twisted even further. “I suppose we should take care of it.”

“At least check it out. And maybe nothing happened this time. Normal earthquakes do happen. This could just be an aftershock from the one the other day.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Not in the slightest!” Eva slipped around Arachne. “I’ll just be a moment. Check in with Catherine around the enigma cells. See if she got a hold of Nel.”

Blinking twice had Eva just in front of the women’s ward doors. She dashed inside, grabbed her dagger from its spot just next to the copper engraved plate that Juliana had gifted her, and ran back outside. Another few blinks and Eva found herself right next to Catherine and Arachne.

“Well?”

Catherine glanced over to Eva as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. Which, when Eva thought about it, was probably a good reason to wear clothes. If Catherine didn’t wear clothes everywhere and suddenly needed her phone, she would either have had to carry it everyone or go pick it up.

“Nel was out of town with Ylva. Not sure what they were doing. As such, she didn’t see anything fall. Which doesn’t mean that nothing fell. Once she gets back, she said that she will start scanning the streets of Brakket.”

“Well great,” Eva mumbled as she sent off a text message to Zoe. If nothing actually fell from the sky, there was no need to rush. Though, even if nothing had fallen, she should still check in with the ritual circle to ensure that the earthquake hadn’t damaged anything.

And, now that she was thinking about it, she should probably have Catherine retake pictures sometime.

“Arachne, we’re teleporting there. Shrink down, if you want to come. Catherine…” Eva trailed off, scratching the short hair on the back of her head. “Well, you can do whatever you want, I guess.”

“I’ll remain here. If more enigmas fell, I should ensure that those we have captured do not escape.”

With a nod of her head, Eva started building up magic within herself. Arachne climbed up her leg and perched at her shoulder. A moment later and both were hurling through the fleshy tunnel between Hell and Brakket Academy.

— — —

Zoe paced back and forth in Wayne’s office. She passed by the colorful jars of potions and ingredients that lined every available space on the walls without so much as glancing around. It wasn’t the first time she had entered his office. Most of the potions weren’t real potions anyway. Or if they were, they were so old that ingesting them would give someone quite the stomach ache at best. The potion bottles were purely decorative. A little fancy touch to his room to impress students and parents that entered.

Of course, anyone who actually knew Wayne would know that he wasn’t really the type to go for superfluous decorations. Zoe—while she had been much younger, just after Wayne landed his job as professor—had been the one to set it up for him. In all the years since, he had never bothered to change it.

In fact, it was about time she dusted again.

While she paced, Wayne sat hunched over his desk, staring at the top.

Wayne hadn’t said a word in quite some time. Not since she had dropped a pack of papers on his desk. With Catherine’s help, she had scaled down the ritual circle’s primary plans to fit on nine sheets of paper. A great deal of details had been lost, but Wayne wasn’t trained that heavily in ritual circles anyway. He might notice, but it was a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. If he really wanted to see a more detailed version, she didn’t have a problem showing him.

She hadn’t fully explained what the ritual did. The subject was hard enough to broach. For now, she had told him that it was designed to help close off the connection between Hell, Life’s domain, and Earth. Which, assuming it did what Eva said it would do, shouldn’t be too far from the truth.

But between the earthquake the other day and what it likely meant about just how impending an apocalypse was… Really, she– They all had known about it for nearly a year now. Compared with every other thing in her life, an impending apocalypse wasn’t quite something that she could quantify in her mind. Not even the Lansing Incident could compare. Zoe imagined it was similar for the others. It was too big.

As such, though she wouldn’t admit it to anyone save perhaps Wayne, Zoe was secretly glad that Eva had been doing something about it. Even if that something was creating a ritual circle of dubious intentions apparently designed by a Power.

Zoe bit the edge of her lip as she looked over to Wayne. He had no formal training in ritual circles and yet he had been staring at the papers for well over ten minutes. Testing the waters, she tried clearing her throat.

The creases on his brow smoothed over as he glanced up to meet Zoe’s eyes.

“You said that this ritual is supposed to be large?”

Nodding her head, Zoe approached the desk. She pointed out each of the small circles dotted around the ritual circle. “People are supposed to stand inside each one of these to help power the ritual circle. I’ve checked over it and each circle is designed in the same manner. Magic can pass from within the smaller circles out into the larger ritual, but not the reverse. Regardless of what the circle actually does, they should be safe.”

Wayne sighed with a shake of his head. “That you had to tell me that does not speak well for… anything, really.”

“I know.” Zoe hung her head, staring at the lines on the sheets of paper. “But I’ve yet to hear any better solutions. And after the earthquake the other day and everything involved with it, I’m worried we’ve got less time than anyone was thinking we had.”

“Do keep in mind that everything we know about this so-called apocalypse comes from a demon. Worse, Zagan. That… man did not sit well with me from the moment he showed up as a teacher.”

Zoe leaned back, crossing her arms. “Oh? Monsters raining from the sky is just a normal part of life then?” She frowned as she realized something. “I suppose that’s par for the course in my life.”

Wayne pressed his hands to his desk as he stood. He stood like that, back bent with his hands unmoving. “Look, Zoe,” he said, voice far softer than she had heard it in years. “I don’t know what you hoped to accomplish by bringing this to me. Obviously I’m not going to like it. But it isn’t something I can offer meaningful advice on. If you construct this, you should be exceedingly careful. Both about the circle and those you’re working with.”

Shifting slightly, Zoe pressed her lips together. The ritual circle was essentially complete. Or it had been the other day when Eva showed it to her. Assuming Eva had kept up work, it might even be finished. He didn’t need to help in the slightest. “I wanted you to know. To realize what I’m doing. So that you weren’t blindsided if you stumble across me building a ritual circle. And your help… well, any insights you can offer would be appreciated, but myself and Catherine–”

Wayne let out a loud scoff. “Sometimes I wish we had never found that girl.”

“Sometimes?”

“All the time. I tried to leave her behind, you know.”

“So you remind me every time something happens. Still, things would still have happened. Perhaps not in the way that they did, but there could still have been some impending Armageddon. We would just be ignorant of it. With that in mind, I’m glad we’re the ones to know about it. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

“And you’re so sure that this–” He put a finger down in the center of the printed papers, “–is right?”

“That’s what Catherine and I hope to find out. And before you scoff again, Catherine likely would have been around Brakket Academy with or without Eva’s presence. Dean Halsey was well on her way out and Martina well on her way in long before Eva’s first year. Zagan as well.”

“And that,” he grumbled, “is scoff-worthy on its own.”

Turning from his desk, he moved up to the shelves of flasks just behind his chair. He pulled off a tall bottle of amber liquid. Reaching behind the other bottles, he grabbed hold of two short glasses. He slid the papers over to make room for a glass in front of each of them.

Zoe raised an eyebrow. “You never accept my invitations to Tom’s bar. I thought you quit.”

“It’s just an occasional thing. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I like my head on straight more often than not these days. Every five minutes seems like something life threatening is going on. But it seems we never just have nice social nights anymore.”

