Tag Archives: Hugo

003.027

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“Has she woken up yet?”

Shelby stirred at the soft voice. She pulled herself out of the puddle of drool that had gathered on her sister’s bed. Wiping off her cheek, she looked towards the doorway.

“I don’t think so. What–” An involuntary yawn drowned out her words. “What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning,” Jordan said as he pulled up a chair. “I was just talking with Nurse East. He said that she should be waking up anytime now.”

“That would be nice,” Shelby said as she looked back down to her sleeping twin.

For the first time in weeks, Irene lacked the furrowed brow. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning either. She seemed… peaceful.

“She’s going to be alright, right?”

“He said it was just a concussion. A bad one, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few potions.”

“She’s not going to be like, possessed, is she?”

“Those weren’t demons,” Jordan said. His features darkened, looking like he wanted to spit. A look of pure disgust. “Just parts of them.”

His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.

Shelby shook her head. “And you knew about that Ylva girl? And Professor Za–”

A finger pressed to her lips. She felt her face heat up even as Jordan shook his head.

“Don’t say his name. There are ways to find out if someone talks about oneself. I don’t know if he is doing that, but I’d rather not give any excuses to draw his attention.”

He sighed, pulling his finger away as he glanced off towards Irene. “I knew about Ylva. She wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding herself. When you’ve got a family like mine, you notice things like that.”

“A family like yours,” Shelby said with a half-suppressed yawn. She didn’t know what time she had finally fallen asleep the night before, but it was clearly too late.

As she thought over what he said, Shelby slowly put her head back down on her sister’s bed. She had to wiggle a little in her chair to avoid the damp patch of her own drool. “You’re like Eva then? All into demons or something?”

“Well,” he said. His voice had an audible smile in it. “I like to think I can keep a secret much better than she can.”

Shelby snorted into the blankets. “I’ve known you my whole life. I’ve only known Eva for a year and a half. It’s clear who the secret keeping winner is.”

That got a small laugh from Jordan. “But my family values knowledge and an open mind, I guess you could say.”

“Irene knew, didn’t she. That’s why she freaked out about Eva last year and kept her at an arm’s length since then. She asked you, or you just told her.”

Jordan took in and let out a deep breath. “She stumbled upon me in a fairly compromising position a few years ago.”

Shelby snorted again. It came out slightly pained. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

“Not like that,” he said. “She just walked in on me manipulating shadows like I did yesterday. My family Swore her to secrecy. That’s Swore with a capital ‘S’ otherwise we would have told you too.”

“That doesn’t seem like something Mr. Anderson would do.” Shelby frowned as a though occurred to her. “Are you going to do the same to me?”

“We’re older now. I’ll have to tell my parents, of course, but that was mostly so that Irene couldn’t talk about it. Kids are known to talk about things they shouldn’t, after all.

“I actually wrote to them last night about Eva, all the demon-things, and Juliana and Shalise. I completely forgot to mention you.”

Shelby reached out and jabbed him in the stomach, eliciting a small grunt. That had to be one of the most offensive things she’d ever heard.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can tell my dad yourself. I got a call this morning. He said five words: ‘I am on my way.’ I don’t think he is very happy.”

“That’s not the point, Jordan Anderson. You’re not supposed to forget about your gi–” Shelby cut herself off with a barely disguised cough, “–your childhood friend.”

They weren’t officially going out. They hadn’t even been on a date. He didn’t pay extra attention to her. Their entire relationship felt entirely one-sided.

It was entirely one-sided. They were friends and nothing more.

Shelby sighed. He’d probably prefer going out with someone like Eva anyway.

“I couldn’t help it. So much went on yesterday. I decided to e-mail it instead of texting it because it was so long.”

“That’s just–”

Shelby froze as a light groan came from the sleeping patient.

“Wha–”

Irene didn’t get any further than that before Shelby wrapped her arms around her. Carefully, of course–Irene wasn’t supposed to move or be moved much until the nurse signed her off.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shelby said when she finally pulled herself away. She had to wipe something away from her eyes. Her vision had gone all blurry. It certainly wasn’t tears.

“What happened?”

“Long story,” Jordan said. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll go let Nurse East know you’re awake.”

Shelby watched Jordan’s backside as he walked out of the room. She shook her head and looked back to her sister. “What do you remember?”

“I was–” Irene’s half-lidded eyes burst wide open. Her face heated up to the point where Shelby was wondering if some of the old Irish blood wasn’t showing itself.

“Are you okay?”

“Nothing!” Irene squeaked. She shook her head and immediately winced. “I was just in the hot springs with Eva.”

Shelby frowned and quirked her head to one side. “We don’t have bathing suits.”

Irene’s already red face turned roughly the color of an overripe tomato.

“Oh,” Shelby said with a nod. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“That’s not–It wasn’t–” Irene devolved into sputtering while Shelby tried to keep her face straight. “There were monsters! I was running and then… I don’t know. What happened?”

“Nurse East said one of the security force people brought you in. You’d have to get the full story from them, but I guess Eva was fending off the monsters until the security guard got to you.”

“Oh.” Irene went silent for a moment. “Where is she?”

“The security guard–”

“Eva.”

“I don’t know. I heard Professor Baxter herself say that Eva had been stabbed with a cursed knife, but I haven’t seen her. It’s only been a day.” Shelby paused, but decided to add, “Juliana and Shalise are missing.”

She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to reveal where they went missing. Juliana’s mother was a scary woman and Shelby wasn’t about to disobey, even to her sister.

“One of the school nurses died. A different security guard is in critical condition, I guess.”

