Tag Archives: Gertrude

010.014

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Eva honestly wasn’t sure what was going on. Supposedly, two people were fighting her. In reality, the nun hadn’t hit her once. The white fire of the Elysium Order burned through the forest. Another burst of flames would spread out and around the ground anytime Eva and Arachne got out of sight. But that was about the only thing the nun was doing.

A good amount of lightning had come close. Relatively. Never quite close enough to even burn off hairs on her arms. Arachne’s dodging and Eva tossing fireballs to distract the nun let them avoid a lot of it, but she hadn’t hit even once. To be clear, Eva wasn’t complaining. It was just that she had expected Arachne’s large bulk to be hit at least once. Perhaps more than that.

Eva blinked forward just in time to avoid an icicle from her front and a spinning battle-axe made of white light from her rear.

She wasn’t really sure what was up with the battle-axes. Other nuns had conjured them up in the past, but she hadn’t ever seen one put to effective use. Even right now, throwing the battle-axe had a huge wind-up. Eva could see the nun pull back her arm to toss it well in advance. And then it moved slowly. Well, slowly compared to lightning. Had it been a real axe made of metal, it probably would have been going a lot slower.

Though, watching it sink halfway into a tree, Eva couldn’t deny its effectiveness. Had it hit her in the back, it probably would have gone straight through her body. Yet not a single axe had hit her either.

Which was perfectly okay in Eva’s book.

She had enough on her plate with the constant barrage of ice.

The hunter moved too fast. She was probably killing herself. Every time she moved, her body took a second to catch up to her armor. Her organs slammed against her insides because of their inertia. Unfortunately, she wasn’t killing herself fast enough for Eva’s tastes.

Pulling up her hand, a burst of fire rushed forwards and enveloped another spiked ball of ice. The second her flames touched it, it exploded. Shards and spikes of ice darted through the burning air. Blood orbs orbiting around her hands twisted into small shields that covered her body for a bare instant before returning to orbiting her arms. Just long enough to catch the ice.

She only had three vials of blood. Not a single droplet had moved far from her body. The flames burning up and down her arms kept the drops from freezing, but she had tried to attack this hunter in the past with her blood. It had never once worked.

So shields it was. She had already been hit by one exploding spike ball. Never again if she could help it.

With no danger for the second, Eva took stock of her situation. So far, nobody had actually breached the snow dome. Which was perhaps the best news of the night. If all went well, the hunter and nun would be driven off—or killed—without either actually finding out what was beneath the snow. Maybe she shouldn’t melt it all away. It only needed to stay safe for another day. Just long enough for Catherine to finish checking, Genoa to finish shoring it up against earthquakes, and Eva to finish gathering people.

The second she was in the clear, Eva would be accelerating that day as much as possible.

The nun was off behind Eva somewhere, posturing for another attack. A direct hit with an exploding fireball usually sent her running for a half-minute. But the hunter…

The last ice ball had come from ahead, but Eva couldn’t see her circulatory system. She was too far out. And had likely moved again. A blink’s distance off to the side, Arachne slowly rotated around, staring into the darkness.

“Arachne!” Eva called out as Arachne pressed her large body flat against the ground. As flat as it could go, anyway.

A massive boulder made of ice, almost as big as Arachne, skimmed over the spider-demon’s bulbous carapace. It actually cracked chitin along the top curve. The very second it cleared her body, Arachne sprung straight upwards, letting a second boulder roll underneath. As she fell back to the ground, the armored hunter leaped out of the darkness.

A tarnished gauntlet connected with Arachne’s face.

Eva charged, blinking once she got a little speed built up. Her shoulder slammed into the stomach of the hunter. She had to clench down a shout. In rushing at her, Eva had intended to tackle the hunter away. Despite her powerful legs, she was still a relatively light girl. The heavy armor had so much mass behind it that it barely budged.

Her shoulder wasn’t so lucky. It tried to continue forwards and carry the hunter, but instead snapped hard. Jumping back, Eva’s arm hung limp at her side.

It wasn’t a complete loss. She did disrupt the hunter’s follow-up on Arachne. While Arachne had been dazed by the punch, and some of her facial carapace had cracked, she was still alive and had repositioned to be ready for the hunter.

Clenching her teeth, Eva hesitated. Her blink had carried her a good way across the forest. However, the nun was creeping up behind her again. Though she hadn’t hit yet, Eva didn’t want to take the chance that she would manage to get in a lucky strike. If she took a hit in a bad spot, she could wind up like Arachne had back in the Elysium Order’s cathedral.