Just as he started to pour, all the bottles, vials, and jars on the shelves started to rattle. Alcohol ran off his desk from where his pouring failed to connect with the glass. Zoe felt the ground shaking beneath her shoes. One bottle shook itself off a shelf, shattering against the floor of his office, before Wayne could reach over and place a hand on his tome.

As soon as he did, a semi-translucent barrier appeared over all the walls, keeping the glass trapped in place.

Wayne just sighed. “See. Like this. I try to relax for five minutes and now we’ve got another quake.”

Zoe jumped to her feet, feeling far less nonchalant than Wayne’s exasperated tone. Her first thought was to check her phone. Perhaps in her pacing and nervousness, she had missed messages from Eva, Nel, or Catherine. But there were no recent messages. No missed calls.

“Well,” Wayne said, moving to his feet with a certain sluggishness as the momentary tremor died off, “might as well go see what the damage is.”

“I hope it was just an aftershock from the quake the other day.”

“Yeah, hope hasn’t done much for us lately. If that was just a simple quake, I’ll drink the whole bottle at once,” he said, corking the opening. He set it down only for another slight tremor to send it rolling off his desk. There was plenty of time to catch it even if he wasn’t enhancing his thought processes. However, he just stood and stared, watching as it shattered against the ground. “I suppose that answers that question.”

Zoe just rolled her yes. “Come on. We need to make sure the students are safe. Then just hope that Brakket’s security team handled everything else.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.004

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Dean Anderson here.”

Eva sat on the edge of a table, staring out the window. So far, nothing had fallen from the sky that she had been able to see. Neither had anything approached the building. In fact, the pulsing of the violet streaks had died down to their usual levels of activity. Or inactivity, as the case was.

Around her, most of the students had lost their nervousness. They were going about class as normal. Even Juliana had gone back to her seat after watching and not finding anything too alarming after several minutes. Or, as normal as class got when they weren’t allowed to leave a full half an hour after class normally ended. Eva hadn’t actually continued with the lesson, choosing instead to stare out the window for the entire time. Surprisingly enough, Professor Lepus hadn’t objected to her watching out the window. She did walk past with a few disapproving looks every now and again, but apparently the situation was odd enough that she was willing to overlook a few people not studying.

Only Arachne sat with her.

She hadn’t yet received a response from Zoe, though telling her that things were falling from the sky probably wasn’t much to go off of. Neither had she received another message from Nel. Of course, Nel was probably out with Ylva and not looking at her phone at the moment.

In fact, the first message about the outside world was likely to be Anderson’s message. So she turned slightly to better give her attention to the overhead speakers.

“The emergency situation has been resolved. Or, to be more accurate, it wasn’t that big of an emergency. Still, given the matters announced at the feast, we felt it prudent to take immediate action to ensure the safety of the school and its inhabitants. There will be a more detailed announcement later, but for now: Someone or something may have modified the weather experiment over Brakket Academy. We do not believe there to be any immediate danger but will continue to investigate. As always, any suspicious persons or creatures should be avoided and reported to Brakket Academy security. Thank you for listening, you are all free to go about your business. The rest of school has been canceled for the day.”

Silence followed the announcement for a good thirty seconds. Professor Lepus was the first to speak.

“Well. What a waste of time. Now the class that should have been in this timeslot is going to be behind schedule,” she said, more mumbling to herself than actually speaking to the class. “I’ll have to catch them up in a hurry.”

“So, we can leave right?” one of the Isomer guests said.

“Apparently,” Professor Lepus said with a sigh. “That is what the message said. Go on and clear out,” she said a little louder to the rest of the class. “I’ve got lessons to reorganize.”

As the students packed up their books and tablets and whatever else they had been occupying themselves with during their detention, two walked over to Eva.

Srey, shaking off his few admirers, moved up a few paces away from Eva. “What was that all about?”

“No idea. Going to go find out in a few minutes, however.”

“The announcement mentioned creatures,” Juliana said, clipping the rest of her sentence with a quick yawn. She went up and peered out the window again for a few moments before turning to face Eva. Brushing a hand back over her ear, she pushed some hair back and revealed a line running up the side of her face where it had been pressed into the desk, sleeping. “He didn’t mention any creatures the other night.”

“Enigmas maybe? Or demons.”

“I can feel something out there,” Arachne said, sliding around Eva to look out the window properly. “Can’t tell what. But then, most demons don’t feel overwhelmingly strong. So they’re either extremely weak or fairly far out. Possibly both.”

Eva hummed for a moment, considering. “Enigmas fit better with the term creatures, but it could be hellhounds or something similar.” As Eva spoke, she checked her phone again. Still no message from Nel. She sent out a simple one asking what they had found. “So we’ve been given the all clear by the school. No reason to stick around. Let’s go find out..” Eva trailed off as she noticed the face Juliana made.

“I don’t know that my mother would be too happy with me running around the city.”

“That’s a good point,” Eva said after a slight hum. “Does your mother know what happened?”

“I sent her a message about the announcement. She said she would be here soon.” Juliana pulled out her cellphone and typed out a few words. “There. Let her know it is over with.”

Eva nodded and turned back to the window. Both Brakket dormitory buildings stood tall outside along with the fountain and demon blood plaza. Nothing around wrecking them which usually seemed to be the case in such situations. In fact, she didn’t see a real need to run out aimlessly in the city anyway. She did want to go find where her clone had perished. Still, no pressing need for it.

“Why don’t we find Zoe then. See if she knows anything more. Your mother won’t object to you running around the school, would she?”

Juliana shrugged. “Don’t think so.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said. After slinging her bag up over her shoulder, she started out of the room with Juliana, Srey, and Arachne in tow. The hall was packed with students. More than normal, anyway. Packed wasn’t an easy state to achieve in Brakket Academy. Not even with all the other schools running around.

Maybe it just felt packed. Everyone was in their little groups. Some walking and talking, some just standing and talking. They were all talking. Eva didn’t even need to listen in to guess the topic. She hadn’t been the only one to notice the fluctuations in the violet streaks overhead.

A few pointed at her or otherwise glanced in her direction as she walked past. She had no idea why. Not beyond the obvious anyway. Even though he looked more or less human, most people knew Srey was a demon. Arachne stood out by appearance alone, as did Eva. After a few weeks around the new schools and several months with Brakket’s students, they shouldn’t stand out quite as much as they did. Perhaps some rumors had gone around about the last time a similar announcement had interrupted classes. Or maybe about the hunter she had fought and killed just before the other schools had arrived.

Eva ignored them and continued on her way.

Yet they didn’t even make it halfway to Zoe’s room before a group of students ran up to them. Saija headed said group, pulling Irene along at her side. Behind them, Jordan, Shelby, and Shalise all followed along.

“See. I told you she was here,” Saija said, slowing down with her hands on her hips. “I can always tell where Eva is.”

Eva held up a hand before anyone else could speak. “Something fell from the skies. I don’t know anything else. I also didn’t have anything to do with it. Whatever happened was entirely not my fault.”

Saija curled her lips slightly, showing off her sharp teeth. “And that just makes you sound guilty.”

