Tag Archives: Cole

010.013

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Eva’s eyes snapped open. A little tingle in the back of her mind, subtle but enough to wake her up. She hadn’t actually been sleeping. Not completely. Lying in bed with her eyes closed wasn’t the same thing as total unconsciousness. Sleeping was something she hardly did these days. She kept it up if for no other reason than the boredom of the nights while everyone else was asleep.

A small part of her wondered how the other demons handled it. Catherine probably stayed up all night, either working on her rituals or playing video games—human gamers rarely went to sleep apparently. Even if they did, the internet was a global thing. Somebody around the world would be awake and ready to lose to her.

Saija, and most of the demon students at Brakket, spent most nights in their rooms. Sometimes they would get together and talk in each others’ rooms. Maybe they were becoming friends with one another—though in that demonic sort of way where they didn’t really care about anyone else. Saija, Eva noted, would sometimes spend the night across the hallway. Irene and Shelby’s room. Unless Shelby skipped out and went to a friend’s room, Eva doubted that Saija was doing anything other than sleeping in the unoccupied bed. It still had her wondering about their relationship. Most days when Saija did sleep in their room, Irene wound up looking like she hadn’t slept a wink.

Which, again, was probably because Saija didn’t sleep and instead did something similar to what Arachne was doing right this moment.

Arachne usually slept in the same bed as Eva. Though, like Eva, she didn’t sleep. Unlike Eva, she didn’t close her eyes when she rested. Her eyes were constantly open. They were usually locked onto Eva, but occasionally wandered. Usually if she heard a noise. Anything from the creaks of the building settling to birds chirping outside could draw her attention. Though her focus was almost always back on Eva within seconds.

If Saija acted like that, even from a bed away, Eva could easily understand why Irene might not get much sleep. Eva had once found Arachne’s behavior somewhat creepy. Now it was simply expected. Maybe somewhat endearing as well.

“Something wrong?” Arachne whispered into Eva’s ear.

“The ritual circle. Somebody is there. They tripped a ward.”

“Not someone we know?”

“Could be. Wayne, Ylva, Nel, even Devon should he have caught wind that we were actually building Catherine’s ‘proposed’ project, though I doubt he would head out there. But…” she paused, glancing over to the clock on the end table between her and Shalise’s bed. “At four o’clock?”

Eva sighed. She didn’t want to get out of bed. The earthquakes had finally subsided once the sun set. Until then and for a good time after, she had been out on the ritual circle with the others, helping to keep it intact. To say that her day had been exhausting would be putting it lightly.

In the end, Genoa had come out and helped to harden most of it on Zoe’s request. She couldn’t quite wave a hand and fix everything. Apparently all the designs and lines interfered too much. She didn’t want to destroy their work in a great upheaval. So she went around, slowly transmuting most of the ritual circle into an almost marble-like material. It gave way with the earthquakes but was tough enough to walk on without worry of making odd marks all over the place. While she did so, Juliana and Irene kept the rest of the circle intact.

How happy she was, Eva could hardly say. Genoa hadn’t said more than three words before getting to work. She had looked like she was concentrating so Eva hadn’t wanted to disturb her.

But she had helped out. Her changes weren’t finished, but she got a good quarter of the entire circle transformed.

“We better check it out,” Eva said, swinging her legs over the edge of her bed.

Arachne grumbled as she flopped over, letting a few spare legs from her back that had been wrapped around Eva pick her up, as if she were too lazy to use her regular legs. As she pulled herself to a standing position, Eva took a moment to look over her. Specifically her chest. Her legs had all mostly healed over the last month or so. The smooth black carapace that covered her entire body might look a little thin over her newly formed legs, but they were functional. She hadn’t complained at all about pain or not being able to move them properly.

Though she might not complain at all if only because of her pride.

But her chest wasn’t quite the same. Her insides looked fine. Mostly. Good enough that Eva’s sense of blood could only detect faint scarring over her stomach and a few other organs that had been carved in two. It might look different with her own eyes, but she couldn’t really see with her carapace in the way. And her carapace was what had Eva worried the most. There was a thin almost white line running from between her breasts down to her navel. Right where the sword’s blade had touched her. Eva wasn’t sure why it was more damaged than the rest of her body. Maybe because the plates of chitin that covered the front of her body were more complex, interlocking with each other to allow her the flexibility a predator would need. The thin line on her carapace was discolored and slightly raised like a scar might be.

