Tag Archives: Des

003.011

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How disgusting.

Elves. Loathsome beasts. They always found a way to disgust. Wallowing in their own filth as they served their human masters. Slaves without chains.

Every elf read the works of Tolkien as they grew up. Since their fall, they dressed themselves up after the elves of Middle-earth. Mannered themselves as wise and nature oriented.

An attempt at endearing themselves to humans.

Catherine couldn’t help but think it was mildly successful. The humans seemed to trust them enough.

Disgusting and loathsome.

Pandering their once great race to the whims of mortals.

Not that they had much choice. ‘Once great’ was a very literal term.

They were a dying species and they knew it.

All newborn elves were mortal. They might enjoy some longevity from their ancestors, but nothing significant. Every immortal elf that died from combat was an irreplaceable loss to their race.

Elves lost the magic that made them unique. The magic that made them better than mortals. Forced instead to learn the magic of the mundane to have any power at all.

Without their unique magic, the only thing left of their race and culture was their knowledge of unnatural plants and cultivation techniques. They kept the secrets to themselves while offering remedies to humans.

They clung to any scrap of relevance they could get, even if it meant associating themselves with those beneath them.

Of course, they could no longer consider themselves above mortals.

A testament to the fate of those who lost their Power.

A shudder ran up Catherine’s spine. Void terrified her. On one hand, He gave out everything a demon could ever desire. Their domains. Shaped by every whim and fancy to strike the owning demon. Taken a step too far.

Nothing to hope for. Nothing to yearn for. Everything a demon wanted offered up without challenge or effort. Everything except an escape.

Demons could freely move to other domains. Few ever did. Subjecting oneself to the whims of others within their own domains tended to wind up poorly.

Then there was Void’s namesake.

Void.

A demon’s death condemned a demon to the exact opposite. Rather than everything, there was nothing. Absolute nothingness. No stimuli save for the dalliances of one’s own mind. A mind that may not be entirely intact depending on how the demon met her demise.

Catherine had only died once. Slain in the humans’ sixteenth century after enthralling a small village. Everything had been going so well before…

Another tremor tore through Catherine.

She still didn’t know if she escaped the Void through conscious action on her part or if she had been let go.

Not an experience she was eager to repeat in either case.

Despite the cruelty He inflicted upon demons, Catherine would fight fang and claw for Him should He require. All demons would. Losing their patron Power would subject their race to near extinction.

Like the elves.

Catherine tried to keep the sneer of disgust off her face as the milky-eyed elf looked over the charred human.

His silver circlet glinted as he moved around the table. The flowing white dress he wore drifted in some imaginary breeze. Every motion he made was filled with more grace than a contortionist during sex.

Nothing like the fearsome warriors and conquerers Catherine had personally seen several millennia in the past.

“This one is far worse than the last one,” the elf’s flowery voice said as he turned his eyes to Catherine.

She clenched her teeth together. “Can you fix him?” Catherine ground out.

“Fear not, young one–”

Catherine did not consider herself violent. There were far more satisfying things to do with mortals than pulling them apart. That didn’t stop her from occasionally getting the urge to do just that. Especially when the elf gave her that patronizing smile.

She had to shut her eyes to retain control.

“It will take time, but his burns will mend with our aid.”

“Great. Brakket Academy will pay for whatever.”

Catherine tried to turn and leave before she did something she would regret. A polite clearing of the elf’s throat stopped her.

“If I might ask,” his flowery voice said, “what caused these burns?”

“He tried to fight a fire demon with fire. His own flames were turned back on him.”

“A demon?” Not a hint of surprise appeared on his face. There were probably detectable traces left all over Wayne’s body.

Catherine doubted the elf picked up anything about her. Her disguise was perfect.

“A demon,” Catherine confirmed. “It has been killed.”

The elf raised one of his perfectly styled eyebrows in a silent question.

Catherine wasn’t about to oblige. “If there is nothing else,” she trailed off as if expecting to be dismissed, but turned and walked out without waiting.

Politeness was wasted on such worthless creatures. Martina should have summoned a barqu or even a minion of Corrupter to fix Wayne.

Or just kill him. Catherine hadn’t found him to be that great of an alchemist. Surely he wouldn’t be difficult to replace.

But she was a familiar. She would abide by her master’s decision.

The organ notes of Toccata and Fugue echoed down the hospital hallway.

Speaking of the annoying woman, Catherine thought with a smile as she pulled out her cellphone.

For a moment, Catherine just stared at the device in her hand. She entertained the thought of ignoring the call simply to annoy Martina. That would only make her more annoying later. Still, that didn’t stop Catherine from waiting for the final note to play before she answered the call.

It was a good song, after all.

“About time.” Martina already sounded annoyed.

Good.

Catherine let out an audible sigh before she said, “did you want something?”

“Wayne’s status.”

“Still looking like cooked bacon.”

There was a pause and faint growling on the other end of the call. Catherine smiled as she imagined Martina’s face twisting into an ugly scowl. She was too easy.

“Can the elves help him?”

“I think that they think that they probably can.”

Another growl. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what I meant. I’m no elf. Why would I know what they’re capable of?”

“Is Wayne still with you?”

“I left him with the elves. He looks like bacon but he doesn’t smell very fragrant. Being in his presence was making me nauseous. Lucky for him, the hospital’s natural stench of sterility overpowers everything.”

“Fine. We need to find a temporary alchemist and theorist as well as prepare some sort of statement. Get back here immediately.”

The connection terminated with a faint click.

“Gladly,” Catherine honestly said, though she had lied about one thing. She could stand Wayne. It was the milky-eyed elves making her nauseous.

Just looking at them turned something in the pit of her stomach.

— — —

“They’re glowing,” Jordan said.

“Not that much. Hardly more than normal.”

Irene disagreed. Eyes weren’t supposed to glow. Any amount of glow was automatically more than normal. In Eva’s case, it was looking like a lot more than normal.

Jordan sported a wide grin as he pressed his face right up against Eva’s. The intensity with which he stared at her eyes was almost as frightening as Eva herself. Even Eva took a step away from him with a worried look on her face.

His antics weren’t winning him any favors with Shelby. Irene’s twin took on a cross look when he moved back up next to Eva. It wasn’t until she linked her arm with his and pulled Jordan away that he finally gave some space to the glowing-eyed girl.

Part of her wondered if they were dating yet. Shelby hadn’t said anything, but that didn’t mean anything; unlike most popular depictions of twins, Shelby and Irene did not share absolutely everything with one another.

They certainly lacked the stereotypical means of telepathic communication. If they had a telepathic connection, Irene would be asking her sister what exactly the girl was thinking when she smiled and put her hand on Eva’s claw thing.

Irene sighed as she glanced at the only other participant in their little meeting. At least I’m not the only one keeping my distance.

Max was hanging back at her side. His kind smile had turned into a frown the moment Eva took her gloves off. Irene thought he was going to make a run for it when Eva pulled the leather band off of her eyes.

Irene had the decency to keep her expression neutral. She knew something was wrong with the girl and had always maintained a polite atmosphere around her. At the very least, Irene possessed the mental acuity not to offend the girl who now walked around with what amounted to knives on her fingers.

And eyes she had stolen from a demon.

They probably had all kinds of inhuman abilities.

Irene had a sinking feeling in her stomach as Eva glanced up. Their eyes met for an instant before Eva gave her a small smile.

Oh no. She can read minds.

Every nasty thought she’d ever had for Eva surfaced. She tried to blank her mind and return Eva’s smile at the same time.

It didn’t help.

The smile on Eva’s face slipped.

She knew.

Irene froze. Her eyes flicked down to Eva’s claws and then to her legs. Even if she wanted to run, she wouldn’t be able to get away.

And then what. She still lived next door. Shelby lived there too. She couldn’t–wouldn’t leave behind her sister.

“I’m sorry,” Irene blurted out. “I just need time. To process.”

“You could say that again,” mumbled Max.

“Irene,” Shelby said softly. “She’s the same Eva we’ve know–”

“I know. I know. It’s just, well, creepy. It’s how she’s seen all this time with her eyes shut. She doesn’t even need to open her eyes to know what’s going on around.” Irene glanced at the wall. “She can probably see through walls. That’s how she knew about the bull even when we couldn’t see it.”

Eva raised one shiny black finger into the air, pointing at her eyes. “Actually,” she said, “I only got these eyes last night.”

“I just, I don’t know.” Irene could feel her panic settling in. The situation was just too out there. She missed Shelby moving to her side until her twin pulled her into a hug. “I-I need a book. I need to know–to explain everything to myself.

“You just pull a demon’s eyes out and pop them into your sockets and it just works?” A small whisper of horror snapped in the back of her mind as she realized something. “And your hands are the same, aren’t they? Your pet spider is a demon too.”

Eva’s wince told Irene that her guess was correct. Magical creature from Africa my ass. “We’ve been living next to a demon.” Irene couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice.

“Is that true?” Shelby asked.

“I didn’t want to mention. My hands and eyes are pushing the limits. I could potentially get demon hunters after me with them. Widespread knowledge of Arachne would definitely give hunters cause to turn their gaze in my direction.”

“Well, I don’t know about hunters, but that seems pretty cool. Is she like a–”

“Cool? Cool? You don’t get to dismiss a demon living next to us as cool. It is a demon. They’re–”

“They’re what?” Eva interrupted. “Evil? Going to kill us all? Please. I’m perfectly willing to loan you a book to educate yourself with, but use your head a little.

“She is a demon and I apparently cannot keep a secret if my life depended on it. Which it might,” Eva added with a sigh.

“Arachne has lived next door to you since I got here. She was on the airplane. How many times has she gone on a murderous rampage?” Eva paused and tilted her head as if thinking to herself, making sure her count was correct. “None. If anything, she’s saved people. We were the ones who drove the necromancers out of town. Not the Elysium Order.

“I’m well aware that I’m creepy. Especially now with,” she raised and clacked her fingers together.

“I quickly alienated everyone at my old school. I was the creepy one who sat in the back and drew strange symbols all over her papers. By the time I realized the niceties of social interaction, it was too late. I’d already alienated myself from everyone. Only two of my fellow students ever spoke to me and that was borderline bullying.”

Eva took a deep breath as she glanced around the group. “Arachne was my friend. My first and only friend for the longest time. She wasn’t around as often–she wasn’t contracted to me then like she is now–but we always managed to be together on Halloween. Sometimes we’d have a party or even an occasional trick-or-treat.

“I’m rambling, but what I’m trying to say is this: she isn’t a murderous monster who is going to go around killing everyone.”

Eva let out a long sigh.

“Probably.”

Irene had almost been feeling bad. That feeling vanished in one word. “Probably?”

“A joke. Nothing more,” Eva said with her creepy hands raised. It was supposed to look placating, but it ended up more threatening. “If you really want a book, I do have one. It has no directions for summoning or anything, merely a neutral look at demons. Though you should keep it hidden anyway.”

“I don’t know. I just…” Irene shot her sister a glare as Shelby mouthed something to Eva. She’d probably be getting another lecture later.

A brief moment of silence reigned over the group until Jordan cleared his throat.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “how did you see?”

“That’s a secret.”

Jordan’s face fell. The look of absolute dejection on his face immediately turned Eva’s features softer.

The manipulative jerk.

Not that Irene was going to complain. She wanted–no, needed to know.

“Technically it isn’t a magic that proper mages should know, so I’ll skimp the details. Basically I constantly spread a dust in the air around me. Very tiny particles and not even that much, but I could sense them. Therefore I could sense whatever they landed on and get a picture of my environment.”

“I see,” Jordan said with a nod. “Improper magic?” He made a light humming noise.

A familiar humming noise.

Irene could see the gears turning in his head, searching through all the knowledge he had pilfered from his family library for any spell that resembled Eva’s description. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember anything. The shadow thing he did was bad enough. Irene did not want him becoming anything like Eva.

“Both Zoe Baxter and Wayne Lurcher knew about it, so you could say it was cleared,” Eva said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“But,” Max said a little louder than he normally spoke. He shuffled his feet nervously as all eyes, including Eva’s, turned to him. “But do your new eyes do anything special?” The first sly grin appeared on his face since the start of their conversation. He put both hands on his hips and puffed out his chest. “Can they see through things?”

Irene let out a small groan as he wiggled his hips.

“No, Max,” Eva said with a very visible roll of her eyes, “I can’t see your dick.”

He immediately started sputtering, prompting raucous laughter from Shelby. Why the boy went through all the effort for the lewd joke and then got embarrassed when Eva called him out, Irene doubted she’d ever understand.

“As far as I can tell so far,” Eva continued, “these eyes aren’t much different from human eyes. A little sharper under certain circumstances and a little blurrier under others. Colors are off a little as well. Blacks are, well, blacker. Whites are slightly grayer. The colors in between suffer at varying degrees. Nothing that affects everyday living.”

Eva shook her head. “I can’t stay for much longer. Shalise, Juliana’s father and Juliana are still back at my other house and I don’t really want them exploring too much while I’m not there.”

“Other house?” Jordan asked.

“There was an incident last night–the reason we’re not in class right now. I’m sure you’ll hear about it. But I was entertaining Juliana’s father at a place I own in town. They decided it would be safer to spend the night there.”

“Safer? Is there anything we need to do?”

“Probably not. I’d avoid going into town. If you see anything suspicious like,” Eva let out a very forced cough, “strange creatures, then notify either myself, Zoe Baxter, Wayne Lurcher, Zagan, Martina Turner, or Catherine.”

“Strange creatures?”

Eva let out a sigh. “Two things attacked Zoe last night. My mentor is trying to find out where they came from or why. She’s mostly fine, don’t worry. Arachne, Wayne Lurcher, and I killed them, so don’t worry about rampant creatures. Wayne was injured. I think we will be having a substitute in his class for a while.”

Max’s momentary smile vanished from his face. “First zombies then ‘strange creatures?’ What is it with this place?”

“Don’t forget Eva’s bull,” Shelby said with a half-forced grin.

“Hey. It wasn’t my bull. I had nothing to do with that incident.”

Max just shook his head. “Are all magical schools like this?”

“Good question. Look up the answer or ask around. I’d be interested in knowing the answer when I get back.”

“When is that going to be?”

“Tonight if I have anything to say about it.” Eva shook her head. She walked to the study room door mumbling under her breath. “People having free reign of my prison while I’m not around is a recipe for disaster. I just hope everyone is in the same number of pieces they were in when I left.”

