Tag Archives: Irene

010.020

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva, hands clasped behind her back, patrolled along the edge of the ritual circle. More specifically, she paced back and forth in front of the demon hunter and the nun. While the nun had her back pressed against the tree, staring up at the eye through the portals with a slack jaw, the hunter was face-down in the dirt with her mouth slightly to one side. Just enough to endlessly spew nonsensical threats at everyone who walked by.

Thankfully, Zoe had stopped by and stilled the air around her head, keeping the sound from escaping. A small part of Eva hoped that the stilled air would mean stale air and eventually toxic air when the oxygen ran out. However, Zoe was far too experienced and too careful to make a mistake like that.

Killing her might be for the best. It wouldn’t be difficult. She could use her wings—which, for the moment, had receded back into the blood coating her body—her feet, her hands, her fire, or her blood. And among all those, there were plenty of subsets. Her hands, for example, could crush her windpipe, tear out her throat, tear out her heart, twist her head around backwards, crush her head, tear open her mouth and jaw, break every bone in her body, and so on and so forth.

Eva had a sinking suspicion that Zoe would be none too pleased with her should she murder a helpless captive. Even if that helpless captive was the worst person Eva had ever met outside of Sawyer.

By Juliana’s testimony, neither of them had interfered with the ritual at all. The hunter had been lying face down pretty much since the moment she showed up. The nun hadn’t taken her eyes off the sky once the portals opened. Something Eva had been telling the others to avoid doing.

“Stop that,” Eva said, clicking her fingers in front of Irene’s face. Some people had to be reminded more often than others.

Irene blinked twice before shaking her head. “Sorry,” she said as she glanced between Eva and Saija. “I was just… what was I doing?”

“Staring. Get on your feet. It’s too easy to look up while lying down on your back. And that goes for the rest of you as well,” Eva said to pretty much everyone who wasn’t Zoe, Genoa, or a demon.

Fluttering her eyes shut, Irene heaved out a great sigh. “Is it fine to lie down if I’m not looking at anything? I don’t think I could get up if I tried. My arms and legs feel like someone has strapped hundred pound weights on them.”

“Maybe just a little nap?” Shalise said with a yawn, rolling over onto her side. Apparently nobody cared in the slightest that they were lying on dirt. It wasn’t even nice and grassy since Eva and Juliana had cleared out most of the vegetation before starting on the circle. In fact, it was still a little muddy from the snow Eva had melted not too long before.

But at least she wasn’t staring at the sky anymore.

“Saija, keep an eye on them. If any of them start staring at the eye, clap your hands in front of their faces.”

“Me?” Saija said, looking up. Her forehead had been touching her knees as she sat on the ground with her arms around her legs. Though better off than the humans, even the demons were looking drained.

“Do you see someone else with your name around? I thought not,” Eva said before Saija could actually start looking. “Actually…”

Turning around to face the makeshift prison, Eva walked over to where Juliana had made a chair for herself. She was the only one of the younger humans who wasn’t dying of lethargy. Though the dirt coating her pant legs, hands, and forehead meant that even she hadn’t been able to escape being forced to kneel to the avatars.

“Did you figure anything out yet?” Juliana asked. Her foot thumped against the ground in a nervous tremor. Something that Eva wouldn’t have normally associated with Juliana.

But Eva chose to ignore it, shaking her head instead and gesturing off towards the ritual circle. “Ten minutes, Catherine said. We’re nearing the hour mark and she’s still pacing around. Has Zagan said anything?”

Juliana sent her hair flipping about as she shook her head back and forth. “Not a word. Although I do feel inordinately amused with the whole situation even though I’m pretty sure I don’t feel amused.”

“Well I hope all this buys you some excitement. But I have a favor to ask. Could you–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “I was going to ask if you could blot out the sky. Temporarily of course. Just something to get everyone to stop staring. But there might be a more important thing to spend your time on.

“I would have thought that this ritual would have drawn some attention. Nobody has shown up, not yet at least—which actually has me somewhat worried about what is going on outside the Infinite Courtyard. I would have expected Devon to notice and run over here. Though he might be too cowardly. Redford, Anderson, and all the mage-knights running around town aren’t here for some reason.”