Given how long it had been, the line might just be a permanent scar on her carapace. Perhaps in a calmer time after they had killed all the hunters and eliminated the threat of Life and its enigmas, they could try tearing away the surrounding carapace and letting it all regrow from scratch. That would probably fix the problem.

Despite her groan as she stood up, Arachne gave Eva a smile. “We waking the mortals?” she asked in a near silent whisper.

Eva turned her head to Shalise and Juliana’s bed. Shalise definitely not. As for Juliana… She would be helpful if this was more than a false alarm; however, her bed was empty. Juliana was out at her family’s home once again. “Shalise would be slow moving, slow to wake, and I’m not sure how helpful she would be in an emergency. We’ve spent enough time just getting out of bed.” Eva started moving towards the door, but Arachne stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“She,” Arachne said, pointing a long finger at Juliana’s empty bed, “has Zagan in her head. Call her. If we do run into trouble–”

“Then Zagan’s presence is a great reason for both bringing her along and leaving her behind. Sure, he might help us. But he might hinder us for his own amusement. Juliana already admitted that she doesn’t have full control over his power. He takes it away at will. I doubt that’s all he can do.”

“He should want to preserve the circle as well.”

“Should, no guarantee.”

“You don’t think he is dedicated to Void?”

Eva rolled her neck, letting a few cricks snap themselves out from the stiffness of her half-sleep. With a nod of her head, she gestured towards the door. She waited to speak again until they were halfway down the hall. “I think Zagan is dedicated to himself. And I think he is very bored. Very bored. You have to weigh his boredom against how loyal he is to his creator. This situation with the Powers is probably something that hasn’t ever happened before and hopefully will never happen again. He might find it just interesting enough to sabotage our efforts.”

“He didn’t do anything earlier when the girl was assisting in keeping the circle together.”

“True. But that could have been a whim. Or sabotaging it could be a whim. We couldn’t really help her being there. The circle would have been destroyed from the earthquakes had we not brought Genoa and Juliana in. The best we can do is limit exposure.”

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Eva turned towards the lobby door and immediately started frowning. Heavy flakes of snow fell out on the other side of the windows, building up a fair amount in front of the door. Opening the door, it was all the way up to her knees. Not only was the snow annoying on its own, but the ward probably had a buildup of snow again. She had added a heating element to clear off the other snow, but it wasn’t a very hot heating element. Just enough to melt the snow with the help of the sun. Here in the cold of night, it probably wouldn’t work half as well.

“Zagan’s presence around the school doesn’t concern you?”

That was actually something that Eva was mildly concerned about. Only mildly, however. She was still relying on the fact that she was one of those new things that Zagan was interested in. A brand new type of demon that he wasn’t interested in messing with.

So she was safe. That didn’t necessarily mean that Arachne or Shalise were safe. But so far, nothing had happened so she wasn’t too worried.

Besides, he had already wandered around the school and taught a class without having Juliana act as a buffer between him and the world. Nothing terrible had happened to the students then.

She shook her head. “Anyway, let’s get moving.” Taking off in a sprint, she headed straight for the school. A quick series of blinks took her to the roof. Because it was snowing, she thought she might be able to see the snow dome out in the Infinite Courtyard—her previous fix to clear away the last dome had been entirely temporary. But she couldn’t see anything but treetops. Which didn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a snow dome out there. The way the Infinite Courtyard worked was strange.

She could follow the edge of the Brakket Academy building around the top with her eyes. So long as she started at her feet and looped around, she could see the opposite roof. However, if she started at her feet and tried to look straight out to the opposite roof, all she ended up with was trees. Trees as far as she could see.

It really screwed with Eva’s head. Like one of those optical illusions where the cylindrical trident led into a two-pronged fork.

Shaking her head, Eva continued on her way. From the roof, it was a quick hop down into the Infinite Courtyard. She landed knee-deep in snow. It took up a good amount of willpower to keep from igniting her legs and just melting it all away. Or even melting it in other ways.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was that snow made a long path showing exactly where she was going. The previous snowfall, she had taken great pains to avoid leaving a trail. Even then, she wasn’t entirely certain that she had succeeded. Especially once other people started heading over there to work on the circle. They had been far less careful than Eva.