She stopped with one hand on the handle and spun, pointing a single finger in the other hand directly towards Irene.

Her heart skipped a beat before Eva smiled. “I’ll grab that book for you. And,” she swept her finger towards the rest of the group, “try to keep this a secret. If you must talk to someone other than me, please go to Wayne Lurcher or Zoe Baxter. Use discretion and no rash decisions. Please.”

With one last, almost pleading look, Eva left the room.

“Prison?” Jordan said.

Max glanced at him. “Same number of pieces?”

“I told you she was creepy.”

— — —

“That didn’t turn out near as well as I’d hoped. An utter failure, in fact. Despite their fearsome reputation, that display was lacking.”

“I thought we were supposed to make friends.”

Her father turned his overwide grin down on Des. “You are to make friends. I have other plans.”

Des frowned. That wasn’t what he told her before school started.

“Now don’t sulk. Come, give Daddy a hand.”

With only the most superficial of sighs–Des did like helping her father work–she stepped up to the slab. She couldn’t help but feel a tingle inside as their latest acquisition wriggled beneath the bindings.

Streaks of water ran down his temples and pooled in the bowl beneath his skull. Tears of Despair. They’d fetch a good price. Des sealed off the bowl–contaminating it would lower the potency.

The man’s watery eyes looked into her own, pleading for release.

Des was happy to oblige.

The snapping of gloves onto her hands was always a satisfying sound. She started her incision at the shoulder and brought it down to the base of the sternum. A second cut from the opposite shoulder drew past the sternum to the man’s navel.

“So,” her father said as he helped pin back the flaps of skin, “how is school going?”

“It’s like the old school, daddy. Hugo helps scare away the worst of them.” Des had to raise her voice to be heard over the whir of the bone saw digging into the man’s ribcage. “Using magic hurts too.”

“Hurts? What do you mean, hurts? You’re not supposed to feel pain.”

“I don’t know how else to say it. I get out of class and want to do nothing but sit in a corner without moving.”

“Rejection? No. I tested thoroughly. Are you eating enough? You must eat twice as much, or more, than you used to.”

“I’m having two helpings at every meal,” Des said with insistence. She really had. Even when it hurt. Even when everyone pointed and whispered behind her back. Getting a larger stomach might help with the first problem. Nothing would help the second problem.

Thinking about school brought up ill memories. Des shook her head and sighed. “I’m glad you got school canceled for the rest of the week.”

“That,” he said with an even wider smile, “was an accident. As I said, disappointing. I thought the short one had a good head on its shoulders. Then neither of them follows orders. Pathetic. What do people see in them?”

Des shook her head as she carefully removed the man’s stomach. Even without the proper ability to smell, spilling its contents always ended up with an annoying cleanup.

“Can’t I stay here with you, daddy? I don’t want to go back.”

“Ah-ah,” he said as he ticked one gloved finger back and forth. “At the very least, Hugo would be more useful if he learned magic. I’ll see about tweaking your caloric intake to something more manageable.”

“But daddy, I’m sure Hugo could manage–”

“Oh, take out the heart too.”

Des glanced down at the faintly beating heart in her hands. She estimated less than a minute, roughly thirty to thirty-five beats remained. Holding on until the last beat was one of her favorite parts. But removing it?

She tossed a confirming glance at her father.

“We won’t need it. I’ve got a different heart to try out.”

“A different heart?” Twenty. Nineteen

“Oh yes. I’m not sure if it will work, but no harm in trying.” As he glanced at their subject, his grin curled upwards until it started threatening to cut off the top of his head. “Well, except for you of course. I don’t expect you to be worried about that much longer.”

Des doubted the man was still conscious. Seven. Six. They hadn’t given him anything to keep him awake until the last minute.

A shame really.

Two. One. Zero. Des let out a satisfied sigh as the flesh went still. Perfect.

“Why not use the heart in its own body? That’s better, right daddy?”

“Usually. This is a special case. An experiment, if you will.” He turned off to one side and shouted, “Hugo!”

The glassy-eyed boy wheeled in a sheet covered gurney.

“Killing them just makes everything disappear. But your future friend gave me an idea. Several actually, but this one idea is required for the others. You see, parts of them don’t disappear if they were detached before death.”

He whisked off the sheet and tossed it over Hugo’s head.

Three arms, a leg from the knee down, and several things Des couldn’t even guess at all lay on the table. Claws, tentacles, and even eyes. None of them looked remotely human.

“It was tricky and quite enjoyable trying to figure out exactly how much I could get away with before the things died.”

He took one arm off the slab and placed it over their current subject’s arm. “We’ll attach analogous limbs where they go, removing the existing meat. The rest,” he took a hook-like thing–Des couldn’t even decide what it might have been originally used for–and started placing it around the body. “Well, we’ll handle them on a case by case basis.”

Des took the knee-length leg. There was no indication whether it was a left or a right leg. Looking at it closely, it might have even been a hand. “We won’t be able to make these very fast.”

“We’ll get faster with practice. Once this one is finished, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help. Then the next ones we build will help build more which will help build more. And so on! Besides, trying new things is fun! And,” he reached up and pinched both of Des’ cheeks. She could feel the sticky blood he left behind. “It is good bonding time.”

Des would have blushed if she could. She was about to comment back, but her father already had the man’s arm off. How he managed that fast, Des had no idea. She’d have to work double time to even keep somewhat near him.

“Huh,” he said. He brought a bent stitching needle right in front of his wide grin. “I think we need the heavy-duty needles.”

— — —

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Nel tore the tentacle out of the air in front of her and flung it across the chamber. It landed with a slop against the floor. She slammed her hands into the marble altar.

None of her tension left with that brief bout of rage.

She was so tired. Nel collapsed on the altar, putting her head against the cold marble. Just a short rest.

The peace was intoxicating. Relaxing every day with Lady Ylva. Being well-fed and well-rested. Nothing trying to kill her–probably.

Nel might be a slave, but it was a comfortable life. She doubted Lady Ylva would disallow short trips outside of her domain. She hadn’t bothered asking; it wasn’t like she could leave while the Elysium Order might still be looking for her. Maybe in a year, she’d risk it.

All the peace and quiet made her forget the demands of being an augur.

It wasn’t like she let her abilities wane. Nel kept up tabs on all the people who might potentially become a threat to her. Eva, Arachne, Devon, and Zoe first and foremost. She wouldn’t call it spying, at least not to their faces, but it definitely kept her from atrophying.

No. Simple scrying wasn’t the problem. Finding a target with no information about them or their whereabouts was not only stressful, but near impossible.

And the stupid tentacle monster’s limbs did not help.

Nel had told Eva multiple times, ‘I can only track back the last fifteen minutes of their lives.’ Tracing through someone’s steps further than fifteen minutes got exponentially harder with every passing minute. It was technically possible, but very difficult. The strain from attempting to look further back was the biggest source of her exhaustion.

She’d only been an augur for a year and a handful of months. A task like this would have been handed to one of the higher augurs in the order. The more experienced.

When working for the Elysium Order, any potential fetter would be shipped immediately to the augur. Even at the cost of nuns. Haste was important and they knew it.

What does Eva do? She comes in five hours after the thing died and has the gall to ask Nel who was the one to order the thing around.

Nel would have punched the little abomination in her face had she not been worried that Eva would kick her down the pit with her new legs.

Then there was Lady Ylva. She had a brazen personality at the best of times.

Finding out that two demons had ignored her ring set her off on a rampage.

Nel vowed then and there to never be the cause of ire for the woman. Only a single chain kept the throne in the center chamber from falling into the pit. She had yet to return from the room of sands and water.

There was no doubt in Nel’s mind that the demon would want to know who ordered the attack on Zoe. Nel hoped to have the information by the time Lady Ylva returned.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Nel could search through every building in Brakket within an hour. It wasn’t that large of a town. But the enemy didn’t need to be in town. They could be in Cuba for all Nel knew. When hunting for the Elysium Order, there was always some intel that led to even a vague location. Some starting place to focus her efforts.

This was so far out of her expertise.

But she would try.

Nel lifted her head from the marble slab and slid the frankincense right under her nose. She took a deep breath and started searching.

She couldn’t be useless. She couldn’t afford to be useless. Lady Ylva would realize her mistake in taking Nel in and kick her out to the nuns.

Or worse.

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003.006

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“Professors Baxter, Kines, and Zagan?”

“We’re a lot larger this year, probably because of Professor Zagan.”

The three professors stood in the center of the dueling rings. Franklin Kines spoke to the students about learning combat and a new outline and schedule for the mage-knight club courtesy of Zagan.

The majority of it was the same as last year, so Eva felt little need to pay attention.

Instead, Eva cast her sight around in full, inspecting everyone she could. Irene was correct. Including Irene and Max, almost the entire second year class had shown up along with more older students than the previous spring.

Not many first year students. Only two, though Eva couldn’t be entirely sure; some freshmen might be big enough to pass as third years.

The two freshmen bothered Eva. There was something off about both of them. The male barely had a heartbeat. It beat at about the same rate a regular person’s heart ticked at during sleep. Apart from that, he wasn’t that strange.

The female, Eva didn’t know what to make of her. Her heart worked fine, but the veins were all messed up. Every so often there would be a jagged point. It was like looking at her circulatory system through a broken mirror. Some parts of it seemed disconnected entirely. There were blood pockets that didn’t seem to move at all.

All that was in addition to her missing several organs.

Eva nudged Juliana and leaned in to whisper. “Don’t look too long or too obviously, but you see that girl over there?” Eva asked with a hopefully discrete point of her finger.

Juliana leaned around Eva’s shoulder. It didn’t take long to figure out who Eva was talking about despite the crowd if her elevated heart rate was any indication.

“Describe her for me.”

“Curly blond hair, short. One green eye and one brown eye. Stitches all over her face, down her arms, and around almost every joint on her fingers.” Juliana gave a small shudder. “She looks like she lost a recent fight with a lawnmower.”

Eva nodded her thanks.

“Something wrong with her?”

“Apart from everything you just said? Her insides look like they’ve been through a blender.”

More than a few people were staring at her. With Juliana’s description, it wasn’t hard to see why.

“Should we be keeping an eye on her?”

Eva shrugged. “I don’t see why we should. So long as she doesn’t bother me, I don’t particularly care about her.”

“That seems cruel,” Juliana said with a frown.

“Cruel would be making fun of her or otherwise bullying her. I don’t care about a lot of people in this room, because she has a few stitches and scars doesn’t make her special. I was merely curious about her appearance.”

A lie, but not an overly big one. The jagged veins and arteries didn’t disturb Eva so much as her missing organs. She had a stomach but no liver or kidneys. Her intestines were far shorter than normal, only a few feet. There were no reproductive organs at all. Or, at least, they weren’t receiving blood.

She did have three things inside her abdomen that Eva couldn’t identify.

A demon, perhaps. Not one she’d ever heard of, but that wasn’t saying much.

Zagan and Arachne had odd internal biology as well, Zagan having four stomachs among other things. Arachne’s tube for a heart and general weirdness due to a lack of an internal skeleton.

Of course, Eva’s own insides were off as well. Her lack of internal skeleton was confined to her hands and legs, but anyone who observed the world in the same manner that she did would be thrown for a loop.

Except Arachne wasn’t freaking out. The spider-demon stayed latched to Eva’s chest in a calm manner. Maybe she simply did not view the girl as a threat.

They’d need to have a talk later.

Or…

Eva focused on Zagan.

Uninterested. Eva couldn’t see anything else in his posture. His eyes focused off on some point above the student’s heads. With his arms crossed, he leaned back against a wall.

A wall that certainly wasn’t in the middle of the room.

Some invisible thing? Blood flecks passed through the area without resistance.

Eva wondered if anyone else noticed. His clothes might obscure the lean, but from her perspective, it was pretty obvious.

Still, he didn’t so much as glance in the direction of the blender girl.

Zoe Baxter, on the other hand, alternated between glancing at the girl, glancing over the students, and glaring at Zagan from behind his back. Surprisingly, Zoe hadn’t spoken to Eva about Zagan.

“Upper years will be instructed and monitored by Professor Zagan, middle years by myself, and lower years by Professor Baxter,” Franklin Kines said at the end of his speech. “Gear up and pair off.”

Eva sighed as she followed Juliana and Shalise over to the racks. She pulled on a knee-length vest and a helmet. Her own gloves were better than the ones offered. Even if they weren’t, it wasn’t like anyone she’d be up against could actually harm her hands.

“Well,” Eva said, “shall we get to it then, Shalise?”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Professor Baxter to give us instructions?”

Eva shrugged. “I was only half paying attention, but I think we’re meant to work on shields and basic projectiles. If Zoe has a problem with it, she’ll stop us and let us know.”

Shalise gave a hesitant nod before they moved to one of the unoccupied dueling rings.

“I’ll attack first then?”

“Got something that will hit me this time?” Eva asked with a grin.

A polite smile was all Eva got in return.

A polite smile and a ball of electricity. Eva could feel it burning through her flecks of blood as it arced towards her.

Eva held out her hand in front of her–forgoing her wand; there wasn’t enough time to reach for it as it was still in her pocket–and brought up an order magic shield.

Her shields were not very strong. Luckily, neither were Shalise’s lightning balls.

The electricity hit the shield, sending fractures through the ethereal wall. With a burst of extra magic, Eva repaired the cracks before any electricity could snake through to the other side.

“That’s a new one,” Eva said with surprise in her voice. The last time she saw Shalise fight, she hadn’t managed any kind of attack save for small bursts of air that were not dangerous even without a shield. “No runes?”

“I worked hard this summer,” she said with a smile. The smile slipped slightly as she said, “it isn’t as impressive as a proper lightning bolt, but Professor Baxter helped a lot to get this far.”

“It is quite impressive, I assure you Miss Ward.”

Shalise jumped a few feet as Zoe Baxter approached from behind the girl.

For once, I’m not the one being startled, Eva thought with a grin.

“I wouldn’t have expected you to be able to cast that for a few months yet,” Zoe continued, “though you could put more power into it. Keep it up and you might make a full bolt by the end of the year.”

Blood rushed to Shalise’s cheeks. She mumbled something that Eva couldn’t quite catch. Evidently, Zoe did hear it.