“Start at the beginning.”

Shelby shifted to be more comfortable in her chair before speaking. It could take a while.

— — —

The amount of paperwork involved with the recent incident was beyond staggering. Every form that Martina filled out and filed was replaced by three new ones. Catherine just kept digging out more.

While she wasn’t about to complain about her secretary’s new-found work ethic, Martina couldn’t help but think that it was yet another method of getting under her skin. Half the forms were only tangentially relevant. Half of the remainder were so out of date, Martina couldn’t see how they applied to the modern school.

Still, Martina filled them out. The attack was a large incident that had occurred on Brakket property. She wasn’t going to get herself fired over a misplaced RF-Two-Three-Three form.

It helped matters that Gregory had finally delivered his personal report over the incident. Martina Turner set the report down on her desk. It wasn’t everything she had hoped it might be.

While unexpected, the incident proved to be an effective test. Only Daenir, the elf, had been injured among the security team. Gregory’s claim that the addition of several unaffiliated allies had ‘saved the day’ was unneeded.

She’d be sure to leave that bit out when the time came to make a report to the administrators and whatever they ended up telling the public.

The specialists performed their task most admirably. Neither had been on either end of a friendly-fire ‘accident’ which, if Martina was being entirely honest with herself, was a concern she had had. Lucy even dragged that delinquent that had skipped class to an infirmary.

Without eating her. That was a success all on its own.

If it hadn’t been for that nurse, the day would have been almost perfect.

That was the biggest disappointment of all. If only Lisa Naranga had found a proper place to hide or simply escaped…

Nothing to do about it now. Catherine had already notified the next of kin.

The door to Martina’s office burst open, slamming into the wall.

A man wrapped in a black winter coat walked in. He stood in the doorway, taking in the room with a slow sweep of his head from one side to the other. Every inch his head moved only served to deepen the man’s frown.

Martina caught sight of Catherine. The succubus was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp points. As if feeling eyes on her, Catherine looked up and threw a glance in Martina’s direction with a nasty smile. The secretary’s eyes flashed red for a brief instant before the closing door cut off Martina’s view.

“Governor Anderson,” Martina said. She kept a scowl off her face and even managed to turn it into something of a mournful smile. “You should have sent word that you were coming, I would have arranged–”

“Spare me your pleasantries,” he snapped. “The administrators did not put you in charge so that you could run Brakket’s name further into the ground.”

Martina felt her smile slip. “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” she said slowly. “The new security team I assembled defended the academy against an overwhelming force with only one loss and no major student injuries.”

Governor Anderson shook his head. He folded his hands behind his back. “Have you done a headcount on your students?”

“Not as such,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I know that there are three students not currently at Brakket Academy. All three are known to… disappear at times.”

“Irresponsible. After an incident such as this, the first action you should have taken was to ascertain the location of all students. I don’t care where you think they are. If a student took a week off to visit relatives in Europe, you find out for sure that that student is actually there.”

Martina thought for a moment about calling in Zoe Baxter. That woman would have information about the girls. She stopped before her hand had even twitched towards the phone.

Something was wrong about the whole situation. A member of the board of administrators doesn’t just show up and start talking about missing students after a hundred hostile monsters show up on the school’s front porch. Perhaps the conversation would lead there, but he immediately went into the students.

“I take it you know something.”

“Two of those students are no longer on the mortal plane.”

Martina nodded. “One of those students is only human by the loosest definitions. It is somewhat alarming that she left our plane of existence, more so in that she took a friend with her. Their actions are not the business of Brakket Academy.”

Governor Anderson’s eyes turned dark. “I backed your plan. Convinced the others that there was merit in broadening the scope of magical curriculum. You assured me that you could keep your minions in line.”

“I’m not–”

“Find Zagan. Ask him about your missing students.” He turned on his heel and opened the door. It slammed into the wall with as much force as he had entered with.

Catherine did not look the slightest bit perturbed as he stalked by with his shadow curling up the wall. Rather, she looked interested. Her eyes turned a unique shade of red before she reined herself in.

“Find Zagan,” Martina repeated to herself as the outer door to the offices slammed shut with Governor Anderson on the other side.

“Ah,” Catherine said. She stood from her desk, grabbed a sheet of paper off the top, and tottered over through Martina’s open door. “Zagan stopped by last night, wanting you to have this. Slipped my mind until now.”

“A leave of absence?”

“He is taking a few days off, citing the traumatic incident as the cause.”

Martina tore the sheet of paper in two. She tore it again and again before scattering the pieces in Catherine’s face.

“Find him. And find all residents of Rickenbacker three-one-three.”

The lascivious grin on Catherine’s face died. “Is that an order?”

“Don’t try my patience.” Something had gone on. Something that the governor knew about despite not even living within Brakket city.

Something that involved a king of hell.

— — —

“If the immediate family would gather around for the final prayer and rites.”

A husband, a father, a mother, two older brothers, and a little sister all stood from their seats and approached the closed casket. Before a single word could be spoken, the mother broke down into sobs. The father pulled her into a tight hug while the eldest brother placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The other brother stood off to one side with an unreadable expression. Boredom? Perhaps shock. The reality of the situation might not have hit yet.

The sister stood back with her brother. Her face was twisted in an expression of confusion as she watched her mother. She had to be in elementary school. Probably too young to understand everything that was going on.

Especially since the casket had been kept closed. The body was in no state to be displayed. Only the parents and the husband had been allowed to look.

The husband stood apart from the family. Silent tears streamed down his face as he waited patiently for everyone to collect themselves.