Juliana’s foot ceased its tapping. Straightening her back, she looked right in Eva’s eyes. “You think something has happened in town? My dad…”

“I don’t think anything. It was merely a side comment. I’m more worried that someone will show up and try to stop us from finishing this whole mess.” Especially Devon. “I don’t suppose you can make this place impossible to find? For those who aren’t already here, of course.”

“That would cut off help if we need it.”

“I would assume that you could undo whatever you do.”

Falling silent, Juliana brought a thumb to her mouth and started nibbling on her nail. “I mean, I could try.”

“Just don’t accidentally make us unable to find it. Or remove it from existence. Or alter the ritual circle. Or perhaps any of thousands of possible bad things.”

“You’re sure doing wonders to fill me with confidence.”

“That’s my job,” Eva said with a grin. She didn’t really feel much like smiling, but acting as if nothing was wrong was probably best for morale. Especially if things really were going sour outside the Infinite Courtyard.

Now that Juliana had brought it up, there almost had to be something going on outside. Surely people would have noticed the ritual going on. All the lightning bolts and the massive black dome. It should have been nearly impossible not to see it even with the strange way space interacted with the courtyard. The portals and the massive eye overhead were probably even more obvious, but with the violet streaks having stretched over the entire city and even beyond for a ways, they might not associate that with the Infinite Courtyard and the ritual circle within.

Unless, like the nun, everyone had started staring at it and had been unable to stop. Who knew what that might do to them. The nun had yet to go insane or start mutating into a blob of tentacles and enigmas, though she also had yet to break eye contact. Eva, and pretty much everyone else around, had looked at the eye at least once or twice. Some for longer than others. So far, nobody was exhibiting odd mannerisms.

After staring at it non-stop for several hours, who knew what might change. Maybe nothing. Maybe they would all become zombies. That was why Eva had been going around stopping people from looking.

All that was something other people would deal with or she would deal with later. For now, she turned towards the approaching Catherine and Zoe. Their inspection of the circle had apparently finished. Finally.

“Just think about it. It might not be a priority at all. Maybe no one noticed,” Eva said to Juliana. The weird way the Infinite Courtyard functioned made that a perfectly valid possibility. How did a lightning bolt strike any specific spot while all the space had been compressed into the size of a larger room?

Shaking her head, she left Juliana to her thoughts and blinked towards Catherine, closing the distance. She wound up not far from the still smoking remains of the Avatar of Void. Particles of smoke drifted off into the air and disappeared from sight. Yet it never shrank in size. If Void was still inhabiting it, Eva might not be so surprised. Without any Power generating the body, she had half expected it to disperse and leave at least something of Arachne behind.

Finding herself gritting her teeth, Eva turned away. She turned just in time to catch Zoe relaxing slightly from a tense posture. Not once had Eva seen Zoe sheathe her dagger. Frankly, Eva didn’t blame her. Walking around near what had once been Vektul would have unnerved her as well.

Catherine, on the other hand, didn’t look nearly so tense. Her posture remained its usual drawn back and proper. But the way she walked… Her timid steps actually had Eva double-checking that she really was Catherine. Especially as she approached Eva. She grew more and more subdued. Her shoulders remained up, but every step was smaller than the last.

She stopped cold a fair distance away from Eva. Zoe continued for another few steps before realizing that Catherine hadn’t moved and stopped.

Eva blinked across the short distance away from the avatar. “Any ideas?” she asked, getting right to the point. “Was it my fault?”

“Possibly.”

“Only possibly?” That was better than definitely being the cause of the apocalypse. “I had assumed that I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything that would break the ritual,” Eva said with a thumb over her shoulder towards the avatar.

“That is the thing. You shouldn’t have been able to break it. Your spikes of blood shouldn’t have interacted with any other part of the ritual.”