“Ah. Well, you best put in your greatest efforts. I shall be most pleased if you are able.” The professor’s eyes turned towards Eva. “You could do with Miss Ward’s work ethic. Do try to concentrate on your shield better, it shouldn’t have fractured like that. I will, however, commend your quick repair work.”

“Yes, Professor Baxter,” Eva said with a nod.

Despite her blood shield being near infinitely better than the order shields–twice over with Arachne’s blood–Eva could see the value in learning it. Blood was a limited quantity. She might not want to waste it on a shield when she could use it for an attack instead. Or she might not have any handy. A weak order shield could save her life.

Zoe nodded a dismissal towards the two and proceeded to another circle.

Left to their own devices, Eva and Shalise continued hurling magic at each other. Eva happily noted that her friend’s shield held up to all of her fireballs, weak though they were. Her own shield wasn’t so lucky. Every now and again, Shalise would put out enough power to take it down completely.

After twenty minutes of constant barrage, Shalise decided it was time to take a short break. Feeling worn out herself, Eva was only too happy to follow.

“I know who you are, Eva.”

Eva stopped in her tracks. She hadn’t even left the ring yet. With a sigh, she turned to face the little blended girl and her companion.

“Most people do,” Eva said. “They couldn’t stop staring at me for a good few months.” Even now, her speaking with the blended girl was drawing more than a few eyes. When she didn’t respond, Eva said, “can I help you?”

“Oh, I don’t know about helping,” she said with a wide smile, “I just wanted to talk to you. We’re a lot alike.”

Eva sighed. She waved Shalise off so the brunette could take her break. “It is generally proper to introduce oneself before starting a conversation.”

The girl slapped her forehead. Hard, if the blood rushing through her capillaries was any indication. Some of it seemed to leak out of the middle of her forehead and flowed along some stitching that became obvious as the blood–and Eva’s sight–ran down her face.

Eva frowned as the girl took no notice, even as some dripped into her eye.

“I forgot. Daddy always said to introduce myself and I forgot. My… friend is Hugo,” she said with a nod past her shoulder. “I’m Des.” She held out one hand, the hand she didn’t use to smack her face.

Eva frowned, but shook the girl’s hand anyway.

It happened so fast, Eva was left gaping. The blended girl reached up with her other hand and pulled Eva’s glove half off.

“Oh, how pretty,” she started. “Oh, but you don’t have stitching at all, that is–”

Eva shoved the girl. She flew back to the opposite end of the dueling ring where she landed in a heap.

Hugo stepped forward, looking about ready to throw a punch.

Eva took half a step back before Des managed to sit up. “Don’t hurt her Hugo, she’s our friend.”

Coating the girl with some extra blood to get a better sight on her, Eva felt her heart sink. Des’ hands still gripped Eva’s glove.

Eva’s needle-like claws slowly unbent from the compressed position they had to keep while in the gloves.

Short gasps from the watching crowd told Eva it was far too late to hide.

Arachne started squirming beneath her vest and her shirt. Instead of bothering to hide her hand, she pressed one hand against her chest, pinning Arachne.

Eva stared. Or observed. Her conversation with the blended girl had brought some attention, but now even those who had been ignoring or oblivious to her turned to stare. Each person brought more gasps or gapes, in turn drawing more people.

The chain reaction of stares couldn’t be stopped.

What to do? Eva tried to stay calm. She could see her own heart picking up speed. Just seeing that caused her to panic more.

Flee, address students, tear out the girl’s throat, release Arachne.

No, Eva thought despite her panic. Unpinning the still squirming Arachne could only worsen the situation as would attacking the blended girl.

Instead she started building up magic within herself–preparing for an infernal walk. She wanted to leave immediately, but wasn’t willing to risk a one way trip to Hell with a botched teleport.

Juliana rushed up to Eva’s side. A pillar of earth stretched from the ground and wrapped around Eva’s hand before breaking off, hiding it from view.

It took Eva a moment to realize what was happening. She almost punched the blond’s face in before she realized she wasn’t being attacked.

“What are you all staring at?” Juliana shouted. “Got nothing better to do than look at my friend?”

Eva shook her head. “Stay, Arachne,” Eva hissed. She waited a moment for the spider’s movements to die down. “It’s too late,” she said, setting her still gloved hand on Juliana’s shoulder. With a flexing of her hand, the brittle earth broke away. Eva reached over and pulled her other glove off.

That got several more gasps. Even a scream as she set it back down on Juliana’s shoulder.

Zoe Baxter was pushing her way through the crowd of students, but Eva wasn’t about to wait around for her. It was too late, her magic built up enough to safely teleport.

“Let Zoe know I’ve gone back to the prison,” Eva whispered in Juliana’s ear. “Try to keep her from incriminating herself, if possible.”

Before the room disappeared, Eva heard the blended girl say something.

“Just wait until my daddy hears about this,” she said. “He’ll be so excited.”

Eva groaned as she stumbled out of the gate. She could still feel the sizzling heat on her skin. It was all in her mind. But it sure didn’t feel all in her mind.

Infernal walking became far more tolerable after swapping out her legs for Arachne’s legs. For whatever reason, neither her legs nor her hands suffered the burn. Her chest and face still flayed off during the teleport.

She had no idea how Martina Turner did it. The dean was fully human as far as Eva could tell. There had to be a trick to teleporting without the discomfort.

Arachne slipped out from underneath her shirt and vest. The moment she had a few feet of clearance, she grew back to her regular human size. Without warning, she stepped up and wrapped her arms around Eva.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “we can live here until we find a new place.” There was a slight pause while Arachne ran her fingers down Eva’s back before she said, “what exactly happened?”

Eva sighed. “Come on,” she said, “might as well explain it to my master while we’re at it.”

“Isn’t he back in Florida?”

Her blood wards and her sight already fed Eva the information that he was, in fact, not in Florida. Eva silently led Arachne into the women’s ward kitchen.

A one-armed man stood hunched over the kitchen stove. He had a pot of water in his one hand and appeared to be just now turning on the burner’s runes.

Devon glanced up at their arrival. He gave a short snort before turning back to the stove.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in Florida?”

“Nope, and I don’t think you should be back there either.” He shook his head with a frown. “Hunters are wandering around lately.”

“Looking for you?”

“Donno.”

That was slightly unnerving. She had visited just a few months ago to collect the last of her things from the abandoned hospital. Had she stuck around, she might have run into them.

They might have shown up because she went back.

Eva suppressed a shudder and looked back at Devon. “What are you doing in my kitchen?”

“Boiling water,” Devon grunted. “You’ve got a working kitchen. I don’t.”

Eva frowned, but didn’t have much to say against that. So long as he kept to the kitchen, that is.

“You’re here at an abnormal time. Something happen?”

“Gloves got pulled off in front of most of the school. Lots of staring. One or two screams.”

Her master let out a short sigh before sliding the pot off the burner. “I warned you,” he said. “I warned you and you didn’t damn well listen did you?”

Eva didn’t say anything. She thought about protesting. Her hands being Arachne’s wasn’t exactly her choice. Devon wouldn’t care.

“Do we need to leave?”

“Don’t know,” Eva said with a shrug. “I expect Zoe Baxter will stop by. We’ll take what she says under advisement.”

Devon grumbled under his breath for a moment before stalking out of the room. “I’ll start packing.”

“I hope we stay,” Arachne said once the front doors slammed shut. The amusement in her voice was borderline hysterical. “Just so he has to unpack again.”

“Quite evil of you.”

“Well,” Arachne puffed out her chest in pride, “I am a demon.”

Eva let out a small, much-needed laugh. After a brief moment of companionable silence, Eva said, “I think I’ll lie down until Zoe gets here.”

She proceeded to the couch set out in the common room to do precisely that. Arachne followed–as Eva knew she would. Eva flopped down on the couch and lay there, staring at the ceiling.

Arachne wiggled herself into the couch. She pulled Eva’s head up onto her lap and started massaging Eva’s head.

What a mess, Eva thought as she shut her eyes. Part of her still wanted to tear that girl’s throat out.

She knew that something was wrong with Eva’s hands.

Everyone knew something was wrong, but that girl knew. She expected what she saw.

Someone told her. Eva doubted it was either of her roommates. They’d lived together for a year, more in the case of Juliana, and neither seemed the type. Zoe Baxter was worried about losing her job if any part of Eva’s life came to light, not to mention she seemed to genuinely care.

Zagan, Martina Turner, and Catherine were all possibilities.

Or… Eva felt her stomach sink. Sister Cross and a good handful of her nuns knew.

She should have just let Zagan kill Sister Cross. Shalise would have been upset, but at least the only group of people who were openly hostile towards Eva would be out of the way.

That ship sailed, Eva thought with a sigh.

Eva just started dozing off when a hard knock came at the door.

“Eva,” a voice called, “are you in?”

Much to the disappointment of Arachne, Eva pulled herself into a sitting position. “Come in,” she called out.

Zoe Baxter stepped into the room. Her eyes drifted over the two seated on the couch. She shook her head with a frown and looked straight at Eva. “Are you alright?”

“I’m not injured, if that is what you are asking.” Eva made a gesture towards one of the chairs opposite from the couch. “Have a seat.”

Zoe nodded and crossed the room. She sat with her back straight and her hands clasped together in her lap.

Her heart rate was a good portion higher than normal.

“Dean Turner,” she started, “is going to address the school tomorrow. She appeared in the dueling hall just moments after you left and started taking control.”

Eva nodded. “Is this address going to be in my favor?”

“I am unsure, but I believe so. Judging by her ordering the students back to the dorms while telling them to mind their own business.”

“If the students start writing home about a girl with demon hands, there will be trouble.”

Zoe put on a kind smile that didn’t suit her. “You’re assuming students will recognize your hands for what they are. Those with knowledge of demons are few and far between. Look at Zagan. He parades his name around openly.” She glanced off to one side with a frown. “I didn’t notice.”

“Someone will realize. If not a student, then a parent. They’ll realize how I got these hands.”

“Then we lay the blame on Sawyer.” Zoe gave a short glance towards Arachne. “It is mostly the truth. No one will blame you. They’ve all gone to school with you for the last year.”

Leaning back into Arachne with a sigh, Eva said, “students maybe. Are you willing to risk several parents pulling their children out of the school over one person? I know Juliana’s mother has been freaking out about everything last year. She can’t be the only one.”

“You leave that to the adults. Just pretend it was all the necromancer’s fault. As I said, it was at least mostly their fault.”

There was a short pause in their conversation while Eva thought. “You want me to go back then?”

“Of course I do. Others… we will have to play by ear, I think.” Zoe sighed again. Her heart rate rose at the same time. “I feel I must apologize.”

“For what?”

“I was the one who brought Des to the academy. She was a last-minute addition while I picked up Hugo, the boy she was with. I didn’t know that she would do something like this.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Eva said. A nagging voice in the back of her mind told her exactly the opposite. Even with that voice, Eva didn’t think Zoe would intentionally plot against her. At least not with their current, amicable relationship. “Someone told her, I think. If it wasn’t her, it would have been someone else.”

“Who told her?”

Eva shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think her intentions were overly malicious. She told her friend that I was a friend.”

“I don’t think she has many,” Zoe said in a quiet voice. “She only interacts with Hugo. I believe she’s frightened off most of her peers with her appearance and, quite frankly, disturbing mannerisms.”

“She looks like she’s been through a blender and glued back together.”

“I was told she had a condition. Her body has trouble healing itself, hence all the stitching holding her together. I’m not sure how she lives, but I’ve been researching obscure diseases and remedies to try to help.”

“Unsuccessful?” Eva guessed by the tone of the professor’s voice.

“So far.”

“Well, I think I could care less about her, but not so much that I’ll be ignoring her from now on. She’s caught my attention enough to warrant some snooping, I think.” Eva sighed again as Arachne gently ran her fingers through Eva’s hair. “I’m far more interested in who told her about me.”

“We’ll look into that. For now, let’s head back. Juliana and Shalise are very concerned.”

Eva allowed herself to be helped to her feet by Zoe. “I think I’ll teleport myself,” she said. “Your ‘between’ thing is unpleasant.”

“I understand,” the professor said with a frown. “Is Mr. Foster in? He should probably be appraised of the situation as well.”

“He went off to pack,” Arachne said with a grin. “We’ll leave a note saying we don’t need to go on the run quite so soon after all.”

Eva nodded and scribbled out a note to leave on the coffee table. “Arachne, if you’d be so kind as to shrink down, you can teleport with me.”

The spider-demon complied and started shifting to her spider form.

Eva froze as a thought occurred to her. “Oh no,” Eva said as she ran her fingertips over her scalp. “Irene, Jordan, Max, and Shelby were all there.”

“A good portion of the student body was there,” Zoe said quietly. “Think of it this way, you won’t have to crumple your fingers into gloves anymore.”

“That isn’t the issue. They’ve seen Arachne in spider form before.”

“Ah.”

Ah. Yeah,” Eva said. “How do I explain that away. Even if they haven’t seen her for a year, Arachne is quite distinctive.” Eva wiggled her fingers. “One of them is sure to notice the similarities.”

She wouldn’t be able to just claim that the necromancers forced the new hands on her. They’d see through that. Even if she claimed that Sawyer used Arachne in creating her new hands, they knew she was alive.

“Perhaps,” Zoe said, “simply tell them the truth.”

“The truth,” Eva bit her lip. So many people knew so many secrets that she had been trying to conceal. What were four more?

“At least part of it. Leave out the demon part and tell them Arachne is a magical creature.”

“That…” might work. “No. What if they went to Bradley Twillie asking him about magical spider-women?”

“Professor Twillie, while I respect him a great deal, doesn’t know of every creature in existence. I am willing to wager a good amount that Juliana’s father knows of more creatures than he does.”

Gears turned in Eva’s head upon hearing that. A small smile split across her face. “That might be the answer. I have a meeting with Carlos Rivas tomorrow evening. He wanted to meet Arachne in her real form.” At Zoe’s questioning look, Eva quickly explained, “Juliana let slip that she was a demon.”

Zoe Baxter’s mouth fell open for a moment. She looked about like she wanted to go yell at her student.

“But,” Eva said before she could say a word. “If the meeting goes well, maybe he could help me. We could weave some tale about Arachne being a legitimate magical creature.”

“That might be a tough sell. He has his integrity as a researcher to consider.”