Zoe Baxter watched the proceedings from the back of the room. She hadn’t gone up an introduced herself. None of Lisa’s family knew her and she’d only met Lisa’s husband once at their marriage nearly six years ago.

She’d considered pleading to Ylva. What about, she wasn’t certain. Restoring her to life or a last chance to talk, maybe. In the end, she decided against it. Even if Ylva could do something–and Zoe wasn’t sure she could–it didn’t feel right.

Lisa and her family were highly religious. Even if it could return her to life, Zoe doubted that they would accept it if it came through a bargain with a demon. Would Lisa herself accept it?

Zoe shook her head. She couldn’t get caught in that loop of thinking again. There was nothing to be done about death.

The family prayer had gone on while Zoe was distracted with her thoughts. She only realized that fact when the undertaker and pallbearers started taking the casket out to the hearse. The family followed and soon after, so did the rest of the congregation of Lisa’s friends.

Zoe remained in her seat until the last person had filed out of the funeral home. She pulled out her dagger.

Dirt and grime coated the blade. Normally, it would have easily caught and reflected the dim light in the funeral home. She hadn’t had the time to clean it after everything.

Or rather, she forgot. There was so much going on.

Still so much going on.

Zoe ran her thumb over the flat of the blade. Most of the dust was crusted onto the blade. It would need the full works when she found the time.

She took a deep breath, wincing at the jolt of pain in her side. Break over.

Rising to her feet, Zoe picked up her cane. She wouldn’t need it in a few weeks–she barely needed it now–but it was nice to have something to lean on during long hours of standing. The nun’s lightning was problematic to heal.

It actively undid any magical attempts to heal the affected area. The magic simply fell apart. Trying to remove the lingering magic from it had suffered similar failures.

Devon had said it would disperse on its own after a week or two and then magic-assisted healing could begin. He spoke from personal experience, apparently.

The effect was something that she’d normally be overjoyed to experience, in a manner of speaking. Figuring out how such a spell worked, especially given that it wasn’t thaumaturgical in nature, would have made an excellent project.

She’d only had time to do a cursory analysis. A theory had almost immediately popped into her head about how to replicate the effect using thaumaturgical chaos magic, but not without also unraveling the spell itself. She had yet to even write down her theories let alone solve the issue.

With a sigh, Zoe teleported through between to the prison.

The place still looked like a battlefield. Half-scorched body parts were still scattered around. All belonged to the minions of the ‘Lord of Slaves’ that no one had bothered to pick up. No one cared, not with their other worries.

Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.

Ylva and Arachne were one thing. Arachne was a psychopath, plain and simple. Plenty of humans were psychopaths, and plenty more were worse than she was. Ylva was more of an enigma. While she did somewhat enslave Nel, it wasn’t the same thing.

The very concept of the Lord of Slaves was fundamentally disgusting. She would be all too happy if Devon never felt the need to summon such a creature again.

A shout echoing through the empty compound pulled her attention away from her thoughts.

“Why can’t you send me?”

Zoe turned and stalked off in the direction of the noise. She tried not to look like she was hobbling, an endeavor she wasn’t sure was entirely successful. Every step sent pain up her leg and around her chest.

Teleporting was, unfortunately, not an option. Genoa had been on a hair-trigger temper since she had been informed about her daughter’s status. Teleporting around her was liable to result in injury at best.

Both Devon and Ylva had advised them not to confront Zagan or Martina over the matter, or even let on that they knew. Not until they could recover the girls.

That irked Zoe more than anything. She was once again considering resigning in protest. And once again coming up with a lack of results that resigning would achieve.

Zagan would have to go.

Later. And with a lot of planning.

Zoe rounded the corner of Devon’s cell house. Genoa, Devon, and Carlos all stood outside. The latter was in the process of trying to calm the two down.

Carlos was looking thinner than normal. He looked far more weary behind his coke bottle glasses. An older look. The lines on his face were pronounced and deep.

It had only been a few days and he was already looking ill.

Her daughter’s absence took a different sort of toll on Genoa. In addition to her hair-trigger temper, she’d become irritated with everyone at the prison. She was eating healthy and took proper care of herself, all in the name of mounting some kind of rescue mission.

Even when the attitude turned in her direction, Zoe couldn’t fault the woman. They weren’t her children, but they were her students. Leaving them in Hell was not an option.

Zoe at least possessed the ability to acknowledge that she was so far out of her element that she wouldn’t be much use. She was willing to heed the advice of Devon and Ylva.

“I didn’t say can’t, woman, I said won’t.” He thrust a sheet of paper at her. The drawing, or a copy, of the transference circle Zoe had taken a picture of. “Draw it yourself if you’re so desperate. But you’re throwing yourself away.”

Genoa snatched the paper from his hands. “I won’t abandon my child.”

“You’ll be abandoning them no matter what you do. You might as well use the connection in Ylva’s domain. That circle has no destination sigil. You could wind up anywhere. Hell is a big damn place. The odds that you’d wind up with your kid are astronomical.

“Then we have to figure out how to get you back, potentially delaying the rescue of your daughter. What a pain. Damn Ylva and its damn payment. I don’t have the time for this shit. It was going to save Eva anyway, I could tell.” Devon devolved into muttering under his breath.

Zoe stepped forwards, ensuring that Genoa saw her before she spoke. She didn’t want to wind up attacked on accident again. “Is Ylva still gone?”

Both Devon and Genoa turned to glare at Zoe. Carlos was the one to finally respond. “Still gone. Is she really going to help get our daughter back?”

