Tag Archives: Erich

007.029

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Juliana stopped outside the front door of a smaller home on the outskirts of the city.

The very outskirts. It was difficult to get farther away without technically being outside the city limits.

Houses out here were few and far between. Brakket City wasn’t much of a city to begin with, but out here, it was basically farmland. Abandoned farmland. Real rural area.

With the abysmally low price of houses and her family’s own wealth, it hadn’t been much of an issue to purchase one. Juliana’s father had insisted on buying a house as far away as possible. An idea that Juliana heavily endorsed. It gave her a convenient excuse to live in the dormitory building.

She was not walking across the city and back out every single day. Besides, it was probably more dangerous to do so. She would be open and vulnerable while walking.

It wasn’t a great house. One of the windows had been broken. The siding was in disarray even now. Ivy, vines, and all manner of foliage had taken over one side of the house, growing up the walls and even onto the roof. The lawn had been overgrown. Juliana had fixed that up herself with some carefully applied earth magic to churn the dirt, burying most of the weeds and grass.

Tiptoeing up to the front door, Juliana paused.

Her excursion out into the city was supposed to have been for only a few hours. Just enough to unpack in the dorm. Instead, she had spent the full day plus a good portion of the night out and around Brakket. And even a short amount of time out at Eva’s prison. A place where she was supposedly banned from going.

Well, it wasn’t much that she was ‘supposedly’ banned. She was banned.

Her father would definitely know how late she had been out. Hopefully he didn’t know about her little side trip.

Taking hold of the doorknob, Juliana twisted the handle as quietly as possible.

On the off-chance that everyone was asleep, she could claim to have returned an hour or two earlier.

That plan quickly fell by the wayside. Her father, her brother, and her mother were all sitting out in the living room.

She had expected at least one of them to be—the light was on, after all—but she had been hoping that they would have fallen asleep.

“Um, hello.”

Her father got to his feet. “Juliana Laura Rivas. Where have you been?” He took three steps forward before Juliana’s mother cleared her throat.

“Carlos, you promised to remain calm.”

Juliana watched as her father clenched his hands into fists, took a deep breath, let it out, and released his grip. He took a few steps back and sat back down.

“Now then,” Genoa said with a cold smile, “why don’t you tell us all about whatever happened tonight.”

Closing the door behind her, Juliana stepped into the room. She didn’t take a seat.

The faces of all three people were riddled with concern, worry, and maybe a hint of disappointment. Carlos had his lips pressed together as he often did while angry. Meanwhile, Erich sat in a small recliner. Unlike Juliana’s parents, his eyes were glued to the front window. He didn’t look at Juliana more than a brief glance as he fidgeted to one side.

“First,” Juliana said, “I’d just like to say that I was perfectly safe the entire time.”

“That–”

Genoa cleared her throat again before Carlos could speak. He turned to her with slightly narrowed eyes—though his coke bottle glasses magnified it enough that the glare was almost comical rather than menacing.

“That’s reassuring,” he eventually finished, voice flat.

“I was at Zoe’s apartment. With Zoe.” And Ylva, she didn’t bother adding. Mentioning that wouldn’t grant her any favors with her family. “Everything happened at Brakket Academy.”

“And just what was it that happened?”

“Well,” Juliana rubbed the back of her head, “a few demon hunters tried to murder just about everyone. They only halfway succeeded.”

Before anyone could ask what that meant, Juliana powered on. “Eva is fine. So is Catherine. The dean is… unconscious still. Last I heard anyway. They did get the entire security team.”

Lucy was still alive and in the mortal realm, but she wasn’t in a state to act as a security guard.

Juliana didn’t bother to mention Zagan. If her father found out that he was gone, he might send her off to another school. Zagan would be back. Of that, Juliana held no doubts. She did not particularly wish for him to return only to find her not at Brakket Academy.

“A few buildings got damaged, but no students or professors were harmed.”

“I suppose that is better than I had feared,” Genoa allowed with a tilt of her head. “And these demon hunters?”

“Got away?”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“Well, Eva thinks that one of them is dead. The other got away for sure. But that isn’t the important thing.” Juliana held out an arm. All of the metal she had collected from the battlefield started to coalesce in the palm of her hand. It formed into a sphere.

A sphere of shiny silver metal.

With Eva’s help, she had confirmed that it retained its demon injuring property even after being melded and reshaped.

There hadn’t been enough lying around to completely cover her. And yet, she had shed most of the metal she had been wearing. The new metal was heavy.

Heavy enough that even the small sphere she was forming needed both hands to hold it steadily in front of her. Distributing it around her body—her shoulders, hips, and back especially—helped to lighten the apparent load while wandering around. However, after finding a safe place to store the metal, she would only carry a small amount with her. The rest would be the lighter copper, brass, and iron that made up her normal suit.

Until then, she would carry it with her everywhere.

That Eva trusted her enough to keep all of the metal even despite her track record of failure spoke wonders of the other girl’s opinion of Juliana. It was metal that could possibly kill Eva if she came into contact with it for too long. Juliana would not allow herself to let down Eva by mishandling it.

“I was wondering if you knew what this was. It hurts demons and looks silvery, but Ara–” Juliana let out a slight cough, clearing an imaginary blockage in her throat.

Unlike Zagan, she would have to bring up Arachne at some point in time. The spider wanted to meet with her mother after all. However, that could wait for a time. Maybe when Erich and her father weren’t around.

“Eva told me that normal silver doesn’t hurt her in the slightest.”

Tilting her head to one side, Genoa took her hands off her lap. Gripping the handles of her wheelchair, she rolled herself forward.

“It’s heavy,” Juliana said as her mother held out a hand.

“Please. I may have a hole in my chest and can barely walk, but I’ve been keeping up with my weights.”

So she said, and yet she held out her other hand to help hold the sphere.

With a sigh, Juliana leaned forward, keeping a careful grip on the metal until she was absolutely certain that her mother truly had control. Only then did she release it and step away.

“Incidentally, Juliana…” Genoa trailed off as she turned the orb over in her hands. Activating her own ferrokinesis, she molded it away into a sort of glove. “Incidentally, you shouldn’t be picking up strange bits of metal after a battle. Or strange bits of anything. You never know when something is cursed. This seems alright, so I will let it slide this one time.”

“As long as it isn’t toxic or anything,” Erich muttered from his seat across the room.

Genoa started to turn to him, opening her mouth as if to speak, but she paused.

The metal glove on her hand turned from a shiny silver to a dark black. So dark that the area around it almost felt darker in comparison.

“That’s odd. I was only trying to stretch it out a bit.” She turned the now black glove over, holding it up to the light.

Which did nothing to alleviate the darkness.

“This… seems familiar somehow, but I can’t quite place it.”

Juliana just stared with wide eyes. It looked familiar to her too. Eva’s dagger was made of a very similar material.

Some demon metal, Eva had called it.

But why did demon hunters have demon metal?

— — —

“Welcome to Brakket Academy. I am Alexander Anderson, the dean of this fair school.”

The new dean turned, waving a hand over the area. “As you can see, we’re undergoing a bit of a renovation.”

That’s an understatement, Catherine thought as she glanced back over her shoulder.

Construction crews were milling about. They were a fair distance away. The bus that had dropped off the new students did so with plenty of walking time to spare. Given that the driver came from a different city—Brakket City was far too small to have a landing strip for any sized aircraft—the mortal had probably taken one look at the sky and had decided to get out before anything happened.

The construction crews had taken a great deal of convincing. Getting them to stick around and actually do their jobs had been Catherine’s job, so she knew very well just how skittish mortals were about anything odd or unnatural. Money had won out in the end, as it usually did.

Eventually, they had gotten to work.

Some workers replaced the bricks of the plaza with fresh, unbroken bricks. Others were patching up the Gillet. No load bearing walls had been hit, most of the damage was to the windows and the immediate area around the windows.

It was supposed to have been completed before the new students arrived at the academy. Having to convince them to work in the first place combined with a sudden bout of torrential rain had delayed the repairs just long enough.

Catherine turned back to face the thirteen students. All the new students who were entering the academy this year. She didn’t particularly care about the academy, its wellbeing, or how many students it had, but she did find it surprising that so many mortals were willing to send their kin here. With all the bad publicity, including the fight and murders last week, Catherine had assumed that the school would be shut down.

Weren’t mortals supposed to care about each other? Catherine chuckled to herself.

A slight cough from Anderson froze her chuckle in her throat. He glared as she looked up to him. Shadows around the ground flickered ever so slightly in an unnatural manner.

Catherine shuddered as she burrowed her nose in her phone.

Anderson was almost as scary as Zagan on occasion. He knew how to use his shadow manipulation to alter his features just enough to make himself intimidating. The lines on his face would become more pronounced while his gaunt cheekbones appeared to recede even further. Of course, given that he had a haunter as a bound familiar, maybe it wasn’t so much that Anderson was scary.

It was getting to the point where Catherine was wishing that Martina would just wake up. Unfortunately, that seemed less and less likely with every passing day. Her body was still alive. Mostly unharmed, even. But after diagnosing exactly what she had done, the doctors keeping an eye on her believed that too much lightning had run through her brain. It had disrupted her neural blah-blah—Catherine hadn’t paid all that much attention.

The only reason she had been sticking around Brakket Academy was because Martina’s contract was still in force and holding her here, even if her mind was broken. If she didn’t wake up soon, Catherine might consider using her favor with Eva up on getting the girl to permanently solve her problem.

On a brighter note, a comatose Martina gave her freedom. She could do anything she wanted to without the lingering threat of punishment or banishment hanging over her head. Zagan wasn’t even around to keep her in line.

Most of her days had been spent with the diabolist. They were almost ready to run a new version of their ritual. Unfortunately, there weren’t all that many demons left around Brakket. Something that Zagan being gone actually hurt.

“You’re arriving at Brakket Academy at an interesting time,” Anderson said. “By a show of hands, how many of you have family members who are mages?”

Only two of the thirteen raised their hands.

“In that case, I’ll explain a few things. Our school isn’t in a good state. We’re in danger of shutting down before your school tenure ends. This year, we aim to change that. You are first year students, but you can still help.

“Thaumaturgy is not easy to learn. It is a long process. You have six years at this school and yet you will still be considered an amateur until you have completed several years of extracurricular study. Brakket will give you your foundations. It is up to you to build the house—so to speak.

“However, this year we are introducing a new program.” He waved a hand to his side.

Towards Catherine.

Blinking, Catherine looked up from her phone with narrowed eyes.

“Catherine is the secretary of the school. She has been for two years. She is also a demon.”

The two who had raised their hands didn’t react all that much. A slight widening of the eyes was all their reactions amounted to. They had probably been chosen because they wouldn’t have much reaction.

The others weren’t quite the same. Despite not being mages, even mundane mortals had heard of demons. They obviously hadn’t heard the best of opinions—probably for the best. More than one backed away, looking at her with wide eyes and smelling of fear.

Catherine rolled her eyes. Whatever game he was playing at was going to come back to bite him later on. Publicly announcing demons was just asking to get more demon hunters stopping by.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Catherine won’t hurt you. She does represent a certain shortcut. Thaumaturgy takes years to learn. Binding a demon to you, depending on the type and individual, can offer a wide variety of magic. You could leave a demon unbound, making it into a regular familiar or a mere contracted demon. We will be inviting guests who are interested in all three aspects.

“There is nothing to fear. You’ll go through a long lecture and learning portion. Taking on a bound demon will not be mandatory if, after going through the class, you decide that you don’t want to participate. Either way, you’ll still be expected to learn and practice proper thaumaturgy.”

One of the students asked a question.

Catherine didn’t bother paying attention. She cared little for the mortals or their somewhat justified fears about demons.

More concerning was Anderson’s claim of using bound demons. Particularly in relation to her. He had used her as an example.

Some demons liked to be physically bound within a mortal. It was typically the best way to avoid hunters as there would be little evidence of any demons. With no presence in the mortal realm, there wasn’t even any evidence to find.

But being bound was addictive. Or so Catherine had heard. Prax had appeared fine, but he had only been inside a mortal for a short time. Normal bound familiars tended to serve their masters for the duration of the mortal’s lifetime.

If Anderson forced her into a situation where she had to become a bound familiar, Catherine would tear out her own heart. She liked the current era of mortals. The distractions they had created to pass the time in their short lives worked just as well for demons. However, she wasn’t so enamored with it that she would be willing to give up her eternal freedom.

Sticking around for her work with the diabolist was far a more enticing argument. However, she wouldn’t be able to work on any of it if she were stuck in the head of some mortal brat.

Clapping his hands together, Anderson tore Catherine out of her own little world.

“Now,” he said to the gathered children. He let the silence hang for a moment, looking over them.

Catherine didn’t know what he was looking for. None of the children looked all that impressive. There were no ‘Evas’ in this year’s batch of students. Not even anyone remotely interesting.

But Anderson had a wide grin on his face. Not a malicious grin, but more of the kind mortals got when their moods were just so good that they couldn’t contain it.

“As I said, if you do choose to participate in the program, there will be ways you can help. Namely, a certain contest. It happens every year, but Brakket Academy hasn’t participated in the past decade because of low student population—normally only those in their fifth and sixth years of schooling participate—and…” He trailed off to give a pathetic shrug. “We are a little behind in our curriculum.

“With the support of our new allies,” he said with a gesture towards Catherine, “I think that population and ability will matter far less. People will see what Brakket Academy has to offer. The real trick will be convincing them of the truth that we’re all still human and still in control.