Apparently picking up on her hesitation, the hunter charged straight into her, moving fast enough that she might as well have blinked into Eva’s arms.

Eva’s shield snapped around her in an instant, keeping her insides from being pulped by a blow hard enough to send cracks through the translucent bubble. A decent chunk of her reserve blood vanished into the aether to absorb the damage.

Kicking a knee up and bringing her fist down, Eva caught the hunter’s outstretched arm. The armor cracked. Barely. Hairline fractures ran through it. However, the arm beneath didn’t even notice Eva’s attack. In fact, speed-stepping around the place probably hurt the hunter more than Eva did while trying to break her arm.

And her hand, still touching the metal, was burning. Not just her own thaumaturgical flames, which didn’t seem to have much effect on the armor. Faint wisps of gray smoke curled up into the cold air from where her carapace connected with the metal armor. A dull pain started up in Eva’s hands, slowly mounting.

But Eva held on. Just for a moment longer, Eva held on despite her melting carapace.

Staring the hunter in the eye, Eva grinned. The second she flashed her sharp teeth, Eva blinked to the other side of the hunter. A spinning battle-axe made of white light struck square in the hunter’s chest, digging into the armor.

Eva clicked her tongue. The axe didn’t penetrate far enough. The hunter’s armor had just enough empty space between her chest and the metal. In fact, watching as the hunter turned around, the axe’s blade only made a tiny hole in the armor. As it disappeared into motes of light, Eva found a hole the size of her little finger. Nothing more.

“What does it take to break your armor?” Eva shouted even as she blinked away from another charge.

“A lot more than a demon could come up with,” the hunter said with a snarl just before she disappeared back into the forest, leaving an explosion of ice in her wake that had Eva shielding her eyes from stray shards.

For the other hunter, who had used a similar suit of armor, Eva had plunged crystallized daggers made of demon blood into his armpits. Exploding those had killed him and broken apart his armor. She could try the same thing here, but the hunter wasn’t giving her much opportunity. Not only that, this hunter’s armor was far more bulky than the other one. Her suit wrapped around her with no obvious weak points. The back of her knees, her elbows, her shoulders, her hips and legs, all of it was protected in some manner or other.

Against anyone else, Eva would have just left her blood in its liquid state. It could seep through the cracks and seams of the armor where she could then detonate it. Unfortunately, the hunter would just freeze the blood before it could get close.

Eva built up a massive fireball. One the size of her head. Perhaps larger. The semi-plasma membrane vibrated and rippled as she made it more and more unstable. With a frustrated grunt, she launched it off towards the nun. The explosion that followed completely shattered her shield and threw her back against a tree. A shock wave rippled through the forest, shaking snow from the surrounding trees.

She had to reactivate her shield as the falling clumps of snow turned into razor sharp icicles. The hunter was really on the ball, using every little thing that happened to her advantage. Even though they both knew that the icicles wouldn’t be much of a threat, it still forced Eva to react and it consumed a small portion of her blood. Just a little more attrition on Eva’s side whereas she was gaining nothing.

But that was how most of her fights seemed to go. She needed to get in a single good hit. Like the other hunter, a single mistake ended up with him in pieces. Theoretically, other people could end her in a single hit as well, but Eva was confident enough in her abilities that she wasn’t too worried.

Worried about being one-shot, that was. She was still being slowly worn down. Had she had her dagger, she could have replenished her blood. But it would have only been a temporary measure, she would just wind up lightheaded if the battle went on too much longer. Blood just wasn’t all that useful against the hunter.

Her phone vibrated as dozen balls of ice exploded in the air around Arachne. The carapace was strong enough to ward off a few shards of ice, but it still sent Arachne into a rage, swiping at the air. Unfortunately, a second volley of ice crashed down around Eva.

Someone had received her message. No time to check right now.

Hopefully it was Juliana. If she could just make all of Eva’s enemies disappear, that would be great. It would probably have unintended consequences though. Juliana might accidentally make all the other schools disappear—their students at the very least—or maybe even several students of Brakket Academy who didn’t like Eva all that much.

But she could surely figure out something.

On the other hand, Genoa might be the better option. If Genoa was rushing over to the ritual circle right now, she would probably bring along a few of the other mage-knights that were wandering around the city. Between Eva, Arachne, Genoa, and a number of other fighters, it shouldn’t be difficult to crush the nun and the hunter. They wouldn’t have to worry about any finicky oddities with Zagan’s magic or Juliana revealing herself to her mother.