“I think so,” Zoe said. And she honestly believed it. Ylva had been protective of her ‘things’ if nothing else. “How is Eva?”

“Unchanged.”

“No one is watching over her?”

“Arachne was with her when we left.”

No one responsible then, Zoe thought with a small sigh.

Genoa crumpled the paper into a ball and turned away. Without a word, she stalked off towards Ylva’s building.

Carlos started after her, but paused and looked back. “I-I better keep her from doing anything rash.”

“Is that true? About the destination thing,” Zoe said as soon as Carlos and Genoa were safely out of earshot.

“I consider myself an expert in these kinds of things. Demons and such. Frankly, that circle shouldn’t work. It’s like a mirror of a proper summoning circle. But if it does work, it will work the way I said it does.”

“You haven’t tested it?”

“Of course not. I don’t want to tip anything off and I definitely do not want to have anything to do with any of the seventy-two. I warned Eva.” He descended once again into mumbling complaints about seemingly everything he could think of as he turned and walked away.

Zoe stood there in the prison courtyard, leaning on her cane, wondering just what she could be doing to help her students.

— — —

Des sat in her chair without moving. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, but struggling would only make things worse.

She did glance over towards Hugo. Unlike Des, he wasn’t strapped down. He even had clothes on. Hugo simply sat and stared with his usual vacant look.

A second chair sat in the room, though it was facing the wrong way. The back was tall enough that she couldn’t see anyone, but it was probably there for a reason. A new test subject for her father, perhaps.

“You disappoint me, Des.”

Her father was smiling. Not at her and not because he was happy. In fact, that was one of the worst smiles she’d seen.

“Don’t worry, we can fix that. But first, let’s discuss why you disappoint me.”

Everything had gone so wrong. Des couldn’t even point out where things failed. Eva wasn’t supposed to have gotten away. She wasn’t supposed to have been an enemy in the first place.

Des was willing to admit that she had let her anger get the best of her. But it wasn’t her fault. If Eva had just played nice, none of this would have happened.

They were supposed to have been friends. Two outcasts joining together against mutual enemies.

That was what her father had said anyway.

“You took our little friends, Des, and got all of them killed. You didn’t tell me first. There was no plan.” Sawyer hung his head in mock sadness. “Worst of all, you ran. You got scared. They were held off by six people and a demon or two because no one was controlling them.”

His voice was soft. Calm. Completely unlike what happened when other people got mad. That was the fifth scariest part of the whole situation.

“That was the whole point in making them. Demons have far too much agency, but they’re strong. With us controlling our demon-golems…” he trailed off with another shake of his head.

“And Hugo helped you.”

Hugo blinked and glanced up to Sawyer. His eyes focused for a brief moment.

Her father snapped his fingers.

Hugo slumped forwards, falling out of his seat. He collapsed to the floor without attempting to catch himself.

Des tried to scream out. She struggled against the chair’s restraints.

They didn’t budge.

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll build you a new toy. A better one!

“But that is the price he had to pay. Don’t disappoint me again, Des.”

The restraints didn’t even allow Des to slump back in her chair. She didn’t want a new toy. Hugo was hers.

“Not all was lost. I noticed your errant actions fast enough to act myself. I caught us a little souvenir.”

He spun the spare chair around.

There was a woman sitting in it with wide eyes and short, messy hair. Milky white eyes were inset in her body everywhere Des could see. At least, between the straps. Some of the spots shouldn’t even be possible. There was definitely not enough meat on her wrist to support an eye and have a functional bone structure.

A small spot on her other arm had dried blood crusted over a hole that might have held an eye at one point in time.

“I’m going to have to change my original plan. There were unexpected complications, but all will be well. We might have to move quickly over the next few days until I figure out how to hide us from the other nuns. Their inquisitorial squad is reeling from losing half the members and one other augur, but they’ll be back.”

As she tore her eyes from the woman’s eyes, Des noticed one odd thing. When her father strapped in subjects, he stripped them to ensure they had no hidden items on their person.

The woman had a choker around her neck. A small, obsidian black skull dangled from the front end. It was highly detailed. For all Des knew, it was fashioned from a real skull. A real tiny skull, but a real one nonetheless. All the teeth were perfectly detailed, the cheekbones had all the proper shapes, and the eyes…

It drew her eyes in. She couldn’t look away even if she tried.

And she tried. She wanted nothing more than to not have to look at the necklace.

Two tiny white pricks were set so far back in the eye sockets that they could be on the opposite end of the universe.

Two tiny white stars, fueling their burning with sheer anger.

>>Author’s Note 003<<

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003.012

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Eva spun on her heel and caught the rock out of the air.

It was small and not pointed. That was a relief at least. Her fellow students weren’t trying to kill her. It crumbled under the might of her claws. Too easy, far too easy. Probably had been designed to shatter on impact to create dust and a large mark on her back.

Unbelievable.

“A-are you alright?”

“Fine,” Eva ground out while giving a long, hard glare at the group of three students that stood where the rock had come from. She knew which of the three had done it. It did take more concentration to use, but her blood sight didn’t suddenly stop working just because she got eyes.

Not that anyone else knew that. They didn’t know how she got around without eyes in the first place.

Being able to glare again was fun, Eva had to admit. Especially because her new eyes tended to cause others to wilt and run away. She very much enjoyed seeing those three students break into a full sprint down the hall, only to crash into someone coming around a corner.

“That was mean,” Shalise shouted after them.

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Eva let out a soft sigh as she turned back towards their next class. “I liked it better when they were avoiding and ignoring me.”