“But enough of that. I’m sure you’re all very eager to see where you’ll be staying. Follow me please.”

He turned and led the group back towards the Rickenbacker.

Catherine didn’t follow. She watched as the little mortals eyed her, giving her a wide berth as they walked around.

It was a strange sensation. Thirteen-year-olds were typically just entering puberty. Humans at such an age were often trying to get closer to her. Not farther away. The idea that merely being outed as a demon could ruin mortals’ impulses towards her was somewhat insulting.

Or depressing.

She really needed to finish the ritual with the diabolist.

As soon as the gaggle of children had disappeared into the doorway of the Rickenbacker to finish their orientation, Catherine turned on her sharp heels and stalked off into the town.

She had been planning on putting this off for a time. With what she had just heard from Anderson, Catherine had no intentions of being tied down. She needed to act now.

The clicking of her heels only stopped once she reached a deserted alleyway.

A minute buildup of magic had her pulled straight into the gate room of the women’s ward.

Eva was sitting in her common room with Arachne. Just sitting, not talking. Perhaps she had been talking and stopped once she noticed Catherine’s arrival. Doubtful, but possible.

Arachne sat upright in her most human form with her back to the couch. Eva rested her head on the spider-demon’s lap, keeping her eyes half-lidded as Arachne stroked her fingers through Eva’s hair.

Both of them had faint smiles on their faces.

Catherine rolled her eyes.

Neither of them bothered to acknowledge her.

“Eva,” Catherine said after a light clearing of her throat, “I need to use my last favor.”

“Are you sure?” The girl didn’t even look up. Her eyes stayed half closed as she nuzzled further into Arachne’s lap.

Not a very comfortable looking lap. Arachne was as far from comfortable as a demon could get without being covered in spines and thorns.

“I’m sure.”

“It could be the last favor that I owe you for a long time yet.”

“Maybe,” Catherine said with a toothy smile. “Maybe not.”

Finally, Eva opened her eyes. She tilted her head up, moving just enough off Arachne’s lap to get the other demon scowling at Catherine.

Catherine didn’t bother getting intimidated. There was a time where she might have worried. Not any longer. She knew Eva well enough. So long as Arachne’s detention in Hell hadn’t altered her too much, she knew that Arachne would heel to Eva.

“What do you mean?”

“Your next treatment. You’ll need more demons, no?” Catherine forced a yawn, glancing at her fingernails before rubbing them off on her shirt. It was an action she had seen a number of times while consuming human media. A sign of derision and contempt.

Where the gesture came from, or what its origins were, Catherine had no idea. For all she knew, it wasn’t even a real gesture. She had never actually seen a person do so outside of mortal entertainment media.

But Eva apparently got it anyway. The girl narrowed her eyes, raising one eyebrow as she did so.

“I don’t know that I can offer my services for free. Another few favors might give me a little more motivation to join in.”

Eva rolled her eyes. Pressing her head back into Arachne’s lap, she twisted around so that she was looking upwards instead of outwards. “Well, your favors have been innocuous enough. I’m sure I won’t mind.”

“I’m glad you see it that way,” Catherine said with a low chuckle. “I need you to kill Martina.”

>>Author’s Note 007<<

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007.006

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Juliana Laura Rivas flipped through the news.

It had been months and there was still no sign that anything was amiss around Brakket City.

The purple streaks in the sky had attracted a good amount of attention for the first month. Brakket was fairly isolated from much of the mundane world, but not so much that the sky would go unnoticed. Even had satellites not been able to pick up the anomaly, people in neighboring cities could look out the window and see the sky. It was simply too huge of an effect to contain.

Conspiracy theorists had come out of the woodwork to appear on talk shows. No one could agree on any one cause. Mundane experts were baffled. Some tried to claim that the purple streaks in the sky were caused by light refracting in certain ways in the area. One guy with extremely messy hair appeared numerous times to claim that aliens were behind everything.

Once it had been found out that Brakket Academy was supposedly one of those ‘magical’ academies, people started to get nervous.

Everyone had been expecting a repeat of the Lansing incident. Some catastrophe of city-leveling proportions. Cameras were trained on the city—from a safe distance—day in and day out.

Somehow, one news station had managed to get Dean Turner to do an interview.

“The state of the sky is the result of a failed experiment. The intended effect was to shade the entire sky for a set distance, filtering certain wavelengths. Uses proposed for the intended effect was to use it in certain parts of the world to control light level to crops, helping to feed millions. It could remove harmful radiation. A more controlled version could be used to color the sky for a celebration, taken down the next day.

“Obviously, things went wrong. The streaks of purple are not harmful. We do not currently know if the sky will return to normal on its own, but we are researching ways to remove the effect.”

Roughly the same announcement that Zoe had said was given to the people of Brakket City.

The interviewer had asked a number of other questions. Most dealing with Brakket Academy itself and the use of magic. Dean Turner had dodged some of the questions while others had been answered.

If Juliana didn’t know better, she might have believed the dean.

But she didn’t need to believe it. She just needed Erich and her dad to believe it.

That interview had started up the debate on whether or not magic actually existed or if everything was a cover up for government conspiracies. Even a decade and a half after Lansing, some people still doubted the actual mages conjuring matter from nothing on live television.

After a month of nothing notable happening around Brakket, the media started to get bored. Less and less of the city was shown. News anchors briefly mentioned that nothing had changed before talking about a plane crash on the other side of the world with a gleam in their eye.

“Now they don’t even show Brakket at all. Obviously nothing bad has happened.”

“We’ve had this discussion before, Juli. You’re not going back.”

Juliana flicked the television off with a huff.

“Mom said I could.”

“Your mother–” Juliana’s father cut himself off with a sigh. He pulled off his glasses with one hand and pressed his thumb and middle finger to his eyes. Bringing his fingers together, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your mother is a reckless woman. I love her for it, but she often thinks that others can be as reckless as she is.”

“You aren’t as strong as Genoa. You cannot survive what she can survive.”

Juliana’s head whipped to her other side to stare at her brother. “You think I don’t know that? If I was as strong as she is, mom wouldn’t be in the hospital.”

“Juliana–”

“And stop agreeing with each other,” Juliana said, looking between the two men. “It’s weird. You’re supposed to be fighting or arguing. Ignoring each other at the very least.”

Resetting his glasses on his nose, her father looked down at her. “Your brother and I have had our… disagreements in the past. Especially regarding your mother. That doesn’t stop the both of us from caring about you. We want you to be safe.”

Juliana rubbed the black band around her finger. Her thumb idled around the skull pattern engraved into the heavy-yet-light metal. The body heat coming off her finger should have kept it at least lukewarm, yet it felt icy to the touch of her thumb.

The only things–demons, at least–that it hadn’t protected her against were the imps in the prison and Zagan himself. Technically Willie, though she had attacked him first, making that one more of her fault than anything.

“I’ll be safe enough,” she said as she stood.

Erich stood the moment she did.

“Will you calm down?” Juliana half-shouted. “I’m just going to my room. I don’t need you babysitting me everywhere I go. Don’t you have a career to get back to?”

“The bank has given me extended leave for a family emergency.”

“Yeah? Well, emergency over. Go back to work,” Juliana said as she stormed out of the room.

In her first year of school, Juliana had been somewhat sad that the school wanted students there for most of the summer. It had taken her away from her parents and thrust her into a world of unfamiliar people.

Now? Juliana wished that the magical world had decent truant officers. Someone to show up and tell her father and brother that she had to be at school. It didn’t even matter that the school seminars hadn’t started up yet.

Anything to get a little breathing room from her family.

Juliana hadn’t been lying earlier. She had fully intended to head upstairs and lock herself in her room for a few hours.

A sound in the kitchen put that plan on hold.

Her mother was at the hospital. Her father and brother were in the living room. No one else should be home.

And yet, there was a sound in the kitchen.

Heart beating faster, Juliana channeled magic through her ring foci. Metal plates coating most of her skin turned from solid to liquid. It flowed over her, providing armor to her hands and head. A long blade stretched out from either wrist until they broke off from the main armor to act more like regular swords.

Thoroughly ready, Juliana pressed open the swinging door to the kitchen.

And promptly froze.

The familiar smell of sulfur permeated the room. It was all coming from one man. Dressed in a dark suit, a barrel-chested man with short black hair was rummaging through the refrigerator.

“No Hellfire,” he said with a click of his tongue. With an overly exaggerated sigh, he turned to stare at Juliana with golden eyes.

“P-Professor Zagan,” Juliana squeaked.

This was bad. Or good? Probably bad.

What can I surprise him with? Zagan liked to be surprised. If she wanted to survive whatever he had come for, she needed to think of something so unexpected that Zagan wouldn’t see it coming.

Juliana bit her lip.

Her mind was completely blank.

A pair of footsteps behind signaled the arrival of both Erich and her father. They must have heard her squeak.

Both had foci in hands, aiming at the devil.

Juliana’s hands shot out, grabbing both of their arms and yanking them downwards. She let her helmet melt away back to her chest–it wouldn’t help against Zagan anyway.

“Don’t! That’s my professor.”

There was no chance any of them would survive if he attacked. Juliana had watched first hand what Zagan had done to Willie. And that had been inside of Willie’s domain as well.

Her father glared. “What is he doing here,” he spat.

Juliana grimaced. Of course her father would recognize Zagan. There was no chance that he hadn’t looked at a photograph or even seen in person the one who had dropped her into Hell.

“I’ve come to inquire about this,” Zagan said, holding up a folded piece of paper between two fingers. His golden eyes turned from Juliana to her father. “Withdrawing your daughter from Brakket Academy?”

“She’s not going back,” he said with finality. “Juli has already been accepted at–”

“I don’t care.” Zagan waved his hand. The air in the room froze for a split second, cutting off all sound. “I merely came to ascertain whether or not this was legitimate and then claim what we had promised each other.” With that, he turned to regard Juliana.

Juliana blinked. She blinked again. On the third blink, her cheeks burst into flames as she realized just what he was saying.

His contract stipulated that he could not ‘lay hands’ upon students. Likely only Brakket Academy students and not whatever school-castle her father had condemned her to.

She hadn’t even considered that while her father had been making arrangements. Between her mother’s recovery, destroying diablery books with Ylva, news about Brakket City, and dodging her brother’s overbearing protection, she had barely spared a thought for Zagan and their ‘promise.’

Her father started to speak. “What are you–”

“The withdrawal notice was a mistake!” Juliana was in a panic. Their agreement was private. Not to mention embarrassing. Something that she absolutely very definitely did not want her father and brother hearing about.

If her father asked, Zagan would blurt it out. He didn’t care in the slightest about her embarrassment.

“That was never supposed to be mailed,” Juliana continued. “I’ll be back at Brakket as soon as school starts.”

“Juli–”

“Say one word,” she interrupted her father, “and I will run away. I will disappear and you won’t see me again for a long time.”

“Tha–”

“One word and I’m gone! I’m serious about this, dad. No arguments.”

Her father’s mouth shut with a loud click.

Zagan turned between Juliana and her father, eying them. After a moment of silence, fire engulfed the piece of paper in his hand. Not even ashes remained to be scattered about.

“A mistake. I see. Disappointing in a manner, but not so much in others.”

Juliana sighed. Everything would be fine. For now.

“I’d love to stay and catch up on the last few months. I unfortunately have a previous appointment at noon today and cannot linger. Besides, you seem to have something to discuss in my absence.”

Before the words could properly register, Zagan vanished from the kitchen with a flare of flames.

Coughing twice at the sudden burst of the scent of sulfur, Juliana stumbled backwards. A firm hand settled on her shoulder.

Juliana turned.

Her father was angry. His lips were pressed into a line so thin that it was almost as if he had no lips at all. His face was flushed red with rage. Even the tips of his ears had turned colors.

“Juliana Laura Rivas,” he said in a calm voice that was a complete betrayal of how angry he appeared. “I would like an explanation.”

— — —

Bright blue sky hung overhead. The warm summer sun beat down on the prison, undisturbed by the violet streaks that were only faintly visible in the daylight. A light breeze from the north kept things from hitting a blistering temperature.

The most important thing was the lack of rain clouds in the sky. That would have delayed everything.

The revised version of Eva’s treatment ritual circle was gigantic. She hadn’t quite got the proper sense of scale from Devon’s tiny notebook.

As with most prisons, the abandoned facility that Eva had claimed as her home had an exercise yard. This particular one had a court for the inmates to play basketball.

The circle stretched beyond the width of the court, though it fit inside the length.

Devon had used his green flames to melt away the chain-link fences, getting them out of the way. Four days ago, he had come out and poured fresh cement, widening the platform on either end. As he worked on that, Eva had to take a trowel and fill in all of the cracks around the court that had formed over the years of disuse.

Everything needed to be nice and smooth.

After leaving the fresh cement to set for two days, he and Eva had come out and inscribed the ritual circle into the cement. He had vehemently refused to allow her to form the circle using blood.

Worried about magical contamination, he insisted on doing everything by hand.

Backbreaking work.

Eva hadn’t complained even once. The ritual was too important. If the only expert in the world said not to do it with magic, she would not use magic.

They had barely finished by nightfall on Friday.

This morning, they had both wandered around the circle several times to compare every little line to those inside Devon’s notebook. A few marks had to be corrected. No major mistakes that would require redrawing the entire circle.

Everything was ready.

And yet, despite everything being well, Devon looked like he was going to be sick.