Something that had nearly happened just the other day.

“Eva!”

Eva didn’t hesitate. She blinked straight forwards twice and once to the side, putting a tree between herself and her two foes. Her thoughts had distracted her, so if Arachne had seen something she hadn’t, it was better to trust her right away than to dillydally and get hit by something.

Another rumble shook snow from the trees, though only a few light flakes that hadn’t fallen earlier. Not enough to form up into anything dangerous.

Peeking around the tree, the area Eva had just been standing in was barren. No snow remained behind. The grass right where she had been had folded flat against the ground, leaning outwards. Even the needles on the pine trees had fallen to the ground in droves.

Something had hit. She was glad she hadn’t been in the way.

Not only had it knocked the needles from the branches and blown away the snow, but it disrupted the curtain of snow. An avalanche started, pouring down the smooth edge of the ward and piling up taller than Eva. None of it made it inside the ward and onto the ritual circle. At least not from what Eva could see. A large window of air opened up, allowing a sliver of moonlight into the dome.

The armored hunter stood in front of the piled snow, illuminated in the moonlight. She didn’t so much as glance behind her towards the dome. Instead, she focused directly at Eva.

Even though her eyes were on Eva, she still managed to kick off the ground into a flip as Arachne skittered towards her.

She didn’t make it far. Arachne’s arm snapped forwards. A razor thin thread gleamed in the moonlight as a small coiled rope of her webbing looped around the hunter’s armored ankle. A slight tug ripped her out of her flip, slamming the hunter face-first into the ground. Arachne moved on top of her in an instant.

The hunter rolled on her back, avoiding three of Arachne’s legs as they came down where she had been lying and letting them dig deep into the ground. As soon as Arachne started pulling back her legs, the hunter rolled back, using her roll to add momentum to her fist. Her gauntlet connected with the midpoint of Arachne’s leg. A burst of smoke exploded from where she connected.

Arachne’s leg stayed stuck in the ground while the rest of her backed up a few steps.

Eva growled, clutching at her limp arm. The hunter snapped the thread around her foot just as easily as she had snapped Arachne’s leg. Before she could get up, Eva blinked right on top of her. Her good arm’s flaming fist was already coming down on the hunter’s helmet before she had fully rematerialized. The helmet had only a dozen tiny holes around the mouth area and one thin slit at the eye line, but that was enough.

The yellow flames coating her hand erupted into a sticky burning tar, filling the holes as Eva’s fist actually dented the metal. Faint chuckles of laughter made it through the rushing sound of her fire. Eva’s fingers and knuckles burned, but she ignored it, upping the intensity of her flames. “Just die already.”

A boot in Eva’s stomach sent her flipping through the air, straight into Arachne’s waiting arms.

Rather than a single red eye dimly glowing beneath the slit in the visor, the entire helmet radiated a bright red light. Heat haze surrounded her head, distorting the air. The still falling snow turned to steam before even touching the hot metal. Even still, the hunter didn’t move to remove the helmet. Given her laughter, it had probably been protected against the heat somehow.

Black blood leaked from the cracks in Arachne’s face, dripping down onto Eva. Had she been struck by that second punch earlier, she could very well have died then and there. Eva grit her teeth and clenched her fist.

A part of her expected the landscape to once again turn bloody. However, aside from the area where the snow had been blown away, everything remained a smooth and snowy white. The previous times, she had been in a poor emotional state. Arachne had been stabbed through with a sword designed to kill demons. But this time, Eva wasn’t even all that mad. Annoyed maybe.

Tired might be a better word. Exhausted. Sick to death of this hunter popping out of the woodworks to hound her and those around her.

Eva blinked forward. Magic built up in her arms, intensifying her flames until the yellow and red turned nearly as white hot as the Elysium Order’s flames. The hunter raised her fists, ice crystals leaking off into the air like mist.

But Eva blinked straight behind her. Just as the hunter started to turn, Eva blinked back.

She placed her hand on the hunter’s chest. Right where the nun’s axe had split a tiny hole. As before, Eva flared her flames as much as she could. With the hunter half-turned, Eva pressed her down, forcing her flat on her back. Tar-like fire exploded around the hole as they crashed to the ground, sticking to the armor, the ground, and everything nearby. Eva shrugged off and ignored the fire that hit her, not even devoting the slightest thought to extinguishing it. Her concentration stayed focused on forcing as much fire as she could into the tiny hole in the hunter’s armor.

