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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.”

<– 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 –>


009.010

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“And there goes group indigo.”

“A shame,” Zoe said with a shake of her head. “They looked like they were doing so well.”

“When the tail swiped the… elf into the tree, I think the other two lost their nerves.”

“Indeed. Dragonkin are not to be taken lightly. Their scales can take a beating that even the finest suit of armor would have trouble holding up against. The students got a little overconfident when they managed to push it back. But if they would have stuck to their attacks rather than turning to flee, they might have forced it into a retreat. Especially the water mage, he should have used water rather than ice. Dragonkin don’t like their scales getting wet.”

“Right,” Hank said with a quick nod of his head.

Zoe doubted he really understood. At least, in general. Her previous statement had been simple enough. But the idea that it would be better to fight many of the things out in the forest rather than run probably didn’t mesh with his general worldview. Or that of most mundane people for that matter.

If they saw something scary, their first instinct would be to run. Even if they were running from something that was obviously faster than them.

Hank did manage to act like he knew what he was talking about. The narrations he gave were mostly play-by-plays, repeating what he was seeing on screen. It gave him the illusion that he was talking about something important, even though everyone could see what he was saying on their own screens.

He let Zoe handle explaining most magical aspects of the fights, of course, and asked intelligent questions when something was particularly odd to him.

“Still, getting slammed into the tree like that had to have hurt.”

“Probably,” Zoe admitted. “But the medical team is already on site and none of the three students were hurt too badly. They’ll be able to patch up any injuries in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s true. I think I’ve seen high school wrestling matches with worse injuries,” he said with a chuckle.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she believed that, but maybe he was trying to play down the violence for the viewers.

Even though more violence would probably mean more viewers. Humans were… attracted to that sort of thing for some reason.

“For those of you who are just joining us or otherwise missed out,” Hank said, sitting up straight as the cameras switched to them now that there was a lull in the action, “you can catch the replays and highlights on the website listed at the bottom of your screens. A quick recap of where each school stands.

“With the indigo group’s summary defeat, five students have been removed from the event. Isomer Holy Academy is down to a single student, currently in group violet. As is Mount Hope, their single student also in group violet. The Nod Complex is down to two students. Brakket and Faultline Academies are the only ones still at full steam.

“Now, two groups have reached the center of the event. Violet is closing in quick, delayed a short while by their encounter with…”

He stumbled, trailing off with a glance towards Zoe.

“Let’s just call her Lucy.”

“With Lucy. Don’t touch that channel. We’ll be back with more excitement from the magical world after a brief message from our sponsors.”

— — —

“Ugh. Blech.”

“Yes, we get it,” Emily said, looking over at the nun with a shake of her head. “You had tentacles in your mouth. You’ve been whining about it for the last five minutes. It’s gross. Can you just stop making those noises?”

“You don’t even know,” Anise snapped. “You only had a few tentacles around your waist. I was completely wrapped up.” She tugged at her shirt, still slimy from being wrapped up in Lucy’s tentacles. “That thing was probably venomous.”

“Poisonous,” Eva said, glancing back over her shoulder with a wide grin. “Venomous is when they bite you. Poisonous is when you bite them. And you were definitely doing the biting.”

Anise groaned.

“But don’t worry. Though she can be toxic, it is an optional sort of thing. With her orders not to actually hurt people, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Why me? Neither of you got wrapped up so much.”

“I got my wand knocked out of my hand and all she’s got are fire spells,” Emily said with a finger pointing towards Eva. “Obviously you are the most dangerous of the three of us.”

Eva twisted her face into a scowl. Anise did just the opposite, brightening up for the first time since having her mouth stuffed full of tentacles.

She was just about ready to turn around and remind the two of them that, even with Lucy barely fighting back, they would both have been carried out of the arena if it wasn’t for her. However, she felt her breath catch in her throat as she walked up a short ridge.

There was no forest ahead of her. No trees and hardly any brush. There was grass, but it had been clipped short. The clearing was far larger than the area Eva had coopted for her ritual. At least twice as large. Possibly more.

Of course, a clearing wasn’t all that shocking. The Infinite Courtyard had a number of clearings dotted around. None as maintained as this, but they probably weren’t used for events very often.

No, it was what occupied the majority of the clearing that had Eva’s jaw dropping.

“You all see the giant pyramid in the middle of the forest, right? It isn’t some illusion.”

“It’s the Pyramid of the Sun,” Emily said, voice soft. “The plateaus on the sides… the stairs running up the middle. Ancient mages would conduct rituals at the very top. But why is it here?”

“I doubt it is the original,” Anise said with a scoff.

Could have fooled me, Eva thought. The brickwork looked haggard and rough, weathered by time and… well, weather. Green vines grew up alongside the stairway, though the stairs themselves were clear of any plant life.

Anise had to be right. Eva didn’t know what the Pyramid of the Sun was, but if it was a real building actually used by ancient mages, it was probably some protected structure like the pyramids in Egypt. For cultural heritage if nothing else. Redford had probably built this version specifically for the event.

Narrowing her eyes at movement on the staircase, Eva’s lips curled into a frown.

“We’re not the first ones here.”

Two figures were sprinting up the staircase as fast as their legs could carry them. Though the moon lit up the area, it wasn’t enough to tell who they were. Their hats were a decent giveaway for which school, however.

“Faultline,” Emily hissed—almost snarled.

Eva had to take her eyes off the temple to glance at her face.

Her teeth ground together, bared in full. Her eyes burned… she wasn’t a demon or a nun, but they were almost glowing as they caught the moonlight.

Glancing over at Anise, Eva nodded her head towards Emily with raised eyebrows. All she got was a shrug from the other girl.

“There are others scaling the pyramid,” Anise said as her eyes went back to the temple.

Eva spun around.

