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010.032

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After ensuring that she was indeed alone within her domain—she hadn’t found any enigmas, humans, or demons wandering around, nor had she sensed the presence of any—Eva returned to the common room to further inspect the column sticking through the roof.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a column. All four sides angled inwards ever so slightly up until high above the roof where the angle bent sharply towards a central point. She had searched every inch that she could see and found nothing. No markings or inscriptions of any kind. Whoever had built it hadn’t even had the decency to slap on a sticky note telling why they built it.

Eva certainly hadn’t built it. Sometimes her domain did odd things related to creating structures or items that Eva felt she needed—such as a potion kit when Genoa had been injured—but this was a bit beyond anything her subconscious would muster up. Unless it was supposed to have been something meant to help her move about with no legs, but if so, it obviously hadn’t worked.

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

Under other circumstances, she might have left it behind and pursued a way to get out of Hell, or to at least get a message out to Devon. He would surely summon her. But the strange obelisk wouldn’t have just appeared in her domain for absolutely no reason.

Rubbing her hand, or the blood making up her hand, over the surface, Eva found it completely smooth. The liquid couldn’t find any holes or seams. Each corner was just as solid as the rest of the structure.

Eva did realize a slight problem with her hands as she moved her hand over the obelisk. While she could tell that the obsidian was as smooth as glass, she couldn’t feel it. She saw it. Just like she saw all sources of blood. Her fingers didn’t have nerves. The obelisk could be scalding to the touch and she wouldn’t know. Arachne’s hands suffered from a similar problem, as they were a hard carapace exoskeleton, but there had still been some tactile sense feeding back to her mind.

There might be a solution buried somewhere in her blood books, but it wasn’t such a big deal that she had to drop everything and work on it right this very second. Just a minor annoyance.

Backing away from it, Eva turned and walked out of the alternate women’s ward. The sandy ground was annoying when grains got caught within the blood making up her feet. Too much and she would lose control of the blood as it became more contaminated. Hardening the soles of her feet solved that problem for the moment, but she could fix it with a little construction work around her domain.

First, however, she had a different project in mind.

Standing clear of the women’s ward building and the obelisk sticking out from the center, Eva concentrated on tearing down everything. Her entire domain needed to return to its base state from coast to coast.

Thankfully, her domain bent a knee to her will. The entire alternate women’s ward cracked and shuddered. Bits and pieces chipped off, falling to the ground where they broke apart further. In seconds, the building was indistinguishable from the sand of the island.

All that was left was Eva, a little tree without any leaves, and the towering obelisk.

Of those three, only two were supposed to be around. Eva still wasn’t sure what purpose the tree served, but it had been there on her very first visit. Staring at it, she couldn’t alter it in any way no matter how much she concentrated. It stayed its same brown twiggy sapling without sprouting leaves or crumbling to sand. Some day, she would ask Arachne or Catherine about it. Maybe they had trees in the center of their domains. Maybe they had built their domains over the top of the trees and had completely forgotten that they existed in the centuries since then. Maybe they had nothing at all and it was something unique in Eva’s domain.

For the time being, however, Eva turned her attention over to the obelisk. Bare now that it didn’t have the women’s ward surrounding it, Eva could see it without obstruction. Which only made it seem larger than before. Like the tree, it remained static no matter how much she concentrated. The women’s ward had crumbled to sand at a mere thought. This thing didn’t seem to notice how hard she was thinking at it.

Neither did it light up, change color, turn from the glossy obsidian to a rough granite, or anything else she tried to do with it.

Which really meant only one thing. It wasn’t a part of her domain. It was something foreign.

Something left over from Life’s assault? A beacon? Except Life had been using the enigmas as beacons. Living creatures fit much better with its theme than cold structures, even if the enigmas didn’t count as living ‘enough’ for the sake of her blood magic.

So Void then? Why would it plop down a big obelisk in the middle of her domain. In the middle of her women’s ward, no less. The island wasn’t large, but there was plenty of space outside the walls of the alternate women’s ward. Void could have put it somewhere else without forcing her to relocate her building.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled as she walked back up to the obelisk. For a moment, she considered digging under the sand just to see how deep it went. A better idea came to her. Reaching out again, she brushed her hand over the obelisk. This time, she allowed her hand to partially uncouple from her body. A skeletal finger’s worth of blood dribbled down the smooth slope of the obelisk. Just before the dribble hit the sand, she formed a crystal shell around most of it, protecting it from the sand.

And it burrowed. Deep. Deeper. So far down that Eva eventually lost control as it went out of her range somewhere around two stories deep. Still, there was more to it beneath that. Maybe only an inch. Maybe a mile. She couldn’t tell.