Today, her and Arachne’s footsteps would be the only evidence that either of them were heading out there. And since it was still snowing, their footsteps would fill in and become far less clear. If they were visible at all.

Unfortunately, even running at full speed, it still took several minutes to get out far enough to see the dome.

And there was a dome. Just like last time, one large dome stretched just above the treetops to encompass the entire ritual site. Before even trying to enter it, she blinked around the perimeter. A solid sheet of snow wrapped the entire way around. She wasn’t sure for how long it had been snowing. But it had probably started shortly after she went to bed judging by how deep it was. Which meant that there was probably nobody inside. Not unless they were water mages and had patched up the hole in the snow seamlessly.

Of course, she had only done a quick check. One with poor lighting as well. She could have created a light, but that would have just been a signal to anyone nearby that she was out there.

But the fact that the dome was unbroken was good news. She wasn’t sure how, but someone had probably noticed the dome from afar, got curious, and came to investigate. Nothing malicious. They hadn’t actually made it inside the dome, but her wards extended a short distance outwards from the perimeter. Someone could have simply passed close by. If it was a student, she could scare them away. Professors or other adults would be harder to get rid of. Still possible.

In fact, mundanes from the news organization would probably be the worst people to have around. She didn’t want to scare or even intimidate one of them. Not even incidentally. Word would undoubtedly get out. She might spark riots against demons or Brakket or even the magical world as a whole.

So far things had been peaceful. Peace was much more constructive than chaos at the moment. It let her go about her own projects without needing to worry about anything.

Well, anything save for whatever tripped her detection wards.

She finished her circuit around the dome and blinked back to where Arachne was coming up. Her legs were strong. They let her move much faster than anything her size had a right to move. However, they were still slower than chained blinking. She might have been able to keep up in an open field, but the dense woods kept Arachne from sprinting in a straight line. Eva managed to get all the way around before Arachne actually made it to the ritual circle.

“See anything?”

Eva shook her head. “Nope. Didn’t sense anyone on the inside with my blood sense either. Could be they ran away. A student might have seen it, got scared of something or other—maybe just some noises out in the woods—and took off.”

Yawning, she glanced back to the dome. Despite the early hours, she should probably melt away the snow. If only to prevent same thing from happening once dawn hit. Also to make it more difficult to find again. The giant snow dome was stupidly obvious from anywhere nearby.

She turned towards it, raising her hand to melt herself a little doorway.

Only to spin straight around and fire off a wave of fire into the woods behind her. The brilliant yellow flames licked around a tree, turning its bark into charred carbon and completely missing Eva’s target.

“Arachne!” she shouted out as she dove to one side, missing a silver icicle by a hair’s length—and her hair still wasn’t all that long at the moment. The deep snow cushioned her fall for only a second before it turned into sharp icy needles. The trees and stars above her started to vanish from her sight as a sarcophagus of ice formed around her. Curling her fist, she shattered the still thin ice with her bare hands. A blink upwards and over got her out of the frozen trap.

Arachne was moving even before her shout, performing something resembling a back flip through the air while expanding her body into its full form. She landed on all eight legs. Towering over the snow, she started charging towards where the icicle had come from.

Eva blinked on top of her bulbous behind just in time to knock away another icicle. One that had been coming from a straight right angle from where Arachne was running. Sharp needle-like legs tapped into tree after tree as Arachne turned, using the trees like an inclined curve in a roadway. Each one exploded in a flurry of bark and wood from the force of her impacts.

“There,” Eva said, pointing slightly off to one side. As she did so, a ball of fire started growing at the tip of her finger. After Arachne took three more steps, it was built up enough to be the size of a small volleyball. And it was far too unstable to hold on to.

Rather than launch it forwards, she swung her arm and fired it behind them, catching a woman with an eye implanted in her chest by surprise. Eva didn’t immediately recognize the nun so she probably wasn’t friendly.

The fireball struck the nun’s shimmering shield and immediately detonated. The shield cracked but didn’t shatter. Despite that, the nun still stumbled backwards, tripping over her own two feet in an effort to get away.

Oddly enough, she wasn’t wearing the habit typical of the Elysium Order. From the brief glance Eva had from the light of the exploding fireball, the nun looked like she was wearing jeans and a heavy coat.