Eva frowned, but nodded. “Can’t hurt to ask.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.005

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe Baxter snapped shut the book in her hands.

It was all worthless.

She had put a halt to her demonology studies–taking the terminology from Devon–to work on helping one of her new students.

No matter how many books she read on the subjects of diseases, debilitations, and illness, none of them had any answers. She’d been up and down every book and hadn’t even been able to come up with similar cases, let alone a cure.

Zoe was starting to get worried that she would have to delve into far more abstruse tomes to find any hint.

The girl’s father mentioned that they had never before come across anything that might lend a clue. With the power of Brakket Academy Library behind her, Zoe thought she might be able to find something.

She even roped Lisa into helping despite her being the nurse to the Rickenbacker dorms while Miss Finnell resided within the Gillet. She had absolutely nothing against Nurse East. He was a good medical professional and an adequate potioneer, but Eirin tended to be a tad loony at times.

So far, Lisa had found nothing. It didn’t help that Lisa hadn’t examined the girl on account of Miss Finnell vanishing for the entirety of the summer months. Despite arriving on the flight for orientation, she went back home to her father to spend some more time with him before school started in full.

She neglected to mention how she returned home.

Zoe sighed as she stood up. The book in her hand dropped back to between–Zoe would return it to the library later. She walked around her desk and came to a stop in front of her transparent office door.

First year students filed into her classroom one after another. They were always such fun to watch. Freshmen going to their first class displayed the largest range of emotions. Some came in eager, others nervous. One particular red-headed boy showed off an air of cockiness usually reserved for those with parents who trained them before school started.

Zoe doubted that young Mr. Beans had such training.

The door to Zoe’s classroom sat at the back of the room. As such, few noticed when Des and her adopted brother Hugo entered the room hand-in-hand. The class’ obliviousness did not last long. The two walked straight to the front of the room and took a seat nearest to Zoe’s lectern.

Hugo simply sat. His eyes unfocused as he stared straight ahead.

Des, on the other hand, seemed fairly chipper. With a smile on her face, she pulled out a book and immediately put her nose in it.

Then the whispers began.

The rest of the class had been conversing normally up to that point. Now they pointed and half covered their mouths as they spoke among the small cliques that formed over the summer.

Zoe expected this and had given due warning to both Des and her father. Both simply nodded and had a small solemn look–not that Doctor Finnell lost his wide smile–which gave Zoe the feeling that it happened at some previous school. They both agreed to have Des attend despite that.

Still, it annoyed her to see others so blatantly disrespecting their fellow students.

Zoe almost entered the room. The bell would be ringing shortly and she liked to start the year off with a bang. Or a bolt, as the case was.

Two students approaching the front desk gave her pause.

Part of Zoe hoped that they were going to be nice, polite, and perhaps even become friends.

The taunting looks on the two girls’ faces made Zoe think otherwise.

Yet Zoe stayed her hand. She’d wait and watch how it played out.

Both girls walked up, both attempting to hold in laughter by the looks of things. The one in the front–a black-haired girl Zoe did not yet know the name of–immediately opened her mouth and launched into a deluge of words.

Des didn’t seem to notice anyone speaking to her for a few moments. Once the girls started laughing, she looked up from her book.

The black-haired girl had a few more words to say before both burst out laughing again.

First, Des’ smile slipped. She frowned and looked nearly ready to cry. Hugo put a hand on her shoulder and Des’ face went blank. Her lips curled into a soft smile and she spoke a few words. Looking back to the students, Des’ hand moved up to her face.

Zoe couldn’t make them out from behind her privacy warded door, and the girl’s back was turned so Zoe couldn’t even attempt to read her lips. The bullies did hear the words and they saw whatever her hand was doing.

Grins slipped from their faces and one took a step back. Another student, one who merely sat nearby and was not participating, actually looked a little sick. The girls didn’t say anything as they retreated to the far corner of the room.

Des turned back to the front with a bright smile on her face, looking none the worse. With a short word to Hugo, she buried her face in her book once again.

Zoe waited another minute before entering the room. The bell for class to begin rang the moment she stopped at her lectern. After sweeping her eyes over the room, Zoe glanced down at the curly-haired girl in front of her. “Miss Finnell, if–”

“Just Des, please.”

Great, Zoe thought as she suppressed an eye-roll, another one. “If you would stay behind for a few moments after class.”

At the growing look of horror on the young girl’s face, Zoe quickly added, “do not worry, you are not in trouble.”

The look of horror subsided with a small nod from the girl. Her curly hair bounced around her head as she did so.

“Now then,” Zoe said. She raised her wand and cast a lightning bolt against a special panel built into the wall of her room. “A wand is but one of many items that perform the function of a foci.”

With that, her lesson started.

— — —

“Horray,” a silky voice droned, “you’ve reached your second year of schooling. Unfortunately, the lot of you are absolutely trash at anything worthwhile.

“I’d say that you shouldn’t feel bad, that your utter worthlessness is expected of fourteen year olds, but we know that isn’t the case. This very class has a student on par with a third or even a fourth year student.”

Juliana shrank into her chair as most pairs of eyes turned towards her. Some were filled with envy, others annoyance or hate.

Being called worthless to their faces had a lot to do with that. It wasn’t an untrue statement. Juliana felt confident that she could fight the entire class–Eva and Arachne not included–and come out without a single scratch. That didn’t make it okay for a teacher to tell the students they were worthless.

Especially when it turned the focus to her.

Not even five minutes into the class and she was already hating their magical combat instructor. She didn’t want to. When she walked into the room and saw who it was, Juliana hoped she might actually learn something outside of her own studies this year.

As the professor glared at her with a golden glint in his eyes, Juliana felt that hope wither. He wasn’t here because he wanted to teach. He didn’t like children. He certainly did not like her. The demon was here because of a contract with someone. Nothing more and nothing less.

At least, Juliana assumed that to be the case; she had no clue who a devil would willingly contract with.

“Dean Turner wishes to rectify that,” he said after the students had a good stare. “This won’t be like your general magic classes where you learn a thought pattern and practice it for a while before moving on. You will be drilled repeatedly and ceaselessly on any and every spell that can be used to fight. Your end of term test will include casting your spells while under a sleeping potion.”

Juliana frowned. Was that a joke? Was that serious?

She stared at his face, trying to figure it out. Her stare kept up until Zagan turned and gave her a wink.

Juliana felt her face heat up. She couldn’t believe this was the same person as the demon that had fought Sister Cross.

Sure, he lacked the horns and giant wings. They had been too far to see his eyes or hear his voice. His knees bent in the proper direction for a human. And he wasn’t breathing fire.

But it was still him. Juliana could tell.

The rippling muscles that covered his bare chest during the fight were still there. They might be covered up by his solid black suit, but Juliana could almost see straight through the cloth. He definitely had the same body type. More notable than his body type was his stance.

The professor had the same feet apart, arms crossed, utter pose of contempt as the devil from that night.

Eva, standing on the other side of Juliana, could tell it was him as well. Then again, she knew the moment they got their schedules and saw his name on the paper. She crumpled up the paper with grit teeth. Eva hadn’t bothered to share the cause of her ire.

That she knew the demon’s name while Juliana did not was likely the reason.

Shalise stood beside Juliana with a small smile on her face, completely ignorant of their professor’s true nature. Excitement radiated off of the girl. Ever since they heard that there would be a proper combat class, she’d been nonstop practicing her air magic to try to get ready.

The eyeless glare Eva had been giving the professor since the moment they walked in had not subsided in the least. It was scary how she could do such a thing.

“You may call me Zagan.”

His golden eyes scanned over the entire room, left to right, as if daring someone to comment.

No one said a word.

“By show of hands, how many of you participated in the little dueling club that went on last semester?”

Apart from Juliana’s friends, only three students raised their hands.

“Disappointing,” he said. “You’re already woefully beneath where you could be,” he gestured again towards Juliana, “and yet hardly any of you have the drive to improve. Do you take your ability to do magic for granted?”

Irene was the one who raised her hand. She started speaking without being called upon. “Not all of us intend to pursue careers involving fighting.”

Zagan’s lips curled into a cruel sneer. “Whatever you intend to do with your life doesn’t matter to me, yeah? Do you think that excusing your lack of ability by saying that you don’t want to fight will absolve you of your inadequacies? Do you think that this girl’s,” he gestured again towards Juliana, “advanced abilities will be a detriment in any profession she chooses?”

His comment caused another few students to glare in Juliana’s direction. Part of her wondered if he had a specific distaste for Juliana. Even if he didn’t, the constant singling out grated on her nerves.

Irene put her arm down, though she kept up a defiant look at their professor.

“To start with, we’ll be drilling your basic attack–fireballs, ice spears, lightning, and earth shards–until you are able to cast with some degree of competency.”

“Not shields?” Drew asked from the back row. “That was the spell we were attempting to master in Professor Kines’ class.”

“Learn to attack before learning to defend, yeah? Even with the strongest shield, if all you do is sit and cower then your shield will eventually break. You must strike back in order to defend.” Zagan shook his head side to side with a sigh as if the question was something everyone should already know.

It honestly was something everyone should already know. If Drew had paid any attention in Zoe’s class, he would know.

“Besides, order magic is complex, tricky, and not suited towards combat. Until you’ve advanced your understanding and abilities with elemental magic, your shields won’t stop much of anything.

“Now, let’s get to work.”

Zagan had everyone form up in front of human sized targets. They were using the same dueling building that Professor Kines used the previous semester. As such, the ground was made from earth and there were troughs of water between the dueling rings.

There were even candles set out for the pyrokinetics to use despite fire being the easiest element to conjure. Most fire mages learned to conjure a flame before any other aspect of pyrokinetics.

At his command, the class began slinging their attacks at the dummies.

Five shards of stone split off the floor in front of Juliana. With a flick of her wand, a burst of magic launched all five straight at the target. All sunk a good few inches into the chest area.

More than a few students sent glares her way.

Juliana eased back and lazily flung a single shard or two every now and again.

After about ten minutes of slogging earth around in a way to try to avoid drawing unnecessary attention while Zagan went around lecturing individuals who weren’t her, Juliana decided to switch tactics.

She decided to start with water first–it was her mom’s secondary element, after all. Juliana had a small amount of training in wielding it. Not a fraction of what she had in earth, but enough to get started at least. They’d be choosing a secondary element sometime later in their elemental magic class anyway.

The troughs of water inset into the floors weren’t far away from Juliana. She waved her wand at the nearest grate and drew out a small stream of water.

Launching ice shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was different enough from earth to make a difference, but not by much.

The real trick was forming the water into spike shapes and then freezing it before it reverted to its more natural globule shape.

Most of her attempts winded up being misshapen blobs of ice. She launched them at her target anyway. Most missed by a wide margin, but it was easier to launch the blobs and try again with fresh water than it was to unfreeze and reform the ice.

Unlike her earth shards, the water blobs missed. They didn’t fly though the air like earth did. Part of it was the aerodynamics, but part of it was also simply the idiosyncrasies of launching a foreign element. Still, she managed to propel them away from her far better than some of her hydroturge classmates.

Every fifth one or so, Juliana managed to form into a more-or-less proper spike of ice. She took care to try to remember every thought pattern she had whenever she managed that. And, every time she managed a spike, Juliana took care aiming.

Most of her spikes at least brushed the target if they did not strike it directly.

“Rivas,” a voice half shouted from behind Juliana just as she formed a proper spike.

The ice dropped to the ground and shattered as her concentration snapped like a twig. She spun around, metal clinging to her already turning to liquid as she activated her ferrokinesis. The sword of metal forming out of her sleeve stopped just inches from Zagan’s face as he leered over her.

He didn’t even flinch.

“You will be serving detention with me on Saturday alongside,” he glanced to one side, “Anderson.”

Juliana followed his gaze to her fellow student.

On the other side of Shelby stood a very blank-faced Jordan. A ball of fire clung to the tip of his wand. He frowned but gave a small nod.

“Detention?” Juliana said as she looked back towards the professor. She wasn’t going to just take it. “For what?”

“You both disobeyed me. I believe I said to use your element. Neither of you are using your element.” A sharp glint grew in his eyes as he spoke. “I will not suffer insolence from the likes of you.”

Juliana snapped her jaw shut. She had a feeling he meant more than just children by his last statement.

“Well,” Zagan said as he pulled himself to his full height, “what are you all staring at? Get back to work unless you want to join them.”

Nobody needed telling twice.

— — —

Every time Zagan walked past, he glared at Eva.

She was trying her best. She didn’t want detention. Her fireballs just weren’t up to snuff.

Arachne helped out. She rearranged herself into a position that couldn’t be comfortable for the poor spider, but she managed to peek out of Eva’s shirt between two buttons. Without speaking to one another, they managed to work out a sort of communication.

If Eva missed, Arachne would tap out a ‘no’ followed by a few taps on Eva’s stomach to the left, right, high, or low. The number of taps indicated by how much Eva missed.

Luckily, Eva wasn’t missing often. It wasn’t like the targets moved.

Ideally, fireballs would either explode with a concussive force on contact or splash burning fire over the target. Eva’s did neither. She could make them hit. She could make them hot. None did anything more than leave a small scorch mark before vanishing.

The score on her exams actually got docked down for that. One aspect of the exam included both concussive force and another had her keep the flames burning in a far more fluid manner than fire had any right to be.

In her defense, it was harder than it sounded.

Eva couldn’t actually see the fire. It burned away any blood she allowed to get close to it. After the first few balls of fire sailed through the air and struck the targets, Eva kept a small vacuum of blood between her and the target. She would end up burning through all of it before class finished otherwise.

Now, the heat warming her hand through her glove was the only real indication she succeeded at conjuring it. Once the fire left her hand, it vanished from her sight.

Still, Zagan glared. He never said a word to her, unlike the words of ‘encouragement’ he had for the other students.

Not that Eva wanted any of his ‘encouragement.’ From what she overheard, none of it seemed all that useful.

His glares were something of a mystery. Eva didn’t think the two of them were on bad terms, even if Eva would be happier never meeting him again. Perhaps he was upset about the demon attacking during Zoe Baxter’s seminar the other week.

Zagan hadn’t spoken with her since before that attack. If he or Martina Turner suspected Eva of having anything to do with it, neither acted on their suspicions.

Towards the end of class, Arachne poked Eva right in the bellybutton.