The obelisk grew larger and larger the deeper it went. The angle of the four sides wasn’t that noticeable, but even a single degree could mean thousands of miles if the distance was far enough.

She started to consider just how deep it could possibly be before realizing that she hadn’t the slightest idea how Hell actually functioned. Maybe the obelisk went on literally forever. Maybe if she dug far enough, she would fall into nothingness for eternity. Something similar to the pit in Ylva’s domain.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change the fact that part of the obelisk was above the surface.

Pressing a hand to it again, Eva started to channel some of her magic into it as if it were a rune array or ritual circle of any type. Mostly on a whim. If it failed to produce any notable results, there really wasn’t much else to do with an inert pillar of stone. However, turning her attentions towards returning to Earth wasn’t really appealing so long as there was any sort of distraction. Hence her whim.

Honestly, she didn’t know where to begin in escaping from Hell. There had to be a way out from the Hell side. It couldn’t be a commonly known way out or even a remotely obvious way out. Earth would have been overrun with demons long ago if any old demon could find it.

Eva didn’t consider herself any old demon. Technically, unless something unintended had occurred during the corruption of Life, she was still a sliver human. And that just might be what she needed to get out. Otherwise, there were things to try. When she teleported, she knew that she at least partially left the mortal realm and dipped her toes into Hell. If she could enter the waters and think of a place filled with meat passageways, she just might be able to break into the tunnel from the Hell side.

Of course, she was just as likely to wind up facing some horrible cleaver-wielding demon constantly on the lookout for fresh meat.

That was all for if this obelisk didn’t do anything. At the moment, with her hand pressed against it, she could feel her magic flowing into it. There was a place for it to go. Something inside it accepted her magic.

But it wasn’t actually doing anything. No lights brightening it up, no mystic portals opening up to spit out demons or enigmas, nor any portals opening up to any other plane of existence.

With a frown, Eva pulled her hand away. The obsidian was just as smooth as it had been before. No hand-shaped mark. As another thought crossed her mind, Eva pulled all the blood of her hand back into her body. With nothing more than bare skin, she reached out.

Once again, she tried pressing magic into the obelisk. This time, she really opened the floodgates. If it needed bare skin contact, she had that covered. If it just needed more magic to fill its massive size, the torrential deluge of magic she was releasing should fill it to the brim. It was like trying to overpower thirty of her most explosive fireballs at once while teleporting. Every scrap of magic filling her veins that was not keeping her legs cohesive flooded into the obelisk.

This time, she got a reaction.

A faint glow. A red light right at the very tip. Barely notable. In fact, the only reason she did notice it was because of the pitch black sky in the background.

But red was a good color. Had it been violet, she might have stopped the instant she noticed. Red, Eva associated with demons. Which meant that it was probably not something Life had left behind to restart the rending of the borders between planes. She didn’t know what it was for.

Perhaps it was a gift. She had done fairly well in averting the apocalypse, in her opinion. It might not have gone exactly as Void had planned, but Void hadn’t seemed too upset during her brief death at the hunter’s hands.

She held it as long as she could. But the dim light never got any brighter. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she tore her hand away. The sweat dripping from her forehead flung through the air as she collapsed down onto the sandy beach.

For a moment there, she almost forgot to keep her blood circulating. Which represented a certain weakness in her new heart—aside from the obvious need to replace it eventually with another bloodstone, perhaps one from her void metal dagger if she could find it. It might take time, but she should heal. She was demonic enough. Her heart would come back sometime. Until then, she absolutely needed to make circulating her blood such a habit, such a regular act of her subconscious that she could circulate it properly while she was asleep or otherwise unconscious.

Something to work on.

Once she was certain that her body wasn’t going to unexpectedly shut down, Eva looked long and hard at the once again dim obelisk. Even straining herself to the breaking point didn’t do enough. There was something, but not enough.

Which made her wonder if two people would do any better. Or four; there were four sides, after all. Unfortunately, as she had been lamenting earlier, she didn’t know three demons in Hell. At least not three she wanted to meet with.

But this was her domain. Why should she need other people? It could conjure up buildings and people-like simulacra like Eva could conjure up fireballs. The entire place was more or less under her control.

Eva took a moment to reform her legs—they had gone a little jelly-like when she had collapsed—before standing and once again pressing her arm against the obelisk. This time, she only let a trickle of magic pass through her arm.

Most of her concentration went into her domain. The magic of the world that surrounded her. She focused hard, imagining a massive hand squeezing it all down into the obelisk, pressing and draining every droplet of magical energy from the ambient air against the pillar.