Shrugging, Eva turned and continued walking towards Zoe’s classroom. “I’m stopping by Zoe’s office. I won’t object if you all want to come. But apparently the situation has resolved itself. According to the announcement. So there probably isn’t much need.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere on my own after–”

A low rumble in the ground cut Shalise off. The Earth shook, nearly sending the group to the ground. Only Saija, Arachne, and Eva—who grabbed a hold of Arachne’s arm—managed to avoid waving their arms around to retain their balance. No one said a word as they waited, widening their stances to brace themselves against any additional shocks.

Eva slowly let go of Arachne’s arm, standing on her own. “Huh,” she said when nothing else happened. “I wonder what that was about.” She half expected another announcement over the speakers. Even after waiting a few minutes, they stayed silent.

The hallway, however, did not. After the initial shocked silence wore off, everybody in the hallway exploded in conversation. Nobody really freaking out, but lots of questions. Especially from the foreign students, most asking if earthquakes were common around the area. The Faultline students, of which three were walking down the hall, barely seemed to notice the quake. She had thought their school was just a name, but maybe they lived right on top of an actual fault. She actually hadn’t looked up its location.

“I-I don’t like this,” Shalise said, wrapping her arms around herself as she glanced around. “There were earthquakes constantly, or nearly so, in Hell.” Her last word came out a little more than a whisper.

“There are earthquakes all the time on Earth,” Jordan said, voice soft but steady.

Shelby poked him in the side. “Not here there aren’t.”

“Well, no. Not here. At least not recently. There was a fairly sizable earthquake around Yellowstone in nineteen-fifty-nine.”

Shalise shook her head, moving slightly to lean against the brick wall. “And w-what are the odds that a natural earthquake just happens to happen after,” she paused, swallowing her saliva and licking her dried out lips as she glanced towards Eva. “After something fell from the sky. After that announcement.”

Frowning slightly, Shelby moved over to the wall and put an arm around Shalise’s shoulders and gave her a few comforting pats. Juliana moved closer as well, though she refrained from actually touching Shalise. Instead she just leaned against the wall with an uncomfortable look on her face. An almost sick look. Maybe she felt guilty over the Hell thing.

“Still, nothing has changed.” Eva paused as her group gave her flat looks. “I mean, nothing in terms of us not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Juliana leaned forward slightly, pulling out her cellphone and frowning at whatever she saw on the screen. She tapped out a short response before slipping it back into her pocket. “What are we going to do?”

Eva didn’t bother responding. A musical tune carried down the hall. The second Juliana heard it, she winced.

Genoa charged up the hallway with her cellphone in hand, obviously using it to track down Juliana. Eva had caught sight of her a few moments ago, which was really the only reason she hadn’t continued onwards to Zoe’s class. That and Zoe was with Genoa, both coming towards them.

“Juliana, you are going to be sticking with me.” Genoa paused for a moment, looking over the gathered students. Nodding towards the wall, she continued. “Shalise as well. The rest of you… well, I can’t order you around. However I suggest sticking with adults and finding safe places.” Genoa turned to address Eva. “I spotted two enigmas on my way here. There might be more.”

Eva glanced to Zoe, giving her a look. “I felt at least two demons out there as well. I can still feel them, though they’re extremely weak. Maybe imps?” she said with a glance to Arachne. She got a shrug in return. “And Nel said eight things fell when she texted me, though she didn’t elaborate much on what exactly they were. Ylva headed out to take care of some of them.”

“And with the announcement,” Zoe said, “I assume Brakket security took care of the remainder.”

“I didn’t realize that the security team had been replaced after the attack early in the summer.”

“He brought on two almost immediately after assuming Martina’s position, but hired another three after the armored hunter attacked. Though, unlike Martina’s security force, I do not believe any of them are demons. Most seem to be former mage-knights. Except for Lucy, that is.”

“Two security guards worked for the school and didn’t help fight that hunter?” Eva shook her head, deciding that it didn’t really matter how many security guards Brakket had if they weren’t going to help out in the big events. Supposedly they did something today with the things that fell from the sky, but for all Eva knew, that had actually been Ylva.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “let’s get out there and find out exactly what is going on. Nel and Ylva should have some information. It’s a bit worrying that Nel hasn’t messaged me back, but–” she cut herself off as her phone buzzed in her pocket. “Never mind,” she mumbled as she pulled up her messages.

Okay! Finished. We disabled four enigmas. Three of which were drawn into portals to Hell when they ‘perished,’ and left something behind. I don’t understand what that means, but Ylva seemed a little upset at it.

“Huh.”

“What is it?”

Rather than answer, Eva just handed her phone over to Zoe. Genoa leaned over to peer over her shoulder, both reading the message. It wasn’t a long message, but Zoe kept staring at it for a lot longer than Genoa. Eva actually had to clear her throat to startle Zoe into looking up.

“Right,” she said, handing it back to Eva. “And this doesn’t have anything to do with you?”

“For the twentieth time, no. I was just sitting in class and maybe trying to bait out the demon hunter at the same time. She didn’t bite. Something that fell from the sky targeted my fake body out in the city and landed on it.”

It had to have targeted her. Maybe if more than eight things had fallen she would have believed that random chance could have wound up with one landing on her. But eight? Brakket wasn’t a big city, but it was still a city. And if Genoa had seen a few on her way over from her house—completely out of the way from where Eva’s clone had been wandering around—then it wasn’t like they had all fallen on top of her.

“So I’m going to head out there and look around a bit.”

“Alone?”

“Arachne will be with me. I’m not opposed to others joining as well.”

Juliana glanced up to her mother and nodded her head towards Eva. Genoa pretended to ignore her, but did put on a slightly more thoughtful expression.

“Anyway, come with me or not, I would like to get moving before the blood dries too much.” Eva waited just a moment before she started walking. Arachne followed after her immediately. Zoe said a few words to Genoa before coming along as well. Despite Juliana’s glare, Genoa stayed where she was, as did the rest of her friends. Not even Saija moved to follow.

Eva didn’t mind so much. Fewer people meant traveling faster. As soon as she made it out one of the side doors, she picked up the pace, moving to a light jog. Just light enough to not completely outpace Zoe. Which had the unfortunate side-effect of inviting conversation.

“Enigmas falling from the sky?” Zoe asked between breaths. “Eva, this doesn’t have anything to do with your ritual circle, does it?”

“I don’t see how it could. The circle is still incomplete.”

Though that did remind Eva that she should text Catherine. Maybe more enigmas had fallen over towards the prison area that Nel had missed. The streaks through the sky did extend over the prison as well, after all. Come to think of it, someone should probably be checking the fields between and all around Brakket as well. It would be just Brakket Academy’s luck for an enigma to wander into town while everyone was unprepared.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I assume this is just a natural progression of the apocalypse. Obviously nothing apocalyptic has happened just yet. Assuming it stops for the time being, that is. Zagan never did give us a time frame. Maybe little things will happen for the next three centuries before anything truly bad happens.” She slowed just a little to look at Zoe out of the corner of her eye. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Zoe started to respond, but Eva reached the end of Brakket Academy’s main campus, turned down the first street they came across and immediately slipped into an alley between two shops. Having been running right alongside Eva, Zoe just about missed the abrupt turn down the alley. Really, Eva didn’t need to take the alley. She had been walking on the open roads not far from Brakket. However, a few quick jaunts down a couple of alleys would save her a little backtracking.