This time, the hunter didn’t laugh. She squirmed as screams rattled around inside her helmet. Actual screams. Not the giggles of last time.

Unfortunately, it was still just a tiny hole. Larger than a pinhole, but not enough to force her flames in at any reasonable rate. Through Eva’s sense of blood, she could roughly see the damage she was causing. It was like a blowtorch held a few inches away from her chest. Not that Eva had ever tortured someone with a blowtorch, but it was what she imagined. Whatever underarmor the hunter wore—maybe just a plain shirt—had burned away in seconds. Her skin turned to charcoal, but only just above her sternum. The skin was perfectly normal just an inch in any direction.

But the longer her hand was over the hole, the more the char spread.

Arachne had moved up, using her webbing to keep the hunter’s arms and legs from kicking Eva off a second time.

But the nun was still creeping around the perimeter. Eva put up a shield around the hunter, Arachne, and herself, blocking a bolt of lightning. She didn’t look up. She didn’t take her hand off the hunter’s chest.

Her shield wouldn’t hold up for long. The nun’s lightning hit far harder and depleted her reserves of blood far faster than even twenty of the hunter’s punches.

“Eva…”

“I know.” A second bolt just about destroyed her shield. “I just–”

A third bolt consumed the last of her blood. Eva finally pulled back her flames, jumping out of the way before a fourth bolt could hit.

It was a shame. The hunter was still alive. Obviously in pain, but Eva’s blowtorch hadn’t managed to cut straight through her body. A little longer and she might have burned into her arteries around her heart. Genoa might have survived a similar thing, but Genoa had Eva there to force her blood to circulate.

The armored hunter vanished the moment Eva stepped away. A slight sulfurous scent trailed behind in her wake.

Clenching her sharp teeth, Eva whirled around to face the nun.

Only to find Zoe coming out of the shadows behind her. She moved in close and slow while the nun was focused on Eva. The nun didn’t even realize anyone was close until Zoe’s dagger was pressed up against her throat. Then, she only had a bare instant to widen her eyes before a bright flash of light sparked from Zoe’s dagger.

The nun collapsed to the ground, convulsing. By the time the arcs of electricity quit dancing across her body, she was thoroughly unconscious.

Eva sighed, letting her flames die out as she clutched at her broken shoulder. Most of her clothes had burned off once again. “We need to get an anti-teleportation ward set up before the nun wakes up.”

Unlike Eva, Zoe didn’t let her guard drop even the slightest. Her eyes scanned the battlefield, searching for any other attackers. “That’s a nun?” she asked after a moment. “What about the other one?”

“Gone. Injured again. She’ll probably be back.” Eva turned, looking at the mostly domed ritual circle. “We need to do this. Fast. Today. I don’t know if the hunter saw what was inside, but she knows that something is here.”

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010.013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not someone we know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should, no guarantee.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, anything save for whatever tripped her detection wards.

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

“See anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A consideration for later.

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

“Eva!”

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

“Call in help.”

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

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

A single glowing red eye stared back.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are a demon then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to get out. Sooner rather than later.

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

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

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

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

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

And overconfident, Riley thought, keeping her expression steady.

“Are those creatures still appearing around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riley stood with a repressed sigh.

— — —

“I still think it is too early.”

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

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

They were on the scene before her.

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

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

Which had Eva biting her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that lava pouring off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have been getting less intense. But…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Still–”

“But I agree with you.”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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


009.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

“Zagan disappeared again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where in the basement?”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

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

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

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

Demons weren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe worried anyway.

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

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

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

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

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

“Miss Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.018

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

“Snack? How so?”

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

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

Zoe honestly had no idea.

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

Still, she decided to go with an educated guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said that mostly to soften any appearance of danger.

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

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

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

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

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

Really.

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

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

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

The screens shifted to display just what Hank had mentioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right you are, Zoe. Right you are.”

— — —

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

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

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

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

“Still no Juliana?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This seems familiar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva nodded as she blinked after Genoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she needed to get out.

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

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

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

She was not going to be used as bait again.

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

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

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

Stretching her arm forward, her elbow crossed the threshold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana just groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.017

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like a game of capture the flag.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

“And you think I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh. Neat.”

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

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

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

“And I doubt Henry has practiced much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for staying and giving me tips.”

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

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

It actually made her jump a little.