Eva had a feeling that it didn’t have a thing to do with the ritual circle or their preparations.

It had slipped her mind when she had initially asked them to come, but Eva had remembered late the night before. She ran around Brakket Academy and drained a few vials of blood from each of the demons. Without that, they ran the risk of exploding for wandering around the wrong sections of the prison.

Zagan might have been able to survive. In fact, there was no ‘might’ about it. Eva held no doubts that her wards wouldn’t give him the slightest pause. The others wouldn’t be so fortunate.

Technically, she only needed about a half-vial from each demon. Three vials each was a bit much, but they didn’t need to know that. Anything she didn’t use in her ward would simply go towards a good cause. That of ending Sawyer’s existence.

Lucy hadn’t offered any resistance at all. Eva thought that she might be able to ask for more blood and the demon would give it up with a giggle. Or a gurgle. Lucy was… a bit strange.

Apart from a comment on how much blood she was taking, Zagan hadn’t protested either. That had come as a bit of a shock. Originally, Eva hadn’t intended to take more than she needed from him.

Whether his blood was better or worse than the other demons’ blood would take some testing. Testing that Eva wasn’t certain she wanted to attempt. If his blood was better, wasting it on testing would be a grievous misuse. Though she had taken extra, it wasn’t a whole lot. Saving it for a little party might be the best choice.

Catherine had protested the most. Something about having already given blood for Eva’s wards.

Eva had no idea what she was talking about. Catherine wound up donating an extra vial as protest tax.

Combined with the carnivean, that made three demons and a devil.

Three undominated demons and one devil that probably couldn’t be dominated all stood around the basketball court. Not to mention the vampire that had wandered over wanting to know what all the fuss was about.

Serena had bundled up in enough winter coats to make it so she couldn’t quite put her arms down. Her face had a scarf bundled around it and two sets of ski goggles placed on top of each other. And then she still had an umbrella aimed towards the sun.

Perhaps Devon wasn’t so worried about her. It wouldn’t be difficult to ruin her clothes with even a weak fireball and that would have her exposed to the sun.

But with the amount of demons around…

Really, it was surprising that Devon only looked sick. Eva had half expected him to run off screaming once Zagan showed up. Even with the almost too cold breeze, Devon had sweat dripping from his brow as he finished up a few last-minute preparations.

“Is this going to start anytime soon? I do have things that I would rather be doing.”

So Catherine said. The tone of her voice dripped with annoyance.

Eva had been watching her. All the demons, really, but Catherine was notable because of her occasional comments.

She had arrived with her cellphone in hand, tapping away as usual. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the ritual circle from the moment she first spotted it. Her cellphone was still in her hand, but her fingers didn’t move.

Catherine was old. Eva had no idea how old. Presumably, Catherine had been born. If not, as Zagan had said, she would have been created from a template. No matter what, Catherine wasn’t the sort of person that Eva could see celebrating her birthday. It was highly likely that Catherine had no idea how old she was.

But she was old. With age and experience came knowledge. Perhaps some knowledge about ritual circles. During the few times she had taken over Zoe’s class, Catherine had focused extensively on rituals.

Eva almost wanted to ask just what it was that had caught her interest so completely.

If it was anyone but Catherine, she might have asked. There wasn’t a doubt in Eva’s mind that Catherine would only give a scathing or annoyed comment in response. That was just who she was. She wouldn’t be Catherine if she gave a proper response.

Eva couldn’t ask the other demons either. Lucy had never once been summoned prior to Martina. It was doubtful that she had ever learned anything about rituals. She wouldn’t have any insight in the matter.

Rather, she just looked excited to see something outside of Brakket Academy. Her head spun around—almost literally—as she took in the sights of the prison. Eva could tell that she wanted nothing more than to go around and explore.

The only reason she hadn’t run off was because Zagan had ordered her to be still.

Eva had considered striking up a conversation with Zagan. There was almost no chance that he didn’t have thoughts on the ritual or, at the very least, something interesting to say. And they had just had a decent conversation a week ago.

Unfortunately, Zagan’s irritation with Lucy was palpable. After taking a single glance at the circle, he had leaned against the air with his eyes shut. The only times he had moved were to snap at Lucy for her moving or making too much noise.

If he was in a bad mood, Eva didn’t want to say anything to disturb him further.

Qrycx stood away from everyone else. She didn’t speak. She didn’t mingle. All she did was glare.

More than once, Eva had caught sight of that glare aimed in her direction. Even though the carnivean’s eyes had grown back, she still looked about ready to lunge forward and take Eva’s.

“Almost ready,” Devon said, wiping his sweat on his sleeve.

Catherine slipped her phone into her pocket as she shifted to a more ready position. “Finally.”

Devon glanced up from his notebook. His eyes met with Eva’s for a bare instant before turning back to his work.

In that instant, it was like a whole conversation had passed.

‘Why must you torture me so, girl?’

‘Catherine would have been here regardless of Zagan’s presence.’

‘Don’t even start me on that. I thought you were joking when you said you were going to ask him.’

‘Well, I got my sense of humor from you.’

‘I don’t have a sense of humor.’

‘Exactly.’

At least, that’s how Eva figured it would have happened. Lacking in the ability to project and receive thoughts, she really had no idea as to what he was thinking.

He was, however, undoubtedly pissed. Mostly at her for bringing along Zagan.

“Alright,” he barked out, “Eva, strip and get in the center circle. Whatever three demons are doing this, strip and get in the outer circles.”

“Lucy will be staying here,” Eva said as she pulled her shirt over her head. She still wasn’t sure why Zagan had asked her to bring along Lucy. At first, she had worried that he would try swapping places with her at the last minute.

That wasn’t looking so likely anymore.

Zagan, dressed in a sharp suit complete with a tie, undressed the very second that Devon had ordered it. He hadn’t moved a muscle. Still slouched against an invisible wall, one moment he had clothes on while the next they were neatly folded on the ground.

He had zero compunction about standing around completely naked in front of the group.

Standing a short distance away from the group of demons, Serena pulled down her scarf just long enough to give a loud wolf-whistle that Zagan returned with a smile and a wave.

Eva just shook her head as she stepped out of her skirt.

Catherine and Qrycx had to undress in a far more mundane fashion.

Really, Zagan was just a cheater. When a succubus lacked a magical method of ridding themselves of their clothes, something was just wrong with the world.

Though Catherine had arrived prepared. All she had on was a bathrobe, which she threw off without trouble. She probably would have arrived naked had she not needed a pocket to carry her cellphone in.

Catherine also received a whistle from a certain vampire.

Devon looked at her once with a scoff and a sneer before turning back to the circle.

“No chairs?” Eva asked as she stepped into the center. “Or tubes and needles to hook us up together?”

“We only added the chairs after ensuring that the old circle was stable. No chances here. If something goes wrong…” he pressed a tentacle to his forehead. “You’ll be kneeling. All of you,” he said to the demons as they made their way to their positions. “Sit with your backs to Eva.”

It was strange… No. It was unnerving to watch Zagan kneel down without protest. Eva had expected the Great King of Hell to ignore Devon and pull up an invisible chair. Or whatever else he felt like doing.

Apparently, he felt like following orders.

Catherine was the one who looked most disgusted by being told to sit on the ground. Still, after a glance at Zagan, she complied without a verbal complaint.

“As for the transfusion, it won’t be necessary. The ritual circle will take care of that.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said as she knelt down.

Since she had received Arachne’s limbs, Eva had often considered them to be useful. More often than not, in fact. Her legs were stronger and tougher than the old human ones she had previously possessed. Maybe that would have changed after becoming a demon, but there wasn’t a way to know for sure at this point in time.

Whatever happened in the future would happen. At the moment, Eva was just glad that she could kneel on the hardened carapace instead of her old fleshy skin.

“So, what next boss-man?”

If the glare that Devon had shot Eva earlier was along the lines of being pissed, the glare he sent at Serena was absolutely apoplectic.

Serena actually took a half step backwards.

“Next,” Devon ground out. He turned back to Eva and the three demons, glancing between each of them. “You all remain as still as possible. The demons might feel some tingling and discomfort. Eva… just try not to die.”

“That’s reassuring.”

Devon didn’t bother responding to that.

Which didn’t make Eva feel any better. How was she supposed to try not to die? Obviously, she didn’t want to die. It wasn’t like she could hold on to the edge of a cliff or dodge a bullet.

Eva shook her head. Worrying about it would just lead to stress and anxiety.

“You,” Devon shouted, pointing towards Lucy. His arm swing around to point at Serena. “And you. No matter what you hear or see, you are not to cross onto the ritual circle. In fact, take ten steps away and do not move.

That was even less reassuring. Just what were they going to hear and see?

Turning back to the demons, Devon took a deep breath. “Everyone ready?”

“Get on with it already!”

Eva had to agree with Catherine. The longer Devon delayed, the more nervous she got. This treatment was nothing like the sessions with Arachne. That had been a little unconsciousness and a little lethargy afterwards.

This sounded like it was going to be painful.

There was a sigh from Devon and Eva was proven very right.

Eva’s hands had been resting on her knees. When the ritual started, the hydraulic pressure in her hands failed. Lacking any resistance, the strong muscles in her hands clamped down.

The only reason she hadn’t crushed her knees was because they were made of demonic chitin. The strength of her knees was just enough to resist the strength of her hands.

Gritting her teeth, Eva watched with wide eyes.

As the lines of the ritual circle lit up around the demons, something started peeling off and pulling out of the back of their necks.

Smoke poured out of their necks to pool in one great cloud above Eva.

A pitch black cloud.

It took Eva’s panicked mind a moment to realize that it was blood.

While Zagan didn’t seem to notice at all, Catherine moved her hand back to idly scratch at her neck. She wasn’t hurried or panicking. It was as if whatever she felt was no more notable than a mosquito bite. The blood just flowed around her fingers, not sticking to them in the slightest.

Eva couldn’t see the carnivean’s reaction–she didn’t have the mental power to spare on looking through her blood sight.

The dark cloud of demon blood gathered overhead made its way closer and closer to Eva.

Thin spools–two miniature tornadoes–pulled downwards from the cloud. They reached Eva’s wrists and started burrowing.

Up until now, Eva had managed to keep the pain under wraps. Though she grit her teeth and couldn’t control the clenching of her hands, she hadn’t made a sound.

That ended the moment the blood entered her wrists.

Eva arched her back, opening her mouth wide to scream out at the sky. The blood tore through her body. It didn’t care that there was meat and, after leaving her arms, bone in the way.

Organs? Shove them aside. Can’t shove them? Go straight through them.

She could feel it coursing through her. Despite feeling like it was penetrating straight through her organs, she could also feel it wrapping around them, embracing them, infusing them.

From the tips of her toes to the deepest recesses of her brain, her body felt as if it were on fire and drowning at the same time. Flayed to shreds. Worse even than the effects of her method of teleporting.

Her screams died to rasps as her throat gave up.

The dark cloud overhead was steadily shrinking. The demons were no longer contributing to its growth.

The last droplets came down and disappeared into her wrists. Her pain hit a crescendo and everything stopped.

Eva slumped forward. She could barely process what was happening. The runic circle was still glowing with magical energy and she could still feel that energy swirling around inside of her.

Trying to sit as still as she could even with her ragged breathing, Eva waited. She waited and she hoped that the worst of it was over with.

Twelve eternities passed before the light of the ritual circle was finally snuffed out. It had been near noon when they had started, but when the light died, the sunlight had gone dark.

Only the pale moonlight lit up the ritual circle.

Like a puppet with her strings cut, Eva slumped forward. Her arms could muster no resistance to stop her head from smacking into the concrete.

Eva’s hazy mind caught sight of the blazing red eyes of Catherine’s demon form staring down at her.

Everything went dark.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.021

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Catherine’s heels clicked in a steady rhythm as she walked down the empty hallway of Brakket Academy.

She considered running. The quicker she made it home, the sooner she could join in on her clan’s planned raid against those pathetic humans and elves. Well, they were all humans–probably–including her own team. But her team had chosen the demonic race, so their hearts were in the right place.

As it was, she was already a full half hour late because of ‘secretarial duties’ that she had been purposefully neglecting.

Thanks, Martina, she thought. Because of course Martina would choose today of all days to check up on my work.

Filing paperwork in its proper place had cost her dearly.

She wanted to teleport. It would have been so much simpler. Not to mention faster.

Again, Martina was standing in her way. The paranoid woman had banned everything that could potentially hint towards demonic activity around Brakket Academy. That, naturally, included the method of teleportation that both Martina and Catherine employed.

The one consolation Catherine had was that Martina had condemned herself to walking about like a common plebeian.

What she was afraid of, Catherine couldn’t even begin to fathom. Demon hunters were ruthless, no arguing that. However, Martina had Zagan on call. If he wasn’t around to swat annoying flies away with the back of his hand, what good was he?

Surely he wasn’t being kept around for his teaching skills.

Catherine shook her head. The idea was laughable.

Mid-head shake, Catherine stopped. Just in time to avoid three people coming around the corner.

“Ca–Professor Catherine,” Irene’s twin said as she jumped back. “What are you doing here?”

Ignoring the improper title–Catherine was not a professor, the diablery class did not count–Catherine eyed her student. Irene’s sister looked… worried. Perhaps just shocked at meeting someone in the hallway, but probably not. Moving on to the spawn of Governor Anderson, Catherine’s frown deepened. He was calm, but still had jitters.

Something must have happened that rattled them.