With the force of her domain behind her, Eva watched the top of the obelisk. The red light increased in intensity. It doubled over, steadily brightening. But it didn’t stop there. It kept doubling its brightness, reaching a point where Eva had to look away to avoid her eyes burning out.

The current of magic charged the air, making the hairs on Eva’s arms stand on end. At the same time, a pressure built up. Opening and closing her jaw made her ears pop like she had been driving up a steep hill.

As she poured more magic into the obelisk, she could feel the receptacle she had noticed earlier filling up. The reservoir, though deep, was not infinite. It had a ways to go. She increased the efforts of her domain to fill it while keeping herself from straining.

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

Eva found herself flying backwards, leaving her legs behind. It took her a moment as she flew through the air to realize what happened. A quick thought just before she hit a bank of sand drew some of her legs back to her body, but a good portion of the blood had already sunk into the sand around the obelisk.

Veins of red ran down the sides of the obelisk, branching and splitting as they moved downwards, becoming individually thinner but densely coating the sides. It became so dense that Eva couldn’t tell that there was any of the obsidian left from ten feet off the sand and below. And it didn’t stop there. It continued downwards below the sand, presumably until it hit some sort of base. Even if Eva could sense that far down, she wouldn’t have been able to see the lines. They weren’t blood. All she could see was a faint glow squeezing between the grains of sand in a short radius around the obelisk.

Eva stared, rebuilding her legs—much shorter now than they were before—as she waited for it to do something. Though, for all she knew, it might take a good few hours before the red reached the bottom. If it ever did.

It had thrown her away like a used washcloth while still drinking of the magic of her domain. She could feel the flow, though only tangentially. Eva didn’t think that she would run out of magic anytime soon. Her domain was a part of her, yet not. Her subconscious and conscious both contributed to how it worked. The amount of magic it would take to build and destroy nearly anything at will, including semi-sapient constructs of people, had to be extreme. Given that she had never heard of a demon running out of magic in their domain, it had to be excessive.

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

But all of Hell was essentially a part of Void. That had been the whole point behind Life’s plans in drawing Hell to the mortal realm. It was a way to get at Void. So unless this obelisk was meant to exhaust the magical ability of a Power, she doubted she had to worry about much.

In fact, seeing that it would probably take some time, Eva conjured up a chair. The sands around her rose up, molding into smooth leather as she sat down. The soft cushions of one of the Rickenbacker lobby chairs cradled her, taking away the need to keep legs of blood formed. Comfortable, she sat back and waited.

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

“An attack,” Dean Anderson said. “An attack on what we stand for. What we are doing here.” He gazed out, peering over the assembled cameras and reporters. Mostly mundane, but there were a number of obvious mages standing around the crowd. “Make no mistake,” he continued in his most authoritative voice, “there are those who do not agree with the decisions of Brakket Academy, Nod Complex, Faultline, Isomer, and Mount Hope to disclose information about the magical community to the world at large.”

Zoe found herself frowning. If her memory served, and she had no reason to doubt it at the moment, Anderson had sprung the idea on the other schools. Faultline, at the very least, had been upset. Mount Hope and the Nod Complex had far more subdued reactions to his announcement during the initial feast between the schools. They very well might have known beforehand.

Yet framing the incident as an attack against all of them made the other schools far more likely to stand with Brakket Academy against criticism and adversity. Which was more of a public relations move on his part than a real call to action. There was no real enemy. Not in the manner he was implying.

Zoe refrained from interrupting. He had obviously put a some thought into what to say. She would wait and see if anything was morally objectionable beyond lying about the potential apocalyptic situation they had been in. Frankly, telling the layperson about an averted apocalypse would probably be worse than lying about nonexistent terrorists. So, with a sigh, she pushed the imaginary dull pain in her missing arm away and focused on his speech.

“Fools,” he said, making Zoe glad she was sitting behind him along with most of the rest of the various schools’ staff members. A bit of spittle might have escaped his mouth as he spoke. “Releasing dangerous creatures into the city? Creating that ghastly illusion in our skies to frighten off good and wholesome people? What do you hope to accomplish by harming children and innocents?”

He slammed his fists down on the podium, sending a loud crack through the assembled microphones. Zoe could actually believe that he was honestly angry.

“It is too late to go back to the way things were. It has been too late for a long time.” Anderson held up a cellphone, raising it high over the microphone-covered podium. “You, who attacked us, may be unfamiliar with mundane technology given your desire to cling to the old ways. Nearly every mundane human carries one of these. They are getting smaller, faster, and smarter.” He flipped it over, pointing towards the camera. “They record everything, uploading pictures and videos to data servers where the images become nigh impossible to remove. It is a wonder, an absolute shock that knowledge of magic was only as widespread as it was before our tournament.”