“You skip alchemy so you probably missed the rumors,” Juliana said.

“What, people think I had something to do with his injuries?”

“It is a well-known fact that you two hate each other.”

Eva gave Juliana a look. Even she shied away from it. New eyes are fun. Eva shook her head and glanced back at Juliana. “We don’t hate each other. I skipped class because he doesn’t let me work. He doesn’t let me work because he’s worried about chemicals soaking into my non-lab safe gloves. That’s a valid reason on both our parts. He isn’t my best friend or anything, but I don’t want him dead.”

“You don’t have to preach to me,” Juliana said with her arms up. “I’m just saying what they’re saying.”

“Yeah, well, they’re wrong.” Eva clenched her fists. The one she crushed the rock with grated at the joints. “I need to wash my hands before class.”

“Do you want us to go with you?” Shalise asked.

“I’ll be fine on my own.”

Juliana put on an almost evil grin. It was somewhat odd and didn’t fit on her. Then again, it had been almost a year since Eva last saw her face. She’d had to approximate everyone’s expressions using their blood vessels. Getting used to sight would be a chore.

“It isn’t you that we’re worried about,” Juliana said. “It is everyone else.”

“No guarantees there. Maybe if I knock some sense into people, I can go back to being avoided before Arachne gets word and does something everyone would regret.”

“I-is that–should we be worried?”

“Oh no. You guys have nothing to worry about.”

“Should we be worried for other people, I think Shalise means.”

“Probably not.” Eva shook her head as she changed direction towards the nearest restroom. “I’ll catch up to you guys in class.”

Eva kept her sense of blood fully in the front of her mind as she walked off. She’d never felt the need to be aware of every single person around her while in school. As such, she’d nearly fallen flat on her face when a gust of wind tripped her up.

Watching everyone’s hands was an exercise in tedium, but she wasn’t willing to risk a fireball to the face.

Luckily, most students moved out of her way as she walked past. Openly wearing nothing over her hands and even a skirt to show off her legs had people staring for sure. A giddy feeling welled up inside Eva when two older girls standing outside the restroom noticed her approaching. She didn’t think she’d ever get tired of the way they ran when their eyes met her own.

Sadistic? Maybe a little.

It was almost a shame that Arachne couldn’t see their faces. She would surely get a laugh out of it. Even if she could see through Eva’s shirt, she wasn’t around today.

She had elected, offered even, to help Devon track down the source of those demons. No one was interested in a repeat of that night.

Especially not Juliana.

The official announcement was that a fire had injured both Zoe and Wayne Lurcher. No word of demons or even an attacker was mentioned, though there was a statement that an investigation into possible arson would be underway.

Carlos, on the other hand, knew the truth. While he didn’t seem to have any issue with Eva or Arachne, he definitely objected to demons attacking and causing mayhem. He would be talking to Genoa. Keeping everything secret from her wouldn’t end well when she inevitably found out.

And Eva didn’t doubt that she would find out. She had a miserable track record for keeping secrets since starting at Brakket.

Most of that stemmed from her choosing to not be the loner that she had been in middle school.

That and Arachne forcing her contract. It would be so much easier to keep secrets without a demon clinging to her body. Not that she wanted to change that too much. Arachne was a good companion.

Eva shook the water off her hands. She flexed them several times, just to ensure nothing was grinding in between her carapace. Nothing felt odd in her joints.

She turned towards the door and was almost tackled in…

A hug?

It took effort not to give into her instincts and crush the girl in her hands. Eva managed to shove her away without too much force.

“You didn’t have eyes last time.”

Eva glanced down at the girl. Even without needing to sense her blood vessels, she was unmistakable.

The blended girl.

“Are you just lacking common sense or are you trying to get yourself killed.”

Blended burst out laughing.

A pure, childlike laugh.

Eva had to take a step back. “What is wrong with you?”

Her laugh stopped in its tracks. A shadow crossed her face as she looked towards the floor. “My body doesn’t heal properly.” She fiddled with one of the stitches that ran across her face. “Any cut I get has to be held shut.”

Most of her looked a lot worse than cuts. Maybe full dismemberments. Eva shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. First you remove my gloves in front of half the school. Now you get far too close to me.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head to one side as a wide smile spread across her face. “You’re fascinating. Look at you.” Blended reached forwards and gripped Eva’s hand. She ran her fingers up along the point where the carapace stopped and the skin started. “You’ve obviously had amputations. But no stitches holding it together. And they’re not even human limbs.”

Eva tore her claw out of the girl’s hands.

She didn’t even notice. Blended’s hands immediately darted towards Eva’s skirt and lifted it up. “Fascinating. Your limbs merge with your skin and work. There isn’t any endoskeleton if I guess right. How do they work?”

What a menace, Eva thought with a sigh. She gave the girl a fairly hard shove–

Or tried to.

The hand she tried to shove Blended with stopped just inches from the girl. Caught. Another set of fingers gripped her wrist. The blood within them barely moved beneath the skin.

Almost like Ylva.

No.

Not quite. More like someone sleeping.

“Hugo,” Blended admonished the owner of the hand. “Be nice.”

A small chill ran up her spine. Both of them managed to sneak up on her. And they managed the same feat the other night. Who are these people?

As useless as she had been so far, Eva made a note to have Nel watch the two.

“Yes, Des,” Hugo said as he released Eva’s hand. He moved to stand next to Blended and went perfectly still. His eyes unfocused as they gazed off at some point behind Eva.

“But your eyes,” Blended said as she released Eva’s skirt. Her fingers darted towards her own eyes. They pressed and squeezed until a sickening pop echoed through the otherwise vacant restroom. Several stitches held it in her head by the optic nerve alone.