And then they ran off to get a professor. Wayne Lurcher didn’t look worried so much as he looked annoyed. So either he hadn’t seen whatever had startled the children, or he didn’t care.

Possibly both, it was hard to tell with him.

“I,” Catherine said, turning her gaze back to the sister, “happen to work here. I am allowed to be within the school after hours. You two lack that excuse.”

“We–”

“Something is wrong with their dorm,” Wayne said, interrupting the girl. He continued with a sneer. “In fact, probably something more suited to a secretary than a professor. You would know how to contact the proper custodial or maintenance personnel.”

Catherine’s heel clicked as she stepped forwards. “You’re not foisting more garbage off on me. I’ve got to get home and–and do important things.”

That got a scoff from the professor.

“As I was saying,” the Anderson spawn cut in, “I don’t think it is that kind of issue.” He glanced up to Catherine. “We’re heading to Eva’s room. Irene is keeping an eye on it.”

“An enigma?” Catherine frowned as no recognition lit up in the kids’ eyes.

Though that made sense after a moment of thinking about it. Irene wouldn’t be able to say anything about them without violating her contract.

“Where is Eva?”

“She doesn’t stay in her dorm much these days. Less than once a week, I’d say.”

Wayne pulled out his phone and started tapping away. A moment later, he dropped it back into his pocket. “Zoe will check her other residence,” he grunted. “In the meantime, let’s take a look at whatever mess the menace has caused this time.”

Catherine stood still as they all started to move. For a moment, she considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems had a tendency to resolve themselves or just go away if they were ignored long enough.

Unfortunately, she doubted that she would hear the end of it if Martina found out. And besides, it was a good opportunity to see her student and how she handled herself. Considering Irene’s performance against the other enigma, it would be something of a wonder if the girl hadn’t killed herself.

It didn’t take long to get to the dorms. They were, after all, just a stone’s throw from the school building itself.

All the while, the kids and the professor were talking quite animatedly amongst themselves. Arguing over some mortal problems, Catherine assumed. She really didn’t care enough to listen in.

The moment they reached the third floor of the Rickenbacker dormitory, a wave of nausea hit Catherine. She doubled over, one hand braced against the wall to keep her up. She couldn’t recall ever even imagining the sensation that caused mortals to vomit, but this had to have come close.

Brushing off a suddenly concerned group of mortals, Catherine pulled out her cellphone.

Rickenbacker. Third floor. You’ll know it when you feel it.

She sent the message off to Zagan as she shoved the Anderson boy off of her.

“I’m fine,” Catherine snarled.

The feeling had been growing since entering the stairwell, but she was caught entirely unawares by just how pungent the very air felt on the top floor. It was similar to the feeling she had felt upon first seeing the enigma that Irene had summoned, so she hadn’t paid it much mind while it was a minor effect. She had already assumed that there would be an enigma around anyway.

Catherine’s heels clicked against the floor, unsteady as she half-stumbled her way to the source of the feeling.

One of the dormitory rooms had its door wide open. At least, she thought it was one of the rooms. The number outside listed the door as three-thirteen, though part of the lettering had worn off.

Moving to check the adjacent doorways, Catherine found that they were regular dorm rooms. Logic held that three-thirteen was supposed to be a room as well.

Or at least a broom closet of some sort.

She stepped into the room, heels mushing against the sand covered flooring. The sharp spikes making up the heels of her stilettoed boots barely encountered any resistance for the first few inches from the surface. Even with sand over the floor, they shouldn’t have sunk in so far. The solid floor beneath should have held firm.

But, other than a light stumble, Catherine barely noted her feet. Her attentions were drawn straight up. There was no roof. No ceiling. No lights, wiring, or structural support for the building.

There was nothing. A pitch black lot of familiar nothingness.

Forcing her gaze off of the emptiness, Catherine glanced around. There were no waters. In fact, there was nothing but a slice of the beach. It cut off sharply where the walls of the room were–for they were in their normal spot.

Irene stood a few steps forward, enraptured by the void overhead.

“You shouldn’t stare.” Catherine placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Or even be inside. There are enigmas somewhere in here.”

Blinking three times, Irene shook her head. The glazed look over her eyes subsided. “Wha–what happened?”

“I guess that you came inside, a stupid move, and proceeded to look up for far too long. Another stupid move. Get out of the room and draw the highest tier shackles you can remember how to draw correctly just in front of the doorway.”

“What about you?”

What about her? There were enigmas somewhere around. Perhaps on the other side of the walls, or underground. Sticking around didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

Catherine shrugged. She had already sent a text to Zagan, this seemed more like his job anyway.

“Probably go home. I have other things to do.”

— — —

“For the last time, she didn’t attack me, dad.”

Juliana wanted to slam her head against the window of their tiny car. Every clank of her father’s cellphone as it knocked back and forth in the cup holder only increased her irritation. A cloudless starry sky hung cheerily overhead in stark contrast to her current mood.

Brakket City was slowly shrinking into the background. Along with it went her school and her friends.

She didn’t even get a chance to visit Shalise before her father ushered her off into the car.

“And she didn’t attack you either,” Juliana said, sticking a finger in Erich’s arm.

Calling him up had been a mistake. She had thought that he would be worried about their mother. Turns out that was wrong.

Basically, it was the opposite. Erich had barely said two words to their mother. Even taking into account her few periods of wakefulness during the first few months, that was far too few in Juliana’s opinion.

Instead, he had spent all of his time babysitting her, complaining about her parents when they weren’t in the room, and making things awkward when they were in the room. Juliana knew that he had poor relations with their mother, but there was a point where it got ridiculous.

He could at least pretend for her sake.

“It doesn’t matter what Eva did or did not do, Juli. I finalized my initial report and sent it off to her. I sent a copy to Zoe and the Dean as well. My job was done, it was time to leave.”

“You mailed them. You could have at least given them in person.”

Juliana crossed her arms in a huff. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get back to her mother. She did. Even though her mother had doctors to keep her healthy, they didn’t exactly keep her company.

But she also wanted to say goodbye at the very least.

“You know,” Erich said as he moved to rest a hand on her shoulder, “when I went to school here… it was a calming center of learning and research. No zombies or monsters attacked the school.”

“Sounds boring.”

The point,” he said, “is that you should be learning in a safe environment.

“You’re a powerful mage and Genoa has taught you well. But you are still a child. You’re inexperienced and still learning. There will be plenty of time for danger and adventure later. When you are better equipped to handle it.”

Juliana shrugged off his hand and went back to leaning her forehead against the cool window. Yeah, right, she thought. Not if the world ends soon.

That was the one thing that she hadn’t told anyone. Her mother might know, depending on how conscious she had been while Zagan was talking to Eva in Willie’s domain. If she did know, she hadn’t said a word.

Juliana was leaning towards her not knowing. She hadn’t started up an extensive training regimen. Neither had she insisted on bulking up their already massive food storage. Bedridden or not, Juliana knew her mother and her mother would not just lie down and not prepare.

Getting her own training in had become a daily routine for Juliana. She tried to think up what her mother would have her do and then double it. It probably wasn’t close to what her mother actually would do, but it kept her from becoming rusty. Unfortunately, Juliana doubted that thaumaturgy would be enough.

Her excursions with Ylva served a dual purpose. It was true that she was searching for references to Willie and talkina in general, but if Hell merged, it probably wouldn’t matter much. A good portion of her time went into seeking out weapons. Anything that could be used effectively against demons.

Her findings weren’t the most heartening of things. Shackles were easily the most prevalent defenses against demons. But there must be more. Demon hunters had to have proper tools for actually hunting them.

Juliana thought that they would be more publicized.

And then there was the ‘domination’ that Devon apparently used. Juliana had never seen it in person, but Eva had mentioned it on occasion. How to do so was not listed in a single book.

“The classes and professors that have come on since I graduated are less than reassuring as well,” Erich said, bringing Juliana’s attentions off of the fast-moving scenery. She turned just in time to watch his face darken considerably. “That’s to say nothing of your… friend.”

“Don’t you dare. I would be dead several times over if not for her.”

“And that,” Carlos said from the front seat, “is exactly why we’re looking into alternate schools. I’m thankful to Eva, I really am, but you should never have almost been dead even once. If Scotland is too far, why not Charmbridge? The dean there is a strict woman and would never allow all of this,” he paused to wave one hand in the vague direction of Brakket Academy.

Rolling her eyes, Juliana kept silent. Protesting would lead to another argument. Agreeing was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do.

Though, Erich and dad are in agreement. The world really is ending.

As she was staring out the window, Juliana gave a start. The normal sky wasn’t quite so normal any longer.

Streaks of purple cut through the sky like jagged clouds. The purple pulsed lightly to some unheard beat. Every pulse spread the streaks out like lightning made of molasses.

“Um, dad?”

“I see it.”

Though her eyes were glued on the heavens, Juliana’s peripheral vision caught the ground moving much faster beneath their car.

“We’re not stopping?”

“The sky is clear up ahead.”

“But what about–”

“Juliana,” her father said, voice firmer than she had ever heard it. “This city has come so close to taking away everything I hold dear. I’m not giving it another chance.”

“But my friends… Zoe…” Juliana bit her lip. The way Zagan and Eva had talked about Hell being brought to the mortal realm sounded much farther off than now. It hadn’t even been half a year. But if that was what was happening, driving away likely wouldn’t save them.

Her lip-biting turned to grinding her teeth as anger welled up within her. She was running away.

“Mom would go back.”

“Genoa isn’t here,” Carlos said softly, his speed only increasing.

Gripping the door handle with white knuckles, Juliana watched the speedometer pass one hundred. It won’t matter what’s going on behind us if we crash into a mountain.

Shaking her head, Juliana reached forward and pulled her father’s cellphone from the holder.

At the very least, she could warn Zoe and Wayne, both of whom were in his contacts list. To her surprise, the dean and Catherine were entered in as well. One of them had probably seen the sky and already alerted the others, but Juliana sent off a group text anyway. If they were asleep, maybe, just maybe her text could save someone’s life.

Turning in her seat, Juliana watched helplessly as the purple lightning-streaked sky shrank behind her in the rear window.

“This city is cursed,” Erich mumbled under his breath.

— — —

Staring at the inky blackness of nothing became tedious after a while.

Actually, it got tedious after a matter of seconds. There was no one to speak with, nothing to look at, nothing to do save for wander her own mind. Unfortunately, Nel felt that she was reaching the limits of even her own thoughts.

There were only so many things she could think about. After weeks and months of nothing but blackness for most of every day, Nel was starting to worry for her own sanity. She had already thought about everything she could think of.

Other augurs didn’t have to deal with an empty target under normal circumstances. There weren’t many things that could block out the scrying of an augur. In fact, apart from Ylva’s domain and a few higher-ups in the Elysium Order like Sister Cross, whatever Sawyer had done with her eyes was the only thing that she had ever encountered that could block her sight.

There were probably more things. Nel had only been an augur for a year prior to entering into Ylva’s service. The more experienced sisters had probably encountered at least a handful of things that could block out their sight.

For a moment, Nel wondered what the nuns did to occupy their time.

Shaking her head, she realized that she knew the probable answer.

Any long-term observation would have multiple augurs assigned to the task. They didn’t have to deal with such things.

Unfortunately for Nel, she lacked any companions to foist the responsibility off to. Any breaks she took to sleep, eat, or just stretch her legs would gnaw at the back of her mind until she returned to the altar.

What Sawyer did might have been permanent. In which case, she was entirely wasting her time. But there was a chance that he had to consume the remaining eyes that he had stolen to power whatever he had done. Or that it couldn’t be moved easily.

All she needed was a sliver. A slight glimmer of where he was. Even if he occluded himself immediately after, it would give Nel a starting point. A point where she could look around, find street signs or other landmarks. Maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to follow the disturbance around. If she got a good enough sense for what the disturbance was, Nel was hoping that she might be able to lock onto that. Even if she couldn’t see what he was doing, seeing where he was could have infinite value.

Of course, none of those thoughts were things that Nel hadn’t already thought before, furthering her own opinion that she was slowly going crazy. Her thoughts were just cycling around themselves, never going far in one direction or the other.

“Eva really needs to finish her project with his blood,” Nel mumbled to herself for what had to be the hundredth time.

Originally, Nel had wanted to be the one to locate Sawyer. Partially out of pure revenge, but also because she had a feeling that it would be her only real contribution to bringing him down.

She wasn’t much of a fighter and she knew it.

Nel nearly fell from her seat as a sudden image filled her vision. A quick burst of fear-filled adrenaline was all that gave her the reflexes to catch herself on the altar.

She did not want to miss out on what could possibly be the sliver she had been waiting for by falling and losing concentration.

Her vision came into focus. Blurry at first, but it slowly sharpened as time dragged on.

As it cleared up, Nel tried to glean as many details as was possible. There was a lot of red. Blood, Nel decided. It would fit with the more fleshy tones surrounding the red. Violet was another predominant color, though Nel couldn’t tell what that was. Perhaps a cloth draped over a table–she was fairly certain there were tables.

While everything cleared up, Nel moved her vision outside of the building. It was a large warehouse built out of rusted metal. Or rather, it had probably been built out of regular metal that had rusted through time and disuse. Either way, there were no large signs indicating what the structure had been originally intended for.

Everything outside was clear instantly, so she wasted no time in maneuvering her view to the nearest crossroads. Nel scrambled for a pad of paper and proceeded to write down the road names.