The trainee-nun was right. Another two were running up the stairs. Their silhouettes lacked the pointed caps that the Faultline crew had. She honestly couldn’t identify them. One might be a girl. It could be Rachael. It could be the other pair that had Mount Hope students. Or it could be the other group of three with one member missing for some reason.

It could even be two separate groups that got rid of their partners and had met up.

“Let’s go help them,” Emily said, already starting towards the temple.

“You don’t even know who they are.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, breaking into a run. “They’re not Faultline.”

Again, Eva glanced at Anise. Again she got a shrug in return.

“I guess we better go after her.”

“We are enemies, you know.”

Eva smiled. Not a wide grin, just a polite one. “After all we’ve been through together? How can you say something so cruel. I even rescued you from that evil tentacle monster.”

“That tentacle monster was only there because of you,” Anise said with a scowl. “She said your name, she walked up to you, you two talked. If you had been in a different group, I would never have…” she trailed off, bringing a hand up to her mouth before shaking her head.

“Not necessarily. That could have been her assigned area. Then you would have been antagonizing her without me there to keep her from doing anything worse.”

“That’s… not just…” She shook her head. “Emily is already at the base of the pyramid.”

Eva spun around and moved a single step forwards before hesitating. “I’m trusting you to watch our backs,” she said. “Especially for any vampires. Keep your guard up.”

With that, she blinked forwards three times, crossing the distance to Emily in almost an instant.

And just about got a fireball to her face for her troubles.

Emily spun around the moment Eva appeared, lashing out with flames from the tip of her wand.

Eva slid to the side. She didn’t retaliate. The blast of fire—a good twice as hot as the flames Eva had used on Lucy, at least—blew past the side of her head. Stepping backwards, Eva held up her hands.

Emily followed through on a second attack in a single motion of her wand before finally realizing who she was attacking.

She paused with her wand raised in the air, tip glowing.

“Truce still?”

“I wasn’t the one who almost broke it.”

Her wand arm dropped to her side as she grasped her chest. The tip of her wand was still bright red.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Just startled.” She paused, glancing over Eva’s shoulder. “Anise back there?”

“She’s a bit slower than I am. I told her to watch our backs.” Eva pointed her out to Emily just to prove that she hadn’t broken the truce already.

And really, she wasn’t that slow. Unable to blink, yes. But her sprint carried her at a brisk pace. She was actually almost to them.

But Eva turned and took the steep steps three at a time, leaping up more than stepping as she left Emily behind.

She had a feeling that there would be a fight at the top. Two Faultline boys and two other people, probably not even from the same school. If she had been wrong and one of them was the vampire, she needed to be there and ensure he lost.

Anise and Emily would both have to catch up. Neither had Arachne’s legs.

She passed the first plateau. It really wasn’t that large. More of a landing than a plateau. From the staircase leading down to the staircase continuing up, there was only a few feet of level space. So she continued on without breaking stride.

Neither of her companions were doing quite as well. By the time Eva made it to the second plateau, they had only gone halfway up the first. Their speed dropped drastically. Climbing stairs was never easy and these ones were steep to the point of insanity. Just standing on the edge had Eva feeling like she was about to go tumbling off.

Whoever built the place hadn’t even put guard rails in.

Eva hopped up to the third plateau in three jumps. From there, she was close enough to see everyone at the top through her blood sight. The two Faultline boys were in a fight with Rachael and… the dryad. She was pretty sure. If she hadn’t gotten a look at the dryad back when everyone had been assigned their teams, she would probably be a whole lot more confused.

She took the fourth set of stairs, being only half the height of the rest, in a single bound.

And landed right in the path of a lightning bolt.

Eva shuddered as the electricity ran through her body and out her feet. Steam rose from her shoulders in faint wisps. Her knees hit the stone top of the temple before she could stop herself.

A quick blink had her back on her feet in an instant.

That was probably the first time she had been hit with real lightning. She had been on the receiving end of Elysium Order lightning once or twice, but, although it looked like lightning, Eva didn’t think it really counted. Of course, even air mages didn’t put out a real lightning bolt’s worth of power in their strikes.

The bolt she had been hit with was probably somewhere around the output of a taser. A lower powered one at that. Getting hit with the bolt hadn’t given her a very good view of it. However, she was relatively certain that Zoe’s regular lightning bolt was a few magnitudes higher by default. That was just the impression she got from being in the area while Zoe casted.

Of course, the Faultline student who had cast the bolt could probably increase his output as well.

Four pillars stood around the top of the pyramid, one in each corner. Rachael and the Dryad had taken cover behind the ones opposite from the stairway. The two Faultline students were behind the closer pillars. Eva’s blink after being hit had carried her right next to Rachael, partially using the pillar as cover.

Both sides were flinging magic at each other as fast as they could, essentially at random. Mostly air attacks from one of the Faultline students and mostly fire—of the explosive variety—from the other. Both occasionally switched it up, but not enough for Eva to think they were anything but an air mage and a fire mage.

On her side of the fight, Rachael had a fairly constant wave of flames surrounding the air mage’s pillar. The only reason he hadn’t burned up was because the fire mage kept dampening the flames between his attacks.

The dryad was… doing something. Plants had sprouted straight out of the stone around her pillar and vines wrapped around it. A couple of the flower pods spat seeds around, but Eva wasn’t sure how effective she was actually being.

Having her brief moment to look at the fight, Eva realized that she really shouldn’t have landed between the two Faultline students. Her momentary pause had caused her to get hit. Either she should have attacked immediately upon landing or retreated behind the wall of flames. The air mage couldn’t even see her through the wall of flames.

Eva let out a low growl, igniting her hands as she blinked straight back to the other side.