So not Elysium Order then. Not unless Ylva had taken away the Elysium Order’s habits. But jeans weren’t really her style. If she were in charge of their outfitting, it probably would have been long robes similar to Nel’s. Another rogue nun then? Chris had mentioned a few names that Eva hadn’t recognized. Perhaps this was one of them.

Maybe, if she captured the nun and air mailed her to the Elysium Order, she could get a little heat off her back. Though Ylva was supposedly handling that. Best to have a backup plan in any case.

A consideration for later.

Eva gripped down on Arachne’s shoulders as she twisted around to avoid another ball of ice. She barely caught a glimpse of its spiky shape before it whizzed over her shoulder. A half second later, her back erupted in a burst of pain as the ball exploded.

“Eva!”

“I’m fine,” she said through clenched teeth. “She’s straight to the right. Into the forest. It’s that other hunter, she keeps running away when you get close. Like the other armored hunter, she isn’t teleporting, just sprinting.”

“Call in help.”

Eva blinked, not quite sure that she had heard Arachne correctly. Yet she didn’t argue. Trusting Arachne to dodge enough of their enemy’s fire, she whipped out her cellphone and sent out a group text to Juliana, Genoa, Zoe, and Catherine. Just a short message saying that a demon hunter and a nun were at the ritual circle. She didn’t have enough time for anything else.

Slipping her phone back into her jacket pocket, Eva narrowed her eyes as she glanced into the darkness.

A single glowing red eye stared back.

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010.012

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“Hank Hanson here at Brakket City coming to you with another live report. A series of earthquakes have torn through the city over the past few days. Today has had a few particularly bad ones. I have been in talks with Alexander Anderson, acting dean here at Brakket Academy. He does not believe that they are magically instigated; however, he has assured me that he has people investigating the possibility.”

The camera drone pulled back, moving away from Hank’s award-winning smile to display an overview of the city. The Rickenbacker dormitory building that he was standing in front of shrank down along with him as the drone-mounted camera turned to face the rest of the city. Like most broadcasts from Brakket—of which there was at least one a day, oftentimes more if anything interesting was happing, which seemed to include nearly everything to the mundane viewers—the city streets were relatively deserted. Not completely empty, but desolate compared to somewhere like New York City.

“However, over the last few days during these earthquakes, I’ve noticed something about this city. Take a look.” He paused for a moment to let the camera continue sweeping over the city. “Now, I know you only have my word to go off at the moment, but a couple of these quakes weren’t anything to scoff at. Yet the city is silent. No police sirens, no ambulances or firetrucks. No fires, even. None of the buildings have collapsed. People are going about their daily lives only worrying about the quakes as far as keeping their balance goes.

“Most everything in the town is magically warded in some way or another. People here simply don’t have to worry about some natural disasters.”

With one last sweep over the area, the camera changed. Unlike before, it wasn’t a drone flying away but an abrupt perspective switch back to Hank’s face, though his surroundings had changed. He was no longer standing out in front of the Rickenbacker. Rather, he was inside it. One of the many side rooms for students to study in.

“Now, I’ve got a special treat for our viewers today. A few members of the latest event’s winning school have agreed to have a little sit down interview.”

Hank finally took his eyes off the camera and glanced to his side as the view panned out. Hank sat on one side of the screen while two students sat to his right. The farthest looked entirely human. A young girl. One of the contestants from the first event. There was no need to look further than the swirling green eyes to tell that the other student was not human. It was the bird-like flying demon. Just as in the event, he wore a pressed blue suit with little golden triangles on his lapels and for buttons.

“Neuro, why don’t we start with you? Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to attend Brakket Academy.”

An open-mouthed smile drew across his face, leaving just the tips of his sharp teeth visible. “I enjoy unraveling mysteries,” he said. “So when Anderson summoned me and asked if I wished to attend a mortal school, I agreed. There aren’t many mysteries in Hell, you see. I figured I would have better luck around here.”

“And you are a demon then.”

“There aren’t many mortals living in Hell,” Neuro said, grin widening ever so slightly. “Even fewer who get summoned.”

“Has being a demon caused problems with your schoolmates or anyone else?”

“Among my classmates or the school staff? Not at all,” Neuro said with confidence. “There have been the occasional demon hunters. For the most part, everyone has been indifferent if not welcoming.”