She would be able to come back to those later to find the state or country, if he had left the states. The signs looked like they were from the United States, but Nel hadn’t been to every country.

For the moment, Nel moved back inside. On her way back to the original point, she scoped out some of the rest of the warehouse. A good number of those creatures he was so fond of creating stood locked up in a makeshift cage. Skeletons patrolled the catwalks overhead, most armed with bows and arrows. One appeared to have a revolver bolted onto its hand.

Nel shook her head. Wouldn’t the kick of firing just send the whole arm flying off the body?

Then again, those skeletons could draw the string of a bow, and that wasn’t supposed to be easy.

A sick feeling welled up in Nel’s stomach as she spotted piles of bones. The piles formed four distinct pillars, each capped with a human skull, all positioned around a circular table. A sacrificial dagger lay between two basins. An assortment of rings rested on one side of the table.

It was something that all augurs had been trained to recognize. Bones dug from a graveyard built up to form the soul binding altar. One of the easiest signs to recognize budding necromancers with. They would use the altar to call and bind ghosts to anchors.

And, since moving in with Ylva, Nel had discovered that soul binding was the greatest affront to Death. Even moreso than sealing ones own soul away into an immortal object made of gold. The souls to create ghosts were stolen directly from his plane of existence.

Yet it was one of the easiest branches of necromancy to start off with. All it really required was digging up a graveyard. Even the more squeamish of necromancers could do it. No killing required.

Back at the origin point of the scrying, Nel couldn’t help but frown at what she saw.

Sawyer was lying flat on his back between two operating tables. His wide smile was missing from his face.

While covered in blood, he didn’t actually appear injured. Nel couldn’t spot a single injury. There was, however, a pulsing lump of violet fused with his hand.

That probably had something to do with his condition.

Nel almost wanted to cry out in frustration. He couldn’t just die. Not without being killed first. And made to suffer.

A slight movement of the collar on his button-up shirt quashed Nel’s rage. Moving her view closer, she could see that he was breathing.

Satisfied for the moment, Nel looked around the rest of the operating theater. One of those enigma creatures was dismembered on top of one table, mostly unmoving.

The other table held a far more gruesome sight.

The little girl who Sawyer referred to as ‘honey’ or ‘Des’ had her chest carved open. Eyes wide with panic, she was in the middle of swinging her ribcage shut. The bones appeared to be attached to the rest of her with hinges of some sort. As soon as she snapped it into place, the girl pulled a needle and thread off the side of the table and started stitching herself together with skilled fingers.

She had obviously done it more than once.

Before she managed to seal up her skin, Nel spotted something. She did not, in any manner of the word, profess to being an expert in anatomy. However, she was relatively certain that eyes did not belong on the inside of the chest. Whatever rapidly pulsating organ that they were connected to was probably not supposed to be there either.

It looked like a miniature brain.

Even for an augur, that would be strange.

Nel grit her teeth. Those are my eyes.

She must be the one preventing augurs from finding them. Her panic must have caused a lapse of concentration. Or perhaps Sawyer severed something he shouldn’t have when he fell–there was a bloodied scalpel on the floor near his hand.

Once Des finished sewing herself up, she jumped off the operating table and started fretting over Sawyer. An action that boggled Nel’s mind. Des had been as much a victim of Sawyer as she had been during her brief stay in his care.

After watching a bit longer–Des had apparently decided that amputating Sawyer’s hand was the best course of action–Nel pulled herself out of her scrying and got up from her seat.

It didn’t look like whatever was preventing her augur abilities would get itself fixed soon. If Sawyer regained consciousness, he would also have to realize that Des’ brain-eye thing was broken. That should buy time on its own. Even if he did notice, Nel had a good idea of the location. A sign welcoming visitors to Nevada had been a short way along one of the roads.

For now, Nel needed to find Eva.

Swapping fetters to the long strand of black hair, Nel frowned. More of the inky nothingness. A different inky nothingness, though no less familiar than that of Sawyer’s scrying protection.

Eva was somewhere in Hell.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.018

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Eva rolled a bloodstone between her fingers. Aside from the bloodstone embedded in the hilt of her dagger, this was her last bloodstone. And it was one of the good ones, too. The ones from the museum that had a drastically longer shelf life than they should.

As such, despite having the ritual circle set out and all the reagents collected, Eva was loath to actually put it to use.

According to the ritual tome, what she currently had set out should give her a one-way connection to the target, allowing her to perceive the target from any distance. It was a little vague on the exact definition of ‘perceive,’ but Eva was hoping that it would function in a manner similar to her blood sight.

Using the blood reclaimed from Sawyer’s fingers, Eva would be able to see and hunt him down.

But was it really worth one of her unique bloodstones?

No one had heard a peep from the necromancer since Nel had been recovered. Zoe and Wayne had been keeping an ear to the ground about any sign of necromantic activity. That included sleepy little towns with a population barely out of the single digits suddenly disappearing overnight.

Maybe, hopefully, he had gone into hiding after his last encounter with Brakket. And, maybe even more hopefully, perhaps he had decided that operating around Brakket was simply too difficult. Too troublesome to continue.

As far as Eva knew, he hadn’t succeeded in much. She couldn’t say for certain without knowing his plans, but several things had failed without a doubt. He had made off with Nel, temporarily, stole a handful–or armful–of her eyes, and learned how to hide himself from Nel, but that had resulted in his hybrid army being all but destroyed for a second time. Whatever he had been planing with Weilks had failed, as had killing Eva with the dagger.

Eva shuddered at the memory, feeling a phantom pain in the small of her back. She glanced over at the dagger. It sat atop her dresser along with a handful of other items she had acquired since arriving at Brakket. Christmas presents, Ylva’s void-metal skull, and Arachne’s beacon among them.

Thankfully, she had managed to procure a glass case to keep any accidents from happening. The case had originally been designed for a football, but the dagger fit inside. And a good thing too. The edge of the blade barely needed to skim the surface of something to curse it.

Shaking her head, Eva went back to her musings.

Because of Sawyer’s few failures around Brakket, it wasn’t too out of the question to imagine him leaving for greener pastures. And yet, Eva had a gut feeling against the idea of him fleeing.

Rather, every passing day felt more and more like something big was going to happen. Every day gave him more time to build up larger armies of demon-human hybrids.

All while she was too preoccupied with larger issues, such as whatever was going on with Void and the enigmas.

Though confirming that Sawyer had indeed run off would be a weight off of Eva’s shoulders, that might actually be the worst situation. Eva had vowed vengeance and she fully intended to extract said vengeance in the most painful ways that she could imagine. Possibly by finishing him off with his own dagger.

Not that she needed to. She hadn’t signed any contracts or made any magical vows. But she wanted to. She held a yearning desire to rid the world of that man for purely selfish reasons.

Eva thumbed the bloodstone, turning it over in her hand once again.

That all brought her back to her current dilemma.

Back in Florida, this wouldn’t have been a problem in the slightest. All she would have had to do was to take a short walk down the shadier sides of the city. Someone would eventually follow her down an alley with less than pure intentions.

Much like Sawyer, the world didn’t need such people.

Unfortunately, bloodstone creation was much more difficult in Brakket City.

The city was tiny. So tiny, it really shouldn’t qualify as a city. A town at most. A commune?

There was almost no population to speak of save for the students and staff, and everybody pretty much knew each other. There was no police department–Brakket Academy acted more as police than anything else, especially with their new security force–and, as far as Eva could tell, there were actually little to no crimes committed by the general population. Occasionally there would be a story about petty theft performed by students, but nothing more.

It was doubtful that she would find anyone outside at night period, let alone those with ill intent.

Eva bit her lip. Maybe a short vacation was in order. She did have the gate set up back at her abandoned hospital.

Gripping the bloodstone in her hand, Eva reseated it in the slot of her dagger’s sheath.

Yes, vacation was a great idea. And maybe she could use it as an excuse to pry Arachne out of her room.

It would have to wait a while. Perhaps after Juliana left again.

Standing from her desk, Eva headed back out to the women’s ward common room to check on her wayward friend.

And promptly frowned.

Books everywhere. Piles of books surrounded the little coffee table. More were strewn about on top of the table, half-open and half closed. Juliana poured herself over a good three at once while her brother sat in a chair, idly thumbing through one of the more innocuous tomes on the subject of shackles.

“I hope you put every single one of those back where you found them.”

Juliana looked up with fury in her eyes.

“Have you never heard of organization? Or labels? You don’t even have that many books. I should be done by now.”

Eva shrugged. “I’ve adopted Devon’s organization system.”

“Randomization?”

“Don’t be silly. I’d never find anything like that.” Eva allowed Juliana’s glare to slide off without effect. “Of course, the method is to always know where your books are. It makes you look mysterious when you pull the exact right book off the shelf while everyone else fumbles around looking foolish.”

“Who is it you have to appear mysterious to?” she half-shouted. “And this one,” she said as she slapped down on one of the open books, “it isn’t even a real book. More like you took the pages of ten different books and shoved them into one binding.”

Eva swept around the room until she could see the book in question. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t know how that one got there. It’s one from Devon’s library. I must admit shame at the fact that his sorting system is just that much more mysterious than mine.”

It was hard–much harder than Eva had imagined it would be–to hold in her laughter while Juliana looked about ready to scream in frustration.

A look of horror replaced the frustration on Juliana’s face. “You mean to tell me that when we go through Devon’s library, it’s going to be worse?”

That set Eva off. She started laughing.

It was good to have Juliana around again.

Really. Eva felt bad about what happened to Genoa. She didn’t want to keep Juliana tied up here. Not if her mother needed her.

At the same time, Eva wanted to keep Juliana all to herself. Things had just been so glum over the past while that Juliana was like a breath of fresh air.

“Don’t worry. After moving my stuff from Florida, I haven’t had a chance to sort through it all. It got a bit jumbled in transit. And that book,” she pointed at the mish-mash tome open on the table, “shouldn’t have too many like it. Devon likely found damaged tomes and slapped what was salvageable inside a spare book cover.”

Still chuckling, Eva took a seat in the chair opposite from Erich and pulled out her tome of blood rituals.

She had offered to go through her library with Juliana, but the mad woman wanted to do everything on her own. Or rather, she insisted on double checking every book Eva tried to go through. Instead of feeling useless by having her work overwritten, Eva had decided on going back to her own projects. Namely, the project involving Sawyer.

But, with that project on hold until she had a chance to acquire more bloodstones, Eva was left with idle time. There were the enigmas, but Eva was at a loss what to do with that. Carlos could have used some help, probably–he had taken samples of the enigma back to his hotel for testing with larger equipment that he had brought with him–but Eva found being in the company of Juliana far more preferable.

Luckily, in her search for both the ritual for Sawyer and the ritual she had wasted a bloodstone on healing Sister Cross, Eva had come across some rather interesting rituals.

One in particular looked all too enticing. Sawyer, of all people, had hinted at it the very first time he had captured Eva. Back when he had first snipped off her toes.

She really hoped that he hadn’t kept any of those. Eva made a mental note to see if Nel couldn’t track her missing limbs down. They were human limbs and had been taken a good year and a half-worth of treatments ago. For all Eva knew, she was too different now for them to be used against her in any meaningful way.

But Sawyer had found it humorous that Eva couldn’t reattach her own toes with a mere thought.

One ritual contained within the tome sounded a lot like it would accomplish just that. It offered such a great control of her own blood that an arm coming off would be a literal flesh wound. A wound as easy to fix as minor cuts were at the moment. It didn’t actually state how it would repair bone, but Eva assumed that she would be able to hold her arm together using blood until it could heal on its own.

That was, of course, assuming she could be damaged at all. Eva could already harden blood under her control to the point where it could be used as weapons. If, during combat, she could harden her flesh into armor, or perhaps pull a thin layer of blood outside her body to coat her skin, her durability would be through the roof.

As far as she understood the ritual’s effects, that is.

Unfortunately, Eva doubted she would be able to perform the ritual for some time. It required five bloodstones to be consumed in the ritual itself, plus an extra one embedded within her heart. That last one had to be replaced with startling frequency.

All the more reason to save her good bloodstones. If she could get away with not replacing that one by using a good one, she would take it.

Though most of her research had been centered on rituals, as those would be the most likely candidates for ways of finding Sawyer, she had looked through her tomes for any hint of bloodstone creation. If she could find a way to create everlasting bloodstones, it could be one of the most important discoveries in her haemomancy career.

Yet none of the books had any hint towards solving that mystery. She reread through the book that originally taught her how to make them to no avail.

By merely sitting back and theorizing, Eva felt that she had achieved more than she could have by reading the same old tomes on that topic.

Evidence showed that the more detailed and ‘proper’ the symbol used to create bloodstones was, the higher quality bloodstone was produced. During her first stint in Hell, she had created a bloodstone using her elbow. That had only lasted about an hour before crumbling to dust.

The symbol had just been the very basics. Really, it probably shouldn’t have worked at all. An elbow was far from a precision drawing instrument.

Drawing it out with Arachne’s precise claws produced a better result. She had been able to form more of the intricacies. Forming the symbol using blood magic itself produced the best result.

By that logic, an even more perfect symbol would create an even more perfect stone.

But how to create a more perfect symbol? Sure, she had been in a rush while creating the bloodstone from Weilks. But she had created ones before under less strenuous circumstances using that same method that hadn’t turned out significantly different.

So, was something missing?

Some knowledge of the symbol itself was perhaps lost to the ages? A small but key part?

Or else, the quality of the heart affected the quality of the bloodstone. Eva had no evidence for that idea, but it made sense.