Her foot stuck one of the Faultline boys in the side, knocking him out from behind cover and knocking the wind out of him at the same time. He wasn’t the one who had struck her, but he seemed the more dangerous of the two. Much like Eva, he was a fire mage. And, much like Eva, he had decided that explosives were the way to go.

Chunks of the pillar providing cover for the dryad were lying around the top of the temple. Enough so that Eva was worried it might collapse. The vines were probably the only reason it hadn’t.

They didn’t seem to like the flames much though.

Really, Eva should just let the dryad get taken out. She was part of the Nod Complex and ultimately allied with the vampire. However, she was currently allied with Rachael. Turning her into an enemy would make it three versus two at the moment. While Eva felt like she could take all three of them at once, she couldn’t be certain.

Best to take out Faultline first and then deal with the dryad on her own. Her seeds didn’t look dangerous, so she shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the dryad would be more of a threat if they were fighting in the forest.

By the time the Faultline students would be incapacitated, Anise and Emily should have made it up the stairs as well. They could help out against the dryad.

So long as they were still allies.

A flower sprouted in front of Eva, just in time to intercept a lightning bolt from the Faultline air mage. Lavender petals exploded everywhere, creating almost a smokescreen between the two pillars.

Eva hesitated in delivering another kick to the flame mage’s chest. Accidentally killing him would probably actually be bad. Really bad. Especially with cameras watching.

Instead, she plucked up his wand and flung it as hard as she could. It disappeared from her sight off the edge of the pyramid. He might have a second, but the way his eyes widened and his arm trailed after it, Eva doubted it.

She might actually feel a little bad about it if she found out it was a family heirloom or something, but for the moment, Eva had other thoughts on her mind.

Namely, her temporary allies.

If her two companions made it to the top and saw Rachael, they might actually side with the dryad. A two versus three scenario in their favor. A preemptive attack to prevent Eva and Rachael from ganging up on them.

Eva still believed that she could take the three of them, but the Elysium Order magic would be far more dangerous than anything a thaumaturge could throw out. Hopefully she would tone down her lightning bolts below the level that hit Arachne, but Eva really had no idea how all that worked.

Of course, if another group showed up, everything would become much more complicated.

The cloud of petals slowly drifted down to the ground. The air mage tried flinging a few spells towards Eva. She had no cover over on his side of the temple, but she really didn’t need any.

She dodged the first lightning bolt, having seen where he was aiming while the petals were still up with her blood sight.

A second and third bolt followed much faster than Eva would have expected. The second hit her in the shoulder. She didn’t get a chance to dodge the third. Lightning caused too many jitters and the mage was casting too fast.

It struck her square in her stomach.

Taken down to a knee, Eva just smiled at the air mage.

She had no need to take another bolt.

The fight was over.

While he had been distracted with Eva, the flowers, and his fallen companion, Rachael had gone around the edge of the temple to come up behind him.

The tip of her glowing wand was pressed to his throat.

“Drop your wand,” she said.

He glared. Mostly at Eva. She could see the fight in his eyes and the tense muscles in his arms.

Gritting her teeth while keeping her smile as genuine as possible, Eva got to her feet.

“I hit you three times,” he hissed, throwing his wand to the floor.

Eva looked down, running a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. It was true, she had a hole in the chest, shoulder, and stomach of her shirt. Black scorch marks surrounded each hole. However, the first had barely hurt her, only bringing her to a pause because she hadn’t been expecting it. The second and third… well, Elysium Order lightning was still much worse despite the extra power he had put behind them.

A few more might have been enough to drop her for a time—or a good shot to her head—but he hadn’t managed that thanks to the flower from the dryad and Rachael’s flank.

“Yeah,” Eva said with a shrug, choosing to downplay exactly how harmful his bolts were. She stepped up to him, picking his wand up off the floor. “Kind of tickled,” she said, almost about to chuck the wand off the roof with the other.

After a moment, she thought better of it and simply slid it into her pocket.

Vines sprouted from the ground around his feet. He didn’t resist as they wrapped up around his legs and arms, binding him. Only when he was down on the ground and completely immobile did Rachael take her wand off him.

Eva had been about to ask her if she had seen Randal around when the dryad walked up. It almost startled Eva. She was just so hard to keep track of with blood sight.

The dryad stopped a good two arm spans away, staring with obvious caution, but also with a small smile.

Eva wasn’t sure how to react. Should she throw the dryad off the pyramid now, before Anise and Emily arrived? Wait?

Her plants shouldn’t be dangerous to Eva. At least not the ones she had seen. Even the vines shouldn’t pose any more of a problem than Lucy’s tentacles had. They might trip her up, but blinking would solve that problem easy enough. Or just igniting her legs. The vines wrapped around the pillar hadn’t taken the heat well.

“Thanks,” the dryad said, breaking Eva out of her devious plots on how to deal with the situation. “I thought that pillar was going to collapse on me. And then the fire–” She cut herself off with a shudder. “I don’t take fire well.”

Eva wanted to groan. Everything would be so much easier if the dryad just up and attacked her. Instead she decided to give thanks? And offer up an obvious weakness to go with it?

It was enough to make Eva sigh.

“No problem,” Eva said with another sigh. Rather than do anything else, she turned her head to Rachael. “Randal?”

“Haven’t seen him.”

“He’s got a demon in him. I doubt he would get taken out. Wonder what is taking him so long?”

“We ran into an earth mage. Some crazy strong lady. Pretty sure she let us go in the end, though she looked like she was pretty tired. He might have run into something similar and didn’t get so lucky.”

“My group ran into Lucy,” Eva said. “Speaking of, they’re still climbing the stairs.” Though it was taking them a really long time. Mortals. “I should probably check on them.”

Rachael stepped forward and dropped the volume of her voice. “We’re going to have to take them out at some point.”