The boy standing at her side did not react in the slightest.

“How do you even see?”

“With my eyes. But your eyes, they’re definitely not human. You didn’t even have them the other day. Yet no sign of surgery?” She popped her own brown eye back into her skull. It swiveled independently from her blue one before settling into place. “Eyes don’t work like that.”

I don’t think eyes work like yours. Mine make a lot more sense.

“The dean said you were partially nonhuman. I don’t believe that. I think you are a human who has replaced your limbs somehow.”

“I don’t care what you think. In fact, I would be very pleased if we never met again.”

The smile on her face vanished in an instant. Water gathered in her eyes, but she managed to hold it in. “W-we’re alike though. We have unique physiology and everyone hates us.”

As her smile vanished, Eva smile grew. She let out a scoff. “Even if that were true–which it isn’t in my case–I am perfectly accustomed to being alone. As for ‘unique physiology,’ well, that’s hardly a thing to bond over. Because of your actions, you’ve potentially damaged my standing here. Damaged to the point where people might die if they realize the truth behind what the dean implied.”

Eva shoved past Blended and her little henchman–who, now that Eva thought about it, should probably not be in the women’s restroom.

“You mean, about those being demon lim–”

Hugo jumped in the way of her claws. One hand embedded itself into his chest. Eva barely took the time to note that he wasn’t even bleeding before her other hand gripped Blended by her throat.

“I think you mean to say ‘West African shapeshifting spider’ limbs.”

Blended struggled against her grip. She wouldn’t be able to break it. Eva wished she had Arachne’s upper arm as well as her lower arm if only because she wanted to lift the girl up by the throat.

Hugo struggled to get off of her fingers.

Eva threw him off, sending him back against the sinks. She wiped the surprisingly small amount of blood onto the hilt of her dagger.

As soon as she had control over it, the blood flew through the air to form two disks that pressed into his eyes. Eva released her control.

Blinded by his own blood, Hugo flailed around as he attempted to wipe the blood away.

Eva dragged Blended to the restroom entrance and pressed one foot against the door. The room was empty save for the three of them. She did not want anyone walking in on them.

“Now,” Eva dropped her voice until even she could barely hear it, “we are going to have a little talk. I don’t know where you got the idea that any part of me is demonic and I don’t care–” for now at least. “If I find out that you mentioned the ‘d’ word to anyone, I promise to hunt you down. If rumors start going around the school, I will assume you are responsible. Do we understand each other?”

Blended did not respond. She continued to struggle against Eva’s claw.

Eva released her with a light shove.

She stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

Eva turned her attention back to Hugo just in time to see him rushing at her despite the blood still in his eyes. She kicked out with her foot and struck him square in the chest.

Rather than fly back like a good little ragdoll, he gripped her leg and held on.

Eva hopped forwards–there was no one on the other side of the door anyway–and used her stronger legs to force Hugo backwards.

He stumbled over and fell to his back with Eva’s leg pinning him against the ground.

“I believe I asked you a question.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice rasped.

Eva didn’t think she squeezed hard at all, definitely not hard enough to cut off air. Then again, she might have some medical issues related to the unable to heal thing.

Blended coughed a few times before she said, “I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again. I just wanted a friend.”

“Well, you sure screwed that up.”

She hung her head. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”

“‘How it was supposed to go?'” Eva narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

“You are like me. We’re not like everyone else.”

“We are not alike. Even if we were, that alone isn’t a good reason to be friends. Next time you want to make friends with someone, don’t antagonize them.”

Eva turned towards the door, but turned her head over her shoulder. “Remember my promise. One word to anyone.”

Blended nodded behind Eva’s back as she started to help Hugo up. He’d probably have a few broken ribs.

Eva wasn’t too concerned about him running to a nurse. He still was barely bleeding. Something was odd about him.

Odd about both of them.

She could only hope that the small marble of his blood that she reclaimed from his eyes was enough for Nel to work with.

— — —

Zoe Baxter leaned back into the soft padding of her infirmary bed. Too many potions had her feeling loopy, but her head had started to clear in the last few hours. Hopefully she hadn’t done too many embarrassing things.

She hated this.

Not just the potions and the infirmary. She felt groggy. Her mind wasn’t completely sharp.

A few key notes stuck out to her. Things she picked up despite the potions.

Wayne was off in some elven hospital. Her home destroyed along with all her research.

I hope those fireproof safes were worth the money.

Even if they worked perfectly, not everything would be saved. Definitely nothing she had been actively working on.

Zoe pinched her eyes shut as she tried to remember all her current projects. The ring stood out first and foremost. She hadn’t worked on it much after the end of last year, but plenty of notes hadn’t been filed away yet.

The notes about Des’ healing condition would be long gone. Not a big issue. She hadn’t been making any progress in that department. The biggest issue there would be the destruction of books.

Any material relating to demonology had been dropped into between. Far too volatile to risk anyone accidentally happening upon. At least she wouldn’t have to tell Eva that her books had been burnt.

Anything else would hopefully be in the safe.

The ring was the only thing that wasn’t between. Zoe hadn’t given it a moment of thought until just now. She had a sudden urge to find Eva and have her collect it. If someone else found it…

Zoe shook her head. Nothing to do about it at the moment. She’d have Lisa find Eva as soon as she could.

The ring was supposed to protect her. Supposed to dissuade enemies from attacking her. Provided Ylva was telling the truth, of course.

She should have been wearing it. Everything might have been different.