Maybe, just maybe, humans just produced short-lived bloodstones being the short-lived creatures that they are. The book strictly specified humans and humans only as being able to be turned into bloodstones, but Eva had to wonder just how accurate that statement was.

Had the author tried on demons?

It was a thought she would have to table for now. Eva wasn’t about to go summoning up demons for experimentation. Definitely not while summoning demons might cause more enigmas to show up.

But if she ever came across Willie in a compromised and vulnerable position…

A throat clearing broke Eva out of her musings. She glanced up to find Erich glaring at her from across the table.

“Something you needed?” Eva asked with a polite smile.

“This, right here,” he flipped his book around to reveal the pages open to a diagram of a particularly complex set of shackles. “Would something like it work on you?”

Something must have changed in her expression. Though Eva couldn’t be sure what–she had tried to keep her face as neutral as possible–something definitely changed.

Erich’s free hand shot straight to the pocket that held his focus. He didn’t quite manage to pull it out before Juliana shouted at him.

“Erich! You just… I don’t…” She cupped her face in her hand, shaking her head side to side. “Could you just not.”

“No,” Eva said with a strained smile, “it’s fine.” Turning her whole body to face Erich dead on, Eva said, “do my limbs and eyes bother you?”

Erich frowned, but didn’t respond one way or the other.

“What about the thought of a little girl being strapped to a chair and having her limbs and eyes removed through repeated applications of rust and offal covered blades?”

Again, he didn’t respond. He did, however, shift in his seat. Uncomfortable? Perhaps?

Eva smiled, flashing her teeth. For a bare instant, she wished they were as sharp as Arachne’s teeth, if for no other reason than to set him further on edge.

On the other hand, Juliana was off to the side rolling her eyes. Eva was almost regretting having told her the real story.

Embellishments always made everything better.

“No? Feeling nothing about that?” Eva shook her head. “Quite the heartless brother you have, Juliana.”

Before Juliana could open her mouth and ruin the atmosphere, Eva got to her feet and leered over Erich.

It was a good thing that he was sitting. The effect would have been lost had he been standing. Erich was a few inches taller than her.

“How dare you judge me without having an inkling of an idea of what I have been through.”

Eva watched him shift and squirm in his seat, idly noting that Juliana was shifting around in much the same manner.

Probably trying to decide whether or not to interfere on her brother’s behalf.

That was not something Eva could allow. If he was so much as entertaining the idea of using shackles on her, Eva wanted to nip that thought in the bud. She was hoping that a little intimidation thrown around would dissuade other such attacks.

After letting him writhe for a good minute, Eva plastered a blatantly false smile on her face and retook her seat.

“To answer your question: no. Though I overcame torture and disability through demonic prosthetics, I remain human.”

A lie. And one that Juliana would know was false. But so long as Juliana, Shalise, Zoe, and Wayne all kept from spreading around the nature of her treatments, Erich wouldn’t know. Eva wanted to keep it as much a secret as possible.

With her quick speech delivered, Eva pulled up her book and pretended to read.

Instead of actually reading, she sat and watched the two of them through her blood sight.

She hoped that Juliana wouldn’t take offense at her theatrics towards her brother. As soon as that thought crossed her mind, Eva quickly resolved to never refer to anything she did as ‘theatrics’ in front of Juliana. She didn’t want any possible link or connotation between herself and Willie, the theater demon.

It didn’t take long for something to happen.

Juliana gasped. She sucked in air like she had been held underwater for far too long.

Erich had much the same reaction with the added effect of him jumping to his feet.

After taking a few breaths of air, Juliana whipped her head towards Eva. “What was that?”

“What was–”

“Juliana,” Erich snapped, “we are leaving.”

“Wait!” She turned to Eva. “What did you do?”

Blinking in confusion, Eva glanced between the two. “What are you talking about?”

“I-I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t move.” Juliana shivered. “The walls all darkened for a moment.”

Eva glanced up at the ceiling with a frown. Throughout the women’s ward, and the rest of the civilized portions of the prison, lighting was done purely through runes–the everburn candles she used to have for lighting the place had long since proven the falsehood of their name. It was a pain to go around recharging them every few months, but that wasn’t too different from mundane lighting.

The lighting was holding steady. It had been a few months, but usually they would start flickering before outright failing.

Not to mention the fact that Eva hadn’t noticed anything herself.

Juliana gripped her arm, rubbing it up and down. The metal armor coating her body had shifted from its solid suit of armor form to a more liquid form. She was ready to shape it into whatever she needed at a moment’s notice.

“And then they started leaking blood.”

Eva sat and stared. She wasn’t entirely certain how to react to that.

There was nothing on the walls or floors. She didn’t even need to look. All she could see through her blood sight was well-contained blood. Either within bodies or vials.

And Eva was fairly certain that she hadn’t learned any magic that could create illusions. That left just two possibilities.

Juliana could be lying. Not an extremely likely possibility. Eva couldn’t see a reason why she would lie. And then there was her and Erich’s reactions. Both had taken in a large breath at almost the same time and both had squirmed while Eva was speaking.

Standing once again, Eva ignored Erich as he flinched back in his chair and went straight to the window.

She breathed a small sigh of relief as she watched the red and yellow hues of sunset color the clouds and sky.

“What is it?” Juliana asked from a few steps away. She was staring out the window, but kept a good couple of strides away.

Erich had a firm hand on her shoulder, but she made no effort to shrug it off and come closer.

Great, Eva thought with another sigh. Now she’s keeping her distance from me.

And after how well their reunion had been going too.

“Nothing,” Eva said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know what happened. Nothing I intended. However, Erich may be correct. When strange things are afoot, sticking around is not a good idea.”

You’re going to stay.”

“Naturally. I’ve got to figure out what happened.”

“But you didn’t even notice. You need someone–”

“Juliana,” Erich cut in, “take your friend’s advice. Your father will be expecting you back before nightfall anyway. And when he hears about this–”

“Don’t you say a word.” She whirled around, sticking her finger in his chest. “You threatened her first.”

Erich merely shrugged.

“Don’t worry about me,” Eva said. She would have to leave it to Juliana to handle her family. “I’m sure Devon will have an idea of what happened.”

Eva doubted that, but he would probably be interested nonetheless. Hopefully, interested enough to help her.

“Go. Keep your dad from worrying. And keep me posted on anything he figures out about the enigmas.”

Eva turned away, ignoring the mounting argument between Erich and Juliana, and started prodding the wall. Just double checking. As expected, it didn’t feel the slightest bit different from normal.

“Juliana,” Eva said, interrupting whatever Erich was saying, “I’ll walk you out.”

“But–”

“No buts.” Gripping her arm, Eva pulled Juliana close. “If you notice anything strange, call Zoe or Ylva as soon as you can.”

Eva didn’t resist as Erich wrenched Juliana out of her claws.

Keeping a firm grip on his sister’s wrist, Erich dragged Juliana out of the women’s ward. He made a beeline towards the car they had driven in, not stopping for any last words.

Eva followed behind, leaving a good distance between them.

The space kept them from conversing. That was fine with Eva. She was too busy lost in her own thoughts to entertain either of them. It had the added benefit of not antagonizing Erich further.

What just happened?

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.017

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“Excuse my brother. He isn’t so high-strung normally.”

Eva pulled back from Juliana and turned her eyes to the man she had called Erich. That explained the vague likeness to Genoa that she had noticed. Yet he lacked all of the relative frailty that embodied Carlos.

Which didn’t actually mean anything. Juliana wasn’t frail in the slightest. She had inherited her father’s height impairment while taking after her mother in every way that mattered.

Probably a good thing. She might not have survived her ordeals had she her father’s constitution.

Looking closer at him, and looking past the resemblance to Genoa, Eva found that he had rather sharp features. High eyebrows, a pointed nose, a chin that stretched down to a single point–at least, that’s how it appeared through his goatee. Unlike Devon’s unkempt scraggly beard, Erich had styled his to a point.

His short hair even came to a well-defined widow’s peak.

Especially with that beard, he looked more like he could have been a younger version of Devon than any descendant of Carlos.

Eva suppressed a shudder at the thought of Devon having children.

“Ah,” Eva said, hoping that the lengthy pause had gone unnoticed, “so this is the mysterious Erich that Juliana has so sparsely mentioned.”

She had already decided not to hold his almost-assault against him. He was just protecting Juliana from a possible threat. That was an admirable trait.

Erich crossed his arms, not lessening his glare in the slightest.

Glancing slightly towards Carlos, Eva said, “I didn’t think you would be bringing along your–”

She cut herself off. ‘Bringing along your whole family,’ was what she nearly said, but without Genoa, the whole family wasn’t here. And she didn’t exactly want to call attention to that fact.

“–children,” Eva finished, feeling awkward. She was the same age as Juliana and wouldn’t appreciate being called ‘children’ in any sense of the word. Erich was worse. Eva wasn’t sure how old he was, but he had already graduated from Brakket Academy before she had started. That put him at twenty at the very least, though Eva was willing to bet closer to twenty-five.

Carlos didn’t respond. He used one hand to grip either side of his glasses, hiding his eyes as he readjusted them.

To Eva’s side, Juliana just let out a small cough.

Erich didn’t react in the slightest.

“Perhaps,” Catherine said, her chair grinding back against the tiles as she stood, “you should move on to the ‘enigma.’ Your greetings can be exchanged later; at some point in time when I am not required to be here observing this disgusting display of social diarrhea.”

Eva could have done without that last line, but apart from that, all she was thinking was thank you Catherine.

“Right.” Eva clapped her hands together. “Um, just follow us?”

Heading out of the office lobby and into Brakket Academy proper, Eva kept just a few steps ahead of Juliana and Erich while Carlos trailed behind them. Catherine took up the rear, absolutely failing at her job of keeping an eye on the guests if all the noises coming from her cellphone were any indication.

The short walk passed in silence. And not the good, comfortable type of silence. Eva had a number of questions that she wanted to ask of Juliana, but with Erich sticking at her side and Juliana not at Eva’s side, it felt like an insurmountable task.

So instead, Eva used the walk to reflect. Partially on Juliana and the distance she was keeping, but mostly on herself.

Why was it so hard to talk to her? Eva had never had a problem like this. Mostly because she cared very little for what other people thought of her. Awkward situations were a snap to avoid when your only friends were a potentially insane old man and a spider demon.

But even after coming to Brakket and meeting Juliana, Shalise, Jordan, Irene, Shelby, and even Max, Eva had not had trouble interacting with them. And that included immediately after her gloves came off–so to speak–about demons and Arachne.

Really, all of them, save for Max and Irene to an extent, cared far less about the whole diablery thing than Eva had been expecting.

This, here and now, was a completely different feeling. Arachne had almost killed her friend’s mother. Under the influence of another demon or not, that was more than enough to cause a rift. Especially since they knew that Eva still associated with Arachne.

But still, she should be able to talk without tripping over herself, shouldn’t she?

Maybe it was something else then. Carlos and Erich? That was a whole lot more likely. Eva did care what Carlos thought to an extent. Not quite the levels of what she cared about Juliana’s thoughts. And Erich, Eva had only just met him. With no real opinions set in stone, she only cared about what he thought as an extension of what Juliana might think if he ended up hating her.

“Alright,” Eva said as she pushed open the door. “Inside that large ice block is the creature. I do have some information about it from other sources, but I think that I would rather hear your uninfluenced opinion to start with.”

“Is there a reason,” Carlos said as he readjusted his glasses again, “that you two are here instead of the dean or the school’s magizoology professor?”

Eva blinked. She had been expecting him to rush up to the enigma and start examining it, or whatever a magizoologist did when they came across a potentially undiscovered species.

“I’m not sure about the dean,” Eva said with a glance towards Catherine.

The succubus just shrugged and went back to her cellphone.

“Professor Twillie is on the outside of the loop because of the nature of the creature and how it arrived. Zoe should be here before long, she was just taking care of overseeing a makeup test that will be ending soonish.”

“That’s a summoning circle,” Juliana said, quirking an eyebrow at Eva. “It is a demon then? You think my dad has a better chance of identifying it than Devon?”

Eva nodded. “It is a summoning circle. Every other line in the room is a shackle. The creature is not a demon, however. The intended target of the circle was an imp. Catherine, myself, and Zagan have all confirmed that the circle should have summoned an imp. This arrived instead.”

The creature’s method of arriving had been included in her letter, so confirming that didn’t reveal anything new, unless Juliana hadn’t read the letter.

“Very well,” Carlos said, stepping towards the ice block. “Is it possible to melt the ice?”

“Yeah. It’s just regular ice. A fresh layer gets frozen on once a day by a water mage. Heat would take it down.”

“I mean, is it dangerous to melt the ice?”

Eva frowned. “Probably not. Its blood has stopped circulating. I would say that it is dead…”

“But?”

“One of the quirks of these things, according to Ylva, is that they don’t die properly. None of the ones that I have killed have gotten back up, but I was a whole lot more violent than freezing water over one. But if it did wake up, with both myself and Catherine here, we should be able to handle a single one without much issue.”

Probably.

Nodding, Carlos said, “I think we should leave it as is until Zoe arrives. Not that I don’t trust that you can take care of it, I’d rather have the extra focus on hand if something does go wrong.”

With that said, he started walking around the ice, looking it up and down through the glassy surface. After his third revolution, he pulled a chair from the side of the room and sat down. Taking off a large backpack and setting it to the side, he retrieved a sketch pad and got to work with a set of pencils.