“Yours too,” Eva said without glancing over her shoulder.

Rachael shifted her weight, looking off and down to the side. “I think she’s afraid of my fire. She has been very compliant of everything I ask. Makes me feel like the bad guy here.”

I know how you feel, Eva thought with yet another sigh. Raising her voice from her whisper, she turned slightly to address both members of the green group. “Stay up here, I’m going to find my companions. Keep them contained,” she said with a nod towards the Faultline students. “Fight off anyone else. If you can figure out what we’re supposed to do here, great. Though wait for me if you can.”

Without really looking at the plant girl, Eva walked over to the stairs.

And frowned.

The first plateau was fairly far away. It also had flashes of light coming from at least four different sources.

Blinking up the staircase was difficult. Because of the angles, it was almost impossible to see where to blink. There could be uneven terrain or plants growing that would splice her up if she teleported into them.

She was under no such limitations in blinking downwards.

Eva landed between Anise and Emily and promptly ducked to dodge a glowing white battle axe.

“Seems a bit deadly for a friendly competition,” Eva said, grabbing hold of Anise’s hand before she could try to swing again.

Recognition lit up in her already glowing eyes. She shook her head, pulling her hand out of Eva’s loose grip. “Tell that to those monsters.”

Eva moved slightly closer to the waist-high wall of stone at the edge of the plateau that hadn’t been there her first time up. Emily’s handiwork no doubt. A bit of cover for any spells that might come their way. Peeking over the edge, she realized that the stairs weren’t even there. A steep slope had replaced them.

Though he had lost his cap, another of the Faultline boys was flinging shards of ice around. Water appeared out of nowhere, rushing over the earth towards his opponent. All the while, he was doing flips and jumps that a trained gymnast might find troublesome.

Eva couldn’t think of a single other mage she had encountered that moved so much. Genoa came close, but even she was more like a rolling boulder than a circus performer. The demon hunter that Eva had killed moved fast, but lacked showy flips.

Actually, Eva thought, the other hunter might be similar. Eva had only fought with her once before Arachne paralyzed her. And even then, not for very long. But she had been fairly animated.

So he wasn’t the only mage. But a kid?

Then again, it wasn’t hard to see why he was moving so much.

Randal was at the base of the pyramid with him. Large black orbs flew from his fingertips, wilting the grass beneath them as they moved. If they came near any ice or water, it vanished in an instant. Everything thrown at him simply got eaten by the orbs.

Eva wasn’t sure what would happen if one of the orbs actually hit someone, but it probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight for the three camera drones circling over the fight.

“They ran up, flinging spells at each other. I managed to slow them down with a few lightning bolts.”

“And I turned the stairs to a slide.”

“After that, they just decided to fight each other down there.”

“What is that magic he’s using?”

Eva glanced to Anise, half expecting her to respond with some insight gleaned from her hive mind.

Instead, she shrugged and gave Eva an apologetic look.

“Your third eye doesn’t tell you?”

Emily blinked, turning her head. Eva ignored the other girl for the moment.

“I don’t think I can find out without getting closer. I don’t really want to get closer.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said. “It’s demon magic. I can tell you that much. No clue what it’s doing.”

“It’s like a black hole,” Emily whispered with a shudder.

“Demon magic,” Anise said with narrowed eyes. “Friend of yours?”

“He goes to my school. Be back in a moment.”

Eva blinked down again, making sure to land where the black orbs were not. She conjured fire marbles and flung them out almost immediately. They were even lower power than the ones she had first used on Lucy, but they were also surprise attacks on an unsuspecting target’s back.

At least, she thought she had been launching a surprise attack. The student flattened himself against the grass, rolling over to one side.

The marbles flew over him. Several were eaten by one of Randal’s orbs while the rest exploded harmlessly off to the sides.

Eva blinked, putting herself facing the pyramid with the student between it and her. Just a movement to keep him on his toes.

She was about to launch another volley of orbs when a crack split the air. White lightning struck him square in the back.

Eva winced.

He collapsed to his knees, moaning in pain.

As much as she could empathize with him, she didn’t hesitate. Personal experience taught her that as painful and debilitating as it was—and deadly if they meant it enough—he could very easily get up and continue fighting if he collected his wits enough. Devon had gotten back to his feet after being hit and Devon was a wuss.

She blinked up to him and pocketed his wand.

After ensuring that Eva had the Faultline student’s wand, Randal pointed a finger towards the pyramid.

Eva blinked to him, gripped his arm, and yanked it skyward.

A black orb flew from his fingertip, hit one of the circling drones, and… passed through without hurting it.

Eva shook her head.

“They’re friends,” she said in a rush. She needed to stop him before he killed someone.

He just stared at her.

Conceding the point, she added, “For the moment. I know we should have talked about this beforehand, but what are you throwing around? You can’t kill people.”

“It destroys magic. Most magic anyway. Wouldn’t hurt a person.”

Eva opened her mouth, paused, snapped it shut, and opened it again. “How were you planning on winning against that guy if you couldn’t hurt him?” Or anyone else for that matter. “You’re lucky he didn’t realize that.”

“It isn’t the only thing I can do. Plus regular thaumaturgy. Besides, I figured you would save the day.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Rachael is already at the top. We should hurry and win this thing.”

“Lead the way.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.009

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The red light flickered out.

Garbed in white, the boy from Isomer unleashed his spell. Five minutes of doing nothing but pouring magic into his wand manifested itself as a field of ice. It spread around him, flash freezing everything in a small bubble of space. Plants and insects alike died in droves. Even tiny drops of water in the air crystallized and fell to the ground in an explosion of snow.

Standing next to his fellow red marble holder, the other boy should have been caught within the ice as well.