Unlike Zoe, Arachne kept right at Eva’s side. She didn’t need prompting. Nor did Eva’s turn come as a surprise. Eva couldn’t say exactly why, but guessed that it related to Arachne’s fixation on Eva. Small tells in her body language showed Arachne where to go before Eva actually made the turn.

And yet she managed to keep her head turning around, scanning for potential threats on rooftops, streets, and shadowed building entryways. Really, every time she thought about it, Eva was all the more happy that Arachne was an ally and not an enemy.

“I still haven’t told Wayne,” Zoe said as they exited the final entryway. “I want his input before anything. Even if…” she trailed off with a glance at the sky as they slowed down.

Eva followed her gaze, glancing up as well. But there wasn’t much to look at. A gray, partially cloudy sky lined with purple veins. The streaks had returned to their previous stability, looking much the same as just a week prior. Something Eva took as a good sign. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining enigmas and demons anytime soon.

“It looks like we’ve got a little while. I still want your and Catherine’s input as well. In the meantime,” Eva slowed to a stop just in front of a large splatter of blood in the center of the sidewalk. “I would like to find out what attacked me specifically.”

Black blood covered a small portion of the sidewalk and street, barely glistening in the overcast day. Some even splashed up on the brickwork of a nearby bookshop. Not a hint of a person was left behind. Which Eva expected. Her blood clone was just that, blood. It had no bones or organs. Not even real skin, just blood with some magical food coloring to look like her held together in her shape. As soon as it had been disturbed to the point where it couldn’t hold together, the spell had broken and the magic had dispersed.

Sending off a burst of flame from her fingertips, Eva immolated every trace of the blood. Leaving parts of herself lying around for others to mess with just didn’t sit right with her, even if none of it could actually be used for more blood magic.

“This was the same bit of magic you used to fight me that one time?”

“Yep. Just a simple blood clone with orders to wander around. I was trying to draw out the hunter so Nel could get a bead on her. Didn’t work out quite how I hoped.” Eva glanced around, including back down the alley to the side of the bookstore. “No sign of whatever landed on it. I half expected mangled remains of something or other. Or maybe footprints leading away.”

There were a few droplets of her blood that had either splashed a great deal away or dripped from something. Eva, incinerating each droplet as she followed the trail, was leaning towards the latter theory. Especially once she found a few streaks of blood leading up the side of the bookstore. There weren’t any real claw marks, it was more like someone had dragged their hand along the wall. Maybe something capable of flying or levitating around. If something was flying, it was probably a demon. She hadn’t yet encountered an enigma with wings.

That she felt an extraordinarily faint presence nearby only confirmed that idea.

“Up on the roof,” Eva said as she incinerated the trail. It was a good thing the building was made of bricks. A wooden bookstore probably wouldn’t have survived even her tiny flames half as well. As soon as she had finished, she blinked straight upwards, higher than the top of the roof. Once up high, she blinked to a standing position right on the ledge of the building. Arachne followed her up, though by sprouting a few extra legs and scaling the wall rather than teleporting.

Zoe made it up as well, teleporting herself directly to the top without the intervening hop. But Eva barely paid attention to the blast of cold air that accompanied her disappearing.

Her eyes were focused on the creature curled up at the far corner of the next roof over. Just barely out of the range of her blood sense. Its four arms and two legs were covered in fur, which it was licking and grooming as a cat might, but with a humanoid face. The rest of its body was a smooth skin, fur stopping abruptly just above the elbows and knees. Its back had wings, which explained the droplets of blood, but that wasn’t all. A series of tentacles curled around it protectively. Each capped with a tiny mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Eva grit her own teeth, staring at a large gouge in the side of the creature. Violet blood dripped down its bare stomach, matting the dark fur.

“An enigma?” she hissed. But it felt like a demon.

The moment she spoke, two pointed ears on top of the creature’s head perked and angled towards her.

A beat passed before it sprung up, landing on all six legs. Twin tails stuck straight up in the air, black fur puffed out as wide as it could go as it bared its sharp teeth—both on its face and its tentacles—in Eva’s direction.

All at once, it turned and spread its wings.

“Catch it,” Eva shouted as it took off, already running after it.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.003

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe sat at her computer, scrolling over her image viewer. Catherine had gone over the entire ritual circle with her cellphone. Upon asking, she had emailed all the pictures to Zoe. She now had fairly high-resolution pictures displayed on the screen. A few were large overviews from higher up showing the entire circle from various angles. Others were much smaller segments to enhance the detail and make them easier to see.

Rituals… she knew about them. Could even perform a few herself. A few weeks of her fifth year class were dedicated to nothing but rituals. Despite all that, rituals had never been the subject of a significant research project for her. Zoe would classify herself as adept. Not an amateur by any means, but neither an expert.

To make matters worse, this ritual circle hadn’t been designed by human minds. It hadn’t even been designed by demon minds. A legitimate Power had designed the entire thing if Vektul was to be believed. Even Catherine had admitted that she couldn’t follow the entire thing and Catherine was well-versed in ritual circle theory far better than Zoe was.

With a sigh, Zoe finished highlighting one of the lines. Just a bright red mark to make it stand out. Sending the file back to Catherine for review—she wasn’t sure if the line was actually an error or not—Zoe spun her chair away from her computer and started rubbing her tired eyes.

“So,” a slightly muffled voice said, “what do you think?”

Zoe finished rubbing her eyes before turning to face Serena. The vampire had commandeered her office couch. Far more than just sitting on it, she spent just about every day sleeping on it, having partitioned off the entire corner with curtains. With the day already in full swing, the vampire was barely awake. She had her face covered by a pillow and her feet propped up on one armrest.

Vampires didn’t need a kitchen or even a shower unless they got dirty thanks to actual dirt and grime. Their bodies didn’t produce oils or sweat. So Zoe’s office had become her home, more or less. All while Zoe stayed next door to Ylva in the Rickenbacker.

She could understand Serena’s reluctance to live near Ylva. Still, she felt like most of Serena’s fears were entirely unfounded. The Nod Complex vampire was living in the same building and there hadn’t been any incidents between them so far. Of course, Ylva never leaving her room unless asked probably kept incidents down. It wouldn’t surprise Zoe to learn that neither knew the other existed.

Still, Ylva sometimes did come visit Zoe. If she found Serena around, who knew what she would do. Did vampires have souls? It wasn’t a question that she had ever really given much thought to. If not, Ylva might not do anything at all. Best not to risk it in any case.

Though, things had been different recently. More and more often, Zoe found herself knocking on the door only to be left outside as her knocks went unanswered. Nel and Ylva had been disappearing to parts unknown nearly every day.

“What do I think?” Zoe repeated, shaking her head. Her thoughts had wandered off from the original question. “I have no idea what to think. The whole thing is… insane. I can’t believe anyone is even considering summoning a Power.”