Juliana just chuckled as she walked off.

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

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

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

Waiting turned out to be the right answer.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who said that?”

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

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

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

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

Saija flew off towards the sharply dressed demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything interesting?”

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

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

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

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

“I was watching.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a sigh, she continued on her way home.

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

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

Juliana turned slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana charged forward.

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

Her armor moved. And the woman with it.

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.023

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Arachne hissed through her teeth. Another of her legs was lying on the ground. Attacking with them had definitely been the right choice. Arms, and the hands attached to them, were just too valuable. Especially while she was weaving webs.

It hurt to lose them. When Eva had amputated her legs, she had taken several anesthetics to numb herself to the pain. Arachne hadn’t. And frankly, it hadn’t hurt much at all. The following weeks she had spent regrowing her legs had been more annoying than any kind of suffering.

But the hunter’s sword was odd. It cleaved cleanly through her limbs as if they weren’t even there. The human phrase would be ‘like a hot knife through a stick of butter.’ Worse than that, it reminded Arachne of being hit with lightning from the Elysium Order’s nuns. Not so much the time her face had been exploded—she hadn’t felt much from that incident—but she had been hit with it enough otherwise to remember its feeling.

That feeling of it crawling through her, eating away at even her demonic regeneration.

But still, better to lose a leg than lose an arm.

Though, that didn’t mean that the legs were infinitely disposable.

There were only the six on her back plus her two primary legs in her human form. Well, there had been six plus two. At the moment, there were only the two left.

The hunter was getting desperate. With the way the doll moved and hounded him, he had been largely ineffective in doing anything.

Except for when he sliced off her legs.

Really, that was more Arachne’s fault than anything. She didn’t have to put herself in danger. He would hack his way through the makeshift walls penning him in and escape. Arachne could just let him go instead of intercepting him.

But Eva was out there.

Seeing Eva stand up and walk into the dormitory had been a relief. Feeling her leave towards the city had been a shock. Arachne wanted nothing more than to chase after her. Her Eva could be walking into more danger.

Let’s be honest with myself, Arachne thought as she watched the hunter duck under the doll’s sword only to find himself punted across the plaza by the golem’s fist. Eva is definitely heading into danger.

That was just how Eva worked.

Arachne narrowed her eyes as the hunter crashed into Brakket Academy’s brand new fountain, mostly destroying it. The doll jumped high into the air, dropping down with her blade pointed straight at the ground.

The hunter managed to roll out of the way, dodging the attack just as he had the last four times the doll tried to get the drop on him.

It was enough to make Arachne wonder if the doll couldn’t learn properly. If he could dodge it three times, a fourth was probably not going to help. A fifth certainly not. She might eventually get lucky, but Arachne might be dead of old age by then. And Arachne didn’t even age.

The hunter continued his roll for a short distance before snapping up to his feet and charging the webbing separating him from the rest of the city.

And that was another reason Arachne couldn’t leave to help Eva. He was getting desperate to escape. Perhaps he had noticed Eva leaving as well and wanted to stop her from doing whatever she set out to accomplish.

That was something Arachne could never allow.

Glancing down at her severed leg, Arachne picked it up.

Not to mention, he is really pissing me off.

The tip of her leg was still sharp. This one had been severed at the first joint, leaving it looking more like the top of a spear than anything else.

Pulling back her arm, Arachne threw the leg at the hunter. She didn’t expect it to do much damage. His armor could stop the doll’s sword from slicing all the way through.

But the hunter did stop hacking at the webbing long enough to slice at the flying limb.

He backed away from the webbing almost immediately. The doll was still digging her sword out of the fountain, but Genoa’s golem was moving into position.

With two quick steps, he made it to the doorway of the Rickenbacker dormitory building.

Genoa’s golem crumbled to a mound of lifeless earth.

At first, Arachne thought that Genoa was fleeing, running away like a coward before the hunter could reach her.

A wall rose from the ground in front of the Rickenbacker. A smooth sheet of stone stretched high up, rising even higher than the roof of the building.

Arachne grit her teeth. The stupid woman should have just done that in the first place instead of creating the small pillars that Arachne used to web in the plaza. It would have been far more effective.

The reason why quickly became clear.

The golem was down. A fact that did not escape the notice of the hunter. Getting obviously desperate, he charged straight back towards the section of the web he had just been hacking away at. A section Arachne hadn’t had a chance to repair.

Golem down. The doll was still busy for another few seconds.