“Then what–”

“But this ritual is so huge—it covers so much physical space that I can’t say for certain that something isn’t being affected by your blood. There may be some mirrored symmetry that was broken or your blood is acting as a siphon for some branch of magic that I’m overlooking. Given Void’s words before everything went wrong—I believe he said ‘perfect’—I’m going to assume that you did it.”

“Unless,” Zoe said, “this is all part of the plan.”

“Which we didn’t see any evidence for.” Catherine narrowed her eyes as she glanced towards Zoe. It only lasted a moment before she turned back to Eva. As she turned, her eyes dipped down to the ground. For whatever reason, she avoided looking right at the avatar. “By all evidence, this ritual has fallen into a stasis.”

“So how do we resume?”

Zoe turned back to face Vektul. “The simplest thing to try would be removing your blood and having Genoa smooth over the platform. Get everyone back into their positions and then channel your magic into the center point.”

“But…”

Eva had to whip her head around to stare at Catherine. They were acting like twins, complimenting each other’s points.

“That may not be for the best. If we resume this second portion of the ritual, Void may not–”

Catherine took a ginger step to one side, spreading her feet for stability as Zoe toppled to the ground. Eva, without the slightest thought, touched the tips of her wings to the ground to protect against the sudden earthquake.

“I think we’ve run out of time,” Eva said as she reached out a hand to help Zoe back to her feet.

The second Eva’s hand met with Zoe’s, a flash illuminated her face. Like someone had just taken a picture behind Eva’s shoulder. A moment later, a boom of thunder echoed across the smooth ritual circle. Eva whirled around towards where she had heard it come from.

Only to not spot anything amiss.

The others were all shaken—earthquakes tended to have that effect on people—and even the nun was looking around. But no enigmas. No mass of flesh growing nearby. No alien trees sprouting.

“Where did that lightning hit? Did anyone see?”

“Somewhere over the trees,” Catherine said, eyes locked on the horizon. “Can’t say how close it was. I only saw the flash.”

“Great.” If something hadn’t been going on outside before, there definitely was something now. Luckily, an earthquake had accompanied it. Like the nun, anyone stuck staring at the sky might have been shaken out of their trance. They should all be able to defend themselves from whatever might have happened.

“I’ll get rid of the blood,” Eva said. “Catherine, get everyone back to their spots. Zoe, grab Genoa and have her smooth over the area.”

Biting her lip, Zoe said, “We’re resuming it just like that? There might be better methods.”

“We could sit around asking what ifs all day. What if it’s the wrong move, what if there is a better way, what if the ritual can’t be resumed. But that thing is watching us,” Eva said, pointing a finger upwards without glancing up herself. Zoe started to look before catching herself while Catherine still had her eyes locked on Eva. “The real question–” she had to pause for a moment as the ground gave a light tremble. “The real question, did all this start up coincidentally or because it saw us talking about restarting the ritual?”

Eva glanced back and forth between the two, wondering if either would say anything. Another bolt of lightning crashed down. This time it was in the direction Eva was already facing. She could only see the highest point, way up by the portals. The rest of it came down behind the treetops far off in the distance.

“It would have been dangerous no matter how or what we tried,” Catherine said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Zoe shook her head. “Restarting interrupted rituals is always dangerous. Something like this… I can’t even imagine the possible consequences. If there is some pocket of magic that hasn’t dissipated, the whole thing could explode the moment we activate it again.”

“And if we don’t, the opened portal will overwhelm us with monsters. Then who is going to save the world? It might be a bad idea, but doing nothing or waiting is almost assuredly a worse one. I agree with Eva.” Catherine spread her wings and took off, banking slightly to curve around the avatar as she flew towards the gathered humans and demons.

“Juliana might be able to help protect against something like that,” Eva mumbled. She hadn’t been talking to Zoe, but the professor narrowed her eyes.

“And what is Juliana going to do?”

Suppressing a wince, Eva casually crossed her arms and feigned a moment of deep thought. “No idea,” she said, stepping around Zoe. “Just get everything ready. But look on the bright side. If the ritual does explode, then I guess we won’t have to worry about Life being corrupted.”

“That’s another thing we haven’t discussed… Eva!” she called out.