The former Sister Cross had her own research going. Apparently something like this had happened before. What she really was hoping was that Lynn would be able to figure out what had happened and present that as an alternative they could do instead. Of course, whatever solution she came up with would probably involve summoning some other Power if her luck continued on its current course.

“What about you?” Zoe said after a moment. “What do you think of all this?”

Serena pulled the pillow off her face with a slight groan. She sat up, face set in a grimace, looked at the clock on the wall, grimaced more, and flopped back down. “I don’t know. Whatever happens, happens, right? I’ll keep you two safe and leave everything else to everyone else.”

Irresponsible. But Zoe supposed that she couldn’t talk much. She had done little to help. In fact, with the event, her place in the televised interviews and commentating on the matches, and regular school teaching, she had almost forgotten about all the real problems going on. For a short time, things had felt… normal. How long had it been since that was the case.

And then Juliana got kidnapped and Eva dropped this bomb on her.

“Ah, what must it be like to be another professor,” Zoe said with a wistful tone of self-mockery. “Maybe at a different school. To never have to worry about anything more than how the students will perform on the next test.”

“It’s probably a whole lot more boring,” Serena said, dropping the pillow back on her face and muffling her voice part way through.

“You can have excitement without being in constant peril.” Zoe ticked off a few fingers with each choice. “Like a nice fireworks display or a vacation to an amusement park. Maybe a nice normal pie eating contest.”

“Fireworks? Dull. Amusement parks? Can’t go during the day,” Serena dismissed with a lazy wave of her hand. “Pie eating? Not exactly my cup of tea, if you know what I mean.”

“Blood pies.”

“Sounds disgusting.”

Raising an eyebrow, Zoe gave Serena a pointed look.

“When I think of pie, I imagine something breaded. Like chicken pot pie. Filling one with blood seems like it would get the bread soggy. Not to mention how disgusting bread tastes to my tongue.”

“Right. My point still stands.”

Serena didn’t respond. She slightly rolled over, keeping the pillow on her face but scrunching up her legs closer to her chest.

With a sigh, Zoe closed down the image viewing programs and locked her computer. She wasn’t quite sure how to explain it to Wayne. And she was going to do so this evening provided there weren’t any interruptions to her schedule. If only to avoid a repeat of what happened when she had been learning about demons. Wayne had not been all that enthused with her at the time. It was a small fight, but they fought so infrequently that it had been a little shocking.

But she still had a few hours to consider exactly what to do.

Leaving Serena behind, she moved into her classroom.

“Sorry for the slight delay,” she said to the gathered students. “I had a little personal matter to attend to. Today, we will be discussing, if you’ll turn to page 323, static magic fields. Areas where magic contamination has affected the very fabric of reality with no apparent fuel source.”

As the students opened their books and flipped through the pages, Zoe continued her lecture without pause. She had spent just a little too long highlighting the image and speaking with Serena.

“These can be benign, such as a slight instability in the gravitational field leading to a moon bounce-like effect. One has been documented to teleport anything that enters exactly twelve point three meters forward. Not extremely dangerous, but at the same time, not necessarily safe as two objects entering the field at roughly the same time will teleport inside each other.

“Others aren’t quite so simple to study. One that has been around since the beginning of recorded history is located in Death Valley, California. It is a constant raging inferno, reaching upwards of six hundred degrees Celsius. The area around the anomaly has been warded off to keep people stumbling across it, but it combined with the local environment is one of the primary reasons for the overwhelming heat around Death Valley.”

One of the Faultline guest students, sitting in the center of the room with her back straight and eyes glued on Zoe, raised her hand. She did not wait for Zoe to call on her. “The temperature in Death Valley fluctuates. Our school isn’t far, so we have first hand experience. In the winter, it can get quite chilly. Not as cold as it gets here, but still a little cold.”

“That would be because of magical efforts to artificially regulate the temperature. Also, to the best of my knowledge, the anomaly has been in something of a remission for the past century or so. Something researchers have been trying to replicate in other hazardous magic fields.”

Aside from that, someone who lived and spent most of their time around California probably had warped ideas of what chilly meant. Still, she appreciated the question. Older students who were ready to learn were always a treat.

“In any case, there is actually a static magic field anomaly near Brakket Academy. Provided we can get a few extra security personnel in, we will be taking a short field trip before vacation begins.”

A lot of security at that. Theoretically, there was only a single hunter who was only after people related to Eva. Zoe was one of those people. Being responsible for the students both local and from abroad, she could not take the risk that the hunter might decide any one of them would work. Zoe wanted to hire Genoa, so long as she was feeling up to it.

Maybe even Arachne as well.

— — —

Eva began her plan. Her genius idea to locate and defeat the hunter was underway. The simplest way to find her was to get captured. Nel could watch from afar and get following her again, maybe stop her far sight from slipping for a little while.

And for that purpose, Eva wandered around the city completely alone. Nobody liked the idea of using herself as bait, but Eva had her own tricks.

At the same time as she walked around, she sat attentive in Professor Lepus’ class. Or rather, she was pretending to be attentive. She was actually trying to avoid spewing projectile vomit all over her classmates. To be fair, the sensory feedback from her blood clone was nothing compared to the horrors of Sawyer eating macaroni and cheese without washing his hands after dissecting bodies. The odd feeling of being in two places at once still had her a little dizzy.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much going on. No hunters dive-bombing her. It had been two hours of her blood clone wandering around with no sign of any enemies. Srey was in her class and hadn’t yet sent her the message that anyone had been watching them. So they shouldn’t know that she was in two places at once. But a demon hunter might have methods of telling her clone apart from her real self.

Alternatively, the hunter was watching her clone and was trying to figure out just how the ambush was going to go down.

There wasn’t an ambush, but the hunter wouldn’t know that.

Unfortunately, if the hunter never showed herself, Eva’s plan would die before it could get off the ground.

“So,” Juliana said, leaning over to whisper into Eva’s ear, “how is it going?”

“Same as last class,” Eva said, voice slightly strained. Arachne was with her as well, but Arachne was actually doing as Eva had asked and hadn’t spoken a single word. The only thing she had done was to help her get to class. “It’s just wandering around as I ordered.”

Juliana opened her mouth to say something else, but a glare from Professor Lepus stopped her cold.

“Miss Rivas. You are new to this class. However, I’ve heard you are something of a prodigy. As such, I will not complain if you have managed to finish constructing your ward.”

With a wince, Juliana glanced down at her desk and the jar of live flies. They buzzed around within the jar, searching for an escape route. Professor Lepus gave them one. She reached down and unclasped the lid.

The three flies took to the air and flew off into the room.

“Your ward,” Professor Lepus said, watching the flies zoom through the room, “it doesn’t seem complete. It allowed me through, but also allowed the flies through.” She took her gaze off the flies and turned back to Juliana. “Or perhaps there was no ward around your jar at all.”

Pulling out her wand, Lepus tapped the jar. All three flies flew straight back inside. She capped the lid back on before they could escape a second time.

“Might I suggest working on your ward rather than speaking.” Turning to Eva, the professor smiled. “And how is yours coming along?”

“I wouldn’t be ready to test it just yet, Professor,” Eva said without a hint of shame.