Too long. He could be gone by the time the doll got into the fray again.

Arachne grit her teeth and charged. Spare legs or not, he would not be making it to Eva.

— — —

Eva landed right on the edge of the roof, almost falling backwards onto the minefield of wards.

A barrier from a set of shackles that she had landed on saved her. It caught her, acting like a wall to lean against. Juliana wasn’t stopped by the barrier. She went straight through. It was a bit disorienting to have the weight on her shoulders not be stopped by the wall that Eva hit, but the situation quickly resolved itself as Eva shoved off the barrier.

At the same time, she slung Juliana around, dropping her onto the rooftop. Eva hadn’t intended to drop her, but the sensation of being off-balance combined with Juliana’s weight had her moving not quite how she wanted.

“Shackles,” Eva said.

Though her words were unneeded. Eva was kept from interacting with the shackles and the rest of the roof by the barrier. Juliana wasn’t. The moment she hit the ground, her flailing hands disturbed the chalk enough to break the shackles.

And a good thing too.

Eva needed the mobility.

She gripped Juliana’s hand and pulled, dragging both of them out of the way of an icy boulder crashing down right where the shackle had been.

After making sure that Juliana was actually on her feet this time, Eva ignited her hands and started tossing fireballs. It didn’t matter that the hunter intercepted every single one with a flurry of snow. So long as she was busy defending herself, she couldn’t conjure up giant balls of ice.

Eva let out a sharp hiss of pain as something tore into her side. Just because the hunter couldn’t conjure boulders didn’t mean that she couldn’t slip in an icicle.

She realized in an instant what had happened. Eva hadn’t see it coming. When her fireballs hit the hunter’s snowballs, they exploded in a burst of steam, snow, and flames. The icicles came straight through, leaving her with very little time to react.

Worse, Eva couldn’t take cues from the hunter’s body language. Now that Eva was closer, she could clearly see that the hunter wasn’t moving in the slightest.

She had something around her neck, encrusted with gemstones. Some kind of focus, probably. But she barely moved her neck. Her arms hadn’t moved. Her legs were just as still, bent in her chair at a slight angle. It would have been an awkward position to sit in. Eva doubted that she could feel it.

The holes in her back were still there. Someone had tried to stitch her skin up, but they hadn’t fixed up the actual punctures in her spine.

Really, it was amazing that she could cast at all. Eva didn’t need a focus. Her entire body, being mostly demonic, acted as a focus. But even though the woman clearly had a demon’s eye, Eva doubted that would allow her to cast spells with no focus.

Devon had a tentacle for an arm and still used his rings on his other hand.

If Zoe were here, Eva might consider asking her how foci worked with severe nerve damage and how magic flowed through the body. But she wasn’t. Eva didn’t know where she was. Maybe Wayne had teleported her back to her house only for them to get caught up in whoever was attacking Ylva.

Also, probably not a good idea to have idle conversations while fighting.

The fact of the matter was that the hunter was casting spells and she was doing it without moving. The hows and whys just didn’t matter.

Of course, being close enough to see into her body through her blood gave Eva hope. The hunter was undoubtedly paralyzed from the neck down. At least.

To the hunter’s side was a small table. Atop it sat the corrupted idol, the one Nel believed to be the cause of the sky cracking effect.

Eva jumped to the side, avoiding an array of icicles while launching a few more fireballs of her own. None of her fireballs were the big explosive kinds. The hunter would likely see them coming from miles away. Even in her debilitated state. Eva didn’t want explosions being somehow rebounded on her.

Juliana was finally getting her bearings. Only a few seconds had passed since they landed on the roof, so Eva couldn’t blame her too much for being a little stunned. Especially with the dropping and dragging. The icicles pinging off her armor probably didn’t help much either.

But once she finally got to work, she didn’t waste much time in becoming effective.

The rooftop gravel around the hunter exploded. Her chair tipped straight backwards as rock flew up into the sky.

Eva didn’t waste the opportunity. They might not get another one.

She charged forward. There were no wards on this roof to get in her way. Juliana had handily taken care of all the shackles with her explosion. Nothing was in her way.

Not even a wall of ice sprouting from the ground would stop her.

Eva vaulted it, hopping over to the other side with only her hands grazing across the top.

She landed on the other side and purposefully fell to her knees. Between her knees, she pinned the hunter down.

Just in the off-chance that the hunter was feigning her paralysis.