“Demon hunters,” Hank said, “I haven’t heard about them.”

“People who think that all demons are out to destroy humanity just because we have indefinite lifespans and cannot be permanently killed. Sure, some of us may be less than friendly towards others, but I think you’ll find that the case in humans as well.”

Neuro sat back in his seat, crossing his legs as he clasped his hands together in his lap. “Why, just the other day, I happened across an internet article filled with unresolved murders. Now, I could regale you with stories of how many of those murders I have since solved, but my point wasn’t about how talented I am—which is extremely—but the murders themselves. There are plenty more murders, and other crimes, that humans commit every day. Why would a lone demon doing the same be any different? But let us not focus on the negative. I am sure your viewers have many questions about… well, many things.” His tone came out almost snide towards the end.

But Hank apparently didn’t notice. He nodded his head and said, “Certainly. Why don’t we start with a bit about demons as a whole. Are there collective opinions on humanity?”

“Our lifespans might warp our perspective of mortals ever so slightly, but most of us can be perfectly copacet–”

Whatever the demon was going to say was lost to the airwaves as a boot slammed through the television.

Riley Cole jumped back in her seat, nearly falling off her chair. Despite the size and weight of Gertrude’s armor, she hadn’t heard her stand up and cross the room. Either that or she had moved so fast that the sound of her moving and the sound of electronics cracking had been indistinguishable. Either one was a valid option. Gertrude had been hard at work cramming as many enchantments as possible into her armor. Almost to the exclusion of everything else.

At times, Riley wondered if she even noticed the earthquakes that had been going on. Though she had definitely noticed today based on her insistence that they watch the news.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like she had enjoyed Hank’s interview segment all that much.

Gertrude stood in front of the smoking wreckage, heaving in and out like she had just run a marathon. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she stared down at the sparks dancing over the shattered liquid crystal display. Riley couldn’t say that she knew how Gertrude’s armor worked, but she was capable of walking around. And apparently perfectly able to fight with a student. Some of her current hyperventilation might be out of anger, but not all of it.

Riley had a niggling suspicion that Gertrude wouldn’t be able to hold out in any extended confrontation regardless of the armor’s strength or the number of enchantments.

Which, combined with Gertrude’s increasing hostility towards quite literally everything around her, had Riley feeling like she was definitely on the losing side. It was one thing to hold up ideals, but it was another entirely to throw away her life pointlessly.

She needed to get out. Sooner rather than later.

“Those fools don’t know what they’re dealing with,” she said, seething as she started pacing back and forth. “Trying to normalize demons? They’re going to doom everyone.”

Riley started to sigh only to cut herself short as Gertrude whipped her head over to stare with her one eye. They were supposed to be allies. Every once in a while, Riley got the distinct feeling that they were not. Yet another reason to disappear. She honestly didn’t know how her old partner put up with it. The more time she spent with Gertrude, the more convinced Riley became that Gertrude was legitimately insane. Or overly obsessed. Some of that might have to do with her losing Clement. Grief did strange things to people.

Of course, she had thought Gertrude was off-base on their first meeting.

“So, what’s the plan?” Riley asked when Gertrude said nothing. “We going to go crash their interview?”

“There are Guild mage-knights crawling over the city along with the security force. One or two and I wouldn’t be concerned about them in the slightest. But even I can become overwhelmed.”

And overconfident, Riley thought, keeping her expression steady.

“Are those creatures still appearing around?”

“There were a few. Your goggles have trouble seeing them through walls. Some of them, anyway. Others show up bright and clear just as demons do. Because of that, I don’t have an accurate count.”

“We need to isolate priority targets. Or find them already isolated.”

“And what about the thing in the Infinite Courtyard?”

“Too busy to work on a proper scrying method. She’s protecting against scrying. I can see all the demons wandering around the field but what are they doing?”

She turned away to pace back and forth, no longer staring at Riley. The lack of her stare came as a great relief. Riley finally felt the tension drop in her shoulders. Still, she didn’t sigh or make any other noise. Doing so might grab Gertrude’s attention once again.

“We’ll have to get close to see. Whatever they’re plotting out there, it can’t be good for humanity.”

“Getting close?” Riley said, trying to keep any expression of reluctance from appearing on her face. “If it is protected half as well as her fortress, we’ll need a team of ward breakers just to get near.”