Again, Zoe shook her head. Worrying about the past was not constructive.

Zoe stretched out her arm.

She was quite certain that her elbow had been pulverized by the tentacle monster. Her arm flopped loosely for a good while before she managed to escape.

Whatever Lisa did to it worked wonders.

Her arm came down on the buzzer for the nurse. Sure, she could have used her other arm. Doing so wouldn’t have let her test out her injuries.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad. There was a strong tingle right in the crook of her elbow when she tried to flex it. Zoe wasn’t sure if painkillers were dampening a more intense feeling or not. If Lisa didn’t want her to be moving it, she should have put a cast on it.

Trying to move her leg didn’t end in such success. Pain wracked up her thigh before she decided not to hop out of bed just yet.

“You’re still injured. Don’t try getting up.”

“I don’t think I will,” Zoe said as she glanced towards the door.

Lisa Naranga stood there, staring with a half-sad smile on her face. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”

“Glad to be awake.” Zoe returned the smile, trying hard not to wince as her leg resettled in the bed. “How long do I need to stay here?”

“Your knee is still in about thirteen pieces. Fixing it has been a nightmare. Both Laura and Eirin have been running through several options. I doubt you’ll want to leave before it gets fixed.”

“I seem to remember my arm bending in the wrong direction as well.”

“It looked worse than it was. Local bone regrowth injection had it mending well.”

Zoe stretched out both arms and stretched them back and forth. “Seems alright. A light tingle every time I move it though.”

“Aftereffects. They should wear off. If they haven’t by next week–well, if you’ve been released by next week–come see us.”

“I hope I’m released soon. So much work to get done.”

Lisa moved to the side of the bed and started looking over Zoe’s arm. “Any aches, pains, or general discomfort anywhere aside from your leg?”

Zoe rolled her neck back and forth with a slight cracking noise. “Lower neck pains. A small amount of strain on the actual bone, but that’s from being hunched over grading papers.”

“Dorsal lacerations likely aggravating the problem. They shouldn’t be a problem after another day or two. How long have you had the strain?”

“A few years maybe.”

“Grade papers in a different position. Invest in a new chair if that is the issue. You shouldn’t be having back pain at your age. At least not from grading papers.”

Zoe did not miss the momentary drop of her eyes. Lisa’s sad smile twisted into a lecherous smile before their eyes made contact.

And once again, her smile turned sad. “The official statement is that a fire ran through your house. Wayne burned himself to get you out.” She shook her head. “If he didn’t have that fire extinguished in three seconds flat, I’ll eat my syringes.”

“Seems unpleasant.”

“Zoe. What actually happened?”

Taking a deep breath of air, Zoe shook her head. “I don’t know much after I escaped. Just enough to catch that Wayne and Eva both survived.”

“Eva? The claw girl who has lots of ‘everythings’?”

“She has claws,” Zoe said slowly. She wasn’t quite sure what Lisa meant by ‘everythings.’

“What’s she got to do with this?”

Zoe chuckled. “She might just be the most qualified person to deal with creatures like these.” Aside from Zagan. Zoe wasn’t about to even mention his name. “Please don’t ask what the creatures are.”

“Fine, but I have my guesses.”

Zoe didn’t doubt that. The nurse probably wouldn’t need more than one guess; after treating Eva during the spring, she had to have researched anything that might be able to cause hands like that.

“What do you mean by escaped? And survived what?”

“I don’t know,” Zoe lied. “As for escaping, well, I am still wondering if I actually escaped.”

“You’re here, Zoe. You are safe.”

“That is what you said last time.”

The nurse frowned, but remained silent.

“I escaped at least twenty times,” Zoe said with a sigh. “I would teleport out. Get help. But something would be wrong. The colors of someone’s hair or pillow cases being inside out. The moment I noticed, the pain would start.” Zoe touched one of the healed cuts on her cheek. “It started small. A cut here or there. Then larger cuts. Broken bones.

“I don’t know how I escaped. What I did different. That scares me, Lisa. I’m still looking for something wrong.”

Lisa bent forwards and wrapped her arms around Zoe. It was somewhat awkward. Zoe didn’t want to lean forwards for fear of disturbing her knee.

Still, it was appreciated. Needed, even.

“We’ll find you a therapist. A good one.”

Zoe just nodded into her shoulder. She doubted a therapist would be able to do anything. How could anyone talk away an illusion indistinguishable from reality?

Disappointing her friend, assuming she was real, wouldn’t leave a good taste in her mouth.

But, once you encounter something like that, how can you ever trust anything?

Zoe shook the morbid thought from her mind. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could you send for Eva? I need to speak with her.”

Lisa pulled back with a glance at the wall clock. “It’ll be dark out. She should be somewhere around unless she is violating curfew.”

“I wouldn’t put that past her.”

“I’ll find her so long as she’s in the building,” Lisa said with a frown.

“Thank you.”

Zoe leaned back against her pillows. At least the clock didn’t have thirteen numbers this time.

None of her previous ‘escapes’ had lasted more than a few minutes before she noticed something out of place. That alone had to be good evidence that she actually escaped.

Assuming time wasn’t dilated in any way during the illusions.

The hands on the clock slowly ticked around for almost an hour before Eva walked into the room.

“You’re looking better.”

“Eva, yo–”

Zoe’s words choked in her throat as she stared at the girl. That girl stared back.

She could stare back.

With red, slit-pupil eyes.

That was wrong.

Very wrong.

Zoe braced herself.

Pain would be right after noticing something wrong.

And then another illusion would start.

She’d think she escaped.