Eva let out a truncated yelp as a the fireball she held fell and nearly incinerated her pants.

Of course the messed up one splashes all over, Eva thought as she patted down her clothes.

She was about to give Arachne a harsh swat disguised as brushing off her shirt when she felt it.

The hairs on Eva’s neck stood on end as a wave of hot air blew past her head.

Eva mentally cursed herself–she hadn’t lost concentration on her surroundings in a long while. Slowly, she turned to face Zagan.

“Something wrong, Zagan?”

“My office. After class.” With that, he turned and continued stalking around the students.

Arachne repeatedly tapped ‘no’ on Eva’s shoulders as she turned back to the target dummy. Ignoring Zagan, despite Arachne’s repeated tapping, couldn’t have good consequences. “He wouldn’t try something in the middle of school, would he?” Eva whispered to Arachne.

The demon’s ‘no’ taps immediately swapped to Eva’s opposite shoulder.

As the bell chimed for the end of class, Eva found herself hanging back despite Arachne’s increased protests. She waved off her friends and told them that she would catch up afterwards.

The small antechamber to the main dueling gymnasium seemed more like a locker room than an office. The drains on the floors beneath a set of shower heads were a dead giveaway. Zagan didn’t seem to care. He marched in with Eva in tow and plopped down behind a desk that sat on the hard tile floor.

It didn’t look much like it was supposed to be there.

“So,” Zagan said with a glare, “bringing your pet demon to class? You haven’t banished her yet?”

Eva frowned as Arachne drummed her legs on Eva’s back. That’s what this is about? “You’re one to talk. Why are you here at all?”

“I am fulfilling my contractual obligations.” He kicked his feet up onto his desk. “It isn’t like anyone could do anything about me if they found out. You on the other hand–”

“Arachne accompanied me to every class from September to November last year and there were no problems. She only stopped because of the nuns wandering the city. Nuns that we helped remove.”

Zagan shook his head side to side. “I warned Martina about Catherine already, but she insists her familiar won’t cause problems. With you, your pet–” Arachne bristled lightly, “–that demon on the horizon, and our unknown summoner all tainting the air, it is a wonder we’re not onset by hunters already. Too many in close proximity.”

“Devon seems to think that no hunter would attack while you are hanging around.”

Zagan shrugged. “I won’t be around forever. Of course, you might not have to worry at all. I may decide to raze this school before returning to the Void when my contract ends.” As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t think I’m fond of teaching.”

Eva’s frown deepened. “When does your contract end?”

“Could be a year, could be twenty. It isn’t time based. The details are for me and me alone, however.”

Before Eva could comment, Zagan switched tracks.

“You truly are tainting this place. I can smell it. You smell like a demon, though I hope that would be obvious to you. But it has rubbed off. Your friends smell like demons as well.”

Eva drew in a sharp breath. My friends smell like demons?

“Don’t be silly, embryonic one.” Zagan said with a brushed hand. “They aren’t like you. It would be interesting to watch, between you and Martina’s plans. Maybe I’ll preserve the school just for that. If you are interesting enough that is. If not, well, I might get bored.

“Of course, it will be fun to see you two panic as hunters arrive without me here. I hope you prepare better than Martina is doing, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Eva said after a moment. She had a sudden urge to speak with Devon regarding what could be done about hunters at the school. Her master would have ideas. They hid out in Florida for years.

Though they never had Arachne constantly summoned in Florida. She only turned up on occasion for treatments or jobs.

“Well,” Zagan said, “what are you standing around for. Be gone with you, foul creatures.” He started laughing to himself as Eva backed out of the room.

“Don’t worry,” Eva whispered to Arachne. She stroked the spider-demon lightly over her shirt. “We are not sending you back. Not while Zagan and Martina Turner are around. Even if that means we’ll have to deal with hunters.”

Arachne gave Eva a few slow taps on her right shoulder as they headed off towards their second class of the first day.

— — —

Des idly rubbed one of the lines of stitches running from her forehead to her ear. She nodded along as Professor Zoe started her talk about the treatment she was getting from her fellow students.

It wasn’t going to help. She’d heard this speech from teachers other than Professor Zoe before. Des had already resigned herself to being ‘freaky Des’ once again.

This time was different. This time she had a loyal companion. Hugo couldn’t betray her. Hugo couldn’t make fun of her.

So, Des smiled. She had at least one friend here. If her father was correct, she might even get a second.

“I am curious, Miss Des. What did you say to those girls?”

Des’ smile grew a few inches. “Oh! Those nice girls were just wondering why my eyes were different colors.”

She lifted her finger up to her right eye and carefully pressed her finger above her eyelid. Being extra careful–it wouldn’t do to crush another one, daddy had been angry enough the first time–she compressed it to one side so Professor Zoe could see the stitches.

“I showed them.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.002

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Trees whisked past. Brush and ground vanished into the distance.

Long, black hair trailed through the air gracefully, almost parallel to the ground. She was a sight to see.

At least, that’s how Eva imagined it. The sad reality was that her hair clung to the sweat on her back in a giant, tangled rat’s nest. It would take a lot of work to get it back to the normal.

Next time, Eva thought, I’ll put it up in a bun.

Still, Eva couldn’t help but to laugh. She hadn’t run since November and she hadn’t ever run as fast or as long.

And she could go faster. Her brain said that her legs could take it.

Eva wasn’t worried about her legs. She worried about her hips and her spine. They were still regular old human bone.

So she deliberately held back.

It was still faster than normal.

But, speed wasn’t everything. In fact, running seemed natural to her new legs. It was finesse that she had problems with. Walking wasn’t so bad, but she doubted she’d be dancing any time soon.

Of course, Arachne didn’t see it that way. Arachne wanted to start up dance lessons as soon as her legs finished growing back in.

Eva slowed to a stop, using a tree to support her while she caught her breath. Despite her legs not aching in the slightest, she was panting for air. Sweat dripped off of her, out of her thoroughly soaked tee-shirt. Her heart hammered in her chest.

It couldn’t be healthy to keep up such a pace. Her core was still human, after all. Perhaps in a year or two as the treatment took hold more and more.

Arachne followed behind at a languid pace. Her body stayed just inside the bubble of Eva’s vision. She walked along with six of her spider legs due to her humanoid legs not being fully formed. It wasn’t that she couldn’t go faster if she needed to.

But she didn’t.

Clinging to Eva was her thing–physical contact and touching and all the closeness. All of it had vanished. She’d been standoffish as of late.

Eva frowned as the spider-woman slowly approached.

At first, she thought Arachne was upset or even angry about the legs. Her behavior changed the day after Eva got them. Eva dismissed that notion.

Arachne wasn’t upset or angry.

She was worried.

Fidgets, jitters, and general nervousness replaced all the physical affection she once showed. There were marks around her mouth as if she had been biting what passed for her lips.

Even now as she approached, she wrung her claws. Her gaze turned down to the ground and she had an open-mouthed frown on her face.

Six legs carried her forwards, but they slowed down more and more as she got closer and closer.

Arachne was worried and Eva had a feeling she knew what about.

Frankly, it was beginning to grind on Eva’s nerves.

At least the slothful demon had given Eva ample time to catch her breath. “Arachne,” Eva called out as she neared. “Let’s talk.”

There was just a slow nod from Arachne in return.

“What’s on your mind lately?”

Arachne’s sharp teeth clamped down on the hard chitin of her lips. The only real way Eva could tell was the little bit of blood she got on them when she cracked her carapace.

Eva smiled and waited patiently.

After what seemed like an hour, Arachne finally opened her mouth to speak. “I had plans,” she said. “Then the necromancers and your hands. After that, you didn’t let me out of the prison. We only saw each other on weekends,” she trailed off with a frown. “Even after I moved back to the dorm…”

“What plans?”

“I–Our contract ends soon.”

“Three weeks, if I remember right,” Eva said with a smile. Her feeling proved correct. “I don’t know about renewing it. You did bite my hands off, after all.”

“That’s–I–” Arachne glanced up at Eva. Her eight eyes didn’t have the same opening and closing methods that a human had. Even still, Eva was certain that the spider-woman’s eyes widened considerably. “I did what I thought was best. And I–”

“Don’t regret it,” Eva said with a smile. “I know.”

It might have been unnecessarily cruel, but Arachne did bite off her hands. Eva had come to see the usefulness of the claws. That did not make them comfortable to have in gloves.

That was deserving of at least a little punishment.

“You’re better this way, anyway,” Arachne said with a quick nod. She sat up straighter, as much as she could with only her six legs anyway.

“So you say,” Eva said. “You did give me hands and legs for free, something I understand is quite rare based on my master’s poor luck in finding a replacement arm. I will take that into consideration.”

“Free is definitely rare. Finding arms is not,” Arachne said. The small bit of composure she gained deflated and she returned to nervously flexing her claws. “But, the original plan was for something different once our contract ended.”

Eva blinked her eyes. Or she would have if she had any. “Something different?” She paused for just a second before she said, “oh. You’re wanting a contract that includes a little slice of our mortal realm to merge with your domain?” Eva’s slight smile turned to a frown. “Master wouldn’t be happy with that.”

Her eyes shot up to meet Eva’s face. The eye contact lasted only a few moments before her eyes shifted off to one side. “That would be nice. But, you’ve already got that hel residing at the prison.”

Eva sighed. She rubbed her forehead with the back of her clawed hand, well away from the sharp fingers. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“She is going to be attracting hunters enough on her own without my domain multiplying everything.”

“Arachne,” Eva said as she brushed a hand on the spider-woman’s shoulder. “That’s not something we can run away from. I am walking hunter draw all on my own. Maybe not at this moment, but in a year or two? I’ll need all the help I can get fending them off.”

“You’re not ready for that yet.”

“That’s why I’ve got you,” Eva said with a smile. “And I’m sure I could rope Ylva into defending the prison, at the very least, lest she lose her foothold here.

“For now,” Eva said, “let’s just renew our contract. We’ll talk with Devon later about the domain thing. We don’t want to tie ourselves down here if we have to run away in any case.”

Except for a handful of insects, birds, and other creatures of nature, silence descended upon them. It went on for several moments before Arachne looked up and gave a single, slight nod.

It was so unlike the usual Arachne. Eva decided that she didn’t much like depressed demons.

Eva gave her a smile and pulled her into a hug. She brushed her claws gently through Arachne’s hair tendrils.

Arachne stiffened at first, but soon enough returned the hug and mirrored the action with Eva’s own hair.

At least until Eva felt a tug.

Her head snapped back.

“Ah, tangled hair,” Eva rushed to say. She quickly disentangled herself, ignoring Arachne’s apologies. “I’ll let you brush it later when we hammer out the details for our contract. For now, quit moping about and let’s run!”

Eva took off before Arachne could protest.

The spider-demon’s less slothful speed as she followed put a smile on Eva’s face.

— — —

That is the fifth person I’ve passed by this morning who was out mowing their lawn, Zoe Baxter thought as she strolled down the sidewalk. Three others had been out trimming already immaculate hedges. Two were washing their cars and one simply sat on his roof with a pair of binoculars in hand.

Every one of them stared at Zoe as she walked past.

A small shiver ran up her spine. She was beginning to regret not taking Wayne up on his offer to accompany her.

It wasn’t just that everybody in the little suburb had apparently decided to go outside and do yard work at the same time.

More than once, Zoe spotted a curtain flutter behind one of the windows while she walked by. She never saw a single person despite her mildly enhanced eyesight. That didn’t mean they weren’t there.

The houses themselves were eerie without all the synchronized lawn work or spying neighbors. Each one was built exactly the same as the next, or close enough that Zoe couldn’t see much difference. The only thing that changed between them was the shade of pastel paint.

Only the house at the very end of the cul-de-sac lacked people outside. It, oddly enough, seemed to be the one most in need of lawn care. There was a great tree outside lacking even a single leaf, the grass had seen better days–several patches were nothing more than dirt, the rest had yellowed–and the flower garden appeared to be beyond dead.

Perhaps the owner was meant to be outside today, Zoe thought, and had to change their plans because of me. She sent notice of her visit a few days ago. It wasn’t inconceivable that they would put it off for later, if they didn’t start the yard work earlier.

Zoe walked up, past the white picket fence in serious need of a paint job. She stopped just on the rickety porch and tightened her red butterfly tie. She straightened her suit and brushed off a fleck of lint that may or may not have been in her imagination.

Then, Zoe placed one hand just over her dagger. She kept her hand as inconspicuous as she could but wanted to be able to reach it quickly. Just in case.

With that, she pressed her other thumb into the doorbell ringer.

Only a moment later, almost as if he had been waiting just next to the entrance, a man opened the door. He had slicked back black hair, looked slightly malnourished–his skin was taught and showed off far too much of his skeletal structure–and wore an apron with a splattering of red on it. The wide grin on his face didn’t look very genuine.

Nothing about him set Zoe at ease.

“Zoe Baxter?”

“Indeed. You are Doctor Sam Finnell, correct?”

“Of course, come in, come in.” He stepped off to one side, allowing her in. “Will you be joining us for dinner? I was just in the middle of preparing it. One more won’t be a problem. I’ve invited the Klopeks–such nice people–and I doubt they’d mind one extra.”

“I don’t think so, Doctor Finnell. I’m sorry but I have other visits to make,” Zoe said as she moved inside, keeping her eye on the man’s hands. “You are Hugo Smith’s guardian, correct?”

“Quite so,” he said as he shut the door. “He is just in the sitting room awaiting your visit. There was another matter I wanted to speak with you about, but that can wait until after you see to Hugo, I think. We will–”

He stopped. Just stopped and stared. His already wide eyes opened wider.

“Doctor Finnell?”

“That ring,” he said in a quiet voice, though the wide smile never left his face, “it is quite… eye-catching.”

Zoe frowned and took a step back, covering the ring with her thumb. “It’s just an old heirloom,” she lied.

“Is it? I’m a collector of antique metals. I don’t suppose… no.” Doctor Finnell shook his head. “I apologize for my distraction.” He gave a light tug at his apron and said, “I do need to finish dinner prep. I trust you can handle yourself?”

“It shouldn’t be long.” Zoe said with only a hint of hesitation.

He nodded and started towards the indicated sitting room door. His hand gripped her arm so suddenly, it was a miracle he didn’t wind up with a dagger in his stomach. “Hugo is,” he started. “Well, be patient with him.”