Eva drew back her fist and brought it down, bashing out a few of the hunter’s teeth. She had to keep the hunter as disoriented as possible to avoid becoming an icicle pincushion.

For just a moment, she paused. Eva almost said something incredibly silly. ‘That was for Martina,‘ or something similar. But it was too embarrassing. In the end, Eva just shook her head and punched the hunter a second time.

As she drew her hand back again, Eva opened her fist. She clawed her hand, preparing to tear the hunter’s throat out.

But paused again.

Though a few of her teeth were missing, the hunter was smiling.

Eva felt a chill run down her spine. She had missed something. Some trap. Some weapon.

Juliana!

Had she still had hairs on her neck, they would be standing on end. Eva blinked away from the hunter. The ice wall was still just behind her. It had grown for a few moments more after Eva had vaulted it, but it wasn’t much of an obstacle when she could blink straight up.

Landing on the top, Eva was overjoyed to see Juliana standing right where she had been. Her first thought had been that something had happened to Juliana. That not being the case did not mean that everything was fine. She could hear a light crackling somewhere in the air.

Eva jumped from the top of the ice wall. As she moved, her vials of Arachne’s blood exploded, releasing their contents. The blood swirled around behind her. She landed on Juliana, tackling her to the ground. The blood formed into three overlapping shields around the two of them.

The outermost shield collapsed almost instantly. The second followed, lasting a few seconds longer than the first before succumbing to the heat.

Eva never got to find out how the third shield would have fared. A lurch in her stomach and a lack of building beneath her had Eva falling straight downwards.

She lay still for a moment. Powdered brick and sawdust clouded the area, making breathing unpleasant.

On a brighter note, while the heat was still around, it wasn’t scorching her. In fact, it was at the point where it was almost a pleasant heat.

For her.

Juliana was… not screaming. However, she wasn’t sounding as if she were enjoying a nice vacation on the beach either. Muffled moans and groans escaped from the vents in her helmet.

“Are you alright?”

At her words, Juliana just gave a loud groan. A louder groan.

“Right,” Eva said, taking her eyes off Juliana to look around. Just because she wasn’t dead now didn’t mean that the hunter had expended all of her traps.

While there was evidence of more shackles having been drawn on the walls and what was left of the ceiling of the building they had fallen into, it was all damaged beyond a working state. Probably meant to hinder or trap Eva if she chose to get to the roof from street level instead of hopping across the neighboring buildings. It certainly wasn’t meant to operate after destroying half the building.

It wasn’t hard to imagine what happened. The hunter had obviously been channeling magic into the false idol during their fight. She made another of those sky cracks.

And, unless she had been intending to commit suicide, she was likely still alive somewhere.

“Juliana, I’m leaving for just a moment,” Eva said, turning away.

She had to find out what happened to the hunter and whether or not they were still in immediate danger. Before moving, she did glance down at the obviously in-pain girl. Through her sense of blood, Eva could see no immediate problems. She wasn’t bleeding out or even hemorrhaging blood internally.

“Try not to die. Your mother would kill me.”

“Me too,” she said after drawing in a labored breath. “She threatened me with necromancy.”

Eva smiled for just a moment. It disappeared as she turned away again.

The building had survived the attack for the most part. Half of the roof had collapsed. A good portion of the debris was glassed over similar to the bricks in the Brakket dormitory plaza. The edge of the roof looked to be relatively stable. Mostly because of the brick wall beneath it. It hadn’t collapsed and it wasn’t swaying. Even if Eva’s weight disturbed it enough to cause the whole wall to come tumbling down, the building’s roof was only three stories high.

She would survive a fall.

Eva blinked up to the top and froze again.

She hadn’t been able to see the top of the intact portion of the roof from below. It was a solid sheet of glass. No evidence of the ice wall remained. No chair. Not even splinters of the table. Even the neighboring buildings had their roofs half glassed. A good portion of the wards on them had failed entirely. At least, Eva could detect nothing from them.

Because the roof was a smooth surface, it didn’t take long to find one thing that had survived the destruction.

A simple idol. A statue of a woman in tears, holding her hands up to her face. It was small enough for Eva to carry. About the size of an extra-large water bottle.

But there was no way she was going to touch it.

There was a zero percent chance that it was not a trap in some way or form. The hunter might have teleported away after being knocked down. She might have actually gone through with the suicidal route and vaporized herself in her own attack. But no matter what, she wouldn’t leave behind a weapon of such a magnitude. Even if she assumed that Eva had perished in the attack, there were still other enemies of the hunters around.