Zoe was so engrossed in staring at those eyes, she almost missed Eva’s diagnosis.

“Bruises are gone. No internal or external bleeding. There is non-insignificant asymmetry in your legs. Are they alright?”

No pain. No booting out of the illusion.

Zoe clenched her jaw shut. She didn’t know what to think anymore.

It happened so quickly, Zoe couldn’t stop herself. It took all her effort to ignore the pain in her leg as she leaned over the edge of her bed.

What had to be hundreds of dollars worth of potions wound up on the floor.

“Zoe!” Eva darted forwards around the non-vomit side of the bed. Sharp claws pressed against her back.

This is it. Zoe braced herself for the pain and tried to think of another way to escape.

No pain came. Again. Just a soothing and somewhat odd feeling backrub.

Lisa burst into the room an instant later.

“I’m fine,” Zoe blurted out despite the foul taste in her mouth. She didn’t want Lisa jumping to conclusions. “I just–Eva, your eyes…”

“Oh. Arachne got them for me. The original owner wasn’t needing them anymore. I didn’t mean–I’m sorry. You were probably tortured… I didn’t even think–”

Zoe cut her off with a shake of her head.

She had a feeling she had seen those eyes before. Recently. She was suddenly glad she had been trapped in an endless stream of illusions rather than extended torture underneath the watchful gaze of those eyes. Being afraid of one of her students due to trauma would never do.

Maybe seeing a therapist for that would be wise.

“You stole that demon’s eyes?”

“Demon?” Rather than fear or running away, Lisa had a smug grin on her face. “I knew it.” That grin vanished as she grabbed a few towels from a cupboard.

“Thanks,” Eva said with a roll of her eyes. She could do that now. “At this rate, I might as well just issue a public statement to the whole school tomorrow. Or flee into hiding. Devon wants to do that anyway. This place is ‘too damn hot’ for him.”

Zoe put one of her hands on Eva’s claw. “Don’t. I’ll vouch for you in front of everyone.”

“You’ll lose your job.”

“Perhaps. But sticking by their students is a teacher’s duty. Besides, you kept me from bleeding out.” Zoe couldn’t help but add, “as long as everything is real.”

Eva just blinked. It would take a while to get used to those eyes. “If you’re still worried about the jezebeth, don’t be. I mean, if you think this is imaginary then nothing I say will help, but I guarantee that it is dead.”

Zoe wasn’t sure that helped. It should have. It was meant to. Maybe it would if the weeks wore on.

“That isn’t to say their illusions are anything to be scoffed at. I stabbed myself in the heart because–”

“You what!”

Her outburst was echoed by Lisa.

Eva had the gall to just wave her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

“You are most certainly not fine, young lady.” Lisa pointed at one of the other beds in the room. “Bed. Now.”

“What? No. I’m fine!”

“Last year, I warned you what would happen if you disobeyed me in my own infirmary. Do you remember?”

Any further protests died in Eva’s throat as she gave a timid nod.

“Bed. Now. If you aren’t in it by the time I get back,” Lisa let the threat hang in the air for a moment. She all but ran out of the room with the towels.

Eva didn’t hesitate. She scrambled into an adjacent bed.

“Before she comes back,” Zoe said, “there is a ring. You know which one I’m talking about. It was somewhere in my house.”

“Devon and Arachne have been snooping around all day. I highly doubt he would have missed a ring of that nature. Getting it back from him might be another story.”

“So long as it doesn’t fall into regular people’s hands.”

“Ylva was quite displeased. Not at you,” Eva quickly said.

And a good thing too, Zoe didn’t want another demon angry at her.

“She wanted both those demons to mount their heads on pikes. Apparently they broke rules by attacking you.”

“I didn’t have the ring on.”

“I gathered that and told her as much. I don’t think she cared, but you’d have to ask her.”

I don’t want to know that bad.

Lisa returned to the room. She dropped three potion vials into Zoe’s lap.

“Drink,” was her only command before she turned to Eva.

The final vial sent a wave of fog over her mind. Zoe passed out to the tune of a nurse shouting at her patient.

>>Extra Chapter 006<<

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003.002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she deliberately held back.

It was still faster than normal.

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

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

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

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

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

But she didn’t.

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

Eva frowned as the spider-woman slowly approached.

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

Arachne wasn’t upset or angry.

She was worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was just a slow nod from Arachne in return.

“What’s on your mind lately?”

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

Eva smiled and waited patiently.

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

“What plans?”

“I–Our contract ends soon.”

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

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

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

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

That was deserving of at least a little punishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not ready for that yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least until Eva felt a tug.

Her head snapped back.

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

Eva took off before Arachne could protest.

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing about him set Zoe at ease.

“Zoe Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor Finnell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hugo Smith?”

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

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

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

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

“I do not mind.”

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

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

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

That must have been what Doctor Finnell was talking about.

“I understand,” he said.

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

“No, ma’am.”

“No wonders about magic or classes or teachers?”

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

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

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

“To assist with minor chores around the house.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe simply shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short figure appeared in the doorway alongside her father.

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

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

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

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

His face never dropped the large grin.

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

— — —

“Got a plan in mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max quirked an eyebrow. “Secrets?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty pounds?”

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

“Think? You’re not sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready?”

She gave a single nod in response.

“Very well. Prepare yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

A thin bolt of lightning shot out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Way ahead of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No secret weapon from you?”

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

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

“Count on it,” Eva said with a grin.

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

Shalise started to call out a warning.

It was too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you have to hit him so hard?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what was that all about?”

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

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

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

“He’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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