“Then I suggest you work as well.”

Eva gave a shallow nod as the professor walked off to inspect another student’s ward. Closing her eyes in apparent concentration, she tried to tune out as much of the classroom as possible and focus only on the clone’s senses. So far, she hadn’t even tried to make a ward. She just didn’t have the mental fortitude at the moment.

“Kind of strict, isn’t she?”

“Just doing her job.”

“What if I was asking a real question. Like, I’m still a little fuzzy on how exactly to form the outer magic shell.”

“Are you actually asking? I thought your mother caught you up on the basics of warding? That’s like the very basic of the basics.”

“Well, she did. But her method of explaining is less teaching and more demonstration. Something that doesn’t help so much when you can’t visually see a ward.”

“Ah, well, you might have to ask Professor Lepus. I could explain, but I’ve got a bit too much of a headache at the moment. There–”

Eva cut herself off, staring through her clone’s eyes. A dark shadow moved overhead. Her simulacrum, ordered to look at anything suspicious as she wandered around, didn’t even get to look up. A brief spike of pain preceded all her secondary senses being cut off.

“Are you alright?” Juliana whispered again.

“Fine. I’m… not sure what happened though. I think my body was destroyed. Other body.”

“Obviously,” Juliana said with a roll of her eyes. “How was it destroyed?”

“Not sure. Saw a shadow then a split second later, nothing.”

“Is it the hunter?” Arachne said, leaning close so she could whisper without disturbing the class.

Eva, not wanting to draw Professor Lepus’ ire, merely nodded and proceeded to cast a small ward around her jar of flies. As she constructed the layers she would need, she thought. The hunter would be completely willing to instantly obliterate Eva should the opportunity present itself. At least, based on the what Eva knew of her so far. She might have wanted to torture her, but maybe had decided that Eva was just too dangerous of a target.

Assuming the hunter had even attacked her clone. Something about the situation felt off. The hunter had used the white beam from the sky before, so maybe she had found a shadow beam.

But…

Eva shook her head. Ten minutes until class ended. She would be able to call Nel. The augur was supposed to have been watching.

Just as soon as she considered Nel, her phone buzzed in her pocket.

Which meant something bad. Nel would know that she was in the middle of class. Even had Eva not told her, she almost undoubtedly would have spied in on the real Eva after seeing the clone fall. So something must have happened that needed an immediate call.

“Eva,” Professor Lepus said, sweeping back to Eva’s table. “Was that a phone I heard?”

“Ah, just a slight personal emergency. I can take the call in the hallway–”

Both paused and glanced upwards to the overhead speakers as they crackled to life.

“Dean Anderson has issued a warning code four.” The voice of the new secretary came over the announcement system loud and clear. “All professors are to keep their students in their classrooms and remain there until the all clear is sounded. At no point is any student to leave the main building. Security groups one to three are to get geared and report to the guard room for further orders.”

Eva merely frowned as the speakers clicked off. However, at her side, Juliana actually jumped. The blood drained from her face as she snapped an accusatory gaze over to Eva.

“I didn’t do anything,” Eva said, holding her hands up to shoulder level.

“Last time I heard that kind of message was the day Shalise and I got trapped in Hell,” she hissed, leaning towards Eva.

“Like I said, wasn’t me.”

Professor Lepus sighed, breaking her gaze off Eva and Juliana. “Constant interruptions. How am I supposed to teach with all this nonsense going on? Well,” she said, raising her voice for the whole class. “As long as we have been told to stay here, we may as well finish our lesson. Has anyone managed to properly construct their insect ward?”

After sending a few nervous glances around, a handful of students raised their hands. Eva didn’t. She waited for Professor Lepus to move off to one of the students before pulling out her cellphone. Nel had called and apparently left a voice message. Eva quickly put the phone to her ear.

“Eva,” Nel’s recorded voice shouted in her ear. “I didn’t see any hunter. But those things are falling around the city. I counted only eight, but there could be more. I hope you’re alright. Ylva has already gone out to deal with the two near the dormitory. Maybe more? Not sure, gotta go meet up with her.”

The message cut off right after with her phone asking if she wanted to save or delete the message. Eva ignored either option and simply hung up on her voice mail and slipped the phone back into her pocket. As she did so, she stood and moved towards the windows with Arachne following just a step behind. If things had fallen to the city, the window seemed a good place to spy from.

And sure enough, Eva found herself staring. The violet streaks in the sky were pulsing. Rather than the faint purple, several were bright purple, standing out against the semi-gray winter sky. She couldn’t see anything falling from them, but that didn’t necessarily mean that nothing was.

“Is this my fault?”

Eva glanced over to where Juliana had moved up to her side. “No? Why would– Oh, right.” Zagan. Eva had almost forgot. “Doubt it. If summoning one demon could trigger whatever happened, it probably wasn’t far off from happening naturally. Or whenever someone else summoned a demon. Don’t worry about it.”

The real question was what had fallen. Eva could feel something. Maybe something that was a demon. But not eight of them. Only one or two. Then, perhaps, were they enigmas? Really, Juliana opening a portal to Hell—especially for Zagan and successfully summoning him at that—could probably have started off everything. Though why there had been a few days between then and now was anyone’s guess.

Pulling out her cellphone again, Eva sent off a message to Zoe telling her to look at the sky. Though if Ylva was out handling everything, she wasn’t too concerned. Still, best to be ready for anything.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Hope you all enjoyed. If you did, consider voting at top web fiction. It’s just a quick button (or captcha if you have never voted). Thanks!


009.021

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

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

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

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

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

“Zagan disappeared again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where in the basement?”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

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

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

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

Demons weren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe worried anyway.

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

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

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

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

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

“Miss Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.018

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“And– Ohh!” Hank cried with a wince. “There goes the scout from Mount Hope. Brakket Academy’s scout showed absolutely no restraint.” He glanced to the side. “A little rivalry after that last event?”

“Perhaps,” Zoe said, watching as the boy struggled against the fleshy bindings that pinned him to a tree. Neuro stood nearby, apparently basking in his victory. Though that wasn’t quite right. It was just that the cameras didn’t show exactly what was going on. To be fair, Zoe doubted that being there in person would be much different. “Although he could have just been after a quick snack.”

“Snack? How so?”

“Did I forget to mention? Neuro is a brain eater,” Zoe quickly held up a hand. “Before you freak out, no, not literally. He feeds on negative emotions. So the young boy from Mount Hope feeling depressed, upset, or otherwise in despair over being immobilized two minutes into the event is like an energy drink to Neuro.”

“Ah. You had me worried for a moment. What are the odds that the scout from Mount Hope can escape from his… What is that holding him to the tree?”

Zoe honestly had no idea.

For all she knew, it was digesting the boy alive. She doubted it. The boy was struggling, but not screaming in pain or otherwise freaking out at having his body dissolved. Neuro had a “no permanently hurting students” clause in his contract that included those of other schools. But so had Timothy and he wound up with a sword through his skull. Hopefully Neuro wouldn’t be so foolish. Zoe wasn’t going to be too optimistic. Demons were not necessarily known for their good decision making skills.