“Frostbite is no laughing matter in the short-term. Not particularly painful as it tends to numb the senses, but it would make moving difficult. With proper application of ointments and potions, all but the worst effects can be reversed before permanent damage is done.”

“He–He doesn’t seem affected by it at all!”

The vampire shook his head with a chuckle. A few flakes of snow fell from his hair as he moved.

“You know,” he said, locking cold eyes with his companion, “I was perfectly willing to honor our truce. But after that, I think a light snack is in order.” A feral grin spread across his face.

The Isomer student realized his mistake as soon as he saw the two sharp fangs dangling from the smiling mouth. He tried to conjure up a wall of ice between the two of them, but the vampire was behind him before the wall could grow more than a few inches.

Taking hold of his victim’s shoulder and head, the vampire made room for his head and dipped his fangs into flesh.

He didn’t drink for long. To the Isomer student’s credit, he managed to coalesce a few icicles and toss them towards the vampire, over his shoulder.

The vampire was fast enough to dodge. He did end up releasing the other student.

Clutching his neck, the Isomer student spun around. He conjured a large wave of water rather than ice, attempting to push back and wash away the vampire.

The vampire didn’t even get his feet wet. He jumped out to the side, planting both feet on a tree. The entire trunk cracked and snapped as the vampire kicked off. Splinters of wood fell to join the snow on the ground. As he flew overhead, the vampire grabbed hold of the stunned student’s collar. He gripped tight as his feet hit the ground and used his continuing momentum to fling the boy out of the ward.

Hank winced, making an audible note of empathetic pain as the kid slammed into a tree. It didn’t shatter like the other one, but this tree hadn’t been flash frozen either.

From somewhere inside his pocket, a faint red glow lit up the Isomer student’s white uniform. The same pocket that had held his marble, if Zoe remembered correctly.

The student wasn’t done, however. He staggered to his feet. After shaking his head, he charged forwards, ice flowing around him as he prepared another attack.

Crossing his arms, the vampire just smiled. A few drops of blood still stained his teeth red.

Ice and a body hit the invisible sphere of a ward a few paces away. Blood drained from the Isomer student’s face as he tried slamming a shoulder into it. Anger bled away to worry as his fists pounded into the ward. Icicles hit, glancing off without leaving a single mark in the air.

“Thanks for the meal,” the vampire said with a wave of his hand. He turned and ran into the forest.

And left the Isomer student disqualified.

“Wow,” Hank said softly. “Two students have already been taken out of the game.”

“In less than two minutes,” Zoe added with a smile.

“Isomer Academy and Mount Hope are both down one student each. But will we see a third?”

The screens changed from the medics rushing up to the Isomer student to Eva and the rest of the violet group.

“A tense standoff by the looks of things,” Hank continued.

Zoe wasn’t so sure. If Eva hadn’t attacked them by now, they would probably reaffirm their truce.

“Both groups of three have no pairs from the same school. Which means that as soon as one person attacks another, they leave their backs open to possibly getting attacked in return. I doubt…” Zoe trailed off as Eva held out her hands to the other girls. She started speaking as well.

It was a mere moment before both girls were shaking her hands.

“Ah, see. They’ll have to betray each other later.”

“Well, no third then,” Hank said, sounding almost disappointed. He perked up almost instantly as a voice came over the earpieces saying that they were going to display that previous battle again. “But, with how far apart the students are, that gives us time to go over those two fights. Let’s start with the most recent.”

The screen flicked backwards to a still image of the ice spell.

Except it wasn’t a still image. Zoe leaned closer, watching the snow form in the air in slow motion.

And extremely high resolution.

“It is a very beautiful spell,” Zoe said, deciding to voice her thoughts aloud. “Not something a student would likely be able to cast in an instant. He had probably been preparing it for some time.”

“I’m slack-jawed watching this footage again,” Hank said, only exaggerating slightly, “but it didn’t seem very effective.”

“Against a human, I imagine it would have instantly incapacitated them. Even if he hadn’t known that he was walking with a vampire, he should have realized that things aren’t always what they seem with the Nod Complex. And,” Zoe started, doing her best to hold in an exasperated sigh, “he really shouldn’t have stood around doing nothing after his first attack failed. The vampire taunted him for a good ten seconds during which he could have done plenty more.”

The footage on the screen sped up until the vampire’s fangs were half into the human’s shoulder.

“He was a vampire then?” Hank asked with a slight somber tone to his voice.

“It seems I was wrong earlier,” Zoe said slowly.

Given that, largely thanks to Wayne, most of the mundane world believed that vampires had been responsible for the incident in Lansing, they were likely to be a somewhat touchy subject. Though it had been more than a decade ago, an entire city had been wiped off the maps. Family and friends of those who had perished were probably watching the broadcast right now.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she should say something. Or what she should say, even. Some platitude about how all the vampires involved were dead? That wasn’t even true. She knew of at least two survivors, though one was a victim and the other hadn’t had anything to do with the incident itself.

Not to mention that such a statement wouldn’t make anyone feel better. Knowing what had happened from first-hand experience didn’t make her feel any better about it. Had it not been for Wayne, she would have died along with her parents.

Zoe pressed her lips together into a tight line. Saying something would be crass. Politicians and spokesmen for magical societies could say more careful words at a later date.

Thankfully, or perhaps noticing that Zoe had gone silent, the image switched to the first fight.

“Ah, this was a particularly interesting fight in terms of air magi,” she started with a smile. Air magic was a safe topic and, best of all, she could talk about it for a few minutes at the very least.

“I’ll say,” Hank started. “The way the student from Faultline moved…”

Perhaps she could become an announcer at events like these when she retired. It was a lot like teaching. Going over uses of magic and the like. That and the slow motion lightning bolt was a beautiful sight to see. She could definitely get used to seeing magic performed in front of high quality cameras.