“I am capable of breaking any wards a demon can erect.”

Though she didn’t care to break into that fortress, apparently. Who knew what they were doing inside there. Especially when all the demons had been teleporting in and out of there on a daily basis for the past week or so. Gertrude would say that they were up to something nefarious. Riley wasn’t too sure if that was true. The succubus certainly moved around a whole lot, but the two other permanent demons almost looked like prisoners with how little they moved around. Eva and Arachne slept more often than not after casually speaking with the other residents.

Which fit with the reports from the inquisitors that attacked shortly after the augur went missing. Though they didn’t explore the entire compound, their augurs only spotted residential dwellings.

Comparatively, Riley was actually worried about whatever they were doing in the Infinite Courtyard. They went there too frequently for it to be nothing. Neither did they look like they were simply sparring with one another, though occasionally one of the humans and Arachne would fight after moving a distance away from the main area.

Really, that thing was the only reason she was still hanging around Gertrude and hadn’t just run off to hide from her and the Elysium Order.

“No. We have left it alone for too long. Go. Scout it out. When no one is there, we will discover exactly what they are plotting.”

Riley stood with a repressed sigh.

— — —

“I still think it is too early.”

Eva shook her head, watching Zoe as the worried professor struggled to retain her balance with the Earth shifting beneath her feet. This quake was particularly bad. It took several minutes for it to finally subside. Even Eva had to grab on to Arachne—who had a few extra legs giving her stability—to keep her balance. Above, the sky shifted and warped.

So far, nothing had fallen. Nothing that Eva had seen anyway. Of course, her eyes weren’t on the sky.

They were on the scene before her.

The ritual circle. Irene was the only one working to keep it intact. And she was working major overtime. The two members of the Elysium Order she had recruited were gone, along with Nel and Ylva. So they wouldn’t be around to help even if Eva hadn’t fired them.

Yet every quake jumped a notch in intensity. And they just kept coming. Since Eva had been woken up early in the morning by the dormitory building shaking, there had been roughly one earthquake every hour. It was getting to the point where she was one more quake away from calling in Juliana. And if Genoa came, all the better.

Which had Eva biting her lip.

Zoe had spoken with Genoa. Immediately after Genoa had been attacked by an enigma as well. Something that had Eva marching through the town, playing the pied piper with Sawyer’s whistle in an attempt to gather up as many stray enigmas as she could find. Which, as it turned out, had been exactly zero. No enigmas had come to her call. Whether that meant that there weren’t any enigmas at all or if they had simply ignored her whistle, Eva couldn’t say. She was hoping for the former.

However, after today’s batch of earthquakes, she should probably try again. She might be able to get a nice little horde following her through town. And, if she planned ahead well enough, she could probably set up a wood chipper and just lead them all into it. Enigmas couldn’t die permanently, but she would like to see how long it took them to cause trouble when turned to fleshy sawdust.

She might have to filter out any enigmas with demonic characteristics. She was pretty sure that demonic enigmas were the cause of the current earthquakes. Specifically the one that had attacked Genoa.

“You said you dumped the body out by the highway? The enigma that attacked Genoa, that is.”

“By the highway implies we just drove off the side of the road. It was a bit farther than that, but essentially yes. Though it wasn’t dead until shortly after we left. Or rather, Genoa killed it. With a boulder. That she launched from the side of her car while she was driving away.”

“And a portal opened, it fell in while some of Hell came through?”

“After convincing her to turn around, I took pictures,” she said as she pulled out her cellphone. After tapping a few times, she handed it over to Eva. A large, panoramic photo covered the screen. One that Eva had to tap and drag around to see the entire thing.

Sagebrush, dirt, and grass covered half of the landscape. Nothing too unusual. It looked like any segment of the highway in Montana. Any segment that Eva had seen, anyway. But dragging the image over, all that abruptly went away. The sand-colored dirt cut off in a hard line. Black flagstones surrounded a tall pillar made of similar black stones. Eva couldn’t tell exactly how tall, but it dwarfed the surrounding sagebrush by quite a bit. Since sagebrush had a tendency to grow anywhere from waist to shoulder height, the tower was probably about as tall as a two-story building.

Tapping two fingers to the screen and gently—so as to not scratch the glass—pulling them apart, Eva zoomed in on the top.