Still, she decided to go with an educated guess.

“I’m not sure on the exact nature of the material, but its purpose is to hold victims in place. Similar to a spider wrapping up a fly in its web for later consumption. As for escaping it, I don’t find it very likely without outside help. If Neuro–”

Zoe cut herself off as Neuro spread his feathered wings and took off to the skies once again. He zoomed right past one of the hovering drones, pausing just long enough to give it a bright smile. Unlike most demons, he didn’t have red eyes or slit pupils. His were glowing green without any real pupil at all, just three concentric irises, each separated by a thin black line.

And then he was off. The drone dropped a few feet from Neuro’s wake before it managed to catch itself. By the time it swiveled around to try to find him, there was nothing to find.

“Well, Neuro left…” She trailed off with a quick glance at her notes. “Brandon conscious and within the field of play. So long as his teammates show up to cut him out, I think it is safe to consider him still a contestant.”

“Ah, but that’s still over ten minutes away.” Hank shuddered. “I sure wouldn’t want to be inside a pulsating sack of flesh for so long.” He paused with a finger to his ear. “Ah, I’ve just been informed that a medical team is on their way to ensure he is alright. They won’t actually touch him without due cause so as to not disqualify him, but it is simply a precautionary measure.”

“He did get thrown against the tree with some force,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “Probably nothing worse than being tackled in football, but checking can’t hurt anything.”

She said that mostly to soften any appearance of danger.

Over the past few weeks, Zoe had been reading the internet. From large news articles to comments and even forum threads. The reactions to the previous event had been… divided.

There had obviously been the people panicking and decrying magic as witchcraft and devilry, calling for everyone to be hung or burned at the stake. They were the minority for the most part. In the modern world, many didn’t find such things appealing. Especially with how romanticized the supernatural, magic, and vampires had been in movies and books as of late. Even people bringing up the Lansing incident didn’t seem to sway many.

Only one group decrying magic really got any traction. That was—Zoe assumed—mothers.

People who watched the last event. They didn’t blink at the idea of magic. They didn’t care about the existence of vampires, demons, and dryads. They didn’t even consider the ramifications of conjuring water or earth, apparently violating various laws of physics.

All they saw were children fighting each other with ‘deadly’ weapons. And the dragon. And Lucy, actually.

Really.

Idiots for the most part. There were probably more injuries and deaths every year in high school marching bands than there were in the interscholastic tournaments for the past century. They simply failed to understand that magic—especially with potions included—had just as many healing and protective elements as offensive ones.

Perhaps because she had spent most of her life without a mother—and Wayne had been a pretty poor father even before he stopped even pretending—Zoe just couldn’t understand their thinking. She was highly protective of her students and even she had very few compunctions about the tournament.

“Well,” Hank said, “I’ll make sure we check in on how he is doing in a few minutes. For the moment, it looks like another two scouts have encountered each other.”

The screens shifted to display just what Hank had mentioned.

Dressed in a military-style uniform, the scout from Faultline popped out from behind a tree. He just about ran into the sandman from Nod Complex. Literally. They were only about ten feet apart.

Zoe was about to open her mouth and comment about how the fight was already over. The sandman was an air mage, thaumaturgically. She had seen him practicing. All he would have to do to win the fight would be to gather up some of his golden sand and let his air magic carry it right to the Faultline scout.

When Anderson had first proposed his demon plan, Zoe had felt like Brakket was cheating. After watching just how easy it was for the sandman to put people to sleep, she was starting to think that they had merely evened the deck. Faultline had won the last tournament and they were a pure human school. She was pretty sure the only reason they had won had been because the Nod Complex hadn’t been invited.

Between a thaumaturge and a nonhuman with thaumaturgical abilities, Zoe would bet on the latter in almost every situation. People like Genoa could probably win, but Genoa hadn’t been what she was now while still in school. Probably, anyway. Zoe hadn’t even met her until Genoa was already a well-respected mage-knight.

However, the fight didn’t turn out how Zoe expected. In fact, there wasn’t a fight at all. The sandman gave a curt nod of his head to the Faultline scout.

“What’s this?” Hank cried, jumping to the edge of his seat. “An alliance?”

“It sure seems that way,” Zoe said as the Faultline scout nodded back.

With nothing more said between them, they turned and started walking side by side.

“Two schools joining together to take on the other three?”

“I suppose we’ll have to see what happens.”

“Right you are, Zoe. Right you are.”

— — —

Eva turned away from the television as it went to a quick commercial break. Genoa’s house had a nice big screen television. Everyone who didn’t mind Arachne’s presence had gathered around to watch. The school was showing their own airing of the event, but there were three things wrong. It was projected—Eva always thought projectors had somewhat washed out colors—the seating was made up of the same hard metal chairs used for school assemblies, and there were other people around. Too many people.

Not to mention, Genoa had ordered several pizzas. Normal, pepperoni pizzas. The Brakket airing probably had food, but it was probably absolutely inedible.

Here at Genoa’s place she could eat good food, lean against Arachne on one side, have Shalise on her other side, talk quietly with Jordan and Shelby, and…

Genoa reentered the room, one arm through the sleeve of a jacket while she looked over a cellphone in her other hand. She did not look happy.

“Still no Juliana?”

Looking up, Genoa shook her head. “I’ve sent her a few texts and calls. She hasn’t responded to a single one,” she said, using the opportunity to finish putting on her jacket. “I’ll be back as soon as I find her.”

Much to Arachne’s dismay, Eva pushed off her and stood. “I’ll come with you.”

“I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe she decided to stay at the school for some reason.”

Eva stared. Just for a moment. The frown on her face deepened the longer she stared. “Is that what you really believe?”

Other than a slight pursing of her lips, Genoa didn’t respond.

“Juliana is my friend too. If she wound up in trouble again, I can’t just leave her to it.”

It took a moment, but Genoa eventually nodded her head. “Alright. But the rest of you,” she said, pointing around the room, “you’re to stay here. Carlos is watching the house. If Juliana comes back on her own, kindly remind him to text me. He’ll probably forget the moment he sees her.” She mumbled the last line more to herself than anyone else.

Eva didn’t bother putting on a heavy jacket. She did place a few warming spells around her body. Same with Arachne. It wasn’t until recently that Eva had even realized she might get cold in the winters as well. Arachne never complained. Not even light grumbling.

But, it only took a few seconds and they were ready to go.

Genoa took two steps out of her house with Eva trailing just a step behind. And then she froze.

“This seems familiar.”

Eva blinked. Her mouth parted just a hair before she realized what Genoa meant. “Arachne promises she won’t try to kill you no matter how good an idea it seems at the time,” Eva said in a harsh voice with slightly narrowed eyes.

Genoa made a light humming noise while Arachne let out a low growl.

“So long as she leaves you alone,” Arachne said, “I’ll let her kill me.”

“Don’t do that either!” Eva snapped out, staring at the spider-demon. Arachne turned her head away. “Just… just rescue Juliana. No fighting each other at all. Period.” She grabbed Arachne by the chin and turned her to face Eva. “Don’t die.”