But Eva was already marching towards the Life avatar. “No time for discussion,” Eva called out over her shoulder. “If one of those lightning bolts hits around here or the earthquakes break apart the ritual circle, we could be in serious trouble. The avatar isn’t shooting them out of the sky anymore.”

Much like Arachne, Eva couldn’t imagine that there was any part of Vektul left within. Though the hulking mass of flesh definitely had veins, arteries, and blood pumping through them. It didn’t look like any kind of creature that Eva had ever seen. She couldn’t even find a brain within.

Considering the idea that the entire thing was supposedly a segment of a brain, that might make sense. It still didn’t look like any brain Eva had ever seen. Even knowing that it was only a part, it was utterly alien. The avatar had been using a metaphor, so perhaps expecting it to make any sense was asking too much of the mass of flesh.

The real question was in the tentacles. How much brain was in them? Would it matter if she sheared them all off? They presented a clear danger to herself and everyone involved in the ritual. Especially those closer to the Life side of the circle. It would probably just grow more, of course. A few chopped off now could mean a great deal less hassle later. Especially the few long ones that had been reaching out towards Eva. The few that had caused most of the problems in the first place.

Well, Void wanted to lobotomize the thing. Chopping off a few tendrils couldn’t hurt more.

With that thought in mind, Eva set to work, slicing away at the meat of anything that wasn’t a part of the main mass. Soon enough, she wound up with a fair pile of tentacles. Eyes covered some. Others were tipped in razor-sharp maws. All of them were in desperate need of immediate disposal.

Without the flames from the avatar, she wasn’t entirely certain how to go about that. Her own fire wouldn’t be sufficient. There was almost no doubt about that. Just shoving them off to the side probably wouldn’t be healthy once the ritual started up again. Right now they were inert. The blood wasn’t even pumping through the main body, let alone the tentacles. Yet Eva wouldn’t bet a penny that they would stay that way.

Eva shaped her blood into wings once again, bringing the sharp points of blood together. Slowly pulling them apart, she stretched a long thin strand of liquid blood out. The strand expanded and grew as she started wrapping up one of the tentacles. Like a spider cocooning prey. No matter how much blood she coated it with, the blood coating Eva never lessened. In fact, she wasn’t entirely certain that it was coating her anymore. Looking at herself through her blood sight, she couldn’t detect the thin layer of skin beneath the blood except around her hands and legs.

Under other circumstances, she might have found herself concerned about that fact. She liked having skin. Arachne’s carapace was nearly impervious and protected powerful muscles, but her skin was more comfortable. Sitting in a chair or even lying on a bed just wasn’t quite the same anymore with Arachne’s legs.

And yet, she found herself oddly calm about the suit of blood. Maybe it was just whatever had been making her head fuzzy during the ritual. Maybe she just didn’t think properly anymore.

Either way, she had finished her task. Ten tentacles taped to the tip. More blood was weaved out from the ends of her wings and crushed the tentacles into a sphere of blood. Holding the sphere by two points of her wings high above the ritual circle, Eva clapped her hands.

She winced away from the flash of light. Entirely unnecessarily, as it turned out. She had expected an explosion of blood and viscera. None came. Peeking open her eyes, dust scattered to the winds. There wasn’t anything else left.

“That worked out better than expected,” Eva mused to herself.

“Did you have to use those things coming off your back?”

Eva turned with a half shrug to face Zoe and Genoa. “Probably not. But they give me range and I didn’t really want to get close to the tentacles.”

“Are we going to talk about them? Or why you look like you do?”

“So other people can see me,” Eva said with a note of false surprise in her voice. “I was beginning to wonder. Nobody else said anything.”

“You’re probably intimidating them.”

“Even Genoa?” Eva said, glancing in the mage-knight’s direction.

“I figured it was some demon thing,” Genoa said as she approached just behind Zoe. “Strange things happen and you learn to start ignoring them. If you weren’t bothered by it, I wasn’t going to be.”

Zoe just sighed. “Everyone’s ready. Are we sure about this?”