Zoe’s hand held her focus in a firm grip. “Is there something I need to know?”

“No, no.” He pulled away from her. “I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything, I’ll be right in the kitchen,” he said with a gesture towards the back of the house. He trod off to the back, leaving Zoe alone in the entryway.

Most parents liked to be present when their children were interviewed. Some, especially those without any magical background, would insist on sticking beside their children. They tended to ask more questions than the child in question.

Not many parents, magical or otherwise, would leave their children alone with a stranger they had never met before.

Still, it would be fewer questions. And he wouldn’t be in the room. Zoe didn’t like to be too judgmental, but the man gave off some creepy vibes.

Inside the sitting room, a little boy sat in the dead center of a three-seat couch. His back was straight with near perfect posture. He kept his hands right on his kneecaps as he stared straight ahead. He didn’t so much as glance up when Zoe entered the room.

“Hugo Smith?”

He blinked. His gaze turned up towards Zoe. “I am Hugo,” he said.

“My name is Zoe Baxter. Were you told why I came here today?”

He blinked again. His eyes unfocused, dilating slightly before returning to normal. “You are an instructor at a magical academy. You recruit students. I am a potential recruit.”

“Good,” Zoe said with a small smile. “Do you mind if I take a seat?”

“I do not mind.”

Zoe took a seat in a large, wingback chair that was angled to face the couch. She settled in and pulled an envelope from her breast pocket.

“I teach magical theory at Brakket Magical Academy. The academy is prepared to offer you a full ride scholarship. That means all food, board, and necessities will be paid for or provided. There is also a small monthly allowance for you to use as you choose.”

As Zoe spoke, Hugo’s eyes returned to their unfocused state. When she finished speaking, he blinked and nodded his head.

That must have been what Doctor Finnell was talking about.

“I understand,” he said.

“Good.” Zoe waited just a moment, but Hugo didn’t seem about to say anything. “Do you have any questions, Mr. Smith?”

“No, ma’am.”

“No wonders about magic or classes or teachers?”

A blink. “I am familiar with magic. Father uses magic.”

“Oh?” Zoe suppressed another frown. “You’ve watched him then?”

A nod and a blink. “Father uses magic to–”

“To assist with minor chores around the house.”

Zoe whirled around to where the voice had come from. She barely realized that she had drawn her focus until Doctor Finnell glanced down at it.

His wide grin didn’t falter in the slightest as he looked it over. If anything, it grew wider. “Do you always draw a dagger on people who startle you?”

“I apologize, Doctor Finnell.” Zoe quickly sheathed her dagger. “I didn’t hear you approach.”

“Quite alright, quite alright. In any case, I am a mage. Sadly, I have no formal education. I am very pleased that young Hugo has the opportunity to attend a proper institute.” His slate gray eyes turned towards Hugo for a moment before he looked back to Zoe. “Is he acceptable?”

“There aren’t any problems. We detected his magic, so that is no issue. So long as he wants to go, he’ll be accepted.” Zoe held out the envelope towards Doctor Finnell. “This contains some informational material as well as a plane ticket. One of my business cards is also within. If you tap it three times, I can come and answer any additional questions.”

He opened up and glanced through the packet. It didn’t last longer than reading a word or two on each piece of information. He folded it back up with a nod. “You’re leaving now? I had hoped you might change your mind about the meal.”

“I am sorry, Doctor Finnell. I appreciate the offer, but I cannot stay for food. I have business to attend to elsewhere.” Not to mention, Zoe really didn’t feel like sticking around in the unnerving suburbs any longer.

She was glad her job did not involve much talking with parents after the students actually enrolled. Brakket had secretaries for that.

Unprofessional? Yes. Definitely. Did Zoe care? Not in the slightest.

“Oh no, that isn’t a problem,” he said with a chuckle. “Though I do wish you would reconsider.”

Zoe simply shook her head.

“However, I was rather hoping you would have time to speak with my daughter as well.”

“For attending Brakket?” Zoe shook her head at the man’s eager nod. “I’m sorry, Doctor Finnell. There was only one candidate listed for this residence. If she can’t do magic, I’m afraid there is nothing I can do. If she isn’t old enough, then I may be back next year or whenever she turns old enough.”

“Oh, I assure you, she is plenty capable of magic. She’s also the same age as Hugo here.” He moved over to clap the very still boy on his back.

It wasn’t impossible for the scan to miss a candidate. Improbable, yes, but not impossible. It nearly missed Eva the previous year. She only got picked up because Zoe ran the scan a second time.

Zoe frowned. She already had bad vibes from this place. If this daughter was anything like Eva, Zoe wasn’t sure she wanted the responsibility. Still, an interview wouldn’t hurt.

“I only brought one ticket with me, Doctor Finnell. If your daughter can indeed use magic, I’ll either come back or mail one out.”

He clapped his hands together. “Perfect,” he said. Zoe didn’t think it was possible for his smile to widen, but somehow he managed. He walked over to the doorway and called out, “sweetie, come show the nice lady your magic.”

A short figure appeared in the doorway alongside her father.

At first, Zoe couldn’t tear her eyes from the girl’s face. Her heart sank as her eyes drifted down to the girl’s arms and hands.

A clearing of a throat caused Zoe’s eyes to snap up.

“This is my daughter, Des.” He gave her shoulder a soft squeeze. “Go on and show the nice lady your magic.”

The little girl gave a nod. Her face scrunched up in concentration. After a moment, a candle-like flame appeared on the tip of her finger. She absolutely beamed at her father.

His face never dropped the large grin.

“Alright,” Zoe said. She couldn’t say no to a smile like that–the daughter’s smile, not the doctor’s grin. “I’ve got time for a quick interview.”

— — —

“Got a plan in mind?”

“As long as she sticks to what you two told me, I’ll be fine.”

Juliana let out a short snort. “Good luck. I consider myself fairly decent and she still manages to thrash me. Not this year though. I’ve been training with my mother.”

Shalise frowned. She was nowhere near Juliana’s level and she knew it. Unlike Juliana, Shalise had a secret weapon. She was counting on that and being underestimated to snatch a surprise victory.

Her nerves sent jitters all throughout her body as they approached the outdoor amphitheater. She had missed every one of the seminars before the first year of school.

Not that attending would have done any good. According to Eva and Juliana, no first years aside from the two of them actually managed to put up any kind of fight, let alone a good one.

“You might be fine,” Eva said, “but Zoe Baxter isn’t aiming to hurt or maim. The real trick is getting a hit in.”

“Like you said, she won’t see it coming.”

“I don’t know,” Juliana said, “Zoe can be pretty attentive. She’ll definitely notice gloves that you have never worn before.”

“But,” Eva said, “she won’t understand what they’re for until it is too late.” The black-haired girl turned her head towards Shalise. “If you can keep from acting like they’re anything special, that might help. Just put them on now and try not to think about them.”

If there was one sure way to get her thinking about something she shouldn’t think about, it was telling her not to think about it. Still, Shalise complied and donned her black gloves. She resolved to keep them clenched or hidden until the last moment. Professor Baxter might recognize the metal plates on the last digit for what they were.

“Hey!”

Shalise and Juliana both jumped. Eva, Shalise noted, merely gave a light chuckle. As one, the three girls turned to look behind them.

A slightly sweaty Max was rushing up the sidewalk. He came to a stop just in front of them, slightly panting. “I’m glad you are here,” he said between breaths. “I thought I was going to be the only person I knew.”

His eyes lingered on Eva for several seconds longer than anyone else. Shalise knew why. Even with Eva slouching and keeping her knees slightly bent beneath her baggy pants, she was still Shalise’s height. A few weeks ago, she’d only come up to Shalise’s chin.

They’d had plenty fun teasing Juliana while towering over her. Much to the blond’s chagrin.

“No Jordan and co?” Juliana asked, breaking the spell Eva’s height had over Max.

He shook his head. “Irene and Shelby are vacationing with Jordan’s family. Somewhere in Europe I think.”

“We’ve had class with the same group of twenty-something students for a year. You must know someone else, surely.”

Max shook his head. “That might be true, but only vaguely. I know of Drew and Jason and people, but I’ve never really spoken with them.”

“Hmm,” Juliana tapped her finger on her chin. “I can’t say I’m much different. Something to work on this year.”

“I’ll pass,” Eva said. “I’ve gotten through a whole year not talking to anyone outside our group, I’m sure I’ll get through another with no trouble. Besides,” she waved a gloved hand, “it is hard enough keeping secrets in our little group.”

Max quirked an eyebrow. “Secrets?”

Eva’s face immediately twisted into a scowl. Juliana quickly gave her a little nudge. There was an unnatural wiggle beneath her shirt as Juliana’s elbow ribbed her.

Arachne, Shalise thought. Since Eva finished her vacation, the demon had been living in their dorm without trying to hide at all. It was a tad creepy watching her walk around in her humanish form. Shalise had to keep reminding herself that the demon helped to save her life.

For that demon that saved her life, Shalise did the first thing she could think of to pull attention to herself. She smiled and nudged Max in his side. “Oh you know, secrets like which boys we like and who among us girls is most developed.”

His face changed colors. It was almost imperceptible, but it was there. His eyes struggled to maintain contact with Shalise’s own.

Seeing his reaction, Shalise’s smile curled into a grin. “I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t Juliana,” she said in a stage whisper.

“Hey! I’ll have you know that I’ve got more muscles in my pinky fingers than the rest of you put together.” She glared at Shalise. “I’m not afraid to use them.”

“Ooh, spooky,” Shalise giggled. She half skipped, half hopped down the path. “We’re going to be late if we keep dilly-dallying.”

The rest of the group followed, though they skipped the skipping. Soon enough, all four were seated around the middle of the amphitheater. Just in time too.

Professor Baxter appeared on stage near a pile of silver marbles. She scanned the crowd. Her eyes stopped briefly on their group and she gave them a light smile. At the end of her scan, she frowned for just a moment. The frown vanished as quick as it came.

“Welcome to my seminar,” Professor Baxter said. She then launched into a short speech, one that was exactly the same as the year before according to Eva. Despite her mentioning discussing battle tactics, apparently such events were few and far between. It was similar to Professor Kines’ club except they fought the professor instead of each other.

She started off with some student she named Mr. Burnside. He put on a dazzling show of fire with the occasional pillar of earth to block her marbles. They kept the fight going for almost a minute before one of the marbles struck his shoulder. After that, more hit him and he went down to the ground.

“Excellent, Mr. Burnside. A vast improvement over last year.”

Mr. Burnside didn’t seem to think so. He was grumbling under his breath as he walked back to his seat.

Juliana leaned over as another student took to the stage. “A lot of them seem to show up for only a seminar or two to fight Zoe. He is one of those. In a few weeks he’ll be back with some new gimmicky way to fight.”

“I didn’t think that looked that bad.”

Juliana scoffed. “He used a massive amount of tiny fireballs in a vain attempt at getting a lucky hit in. None of them even made it close as a light gust of air extinguished them.

“His use of earth magic was atrocious, but as an earth mage, I might be biased. Still, he could have tried to open a pit beneath her feet to throw her off-balance.”

Shalise was feeling the butterflies settle into her stomach. What she planned on doing was in no way as impressive.

“Don’t worry,” Juliana patted her thigh. “I’m a little nervous myself. Last year I didn’t carry thirty pounds of metal around with me.”

“Thirty pounds?”

“I said I had more muscles than all you.” She rubbed her hands together. “Zoe likes to use lightning a lot, and she will with me because her metal marbles won’t touch me at all. But I’ve been doing some research lately; I think I can nullify her lightning as well.”

“Think? You’re not sure?”

“It’ll be a fun test. Zoe doesn’t use her full power. At least, I hope she doesn’t.”

Shalise wasn’t sure she’d be willing to test Professor Baxter’s lightning strength on the whims of hope. Juliana just smiled and went back to watching the spar between the professor and a water mage.

Once he got knocked down and wandered off the stage, Shalise decided to act. Waiting any longer wouldn’t help. She’d only get more and more nervous.

“I-I’d like to go next,” Shalise said as she stood up.

Professor Baxter glanced at her with a puzzled look on her face.

Good, thought Shalise, she wasn’t expecting me to volunteer. Keep her guessing.

The confusion didn’t last more than a second or two. Professor Baxter gave her a smile as she gestured to the opposite end of the stage. “Miss Ward, excellent. Come on stage.”

Shalise gripped her wand in her hand as she walked up to the raised platform. Quelling the shakes in her hands with a loosened grip, she pointed her wand at her professor.

“Are you ready?”

She gave a single nod in response.

“Very well. Prepare yourself.”

A single marble flew towards Shalise. It didn’t appear to be moving very fast. Shalise sidestepped it without trouble.

Shalise smiled. She moved her fingers apart in a ‘v’ shape with two fingers on either side. The metal plates on the fingertips of her offhand glove tapped together and Shalise started channeling magic.

Two more marbles flew through the air after her. Shalise lacked the magical prowess to deflect the projectiles on a shield, but she could at least disrupt the cushions of compressed air they were riding on.

She sent out a gust of wind. One marble dropped and rolled along the ground. The other wavered in the air, but stayed aimed at her. Without the second marble blocking her movements on the stage, she easily dodged around it.

Before Professor Baxter decided to ramp up the fight, Shalise tried to subtly aim her hand at the professor. Her fingertips pulled together, bringing all four fingers into alignment.

A thin bolt of lightning shot out.

And promptly crashed into Professor Baxter’s already raised shield.

Four marbles launched out at Shalise. She managed to knock one out of the air and dodge another. The two remaining struck her in either shoulder and knocked her on her butt.

“Secret weapons are an excellent idea, but lose effectiveness when their secrecy ceases.” Professor Baxter walked forwards and offered a hand to Shalise.

Shalise accepted the hand. Half of her wanted to channel a small amount of magic into the gloves and give her a little shock, but gripping the professor’s hand moved the plates out of alignment.

“You weren’t attacking with your wand,” the professor said, loud enough for the audience to hear. “I knew something was up. Combined with your arm and hand being far too stiff and I narrowed it down to that. As soon as you aimed that hand at me, I shielded.

“Next time, throw out a few attacks to distract from your secret weapon, rather than call attention to it.”

Professor Baxter’s voice dropped to be less audible to the audience. “I am curious, but we’ll talk later. Even though you didn’t hit me, good job. Take a seat.”