“Is that lava pouring off?”

“It only lasted for a few seconds after the landscape fully materialized. I think its source was cut off. Between Genoa and myself, we managed to contain the small fires that sprung up as well.”

“Huh.” There were all the mentions of fire and brimstone Hells in mortal fiction, but that wasn’t true for the most part. Some demon had obviously taken a liking to the tales. Assuming, of course, that these areas were chunks of domains and not just random corruption leaking through.

“We thoroughly investigated the tower. Nothing living came through with the structure. Anderson has been notified, though I don’t know if he has dedicated any guards to watching it yet.”

“If any enigmas fell from the sky, the guards are probably running around worrying about that at the moment. Which is exactly why it isn’t too early for the ritual.”

Eva started to wave towards Irene, intending to pull her over for a small discussion. But she was focused on the ground, staring unblinking as she looked for any lines that weren’t aligned properly. Her wand was pointed at the ground. Every couple of seconds, she would wave it around before continuing to walk along the lines.

Even with Irene’s efforts, she would still need Catherine to do another flyby.

“I hope these earthquakes stop. Trying to do the ritual with them going on probably won’t turn out all that well.”

“They have been getting less intense. But…”

“But if they do pick up again, the ritual might be impossible. And then what?” Eva shook her head. “No. We should do this as soon as we can. Before the option is taken entirely from us.”

Zoe brought her fingers up and started massaging just above her eyebrow. “We still don’t know how this ritual circle works. You said that you’re supposed to be at the center point. I mean, I know of the concept of an enticement, but it seems unnecessarily dangerous. The bridge between humans and demons? Arachne should fit that as well. Why shouldn’t she be in the center?”

Eva frowned. Zoe might mean well, trying to keep her out of danger. However, she was implying that Arachne wasn’t as important as she was. Which might be true for Zoe. But Eva didn’t want to see her harmed.

Besides, if something did go wrong and the ritual killed her, then she wouldn’t truly die. Her experiment with Ylva showed that nobody wanted her soul at the moment. Death’s minions had left it alone while Void hadn’t opened a portal to draw her into Hell. So her body and soul might be separated for a time, but that should be temporary. Either she would figure out how to get back into her body or someone else would put her back. Ylva, possibly.

Arachne actually stepped forward before Eva could respond. “I haven’t been human in a long time. Any qualities as a ‘bridge’ I might have once possessed have long been missing.”

“Still–”

“But I agree with you.”

Eva blinked and stared up at Arachne, wondering just what she was talking about.

“Eva at the center is unsettling. Other demons,” she said with a mild glance towards Saija, “might trust their Power implicitly. I do not.” Her carapace curled back into an open-mouthed frown as she turned to Eva. “It would be best for Devon to find some other human to start treatment on and then use them instead.”

“Woah, wait,” Zoe said, stepping forwards. “You can’t just drag some innocent person into this.”

“Why not?”

“Because… they deserve to go about their lives without being sacrificed in some ritual.”

Arachne took a few steps closer, leaning slightly into Zoe’s personal space. “And Eva doesn’t deserve that?”

Zoe bit the edge of her lip for just a moment before opening her mouth.

Before their little argument could go any further, Eva stepped between them, holding up her hands palm out towards the two. With Arachne, she actually placed her hand on her chest, giving her a light nudge away from Zoe.

“Nobody said anything about sacrifices,” Eva said. “You’re both blowing this out of proportion.”

“We’re summoning a Power,” Zoe said, voice flat. She stared for just a moment before wincing. “I don’t think I’ve admitted it aloud until just now. We might be insane. Collectively.”

“Well, we’re not summoning anything with these earthquakes.” Eva turned back, watching Irene and the rest of the ritual circle. “Soon.”

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Author’s Note: So, previous chapter I mentioned I was going to see the eclipse. I figured I would make a small note saying ‘meh’ on this chapter. Instead I ended up writing about two thousand words about my day instead of putting my time towards Void Domain, Ziz, Clone, or any of my other projects. I’ve never written any kind of blog-style thing before and it probably isn’t as interesting as I thought it was when I wrote it, but here it is anyway: Eclipse Thoughts.


009.021

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

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

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

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

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

“Zagan disappeared again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where in the basement?”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

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

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

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

Demons weren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe worried anyway.

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

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

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

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

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

“Miss Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

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