Of course, that assumed the world would still be around in the far future.

Zoe pushed that sour note from her mind.

“Using air magic, one can essentially wrap air around one’s body…”

— — —

Eva slowed her run, sniffing at the air. She held up a hand and waved it in a silent gesture for her companions to slow down. They did so, though Eva couldn’t tell if it was because of her hand motions or simply because she had stopped.

Frankly, she didn’t care so long as they weren’t charging ahead and weren’t attacking her.

A few more whiffs of air had Eva thoroughly confused. There was something familiar in the air. Something she couldn’t quite place. A slimy feeling. Or maybe more spindly.

“What’s wrong?”

Eva glanced back at Anise. “Do you smell anything?” she asked in a nearly silent whisper.

The nun-trainee wrinkled her nose with a frown, staring at Eva as if she were setting up some trap. She did eventually try smelling at the air.

“Nope,” she said with a shake of her head. “I smell pine and wood. Maybe a little rotting plant-life? Nothing too unusual for where we are.”

Eva frowned and looked towards Emily.

The other girl shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe it is some demon thing?”

“I don’t think so. My sense of smell isn’t much better than most humans.”

Eva paused, thinking to herself. She actually hadn’t ever tested such a thing. Really, Devon should have thought of it. Her statement still held true. She hadn’t noticed any significant changes in her sense of smell.

While it was possible that it had been a gradual thing that she wouldn’t have noticed over the years, the large leaps with her recent treatments had brought drastic changes. If her sense of smell had been enhanced or just altered, she likely would have noticed along with everything else.

“Just keep up your guard,” Eva said, moving forwards again at a far more cautious pace.

The two followed after her, Emily turning her head this way and that while Anise’s glowing eyes had started up again. Emily’s wand darted around everywhere she looked. So far, she hadn’t used a single spell. If they did end up fighting, Eva really hoped that she would use a spell before then just so she knew what kind of mage she would be fighting.

Anise didn’t have a wand out. With the eye in her chest, she really didn’t need one. Assuming she was like other nuns and relied on the Elysium Order’s magic, Eva had a good idea of what to expect. Though she was very well aware that they could use thaumaturgy if they felt like it.

Though the sensation was growing stronger, Eva glanced back over her shoulder as a thought occurred to her. “I don’t suppose either of you know of any creatures with platinum scales?”

Emily shook her head in a negative.

However, Anise froze for a split second. Her eyes lit up a few shades brighter, filling the surrounding forest with light before returning to their normal luminosity.

“I don’t know of any creatures with literal platinum for scales. None that are still around,” she added, effectively confirming Arachne’s experience with the gorgon. “There are a number of reptile breeds that have scales that might appear metallic. In fact, almost every magical reptile can be specifically bred for specific scales.”

Eva groaned. “That doesn’t narrow it down very much.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just something that is in here with us might have scales looking like platinum. A few friends of mine suggested gorgon–”

“But they’re extinct.”

“I know.”

If she actually had the scale, showing it to Anise might be enough for her hive mind to identify. Unfortunately, Randal had kept a hold of it. Assuming he had even brought it with him. If he had, she would need to run across him out in the forest.

Something that would be much easier if she could just sense the demon inside him.

Eva froze. She stopped suddenly enough that Emily bumped into her back. Not hard enough to knock either of them off balance. Enough for Emily’s heart rate to briefly spike as she jumped away from Eva with her wand raised.

“I’m so stupid,” Eva said, ignoring the wand at her back.

Both girls blinked, glancing at each other before focusing on Eva.

“It wasn’t a smell. Why would I think that? How does something even smell slimy?”

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a demon out here with us.”

Anise immediately turned to scan the surrounding area. Her fingers started to crackle with white lightning.

Emily didn’t take her wand off Eva. “Friend of yours?” she asked with narrowed eyes.

“Normally. Used to be?” Eva wasn’t quite sure. “At the moment, I doubt it.”

“We should move,” Anise said. Her voice was tinged with actual fear. It even trembled slightly. Emily’s heart rate had risen, but Anise was in a whole other league. “We don’t– I can’t– A real demon?”

Eva frowned. Do I not count? Sure her treatment wasn’t complete, but it was close enough.

Then again, Anise’s hive mind likely labeled her as an abomination rather than a demon.

“Yes a real demon,” Eva snapped. What was she so worried about anyway?

The answer came almost as soon as she wondered.

The Elysium Order had found themselves embarrassed by demons several times over the past two years. Not a single engagement had gone well for them. At least none Eva had been involved in. Lynn Cross and the Charon Chapter had been driven out of town with a few losses. Ylva had demolished their inquisitorial squad after they had abjectly failed in their mission to recover Nel. Eva had stolen an artifact right from under their nose and dumped it on their front porch after she had finished with it. Which was probably a fairly large embarrassment on its own.

The only damage they had really done to demons in return had been killing Arachne.

Perhaps Anise, being a mere student and trainee, didn’t have the power necessary to pull off a similar stunt.

“It won’t matter anyway. She already knows where we are. Following us won’t be difficult.”

Especially given other demons’ ability to sense Eva. Not that she was going to admit that to her companions.

“We can’t fight a demon. Are you insane?”

Eva glanced at Emily, pointing a finger at herself with an incredulous look on her face.

The Mount Hope student just shrugged and turned a pitying look on Anise.

While they sat around talking, the demon closed in on them. The slimy sensation grew stronger and stronger.

Right up until Eva’s sense of blood registered something other than the few animals and insects that were still around.

Thin tendrils, each no thicker than a pencil, swarmed across the forest floor. They managed to maneuver through the trees and brush without winding up tangled around anything despite being spread out enough to half-surround Eva and her group. The care they took in crawling through the brush kept even a single leaf from rustling.