Eva spent a moment watching his deft hands trace out minute details. He could have taken his profession as an artist and done rather well for himself, in Eva’s uneducated opinion.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t commenting during his drawing process. At least not out loud. His sketch had a slowly growing list of annotations off to one side detailing colors, estimated size of teeth and appendages, and other such characteristics.

That meant that, once again, no one was talking.

Gritting her teeth, Eva shook off her nerves. She walked right up to Juliana–the side opposite from Erich.

“Can we go talk outside for a minute or two?”

“Sure. Not like I have much to add. And I had something to talk with you about too.”

All three of them started off towards the door at the same time.

Juliana stopped and whirled on her brother. “I’m fine, Erich. Stay with my dad and make sure he stays fine.”

“But–”

“No buts! You’ve been hanging off of me since I called you. It’s driving me insane!”

She turned and marched out of the room, barely managing to not slam the door in Eva’s face.

Eva gave Erich a half-hearted shrug before she chased after her friend.

Juliana had taken up a crossed-arms slouch against a wall out in the hallway. When Eva approached, the armor coating her arms clanked as she shifted.

“You alright?”

“Fine,” Juliana snapped. Pressing a hand to her forehead, she sighed. “I’m sorry. My entire family has just been unbelievable since the–” She paused with a glance around the hallways.

It was a Saturday afternoon; they were empty. Few students would be in the school on the weekend and fewer still down the corridor where they had set up the diablery classroom. The room had been specifically chosen for being in a lesser used portion of the school proper.

“The thing,” she finished.

“Oh?”

“Since telling my brother about it, he hasn’t let me out of his sight. And that is on top of the high tensions between him and my parents…” She shook her head. “Dad wants me to cut ties with you and Ylva, and for me to finish my education off at some ancient castle in Scotland–probably don’t even have working toilets.

“Mom’s the most reasonable, but she’s bedridden for the moment. The other two ignore everything she says the moment they’re out of the room.” She looked up and met Eva’s eyes. “You have no idea how irritating it is for everyone to ‘know what is best’ for you.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Zoe has been somewhat attentive of me as of late. You’d think she was my mother.”

Juliana laughed. A nice real laugh. “So things here been as hectic as usual?”

“Not really. Quiet, actually.” Eva thumbed over her shoulder. “Except for that thing, that is. Those enigmas have been showing up all over Hell, including both my and Ylva’s domains.”

Juliana’s eyes widened and her brow creased with worry lines. “Shalise?”

“She’s fine. Still in my domain. She had a brief run-in with them, but managed to dispatch two before I arrived. They’re not actually that tough. Sister Cross is keeping her company at the moment.”

“The same Sister Cross that told you to purify yourself through death or something?” Juliana asked with a flat stare.

“That was one of her minions. But yes, that Sister Cross. She showed up and tried to kill me. Naturally, I objected. We eventually came to the agreement that she should protect Shalise.”

“Just like that?”

“More or less,” Eva said with a shrug.

Again, a silence fell over the two. A silence that felt more comfortable than the earlier lack of conversations, but not quite how Eva remembered.

Eager to keep the silence from dragging on, Eva said, “I heard you were up to something with Ylva?”

“Ah, yeah,” she said, shifting forward and making direct eye contact. “Ylva hadn’t told you about it?”

Eva shook her head. “She tends to be the sort of person you have to directly ask to get an answer out of, and I only learned when your father returned my letter. Around the same time everything became hectic with Sister Cross and all the enigmas.”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk with you about.”

She glanced around the hallway again, looking out for any passersby. There were none, of course, but she still took an extra glance to either side.

“I want access to all of your diablery books.”

“Alright.”

Juliana blinked. “Just like that?”

“Why not just like that?”

“I-I stole your other book.” Juliana took her eyes off of Eva, glancing down towards the ground. “I kept it secret and I caused all sorts of problems for everyone.” Her eyes snapped up into a shallow glare. “And you’re just going to let me into your library?”

Eva sighed with a small smile touching her lips. “You’re the one who suffered the most from all that. Arguably. So it is somewhat surprising to me that you still have an interest in diablery. The real question is what you intend to do with my books. Either you haven’t learned and you’re just going to get yourself killed, or you have learned and you want to learn more to better protect yourself from what the future may hold.”

“Well,” Juliana said as she rubbed the back of her head, “it isn’t that.” She blinked just before her eyes widened. “I mean, I have learned. I’m not intending to get myself killed. And I want to protect myself. But maybe not quite the way you’re thinking.

“Ylva and I have been going around destroying references to talkina. Especially any that mention Willie. So far, we have gone to a few larger repositories. However, diablery isn’t a popular topic. Demon hunters tend to destroy any public collections of diablery books. Almost all books are either hidden in some tomb or ruins waiting to be discovered, or they’re all in the hands of practicing diabolists. Like Devon.”

“Make sure you call him ‘demonologist’ to his face,” Eva said. Moving to lean against the wall alongside Juliana, Eva rubbed her forehead. “I don’t have a problem with that. Devon, on the other hand, will object to you burning his books.”

“We’re not burning books. Just the page. And if there is something written on the other side of the paper, I’ll transcribe it all.”

“I can ask, but I don’t think that will make him any more reasonable.” Eva shook her head. No, Devon will not be enthused with that idea in the slightest. “But I have a question for you: Why?”

“Why?” she repeated with far more anger in her tone than Eva had used. “Why do you think? After what he did–”

“I know why you think, or I can guess. But in spite of your experiences, Juliana, I highly doubt that Willie is the worst demon around. Far from it, I’d wager. For all you know, a demon mentioned on the same piece of paper as a talkina could be a literal walking apocalypse.”

Juliana went quiet, leveling a glare at Eva.

“Spite,” she eventually said, dropping her glare to stare at the ground. Her hands, shaking at her sides, curled into fists. “I just want him to… to suffer.”

“Can’t argue with that. And I don’t have a problem with it either. We’ll have to talk with Devon, but after we’re done here, why not stop by the prison?”

“Maybe. If I can convince my dad and brother.” She slapped her face and shook her head. “Maybe I’ll just sneak out with Ylva the next time she comes by.”

“That’s–” Eva paused as someone entered the range of her blood sight, making their way towards the two of them. “They already almost lost it while you were in Hell. I’d at least leave a note so they don’t worry.”

Juliana didn’t have time to respond before their guest turned the corner.

“Professor Baxter!” A genuine smile appeared on Juliana’s face as she ran up to their teacher.

“Hello Juliana, good to see you again.” Zoe pressed a lock of brown hair back over her ear, trying to sort out the slight mess as much as possible. “I’m sorry that I’m late, I was… held up. How are you? How is Genoa?”

Eva wanted to slap herself in the face. She should have asked that the second she saw Juliana. Just because she had received a response from Carlos stating that he was fine–something that was probably a lie anyway–didn’t mean that she couldn’t be polite at the very least.

“I’m doing okay. Mother is,” her face took a slightly somber expression, “recovering. I guess she’ll be starting physical therapy sometime within the next six to twelve months, depending on the state of her heart and lungs.”

“Good to know that she is stable, but I’m sorry to hear that it will be so long.”

“She’ll pull through,” Juliana said, her voice full of conviction to the point where it brokered no argument. “And be back getting into danger in no time.”

“Your mother is a strong woman. I wouldn’t expect any less of her,” Zoe said with a smile.

Eva closed her eyes as she leaned against the wall. Zoe and Juliana had started to catch up, the former asking the latter much the same questions that Eva had already asked. There were a few new ones that Eva paid attention to.

“When are you coming back to school?”

“Barring any rash decisions on my father’s part,” she started with a roll of her eyes, “I should be back at the start of next year. I want to come back now, but at the same time, I don’t want to leave my mother alone.”

“Family should support one another in times like these,” Zoe said with a sage nod–it didn’t quite fit her. “I’ll see if I can’t get you homework packets delivered from all of your professors.”

Juliana groaned while Zoe let out a light chuckle.

“So, your father is in the room then?”

“And my brother is with him.” Juliana pushed off the wall with a slight scowl. “We should probably make sure they haven’t started fighting.”

“Now that you’re here,” Eva said to Zoe, “he’ll want to melt the ice to get a closer look.”

“Is that wise?”

“As far as I can tell, its blood isn’t circulating. Ergo, it’s dead. But between you, me, Catherine, Juliana, and maybe Carlos and Erich, we should be able to kill it again if needed. With the shackles, I doubt it will be able to escape anyway.”

Zoe placed her hand on the hilt of her dagger and nodded.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, “Shalise took out two on her own, and I took out one with only having my foot bit off.”

“That isn’t reassuring.”

Eva flashed a grin as she pushed open the classroom door.

It was mostly as she had left it. Catherine sat at her desk, growling at the computer set up on top. Carlos was mid-stride around the back of the ice. Erich sat in the seat nearest the door.

Eva did not miss Zoe and Erich sharing a moment of narrowed eyes with one another.

The professor turned away without a word of greeting, focusing on Carlos. Again, she started out with a few simple greetings and polite questions that Eva only paid tangential attention to.

Her thoughts lingered on the interaction between Erich and Zoe. They clearly knew each other. Not surprising as Zoe had known Genoa before Juliana started school. But apparently no one liked him. The tensions between him and Carlos, Juliana finding his presence to be overbearing, and Zoe’s glare. It made Eva wonder just what Genoa thought of him.

Though, Eva supposed, it doesn’t much matter. Not unless he hurts me or mine.

“Alright,” Eva said as the greetings died off. She clapped her hands together, igniting them at the same time. “Shall we melt this enigma down?”

Zoe stepped between Eva and the block of ice, drawing her dagger as she moved. “Why don’t we not use fire. It will make a mess and potentially damage the subject further. I may not be the greatest at hydroturgy, but even I can get rid of the ice.”

Eva huffed. “Fine.” Extinguishing her hands, she folded her arms and watched.

It was interesting. And somewhat alarming.

Not the disappearing of the ice and water. Eva’s classmates had done similar things often enough that it wasn’t interesting in the slightest.

As the enigma’s temperature increased, its blood started moving again. Slowly at first. But enough to put Eva on guard.

She reignited her hands.

That caused half the room to jump to attention.

“Blood is circulating,” Eva said. “I think.”

“You think? How could you think? Isn’t that your whole shtick? Seeing blood?”

Eva blinked at the odd word from Catherine, but shook her head. “I mean, the blood is moving through its veins, but its heart isn’t beating? Oh, wait. There it goes.”

“I’ll stop,” Zoe said.

Eva waved her off before she could start repairing the ice. She walked up to the front desk and found a yard ruler. Using it, she reached across the shackles and lifted one of the enigma’s freed tentacles.

It flopped back down without a hint of resistance.

Eva took a moment to prod it in various spots, including right in its mouth and eyes. It failed to react in any way.

“Brain dead?”

“Could be,” Carlos said as he rubbed his chin. “If it was in an improper state of suspended animation. Could be something else unique to the creature.”

“Maybe its brain just hasn’t restarted yet?”

“Leave it half in the ice and keep an eye on it.”

And so they did. By the time a full hour had passed, the enigma had restarted almost fully. It was breathing and circulating blood. And showed no sign of slowing down.

Through some equipment in his backpack, Carlos confirmed that its cells were alive in every sense of the word.

The real oddity was that he couldn’t find a single dead cell on the creature. Even if the creature as a whole could cling to life, individual cells should die. Especially when removed from the body.

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006.016

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Eva watched as Zoe left with the body of Simon. Somehow, Eva was hoping that she wasn’t about to return the body to the hospital. Its condition was far from pristine. Seeing it would probably cause a lot of grief if he had anyone that cared about him.

Perhaps returning his ashes would be the best course of action.

Brushing his hands together to get rid of chalk dust, Devon stood from the circle. “Everything is drawn correctly,” he said. “Seems a sick kid won’t do. At least, not one that sick.” With a casual shrug, he went to collect his little notebook and promptly started writing something down. “Still, might be able to improve the efficiency despite that failure.”

“What about me?”

Devon paused his writing to look up over the edge of his notebook.

A fairly lethargic-looking carnivean leaned against a chair, eyes half-lidded. Whatever this new process was, it sure took its toll on the demon. Arachne never looked half as bad after Eva’s treatments. The carnivean–Qrycx, she had called herself–looked more like Eva tended to feel.

Though Eva’s analogue in this ritual had died, so at least nothing quite that bad had happened to her.

“Ah, you,” Devon said. He waved his hand off towards the summoning circle. “Begone with you. I’ll call upon you after I find a new subject.”

“And our contract?”

From the chair that Eva was sitting in, she could see a shadow of a smile cross Devon’s features.

“Still on, of course.” That shadow darkened ever so slightly. “Of course, the terms dictate two years donation towards a single subject, so we’ll have to start the timer back at zero when next I summon you.”

In spite of her obvious fatigue, the carnivean’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. “That wasn’t in our contract.”

“Oh, but it was.” Devon pulled out a sheet of paper from the back of his notebook. “Reviewed and signed by you, it clearly states that you will donate yourself to the subject for a period lasting no less and no longer than two years.”

He turned the paper around, holding it out for her to see. “Now, that subject is dead and can no longer be donated to. Either our contract is null and void as the subject is deceased, or I find a new subject to take his place and your two years start over.

“By all means, you are free to walk away. Back to square one. Good luck finding someone willing to summon the unseelie queen.”

Eva quirked an eyebrow at that. This was the first she had heard of such a plan.