And yet, Eva couldn’t leave it where it was. The hunter was gone at the moment, but leaving it behind to rejoin the fight against the armored hunter would let somebody else collect it.

Eva grit her teeth. She had accomplished her objective. The hunter wouldn’t be bombarding them with the idol anymore.

Unless it was a fake. That was also a possibility.

But for the moment, she was going to both assume that it was real and that the hunter had retreated.

Glancing back down into the building to make sure that Juliana hadn’t been attacked while Eva had been distracted, Eva found her to be sitting upright. Which she took as a good sign.

“How are you?” Eva called down.

“Achy. I could use a massage.”

“Just be glad you didn’t get boiled alive in that armor.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“I need you to come up here and encase something in a solid block of metal. Can you do that?”

“Probably.” Juliana slowly got to her feet. There were a few choked off grunts of pain as she moved. Most of them happened as she tried to straighten out her back. Once on her feet, she placed her hands on her hips and arched her back.

The pops were audible even from where Eva was standing.

“The stairs,” she said once she finished stretching and had a moment to look around, “I think they’re gone.”

Eva jumped off the edge of the roof, touching down next to Juliana. “Don’t worry. I can carry you.”

Juliana immediately took a step backwards. Holding up her hands in front of her, she said, “I don’t think–”

“No time to argue,” Eva said, grabbing one of Juliana’s outstretched arms. She used the arm to help heft Juliana up into a fireman’s carry. “Don’t worry. It’s a higher jump than last time, but not as far horizontally.”

“Eva, I don’t–”

“Too late.”

Eva jumped back up to the roof. This time, she didn’t land right on the edge where the brick wall turned into the roof. It wasn’t a very wide landing spot. With a squirming person on her back throwing off her center of balance, Eva wasn’t feeling too confident balancing on a thin beam.

Especially with how she had nearly fallen off the roof the first time, only saved by the shackles.

The glassed over part of the roof that was still intact had looked stable enough.

Eva’s carapace-covered feet touched down on the smooth surface. She immediately froze.

Cracks spread out from where she landed. A spiderweb of lines appeared in the glass, accompanied by high-pitched snaps.

Holding her breath, Eva waited. She didn’t think that falling through the roof would kill her. Or Juliana, for that matter—though she had been banged around a lot, she was well protected within her suit of armor—but it could cause more of the roof to collapse on top of them after they fell through.

The cracking stopped shortly after Eva landed. She let out her breath in a sigh of relief.

“Let’s be careful where we step,” Eva said as she gingerly set Juliana down.

Juliana didn’t move from where Eva set her. “This doesn’t look very safe.”

“Probably not. The sooner you encase that thing in metal, the sooner we can both…”

Eva trailed off. There was something. Something in the air. A feeling she had not felt for some time.

And a feeling she had only felt once before.

Confusion settled in as Eva tried to puzzle out just what was causing the disgusting sensation in her stomach.

“Eva?” Juliana said, voice full of concern. She glanced this way and that as if she was expecting an ambush. “Are you alright?”

Waving her hand, Eva closed her eyes. The feeling wasn’t around them. It was coming from the direction of the school. Not a danger to them. No ambush to be worried about.

At least, not one from the sensation she was feeling. There was still the possibility that the hunter was still around.

“I’m alright,” Eva said, snapping her eyes open. “But someone else isn’t.”

“What–”

Eva was gone. Blinking away as fast as she could.

The feeling was something she had felt before. Right before her first real encounter with the hunters.

When Daru was being tortured. Given that Daru hadn’t ever turned up again, he had probably died as well.

Someone, some demon was in a serious state of injury back towards the school.

Clenching her teeth together, Eva felt her rage burning.

Only one demon had been in direct danger. Only one demon had been fighting with the other hunter.

“Arachne,” she hissed. “I’m not letting you die again.”

— — —

Juliana watched as Eva disappeared, leaving her all alone on the roof. At least the hunter was gone. And the thing Eva pointed out…

Thinning the metal armor on her legs gave her plenty to work with. She set to covering the disturbing little idol with metal. After a few moments, she had a shiny smooth tube. It looked like something that would be launched out of the main guns of a battleship. Except much smaller.

With that done, she tried nudging it with her foot.

Nothing happened.

She picked up the encased idol. Just in time for a small portion of the roof to crack and fall into the rest of the building.

I really need to get down from here, Juliana thought as a few more cracks spread across the top.

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