Shalise nodded and headed off to her smiling friends. Juliana gave her a friendly pat on her knee.

“Miss Eva. I believe I felt your hand in that last performance. Why don’t you come down and we’ll see what your actual hands are capable of.”

Eva’s friendly smile towards Shalise turned to a far more feral grin. The grin faltered for just a moment as she leaned over to whisper something in Juliana’s ear. The blond nodded a moment later.

Long, black legs crept out from beneath Eva’s slightly lifted shirt. Arachne’s body followed a moment later and all of her came to a rest on Juliana’s lap. The blond partially covered Arachne with her own shirt, though she left the eight glowing eyes peeking out.

The sight of her two long fangs resting on Juliana’s legs sent an involuntary shiver down Shalise’s spine.

“Don’t worry and don’t do anything, I’ll be fine,” Eva said to the spider before she marched up on stage.

Professor Baxter had crossed her arms and started tapping her foot.

“Sorry,” Eva said, “felt like I had a spider on me. Had to get it off.”

The professor sent a glance back towards Juliana. Shalise thought she might have sighed before turning back to Eva. “Prepare yourself,” she said.

“Way ahead of you.”

Before the professor could even lift up a marble, Eva lifted her wand. The entire stage was covered in a cloud of darkness.

Juliana leaned over. “Since she doesn’t have eyes, she doesn’t have any impairment from being unable to see through the blackness. Of course,” she said with a sigh, “we can’t see anything so there isn’t much to comment on.”

And there really wasn’t. The pitch black of the stage wasn’t much to look at. Some sounds–generally metal hitting earth–escaped every now and again, but nothing else.

At some point, the darkness vanished. A slightly disheveled Professor Baxter stood over a very torn up Eva. Her shirt and her pants had a few holes in them. Luckily, for Eva, the holes on her pants were not big enough for anyone to question why they couldn’t see anything beneath.

Once again, the instructor offered her hand to the student and helped her up.

“No secret weapon from you?”

“I decided that I needed to get better at standard fighting in a safe environment before I’m caught without all my secret weapons against someone trying to actually kill me.”

Professor Baxter shook her head. “I suppose I can’t fault you for using your resources as you see fit. I do believe you’ve singed my hair,” she said as she pulled a lock by her chin out to her eyes. “On an unrelated note, I do hope you’ll be here next seminar.”

“Count on it,” Eva said with a grin.

On her way back to the seats, a boy sitting right on the aisle stuck out his foot. He stuck it out right in Eva’s path, right before she was about to step past it.

Shalise started to call out a warning.

It was too late.

Eva reared back and stomped onto the outstretched foot. Hard.

A sickening crack echoed through the amphitheater. It was accompanied by a cry of pain a moment later.

“What’s your problem, trying to trip me up?” Eva paused, seemingly looking at him. “I know you,” she said. “You’re that pathetic excuse for a water mage. I thought you weren’t fighting me out of some misplaced sense of chivalry, but it seems like I was wrong. You’re a coward who tries to trip girls on their way back to their seat.”

“Eva,” Professor Baxter half shouted as she ran up the aisle. “What did–”

“He tried to trip me,” Eva said with a point of her finger. “Even a blind girl could see that.”

“It’s true,” Shalise said. She stood and took the few steps down next to Eva. “I watched him stick his foot out almost underneath Eva’s own foot.”

The student just clasped at his foot and whimpered. Actual whimpers. It was somewhat sad, given he was a year or two older.

Professor Baxter sighed. “There are better ways to deal with bullies.” She turned and shouted, “you’re all dismissed for the night. I’ve got an infirmary run to make.”

She gripped the student by the shoulder and both promptly vanished with a flick of her dagger.

Shalise shivered as a wave of cold air brushed past her. The rather hot June air that rushed in afterwards was very welcome. Not that Shalise didn’t like the cold, just not when it was already hot out.

“Did you have to hit him so hard?”

Shalise turned to see Juliana walking up behind them. Arachne, beneath her shirt, squirmed back and forth as she tried to escape to Eva. It was doubtful she was trying all that hard. If she was, Shalise imagined she could get away without much trouble.

Max, Shalise noted, still sat in his seat. He fidgeted, torn between following after Juliana or just leaving with the rest of the students.

“I honestly didn’t mean to,” Eva said to the blond. “Although, I can’t say I’m going to lose sleep over it.”

“You’ve got to watch your new legs. I mean, I didn’t even get my turn to fight her.” Juliana sighed as Arachne slipped out of her hands.

The spider launched herself at Eva. Once on her, Arachne immediately burrowed beneath Eva’s shirt. A few of her red eyes poked out of the holes.

“Hey, what was that all about?”

All three of the girls turned to face the new voice. A well-built student stood in front of them. Even disguised beneath his loose clothing, Shalise could see some serious muscles on him.

It took a blink and half a second longer to realize that he was the fire throwing mage who first fought the professor. He looked a lot smaller up on stage.

“Like I told Zoe Baxter, he tried to trip me. Hopefully, he learned his lesson.”

“He’s my brother.”

“That does not change anything about my previous statement.”

The two stared at each other for a good minute while Shalise fidgeted. Juliana had a bored look on her face, though Shalise noticed her wand somehow got in her hand.

Eventually, Eva sighed. “Are you going to fight me or something?”

Shalise hoped not. Between Juliana and Eva, he’d surely end up in tears and in the infirmary alongside his brother. Seeing older students in tears didn’t sit right with Shalise.

That was, of course, if Arachne didn’t jump in first.

It was a good thing he shook his head. “Papa always said to never hit a girl.”

“Shame he didn’t say anything about tripping a girl.”

“I don’t know what your problem is with my brother, but you keep away from him. He wouldn’t shut up about you for five minutes these past few months.”

Eva frowned and cocked her head to one side. “I forgot he existed until just a few minutes ago.”

“Sounds like unhealthy obsession to me,” Juliana said as she crossed her arms. “Oh, maybe he likes you.”

The glance Juliana got sent her into a short burst of laughter. Eva just shook her head.

“Curious,” Eva said, “if I were a monstrous demon that was hell-bent on murdering you and your brother, would you hit me then?”

The Burnside brother gave her an odd look. Shalise couldn’t blame him.

“Just something to think about. Not every bad guy is actually a guy.”

“U-um, maybe we should be going now?” Shalise said. She took Eva’s arm in her hands a lightly pulled her away. Thankfully, Eva didn’t protest.

“Y-You’re not actually going to kill them, r-right?” Shalise whispered.

Eva looked at her like she was crazy. If she had eyes, Shalise imagined that Eva would be rolling them. “Of course not.”

“Good,” Shalise said with a smile. “Sometimes, it is hard to tell if you’re joking or not.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

You saved my life. I’ll spare yours.

This one time.

Do not test my goodwill.

Eva frowned as Arachne read the three lines again. There was no signature, but it didn’t take a lot of guesses to figure out the sender. Eva could only recall saving one life in her recent memory.

Maybe. Zagan agreed to not kill her. As long as he was planning on following through with that, Eva didn’t actually need to interfere.

How Sister Cross got the note onto her pillow without either waking Eva or alerting Arachne was somewhat worrying.

A pulse of magic had Eva’s hand lit with thaumaturgical fire. She plucked the note from Arachne’s claws and crushed it in her fiery hand. The note evaporated into ash. She frowned again as she felt her fire die down.

Her master’s flames were green. Unless something changed in the last few months, her flame was a reddish-orange. Eva wasn’t certain there was anything more than a cosmetic difference. Still, perhaps it was time to ask for another lesson.

Perhaps not. Green fire would draw all kinds of attention. She had enough to go around with the gloves and blindfold as it was.

Eva set her unblemished claw down and looked over her sleeping roommates.

Juliana sprawled out over her bed with one arm hanging off. Her mouth was wide open and, while Eva couldn’t actually see it, there was little doubt a small pool of drool had gathered on the pillow.

Shalise was the exact opposite. She had curled up in a ball and stayed there ever since they returned the previous night. Every so often a shiver would run down her spine. A nightmare perhaps. Her heart rate was slightly elevated.

Neither Juliana nor Eva had mentioned their nocturnal activities, though word of the riot spread through the dorms like wildfire before some professors ushered everyone to their rooms.

As far as Eva knew, Shalise was not aware of her relationship with Sister Cross. They were friends in a sort of weird, generation-boundary-crossing way.

Still, Shalise clearly cared for the nun. She worried over her and hadn’t fallen asleep for a good portion of the night.

Eva flopped back down on her pillow. It was too early to think. Even discounting the late night she’d had. Arachne curled up alongside Eva, though she was at full alertness. Eva wouldn’t have a problem sleeping through the rest of the morning with that vigil over her.

I hope you appreciate what I did, Eva thought at Shalise as she shut her eyes.

Not that she ever intended to tell.

— — —

Lynn Cross fidgeted in the lobby of the Rickenbacker. She wore no coif, no scapular, no rosary, not even a robe. Simple jeans and a tee-shirt did not fit her.

To say it felt awkward would be an understatement.

Headquarters almost relieved her of command over Charon Chapter. She lost Nel, several members of Charon Chapter, and had the public turned against the Elysium Order. The public relations nightmare had been the biggest complaint, followed by the missing augur.

Nel’s disappearance weighed heavily on Lynn’s mind. They didn’t even have a body to perform the final prayers and ministrations upon. Headquarters declared her dead, though they planned to follow the procedure for all rogue augurs. Her blood would be watched nearly twenty-four hours a day for a full year.

Lynn did not hold out much hope.

As a last chance gesture, Lynn was being sent off to some town in Central Africa. Some upstart lich needed its phylactery destroyed and sent on to meet its maker. If the mission was a failure, or even a success with significant losses, Lynn would be relieved of her command.

They weren’t even going to give her augur support.

If she did fail, Lynn wasn’t sure what would happen. She did know that there was a semblance of regret regarding her own vial of blood stored in the Elysium Order’s vaults.

The mission had to be a success.

Lynn sighed as she leaned back in the lobby chair. Everything had become such a mess. She still wasn’t sure who to blame it on. The necromancers, probably. They were always a good target for blame. Eva somewhat.

Herself, as well.

Finding out about the darker aspects of Eva woke a streak of paranoia and mistrust. Overwhelming worry for Shal followed close behind. She was blinded. She ignored the teachings, lectures, and rules of the Elysium Order by focusing so much on Shal.

Plenty of people could have died due to some rogue poltergeist while Lynn stuck around trying to deal with a situation that no one in the Elysium Order was qualified to handle.

Worst of all was that Lynn still was not sure if she had overreacted, or if she hadn’t reacted enough. Eva still wandered the halls of school. She still slept in the same room as her daughter.

Yet she worried about calling in proper demon hunters. They were known to apply scorched earth policies to anything they deemed corrupted by Void.

Shalise walked into the room while Lynn thought. She walked just behind a chattering Eva and their blond friend. Shal looked… lost. She had a smile on, but it didn’t reach her eyes. They were empty and stared at nothing in particular as she walked behind her friends.

“Shal,” Lynn said as she stood up.

All three of the girls stopped in their tracks. The two who weren’t Shal looked on with a hint of confusion. Her daughter didn’t.

A smile crossed Shal’s face. It quickly twisted to a frown before returning to a soft smile. “S-Sister Cross,” she started.

Lynn held up her hand and shook her head. “I’m not wearing my habit right now. Just Lynn.”

“Sister Cross,” Eva said with some slight apprehension. One of her hands moved around behind her back, but she made no further move. Her head moved up and down as if she were examining Lynn’s body. She gave a slight nod and smiled. “You should ditch the habit more often.”

Narrowing her eyes, Lynn shot a glare at Eva. The little cretin couldn’t even see. “Shal,” she said as she turned back to her daughter, “could you spare a few minutes to speak with me. Alone,” she added with a glance back towards Eva.

“That’s fine, I think.” She looked over to her friends and said, “you go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

Eva nodded and turned to leave the lobby without another word. Her blond friend trailed after her.

Lynn had half a mind to stop the girl. She had more than a few choice words for her. A lightning bolt to the brain, perhaps. Shaking her head, Lynn focused on Shal. Her daughter was what mattered at the moment.

Leading her off into one of the small study rooms, Lynn used her wand to set up a few privacy wards. Her air magic would arrest all vibrations in the air, thereby stopping sound from escaping.

Once done, she turned back to face her daughter. Offering her a small smile was all it took.

Two arms wrapped around her waist as Shalise pulled her into a hug. Pressed against her chest, Shal mumbled something that sounded like, “I’m glad you’re okay. I heard about the riot–”

Lynn ran her fingers through her daughter’s wavy hair. “I’m glad you are okay.”

Shalise looked up, confusion written on her face. “Why wouldn’t I be? The riots weren’t anywhere near the dorm.”

“I know,” Lynn said. “I just needed to check on you with my own eyes. I had a… scary night.”

That was an understatement. The idea that she needed rescuing from Eva had her gritting her teeth once again. Lynn shut her eyes as she took a deep, calming breath.

Lynn patted Shal on her back and gave her a light smile. “I thought about going back for you right after the riot, making sure you were alright and letting you know that I was alright, but I worried that might put you in more danger. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

An almost imperceptible nod came from her daughter before she looked up with her wide, brown eyes. “Eva and Juliana weren’t in our dorm for most of last night.”

A simple statement. One full of implications.

Her mind raced in wonder at how exactly to respond. One thing was certain, Lynn was not about tell her that Eva saved her life.

Eventually, Lynn decided.

“Eva has her hands in some very dangerous things. Things that are going to get her killed one day.” Lynn knelt down to get more on the eye level with her short daughter. “I want you to promise me that you will never get involved in all her mess. I want you to promise me that if things look even remotely dangerous, that you will get away and that you will come find me.”

“Alright,” Shalise nodded. “I can do that.”

“As for this school,” Lynn smiled, “there are other schools, though they will be significantly less free to attend. I’m sure I can arrange something if you want to transfer.”

Shalise shook her head. “Professor Baxter is a good teacher. She’s been privately tutoring me for a while now. I don’t know how other schools would be, but she says lightning is an end of third year spell. With her help I might be able to manage it by the end of next year, if not sooner.”