“Or accept a delay of a few weeks. I have no intention of letting this project linger. Not with the current and future state of Hell, demons, and Void in such flux.”

Brokering no room for argument, Devon pointed at the summoning circle. “Now out. Or I will banish you myself.”

When she hesitated, looking much like she was going to argue, Devon started chanting.

Originally, Eva hadn’t thought that Devon had much special about him. Well, that wasn’t true.

Originally, Eva had thought the world of Devon. He was a great magic caster. A brewer of potions that could cure all sorts of maladies. A fighter capable of ending all of his foes. One that bent demons at their knees to do his bidding.

She had begged and pleaded with him to teach her magic. He had finally relented, teaching her enough to keep her from blowing herself up and graciously allowing access to his library of tomes.

That was the mage that a young and impressionable girl had called master.

Now, however, she had more influences in her life. Teachers and fighters. Zoe, Genoa, Wayne, and a good portion of the professors at Brakket Academy. Compared to them, Devon was… lackluster. Eva was fairly certain that most of his ‘skills’ in fighting actually amounted to luck. Luck and hiding behind whatever demons were available.

While he had to have at least a little skill to back up that luck, his teaching skills were nonexistent. Looking back, Eva could clearly see that he hadn’t taught her much of anything unless it was directly related to her not killing herself. More likely was that she had annoyed him to the point where he had just tossed his books at her until she went away.

It worked. Eva had been more than happy to study a good portion of his tomes. And she couldn’t complain that the first book he had tossed at her was a blood magic book–she liked the art, after all. But a small part of her couldn’t help but wonder just how much more she could be, had she had an actual teacher.

Since arriving at Brakket, Eva had been dropping the title of master when addressing him. He was merely Devon.

But if there was one thing that he was a master at, it was diablery. Or demonology, as he would insist.

The words to his chant came out fast. The nun that had tried to banish Arachne just before starting school sounded like a child in comparison. Devon slurred and used contractions so much that the chant was only intelligible because Eva had heard most of it before.

Yet it worked.

The carnivean strode across the room. She didn’t move slow despite the lethargy. And yet she only made it about six steps. Her seventh step fell through a portal on the floor. Without solid ground beneath her, she tipped forward and fell face first into the void.

As the portal sealed up behind the carnivean, Eva frowned at her master. “I heard the story from Zoe and Arachne. Why didn’t you banish her back when you guys were rescuing Nel?”

He let out an irritated snort. “At first it was just talking. Implied it wasn’t going to attack us. Might have let my guard down, but just goes to show that you can’t trust demons. By the time it started attacking, it was far too close. Had its tentacles on me quick.”

“Won’t dismissing her make dealing with her next time all the more troublesome?”

Shrugging, he said, “I still don’t know that it is the best choice. Plenty of other demons in Hell. It was just one that I thought I could get to agree without much fuss.”

“But your contract–”

“Has plenty of loopholes. It caught a handful while going over the contract, but it didn’t catch all of them.” He paused, glancing at the mess on the floor left over from the ritual. “Hand me that broom.”

Eva blinked, momentarily stunned. She quickly complied before he decided to make her do it.

After a moment of watching the enchanted broom vanish the mess on the floor, Eva decided to press her luck by speaking up again.

“So Qrycx just happened to miss several loopholes? Doesn’t seem very demon-like.”

Sighing, Devon scratched at his beard. “Look, you want to avoid such a fate? Take a few law classes. Most demon contracts go something like this: Kill the things I want you to kill, don’t kill the things I don’t want you to kill, don’t kill me, go to Hell when you’re done. They don’t have a lot of experience in more wordy contracts.

“Now the fae,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to even hear a fae contract without a good dozen lawyers at my back.”

Eva frowned, wondering just how many lawyers went over the contracts for the diablery class. Knowing what little she did about Martina Turner, probably none.

“But,” Eva said, “you’re still going to summon the queen for Qrycx.”

“Loopholes. Assuming I even summon it again.”

With that, they fell silent. Eva let him finish cleaning the floor in peace while she considered what he had said.

Just as he was finishing up, Eva went and opened her mouth again. “What about me?”

He blinked, glancing back over his shoulder. “You? What about you?”

“‘Demons are not trustworthy,'” she said, complete with air quotes. “What about me?”

Another blink.

He burst out in a short guffaw. “You’re just a kid. And not a real demon, at least not yet. Even after your treatment is complete, its doubtful that anyone who knows you would consider you a threat. Now, after a century or two of time to distance yourself from the woes of us short-lived mere mortals, it will be another story. I don’t plan on sticking around quite that long.”

Nodding with a slight frown, Eva tried to decide whether or not to be offended. Trustworthy wasn’t bad, not from her perspective at least. Undemonlike might be bad. Her treatment wasn’t complete, so she supposed she could let that one slide for now. Not a threat?

Yes, that was definitely offensive.

And he had called her a kid. Compared to him, maybe, but fifteen years old was hardly a child.

Then, Eva’s mind caught up with his final sentence.

“You aren’t going to perform the treatment on yourself?”

A long moment of silence reigned supreme as Devon stilled.

“Arachne,” he eventually said, “was once human. As you well know. Some mages masquerading as gods didn’t like her and turned Arachne into what it is now. Myths say that Hel, mother of our very own Ylva, was cast down to Hell by Odin after being touched by Death. More mages masquerading as gods.

“There are other, similar tales through history and mythology. Humans turned to demons, or other monsters, by ones more powerful than themselves. Know one thing they all have in common?”

Eva considered for a moment. Not having a wide background in various myths and legends, she really only had the two examples. Not enough to come up with a commonality.

So Eva just shook her head.

Devon put on a rueful smile. “Perhaps I’ll tell you one day. I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with the endings of the stories.”

The smile behind his goatee twisted back into his usual expression of impassiveness and grumbling. “Now get out. I still have work to do.”

Eva nodded. Hopping to her feet, she started off towards the exit of his cell block. She stopped almost as soon as she started as two things came to mind.

The first was that she had forgotten to ask about the Powers. Probably a dead-end, as Ylva said, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

The second…

Eva stared down at the half erased ritual circle where the remains of Simon had lain not so long ago.

She bit her lip and asked a question she had never considered before.

“Was I the first?”

“First what? Demon-that-was-originally-human? Weren’t you listening, girl? Arachne and Hel are two–”

“The first of your experiments. I’m obviously your only current success. But was I the first you attempted the treatment on?”

He regarded her with a suspicion-filled raised eyebrow. “What? Growing a conscience now?” He gave a cold laugh. “More than that kid have died in the course of my research–if he wasn’t dead before the ritual even began, that is. Anyone with zero failures on a project as big and as unique as mine must be a literal god. ‘Course you’re not the first.”

Eva nodded. That was roughly what she had expected. Though, at no point when he had originally explained the process to her had he ever mentioned any dangers. “Perhaps in the future,” she said slowly, “you might warn your potential subjects that they might not make it.”

Looking at her like she was crazy, Devon just shook his head. “Most subjects weren’t exactly in the state to give consent. Not to the point of that kid,” he gestured towards the door, “but a lot less well off than yourself.”

Frowning, he pulled out his notebook again and started writing. “Ill individuals may not make for the best subjects,” he mumbled to himself. “Subject should display moderate drive and willpower, the will to live, and generally be in a healthy state.” Shutting his notebook, he glanced up and met Eva’s eyes.

A moment passed before he pulled out his notebook again. “Correction: willpower not needed. Subject should be slightly more self-aware than a pineapple.”

“Hey!”

Eva lifted her teacup, taking in a deep breath of the fragrant fumes.

Devon hadn’t had any useful information on Powers. At least not the one that they were looking for. Just as Ylva expected. The closest he had come was correctly identifying the residue that Nel had received as belonging to another plane of existence, a foreigner to the mortal realm. Finding out what specific plane was beyond his abilities.

So nothing they hadn’t already known.

With that in mind, Eva wasn’t entirely certain what Carlos was going to be able to discover. Did he know anything about the Powers? Doubtful.

But Eva had sent the letter before finding out the origins of the creature. By the time she had found out, he would have already been on his way. Unless he had someone like Zoe teleporting him in.

In fact, he was due to arrive any minute.

Hence Eva’s cup of tea. A nice cup of tea for calming the nerves.

Carlos probably wouldn’t be upset at being called out to something he didn’t already know what it was. Given his reaction to the gargoyles within Ylva’s domain, he would probably be ecstatic at the chance to research something new.

No. Her initial reason for calling him here did not worry Eva.

It was just that the last time she had seen him, Genoa had a hole the size of her arm in her chest. And Genoa had fairly muscular arms.

Would he hate her? Blame her? Regard her with cold eyes behind those coke-bottle glasses of his?

She had read his letter. What he said about his concerns regarding his wife, Eva, and Arachne. But letters could be pondered over. Words could be erased and rewritten. What he actually felt might never have made it to Eva.

There was a reason she had written him a letter in the first place instead of just calling him, and it wasn’t that she still didn’t own a cellphone. Though that may have been a contributing factor.

After all, she wanted the time to consider her words. To avoid any questions or words that he might say to her that she would have to respond to at that moment.

Eva replaced her teacup in its saucer, shaky hands barely able to keep the tea from spilling over before the ceramic clacked together.

The tea was definitely not doing its job at calming her nerves.

She didn’t have tea often. Hardly ever. Eva was willing to believe that she could count the times she had had tea on a single hand. Perhaps it only worked on those who consumed the stuff regularly.

This batch was more like a syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart.

“What are you so worked up about?”

Eva glanced up with a slight start.

“You’re jumpy enough to make me nervous,” Catherine said. “Stop it.”

“He’s the father of my very first non-Arachne friend. I’d rather not have him hate me.” Eva started towards her tea, but stopped.

She’d had enough.

“Besides,” Eva said, “you don’t need to be here anyway. I’m perfectly capable of taking him to see the enigma on my own.”

“I wish I didn’t need to be here. Martina insists that absolutely every visitor to the Academy must be escorted at all times. Especially around the ‘enigma.'” Catherine used a single hand for her air-quotes. Her other hand held a cellphone.

One she had been tapping on incessantly for the last fifteen minutes.

The constant beeps and vibrations made by the thing didn’t help with Eva’s nerves.

“How long is he going to take?” Catherine moaned while she flopped over onto the table after a series of depressing tones. “I have better things to do than to waste away my time in the mortal realm babysitting you. And why isn’t this the job of the security team? What did Martina even hire them for?”

“His letter said noon,” Eva said, glancing up to the clock. She didn’t bother to respond to the rest of Catherine’s complaints. “And it’s high noon.”

As soon as she spoke, there was a soft knock at the door. A moment after, the door cracked open and Carlos walked in.

He looked… well, not as gaunt as he had while Juliana was stuck in Hell. He had been eating better, that much was clear.

However, Eva’s heart sank as he failed to smile in the slightest. No twinkling appeared in his eyes at the sight of her.

At least he isn’t scowling, Eva thought.

Eva kept her disappointment bottled up. Her face remained as neutral as his own.

At least until a second person entered the room. Someone unfamiliar. Taller than Carlos with sun-baked skin and darker hair. There might have been a passing resemblance to Genoa if she looked close enough; he had the same strong bone structure in his cheekbones and jaw line.

His eyes managed to wander half the room before snapping to Eva.

Particularly her hands as they rested on the table around her teacup.

Eva watched his eyes grow wide. They traveled up to her elbows before shooting upwards to meet her gaze.

The entire school knew what Eva looked like. She actually did not have to deal with much in the way of reactions. Not anymore. Half the school had been there to see her directly on the first night, an incident she fled from before anyone had a chance to do anything. The rest of the school had heard rumors–most probably exaggerated to the point where her actual appearance was boring in comparison–and were therefore prepared.

There was bullying after. Not much other than a thrown ball of dirt or water in the hallways. Most people tended to avoid her. And all that had pretty much stopped once the security force started patrolling the hallways.

Genoa had taken her appearance in stride, for the most part. Eva guessed that she had seen far stranger as part of her mage-knight guild. Carlos had been more interested in examining her than anything else.

As such, it was something of a daunting experience, watching as this presumably normal mortal took in her appearance. His eyes, though they started wide, had narrowed into thin slits full of suspicion and wariness.

Eva kept eye contact, her face remaining as impassive as she could make it, daring him to say something. She fully intended to make him blink first.

A third person walking in the door threw that plan to the winds.

Eva jumped to her feet, knocking over her teacup. Ignoring Catherine’s yelp as the hot tea ran down the table towards her, Eva strode across the room.

Only for the unfamiliar man to move in front of her path. He held a green baseball-sized gemstone focus in his hand, outstretched towards Eva.

She didn’t waste any time in readying for combat. Her dagger came out of her sheath at her back while her off-hand ignited in thaumaturgical flames.

“Erich! Stand down.” There was a slight pause. “She’s my friend.”

Those last three words made Eva forget everything that had been worrying her. It didn’t matter if Carlos hated her. It didn’t matter if the man–this Erich–attacked her. She could take him. Probably.

The flames coating her hand expired and her dagger disappeared into its sheath.

“Erich.”

After giving her a wary look, Erich’s focus disappeared into a pocket. He took an excruciatingly long time with moving out of the way, but he eventually did.

“Hello, Eva.”

There was a smile there. Maybe not a careless, gleeful smile, but a smile nonetheless.

Putting on a smile of her own, Eva stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her friend.

“Hello Juliana.”

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