If it weren’t for her ability to sense both demons and blood, it was entirely possible she wouldn’t have noticed until it was too late.

Though, as she had just said, she doubted there would be an escape.

Eva crossed her arms and sighed.

Tendrils snapped out of the brush, all of them leaping as one.

Emily managed to get off the ground, leaping from a pillar of earth that hadn’t been there a moment ago. She wasn’t quite fast enough. The tentacles caught her in the middle of her jump, wrapping around her waist and pinning her arms to her side.

Anise didn’t fare half as well. Lightning crackled at her fingertips, but she didn’t get a chance to actually fire it before becoming wrapped up like a mummy.

Eva didn’t bother to move. She could have blinked away. She could have fought back with explosive fire. But escaping would have wound up with her leaving Anise behind. Something she really didn’t want to do at the moment. Not until the vampire had been incapacitated.

Neither did she want to fight.

So instead, she simply stood still with her arms crossed. Even as a bundle of tendrils wrapped around and snaked up her leg, Eva didn’t move. The tendrils lifted her up, swinging her upside down. Eva kept her arms crossed.

And just glared at the main mass that was slowly approaching.

— — —

“T-tentacles?” Hank said with a nervous chuckle.

Zoe pressed her face to her palm, not willing to meet his eyes. “She’s actually pretty nice once you get to know her,” she said slowly.

“That’s… a she?”

“She’s employed by Brakket Academy as a security guard. Or was in the past. I believe her contract expired. I’m guessing that Wallace picked up her contract for this event.”

“Ah hah ha.” Again with the nervous laugh. “Well, precarious situation for our young ladies.”

— — —

“Eva!”

The cheer filled voice came from the main mass of tentacles, filled with far more gurgles than Eva remembered. Of course, she couldn’t see a humanoid body formed in the mass, so she was probably just forming up a mouth in the middle of it all.

“Lucy. I think you have some explaining to do.”

Before the tentacle demon could even start to respond, Eva’s head snapped to the side as she heard rapid chanting from the nun.

“Stop!” she cried out.

But Lucy was already one step ahead. A number of tentacles pressed into Anise’s open mouth and wrapped around her tongue.

The way Anise’s eyes bulged and she started choking almost had Eva feeling sorry for her. Almost.

She tried to keep her voice as firm as possible. “Don’t banish my friend. Please,” Eva added after a slight pause. “She’s not going to hurt us. Right Lucy?”

The main mass of tentacles quickly formed up into the familiar shape of a more humanoid Lucy, Brakket security uniform and all. Mostly. From the waist up. Below her waist, the mass of tentacles remained as it was. Eva wasn’t too surprised. A good portion of her body was still spread out across the forest floor.

“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head left and right far further than anyone with a proper skeleton could manage. “Wally said that no matter how much I get attacked, I can’t break anyone.”

Wally? Eva thought with a confused blink of her eyes. They’re on a first name—no, nickname basis?

In a hushed whisper, Lucy added, “He’s scary.”

“How long have you been healed for? I visit you every other week!”

“I… don’t know. A long time. Wally wanted me to pretend,” she said. “After seeing me, he asked if I could stay pretending to heal until he had a job for me.” Her face rippled like a drop of water in a smooth pond, goofy smile turned to a sad frown along with the ripple. “It was so boring. But the nurse was nice. She played with me sometimes.”

“That’s great and all,” Emily shouted from somewhere around, “but since she’s your friend, think you can get her to let us go?”

Eva, still hanging upside down, looked up to her feet. Emily was stuck in the middle of a web of tentacles. Her hands were empty, lacking the wand that had fallen to the forest floor.

“Good point. Lucy?”

The tentacles started to lower Eva down. They didn’t make it more than a few inches before Lucy paused.

“I forgot,” she said. “I’m supposed to take anyone I find out of the wards.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

Though it struck Eva as odd. Whoever Lucy found would almost assuredly be ejected from the match. She wasn’t really the kind of thing that even a group of sixth years could face. Eva had only personally seen Lucy fight on one occasion, back when the half-demon half-zombie golems had attacked the dormitory. Even then, she had only seen her fight for a few moments.

Though she had effectively torn apart her target at the time.

Of course, Irene had told her of two other times Eva had missed Lucy fighting. Once during the same incident, tearing apart and flinging the golems at Ylva. The other time had been more recent. Enigmas within Eva’s domain had escaped through her dormitory room. They made the unfortunate mistake of treading on Lucy.

From Irene’s description of them being peeled apart like an orange, Eva had no doubts about Lucy’s strength.

Even limited to not harming anyone, she would easily be able to capture anyone just as she had captured Eva and her companions. It was as simple as walking out of the arena from there. The only one who might stand a chance at facing her was Anise, and that was simply because of her ability to banish demons. Even her lightning probably wouldn’t do too much damage to such a disembodied creature. Maybe others if they could blink.

Unless Redford wanted her to thin the groups no matter who she came across, he had probably told her to retreat under certain circumstances. Maybe managing to run away.

Maybe…

Eva blinked out of Lucy’s grasp, righting herself using the blink. She appeared right in front of Lucy’s main body.

Her fist went straight into Lucy’s face, sinking in without much resistance. The tendrils making up Lucy’s head started to constrict around her fist as expected.

Eva’s hand burst into flames.

Lucy’s face split in two, avoiding the fire.

It probably wouldn’t hurt her. Lucy was constantly covered in a greasy sheen. A little flame might dry her out, but not cause any permanent damage. She was a demon, after all.

But the way she avoided the flames had Eva smiling. Almost confirming her theory.

Eva blinked a short distance away.

“Alright Lucy. Let’s fight.”

“F-Fight? But–”

“Or you can let my companions loose.”

The two halves of her head twisted to independently look at each of her captives.