Lynn blinked at that. She hadn’t managed a proper┬áthaumaturgical lightning bolt until half way through her fifth year. Pride welled up at her daughter. Shal would end up a far better thaumaturge than Lynn ever was.

Still, that didn’t release the school or its inhabitants from her worries. “If anything happens like the incident on Halloween, I will be pulling you out of this school.”

A shiver ran through her daughter. “That’s fair,” Shalise said with a nod. “I can’t say I enjoyed Halloween. Maybe this next year will be better.”

“I hope so too.” Lynn stood back up and rested her hand on her daughter’s head. “I have a mission in Central Africa for the Elysium Order. I’ll be leaving in just a few days. When I arrive, I’ll send some way for you to keep in contact with me. I want reports on everything that is going on in and out of school at least once a month.”

“Reports?” Shalise frowned. “How about friendly letters that sometimes mention bigger news?”

“I just want to know that you are safe, Shal.”

“I’ll be fine,” Shalise said. “I should go. Today is a review day before finals tomorrow.”

Lynn opened her mouth to protest. She had more she wanted to say. More she wanted to know.

In the end, Lynn simply smiled, patted Shal on her back, and said, “good luck.”

— — —

Finals started on April sixth. An event Irene did not feel ready for in the slightest.

Normal schools had classes that stretched into June. Not so with Brakket. Nonmagical schooling would take over for the remainder of April and the first week of May. After which there would be roughly a month of vacation before the summer seminars started up.

Several other students had entered the examination room. Juliana included. None of them commented on their score and none of them mentioned what the actual exam consisted of.

Some students went in with frowns and returned with smiles. Some did the opposite.

For a brief moment, Irene felt a vindictive smile cross her lips. Drew was one of those who came out with a frown. Petty, but Irene didn’t care. It was a brief island of happiness before she returned to her worries.

Juliana was the only one who looked bored going in and bored coming out.

If that girl got anything less than a perfect on any part of the test, Irene would eat her wand. She tried not to be jealous. She really did. Watching the metal she wore constantly flow over her skin before forming up in intricate patterns made Irene want to scream.

Why couldn’t her parents have given her a head start. They were mages. Surely they could have taught something. Neither Irene nor her sister had their wands before arriving at Brakket. Jordan had his wand. Unfortunately, he focused on things Brakket would never teach. He said he could simply learn thaumaturgy from Brakket Academy and his time was better spent elsewhere.

Irene wished he hadn’t. If only for the sole reason of being able to teach Irene proper thaumaturgy.

A call of her name snapped Irene out of her thoughts. She immediately chastised herself for letting her thoughts wander. The time waiting could have been better used thinking of earth magic thought patterns.

With shaky hands, Irene opened the door to the Earth exam room.

Sitting on a stool over a patch of empty earth was Yuria. A clipboard was in one hand and a pen spun between her fingers in the other.

She was a water mage, but that didn’t affect her observational skills and she could still manipulate earth. Professor Calvin delivered exams to the fire and air mages. Not that Irene minded. In truth, she was happy to have the perpetually cheerful teacher deliver her exam.

“Irene,” she said with a bright and friendly smile, “come in. Come in.”

She took a deep breath and stepped into the room. Her fear dampened through willpower alone as she crossed the room to the small earthen circle.

“Now don’t be nervous,” Yuria said. “You do excellent in class and I have high expectations for your exam now.”

Hearing the word ‘expectations’ did not help at all. Irene meekly nodded.

“If you would be so kind, Irene, I’d like you to try making a hole, a depression in the ground. You’ll get extra points if you make it square. More than three feet deep is not necessary.”

Irene nodded again. She withdrew her wand and pointed it at the ground.

She concentrated. The dirt was loose from prior examinees. That would make it easier to work with. Earth didn’t like to be moved. It liked to sit and be steady. With the proper thought patterns, she could incentivize the earth to move.

After all, the dirt would be even more sturdy when compressed.

Slowly, the dirt patch pressed inwards and to the sides. Once underway, more dirt followed far more easily. Like a landslide. The hole became deeper and larger. The corners formed with a flick of her wand. It wasn’t a perfect square. Irene thought it was pretty close.

“Marvelous, simply wonderful,” Yuria said with a huge smile. “Thirty-seven seconds and using compression.” She looked at Irene over the rims of her glasses. “Some students,” she said with a small hint of disapproval, “dig the dirt out of the hole as if they’re using a shovel.”

Irene just nodded once again, ignoring the praise. She could be happy after her exams finished.

“But this was excellent.” She scratched down some notes on her clipboard. “Next, reverse what you just did.”

With a deep breath, Irene started working. Decompressing the dirt would be more difficult. It was stable and sturdy, especially at the bottom where most of the dirt had compressed.

Still, with some concentration and the proper thoughts, Irene enticed the earth back to a mostly flat surface.

Yuria moved off her stool and stepped down on the center of the dirt pile. Irene noticed she had swapped her usual high heels for some hiking boots. Hiking boots that were covered in dirt.

“Excellent,” Yuria said. “Only sank about half an inch. You did a fabulous job solidifying the dirt. I’m very proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Irene said.

“Now,” Yuria said as she retook her seat, “a pillar. I’d like it to be hard, no crumbling away at a touch. It should also rise up no higher than three feet.”

With yet another nod, Irene set to work.

After several more tasks, including breaking down earth into pure earth essence, the testing concluded. Irene left the room with a smile on her face. While she didn’t know her exact score, she felt good about it. All of the tasks were completed swiftly and were met with high praise from Yuria.

Sure, Juliana might have scored higher than her in every aspect, including the bonus points for ferrokinesis which Irene hadn’t been able to work at all, but that girl was no better than a cheater. Her mother might as well have home schooled her for all the grades, or at least gotten her to skip straight to third year.

At least the scores were not graded on a curve.

— — —

Zoe Baxter had a certain amount of pride in her first year students. All three of them passed every exam. Eva may have skimmed by in her pyrokinesis practical, but she still got a passing grade.

More important than their grades were their actions. Zoe still could not approve of their instigated riot. She desperately hoped that they might confide in her any future plans of that level.

Eva intervening to save the life of her friend’s mother despite the very unsubtle hostility between the two just made Zoe all the more confident that she had chosen correctly when she invited the girl to Brakket Academy.

That Eva’s actions somewhat vindicated both of them in Wayne’s eyes hadn’t hurt her mood.

Zoe frowned as she thought back to that night. She had let Rex–no. She had let Zagan into her home. Had met up with him at Tom’s bar once or twice. All-the-while he had been a wolf in a sheep disguise.

To think he had the nerve to waltz up to her the next day and casually ask how she was doing. And Martina Turner planned to put him in a classroom? With children?

Zoe was at a loss for what to do. She couldn’t fight someone like that. Resigning in protest had crossed her mind. The idea vanished as soon as she realized that it would change nothing. Zagan would still be in a classroom, but she wouldn’t be around.

In the end, sticking with the school while making her displeasure known to Martina was all she could do.

In less than a week, Zoe would have to go out searching for candidates once again. Whispers of one potential had reached her ears. That was one more than all the years before Eva’s year. She’d need to find at least a second for a roommate, if the first potential turned out well enough.

Not a prospect Zoe was looking forward to, not just because of the idea of placing additional children under Zagan’s influence. However, the year under Eva’s would be involved in raising Brakket’s accreditation. If successful, maybe they would be able to hire a proper instructor in his place. It might be good to go the extra mile and find a full three students.

She wasn’t sure she’d find students as talented as Juliana or with the unique talents of Eva. Even Shalise had thrown herself into her studies. The brown-haired girl had been working double time on exercising her magical abilities.

Because of the pride she felt in her students, Zoe had a very conflicted feeling in her chest as she looked over the door to room three-thirteen.

With another sigh, Zoe shook her head. “What is this?”

“Homework,” Shalise said with a smile.

The brunette had been upset shortly after the incident with the riot. She bounced back the day before finals started and had been smiling ever since. A sighting of Sister Cross on campus was the likely culprit.

Zoe was originally worried, but Shalise did not seem to be faking or repressing anything. She was simply her happy self.

So, Zoe tried to keep a smile on her face as she spoke to the girl. “I don’t remember any of my colleagues mentioning anything about carving runes into the wood of the dormitory doors.”

Eva sat up from her bed. A small snake wrapped itself between her fingers and turned to stare straight at Zoe.

She could almost feel the beady eyes trying to turn her to stone. It gave Zoe a small start until she realized what it was. One of Genoa’s little toys.

“Maybe if Brakket wasn’t such a backwards school,” Eva said, “they’d actually have a proper rune class. Juliana thinks I should start up my own seminar over the summer and charge students for teaching them runes. I said it was too much work.”

“You’re already teaching Shal,” Juliana said. “What difference does it make if you add two or fifty students. Charge each student twenty dollars per lesson and hold class once a week. I’ll take twenty percent for the idea. Another twenty percent if I go locate willing pupils for you.”

“I think I’ve been tricked with our privacy packets. You seem to collect a good chunk of money for doing nothing but delivering the packets to our buyers.”

“Those were the terms we agreed on when we started. I don’t think I’m up for renegotiating.”

“This,” Zoe cut in, “is all well and good, but can we return to talking about the door? Specifically the carvings in it.”

Shalise stepped up and ran a finger over the markings. “These should let out a high-pitched noise for a few seconds if the door is broken. There are similar runes on the windows.”

“It’s a start,” Eva said, “as I keep teaching Shalise runes, she might add more features. An alarm is functional, but something that attacks attackers back would be better.”

“But,” Zoe sighed, “why?”

Eva just looked at her like the answer was obvious. And it was, but Zoe still wanted to hear it from the girl’s mouth.

Shalise was, to Zoe’s surprise, the one to speak up first. “We were forced out of our room twice in this very year, though I missed the first incident. Both times were because of the room being assaulted. First Juliana, then Eva. Next time is my turn and I’m not nearly as confident as these two.”

“You said it yourself,” Juliana said, “something went wrong with whatever wards you have set up to alert you of danger. Maybe Shalise’s alarm will alert someone.”

“Not to mention,” Eva said, “Wayne Lurcher’s response time when Sis–” Eva cut herself off with a glance to Shalise. The brunette did make any outward change of emotion. “When I was attacked; his response time left much to be desired.”

Zoe sighed. She rubbed a finger on the center of her forehead. “I understand that. It’s just… these doors are solid wood. Heavy wood. They’re not cheap. And the glass too?”

“Yeah, they’re actually pretty good materials to use. I’ll be charging the runes with Arachne’s blood. They’ll last a lot longer before degrading than if we were to charge the runic array with magic directly.”

Arachne would be a capable defender, hopefully, in the incredibly unlikely event that dorm three-thirteen was indeed attacked again. Then again, she was a demon. Zoe wasn’t even sure that was something to get hung up about anymore. Arachne had proven herself to be, at the very least, not hostile towards the students and staff. Zoe doubted she would care half as much if Arachne were an elf or some other magical creature.

“Just,” Zoe said after a moments thought, “if this starts another riot, I’ll have all three of your hides.”

“Zoe Baxter,” Eva said, “was that a joke?”

“No.”

“I think that was a joke. It was, right?”

“Why my hide?” Juliana huffed. “I’ve got nothing to do with this.”

“You’re complicit by association,” Zoe said.

That got another huff of complaint, though Eva started laughing.

“I do want to know everything you add to this. I want to know when your defenses activate, why, and what they do. This cannot be a danger to innocents who may inadvertently wander into your room for whatever reason.”

“I’ve thought about that, and we will let you know.” Eva nodded. Her voice carried a more serious tone. “For a while, I considered setting up the full array of blood wards that I’ve got running at the prison. You know,” she smiled, “the ones that explode people who get too close.”

Zoe blinked and shook her head. “I’m glad you didn’t.”

“It would have been too much of a pain to key everyone in. Not to mention too revealing that I’ve got and use bloodstones if anyone makes the connection. I’m sure there is some suspicion going around due to the state of the room after I was attacked, but I’d like to keep it at suspicion level and not move to confirmation.”

“Understandable.” Zoe shook her head again. “Seeing as you’ve already damaged the door–”

“Improved,” Eva said.

“I will allow you to continue modifying.” Zoe looked over to Shalise and met the girl’s eyes. “So long as you write essays on why runes work, list out every rune you use and their uses, and stick to what I said earlier about the safety of your defenses.”

“Great. More homework.”

— — —

“School? What would I ever do at a school?”

“Learn something, I should hope,” her father said with a small smile.

“Daddy…” She stood up from their dinner table and ran to the other side. She gave her father a light peck on the cheek. “I’d much rather stay at home and play.”

He ruffled her blond hair. “Oh don’t you worry. There are a few months before you have to be at school. Even while you’re there, I’ll be around. We can have fun on weekends and after school.”

Des sighed. Her father seemed set on it. Once he got an idea in his head, he never let it go.

School had been a thing in their family once. It didn’t turn out well.

Des slunk back to her seat. She picked up her cheeseburger and took a chunk out of it.

“Now now, honey, no sulking.”

“I’m not, daddy. I’ll go.”

He smiled. “Good.” His own burger was already gone.

Her mind whirred as she tried to come up with excuses to get out of going. Nothing would work, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try.

“What if it is like before? I don’t want to be freaky Desi again.”

“That was a regular school,” he sighed, “and a mistake. Don’t worry. This is a school for mages.”

“And they won’t think I’m weird?”

Her father chuckled. “Honey, everyone is a little weird. But in this case, I think they will be happy to have you.”

“They better,” Des said. She started towards her burger but stopped as a thought occurred to her. “It is a mage school? Can I even do magic?”

“Well, no,” he said. If she couldn’t do magic, she didn’t have to go to mage school. He waited just long enough for Des to start feeling happy. “But,” he said just to dash her hopes, “I’ve been working on a little something these past few months. It will be ready to install in the morning.”

She crossed her arms and gave her father a glare. Des hated the word ‘install’ especially when it came out of her father’s mouth. It never preceded anything but pain.

“Ah-ah. I said no sulking.” He ticked his finger back and forth. “If you’re a good girl, maybe we’ll see if Hugo wants to go with you. Now finish your food and maybe we’ll have time for a story before bed.”

Des lunged for her burger. She chomped the last half of it down in two bites.

“Remember to chew,” her father chided with a smile.

Des did. She always remembered. She shook her head. Silly father, she thought as she swallowed. “Story time now!”

>>AN.002<<

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