He dropped his hands to his sides, putting on an expression of remorse. “And yet you would sabotage this attempt at peaceful revelation. I can only hope that whatever trust has been broken between our societies because of this incident can be repaired.”

Silence befell the briefing area as Anderson dipped his head in a solemn nod of respect. It took a few moments for the silence to be broken.

One of the reporters stood, holding up a hand. He didn’t wait to be called upon before blurting out a question. “Do you know who is behind the attacks on the school?”

“Specifically? No. As a group, they’re terrorists, nothing more. We have people attempting to uncover their identities.”

“Hank Hanson,” Hank said as he stood up with an award-winning smile.

Among all the reporters in the audience, very few had actually been present for the ‘attack’ with the exception of Hank. The only real evidence of that was the matted gauze pad on his face from where he had gotten a bit too close to an enigma in his overzealous attempt to get an up-close story. Frankly, he was lucky to have survived. One of the various demons had apparently saved him.

And yet, he was still smiling. Perhaps more impressively, he hadn’t run off screaming.

“You say that you have people looking into their identities. Is it common for schools to take care of constabulary duties?”

“The magical society is not as large as our mundane counterparts. We don’t have anything like a standing army or police force. The Royal Guild of Mage-Knights,” he said with a vague wave of his hand towards where Redford sat not far from Zoe, “are trained bounty hunters who we are working closely with us to bring these terrorists to justice.”

Redford’s hands rubbed over the top of his cane as he stared out with a deep scowl on his face. Zoe had told Anderson the truth, but she had no idea what he had told Redford. Were the members of the Guild looking for terrorists that didn’t actually exist?

“One more question,” Hank said before another reporter could stand up. “Have you…”

He trailed off. Zoe couldn’t figure out why until she noticed the ashen faces of the rest of the crowd of reporters. Most were staring at some point over Anderson’s head. Anderson realized that something was wrong as well and turned to look along with most of the staff.

On the horizon of the city, a faint red glow had encompassed the rooftops. The center point, the area that glowed the brightest, was straight towards where the obelisk was.

Panic quickly set in. Of course it had. They were in a meeting discussing the actions of terrorists. Whether or not those terrorists actually existed didn’t matter. The reporters didn’t know the truth. And that horizon looked an awful lot like another attack.

A thunderclap coming from Redford’s cane as he slammed it down onto the ground silenced the slowly mounting noise. In the same motion, he created a dome overhead. “Do not panic,” he shouted out. “We will keep everyone safe.”

Anderson looked to the staff, to all of the remaining professors, but especially the security guards. “Ensure the students don’t come to harm,” he said loud enough for the reporters to hear.

Zoe shared a look with Wayne. Just a brief look. They wouldn’t be heading to the dormitory buildings. A silent agreement passed between them. Wayne teleported away first.

“It’s always one thing after another,” Anderson mumbled just before Zoe disappeared.

She reappeared on the far end of the street from the obelisk—no sense teleporting into the middle of a hundred enigmas or demons if it was some sort of invasion. Wayne apparently had the same idea. He wasn’t standing far from Zoe.

His eyes twitched back and forth in the tell-tale signs of mental acceleration, so she didn’t bother saying anything for the moment. Instead, she surveyed the situation.

The obelisk was covered in veins of red lines, all lit up like a Christmas tree. A very ominous and slightly evil Christmas tree.

But that was it. No monsters running about attacking people. The dark area of sand around the obelisk wasn’t spreading. Or, if it was, it was spreading so slowly that Zoe couldn’t tell. The few mage-knights who Anderson hired to watch over it were backing away slowly, but none of them were being eaten alive or disintegrated by some wave of magical energy.

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

Still… perhaps it was time to evacuate Brakket City. Anderson might not like it. Then again, he didn’t like much of anything. It could be temporary. Catherine had been concerned over the obelisk for about a day until her search for more came up with nothing substantial. It was entirely possible that these obelisks were merely benign remnants from the ritual.

Better to be safe than sorry.

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010.012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are a demon then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to get out. Sooner rather than later.

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

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

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

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

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

And overconfident, Riley thought, keeping her expression steady.

“Are those creatures still appearing around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riley stood with a repressed sigh.

— — —

“I still think it is too early.”

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

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

They were on the scene before her.

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

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

Which had Eva biting her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that lava pouring off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have been getting less intense. But…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Still–”

“But I agree with you.”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


009.021

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

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

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

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

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

“Zagan disappeared again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where in the basement?”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

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

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

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

Demons weren’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe worried anyway.

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

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

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

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

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

“Miss Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

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