Anise glared with her burning eyes only enhancing the menacing look. The effect was somewhat ruined as tentacles still filled her mouth. Not to mention that she looked about ready to throw up.

On the other hand, Emily actually looked interested. Her eyes were following Eva with rapt attention.

“I can’t,” Lucy said.

It was probably part of her contract. Eva would have to free them or they would have to escape on their own.

Perfectly acceptable conditions.

“Alright,” Eva said with a smile. A wide, teeth-filled smile. “Since you can’t hurt me, I’ll go easy on you.”

Eight marbles of explosive fire appeared between each of Eva’s fingers. None were high-explosives. She had only put a small bit of magic into each one, enough to make them unstable. Nothing compared to the room-destroying explosion she had used to free Lucy from the hunters’ trap.

She pulled her hands back, crossing her arms over her chest with each hand open and clawed around her shoulders.

So long as that drone was hovering around overhead, she might as well be theatrical.

She flung her arms out, throwing the marbles as she did so.

Before the first even touched Lucy, Eva blinked away.

Reappearing in front of the main branch of tendrils holding Emily up, Eva lifted her claws high and swiped downwards. The sharp tips of her carapace didn’t quite cut through the entire branch of tentacles. She only made it about halfway through.

It was enough. Emily dropped out of the main mass of tendrils.

Several explosive pops sounded behind Eva as she bent to flick the wand upwards. Emily caught it without issue.

She started casting as Eva dove to the side, avoiding another bunch of tendrils after her.

Looking up at Lucy’s main body again, she was actually smoking. A number of black scorch marks marred her skin—or the masses of tendrils that were pressed together to appear as skin.

Eva felt a little guilty. More about cutting off some of her tentacles than anything else. But her fingers weren’t Elysium Order lightning or cursed with whatever was on the demon hunter’s sword. She should be able to regenerate a few severed tentacles with relative ease.

Raising her arm, Eva skipped the explosions entirely. A stream of sticky fire flew from her fingertips.

The wave caught Lucy square in the chest.

Or it should have.

Lucy split again. The bulk of the fire passed straight through her, landing on the trees and brush beyond her body. A good amount still splashed around the edges of the hole, clinging to her body as Eva had intended.

Still, it was enough of a distraction to let Eva blink over to Anise.

Unlike Emily, Anise was wrapped up with so many tentacles that almost nothing of her could be seen from the neck down. Slicing through the thick bunch of tentacles would be not only impossible, but also cruel. One or a few, Eva could give herself a pass on. Not a full tree trunk’s worth.

“Can’t you blink or teleport?”

Anise, eyes wide and pleading for release, shook her head.

With a groan, Eva blinked out of the way of another group of tentacles.

Despite telling Lucy that she would be going easy on her, Eva really didn’t have all that much else she could do. Her fingers traced along the scales of the snake wrapped around her wrist. But she shook her head. Basila probably wouldn’t be too helpful at the moment. Not against Lucy.

Anything else she could use wasn’t something she wanted to reveal on camera. She did have her dagger with her, but it was hidden inside the lining of her jacket. Arachne had helped to create the hidden pouch. It wasn’t easy to get to, but her fingers should be able to sever the lining if there was a desperate emergency.

And, while she did have one other trump card, she really wasn’t willing to play it without being in absolute mortal peril for fear of being disqualified.

Emily, though freed from her entrapment, wasn’t much help. Her concentration was solely on avoiding being recaptured. She ran circles around the area, using her earth magic to create pillars to jump off or to boost her around. Never once did she try sending even a single blade of earth towards Lucy.

Comparing them side by side as earth mages, Eva would much rather have Juliana at her side. While Emily was proficient in spell casting, she didn’t have much in the way of a tactical mind. She couldn’t win without attacking. If she wasn’t going to attack, she might as well run away and remove the danger of being recaptured.

She wasn’t even that good of a distraction with how Lucy could split her concentration and tentacles between the two of them.

“Alright Lucy,” Eva mumbled to herself as she conjured another eight marbles of unstable flame between her fingers.

Unlike her first volley, these might actually do a bit of damage. Still not to room obliterating levels.

She held onto them as she sprinted around, using her blood sense to keep one step ahead in dodging tentacles. Every second that passed, another bit of magic poured into them.

Once ready, Eva flung them one-by-one at the tree truck of tentacles holding up Anise. Each rumbled the forest with the noise as they tore into the tentacles.

“Stop,” Lucy cried out just after Eva released the fifth bomb. The tentacles holding onto Anise withdrew, dropping the nun a few feet down to the ground.

Eva half expected her to jump to her feet and start flinging around white lighting. Instead, she got to her hands and knees, gagging and retching on the ground.

While Emily stopped by her, patting her back with a pitiful expression, Eva kept her eyes on Lucy.

A very quickly retreating Lucy. The tendrils, those still attached to her, had all pulled back to join with the main body.

Eva tried to tell herself that the sobbing she heard was just her imagination.

I’ll have to apologize after this, she thought with a sigh as she turned to her companions.

She flung three three remaining bombs between her fingers over her shoulder as she walked towards both them and the camera, not looking behind her as they exploded in the background.

“Are you alright?”

Emily gave a shallow nod of her head.

Anise spat against the ground another five times before pulling a wand from the pockets of her jacket. She touched it to the tip of her tongue and closed her mouth. A few seconds later and she was spitting out a mouthful of water.

She repeated the process half a dozen times before Eva had enough.

“We’ve wasted enough time,” she said, hooking her hands underneath the girl’s arm and lifting her to her feet. “Let’s go. And maybe next time we don’t try banishing the tentacle monster that already has you in its grasp and, therefore, has its tentacles near your mouth.”

Anise gave a few rapid nods of her head, still not talking and still filling her mouth with water.

At least she was on her feet and moving.

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