Eight red eyes stared down at Eva for a moment before Arachne nodded her head.

“Good. Now… where do we start?” Eva looked up to Genoa. “Brakket is a small city, but still fairly large for three people to search. Probably at the school, right?”

“Actually, no. I activated the GPS tracking in her cellphone. It’s in the middle of the city, roughly halfway between the school and here. The corner of Seventh and Cain.”

Eva dropped her hand to the phone in her pocket. “You can do that?”

“It has to be set up specially, but yes, I can find the location of Juliana’s phone.”

“I see.” At first, Eva had worried over the secrecy of the ritual circle. But on further thought, it was probably safe. The ward around the Infinite Courtyard twisted an enormous area into a relatively tiny space. The mundane technology probably couldn’t properly compensate.

“Come on. Even if she’s in the middle of walking home, might as well walk her the rest of the way.”

With that, Genoa blinked down the street. She blinked a second time immediately after the first.

“You can keep up, right?” Eva asked with a glance to Arachne.

“Even if I lose you, I can still sense you. Go as fast as you want.”

Eva nodded as she blinked after Genoa.

It took a couple of minutes to get to the cross street Genoa had mentioned. They could probably have gone faster had they taken to the roofs, but Genoa’s house was way on the outskirts of the city. There weren’t many consecutive roofs out there. By the time they made it into the more city-like part of the city, neither Eva nor Genoa bothered blinking up high.

Eva stopped, gaping at the street as she rounded the corner. Juliana certainly wasn’t where Genoa had said she would be.

The street had been torn up. A portion of the sidewalk looked like someone had taken a backhoe and just ran it into the ground. In the center of the street, a series of concentric cracks and spider-webbing lines spread out from an impact that looked vaguely like a person’s silhouette.

Genoa moved with unnatural calm as she picked up a cellphone from the gutter. The screen had cracked. Part of it was blank while the other part was pure white, no real picture on it.

She pulled out her own cellphone and tapped out a few words.

As she did so, Eva pulled out her own cellphone and sent a message to Nel.

— — —

Juliana’s everything hurt. Everything. She tried to open her eyes and only got one to properly respond. Reaching up, the other felt puffy and swollen. Her fingers came away slick with fresh blood from a cut somewhere around her eyebrow.

Her back felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to it. The back of her head was much the same. Just putting pressure on her hand while trying to sit up sent a stinging pain up her arm.

But she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. She had to get up and get away. That hunter…

All of Juliana’s armor was gone. She still had her clothes, but they were ragged and torn. Feeling around with her good hand, she couldn’t find anything in her pockets. No wand. No phone. Nothing that would help her escape. All of her rings were missing as well. Even Ylva’s ring. One of her fingers had been broken, though she could barely feel it with everything else. The hunter had probably not been all that kind while stripping her of her possessions.

Juliana finally sat up enough to look around, though she edged over to lean against a wall so that she didn’t have to exert herself just keeping upright.

She was in a small room. No carpet on the cement floor. No furniture or other equipment. A basement by the looks of the thin window high up on one of the walls. The only light in the room came in from the window. There was a ceiling lamp, but no bulbs in its sockets.

The cold cement floor actually felt nice against her aching hands. The wall, some kind of rough stone meant for decoration, was exactly the opposite. It scratched through her torn clothes, agitating her back even more.

But she didn’t move. She sat staring at the open door.

It had to be a trap. The hunter wouldn’t have gone to the effort of kidnapping her only to forget to close the door.

Looking around, the only other thing of note was a small duct sticking out of the rock wall. A black plastic trash bag had been placed over the opening, held on by a few rubber bands. At first, Juliana thought she might be able to fit through it. It was probably a flue for a fireplace that might have occupied the room at one time.

But even if it remained the same width all the way to the chimney, it was only wide enough for her head to fit through. Her shoulders would never make it. And that was assuming she could climb up a chimney in her state.

Starting to stand only to freeze as a pain shot up her leg, Juliana noticed her ankle. Or what was left of it. Blackened and bruised, the foot she had been swung around by was pulverized. Which really explained a great deal of the pain she was in.

Juliana thumped her head back against the stone wall with a hiss of pain. She had meant to just rest her head against the wall. The coarse and incredibly hard wall did not take kindly to that.

Closing her eyes, Juliana took a few quick breaths. She needed to calm down.

And she needed to get out.

Her mother would be looking for her. Eva as well, most likely. She knew that they would. Why wouldn’t they? They would probably recruit Nel as well, though whether or not that would work was up in the air. She knew that Nel’s vision had been spotty around the hunters in the past.

There was no reason to believe that they would be coming. Not anytime soon, anyway.

Juliana shoved off the wall, clenching her teeth but otherwise ignoring the pain.

She was not going to be used as bait again.

Using her one good arm and one good leg, she started crawling across the room. Standing was right out. No skin had broken, but the way her foot moved in relation to the rest of her leg…

Juliana tried not to think about it as she reached forward with her elbow, pressed her arm flat against the cement, and used her foot to help drag herself forwards.

By the time she made it to the doorway, she was about ready to just flop over and never move again. Her body’s ache only doubled over since she started moving.

Stretching her arm forward, her elbow crossed the threshold.

Juliana flew back across the room, rolling twice before smashing her back into the rough stone wall. For a moment, she just stayed still. The doorway had a semi-transparent barrier. Blue lightning danced across, looking for something else to throw back across the room. After a moment or two, it started fading out, unable to find anything. Seconds later, the door returned to being perfectly clear.

At least the room isn’t filling with water, Juliana thought with a humorless chuckle—that turned to a cough part way through.

As she sat not wanting to move in the slightest, dust fell from the ceiling, knocked loose by heavy footsteps moving about overhead. Which only had her coughing worse.

The steps moved. First growing faint, they quickly deepened their volume as they stomped down stairs somewhere outside the room.

The hunter appeared in the doorway, still clad in her bulky metal armor. She sneered down at Juliana.

“You’ll kill yourself,” she said with a dark chuckle. Her fingers brushed over the empty space in the doorway. Lightning leaped out, dancing across the metal armor of her glove. Though her glove started to emit a faint light from the heat, she didn’t budge. “My own design. Can’t recommend touching it.”

Juliana just groaned.

“Just sit tight and maybe I’ll let you go.” Her face twisted into something that would look more at place on a demon than a human. “After I kill that little abomination.

Licking her lips, Juliana found the coppery taste of blood smeared over her teeth and tongue. She couldn’t help but wonder how long that had been there. Was it from being knocked back from the barrier? Earlier? It was amazing what she could miss when her entire body was in pain.

But the woman had just confirmed that Juliana was being used as bait. Again.

Her face returned to an almost bored impassiveness as she stared down at Juliana. For just a moment, Juliana thought she was going to say something else. Or maybe even let her go. But she turned and walked away without another word.

Juliana had do get out. She was being used as bait again. This building probably had ten times the traps that the hunter’s roof had had during her previous attack. Probably set up much better, more hidden. Probably more deadly as well.

Taking the edge of her knuckle into her mouth, Juliana bit down.

I am not going to be used as bait. Not again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.017

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“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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