“Not at all,” Eva said as she pointed towards Vektul. “Those holes need to be smoothed over, Genoa. Once that’s done…”

It would be time to start up the ritual again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.004

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Dean Anderson here.”

Eva sat on the edge of a table, staring out the window. So far, nothing had fallen from the sky that she had been able to see. Neither had anything approached the building. In fact, the pulsing of the violet streaks had died down to their usual levels of activity. Or inactivity, as the case was.

Around her, most of the students had lost their nervousness. They were going about class as normal. Even Juliana had gone back to her seat after watching and not finding anything too alarming after several minutes. Or, as normal as class got when they weren’t allowed to leave a full half an hour after class normally ended. Eva hadn’t actually continued with the lesson, choosing instead to stare out the window for the entire time. Surprisingly enough, Professor Lepus hadn’t objected to her watching out the window. She did walk past with a few disapproving looks every now and again, but apparently the situation was odd enough that she was willing to overlook a few people not studying.

Only Arachne sat with her.

She hadn’t yet received a response from Zoe, though telling her that things were falling from the sky probably wasn’t much to go off of. Neither had she received another message from Nel. Of course, Nel was probably out with Ylva and not looking at her phone at the moment.

In fact, the first message about the outside world was likely to be Anderson’s message. So she turned slightly to better give her attention to the overhead speakers.

“The emergency situation has been resolved. Or, to be more accurate, it wasn’t that big of an emergency. Still, given the matters announced at the feast, we felt it prudent to take immediate action to ensure the safety of the school and its inhabitants. There will be a more detailed announcement later, but for now: Someone or something may have modified the weather experiment over Brakket Academy. We do not believe there to be any immediate danger but will continue to investigate. As always, any suspicious persons or creatures should be avoided and reported to Brakket Academy security. Thank you for listening, you are all free to go about your business. The rest of school has been canceled for the day.”

Silence followed the announcement for a good thirty seconds. Professor Lepus was the first to speak.

“Well. What a waste of time. Now the class that should have been in this timeslot is going to be behind schedule,” she said, more mumbling to herself than actually speaking to the class. “I’ll have to catch them up in a hurry.”

“So, we can leave right?” one of the Isomer guests said.

“Apparently,” Professor Lepus said with a sigh. “That is what the message said. Go on and clear out,” she said a little louder to the rest of the class. “I’ve got lessons to reorganize.”

As the students packed up their books and tablets and whatever else they had been occupying themselves with during their detention, two walked over to Eva.

Srey, shaking off his few admirers, moved up a few paces away from Eva. “What was that all about?”

“No idea. Going to go find out in a few minutes, however.”

“The announcement mentioned creatures,” Juliana said, clipping the rest of her sentence with a quick yawn. She went up and peered out the window again for a few moments before turning to face Eva. Brushing a hand back over her ear, she pushed some hair back and revealed a line running up the side of her face where it had been pressed into the desk, sleeping. “He didn’t mention any creatures the other night.”

“Enigmas maybe? Or demons.”

“I can feel something out there,” Arachne said, sliding around Eva to look out the window properly. “Can’t tell what. But then, most demons don’t feel overwhelmingly strong. So they’re either extremely weak or fairly far out. Possibly both.”

Eva hummed for a moment, considering. “Enigmas fit better with the term creatures, but it could be hellhounds or something similar.” As Eva spoke, she checked her phone again. Still no message from Nel. She sent out a simple one asking what they had found. “So we’ve been given the all clear by the school. No reason to stick around. Let’s go find out..” Eva trailed off as she noticed the face Juliana made.

“I don’t know that my mother would be too happy with me running around the city.”

“That’s a good point,” Eva said after a slight hum. “Does your mother know what happened?”

“I sent her a message about the announcement. She said she would be here soon.” Juliana pulled out her cellphone and typed out a few words. “There. Let her know it is over with.”

Eva nodded and turned back to the window. Both Brakket dormitory buildings stood tall outside along with the fountain and demon blood plaza. Nothing around wrecking them which usually seemed to be the case in such situations. In fact, she didn’t see a real need to run out aimlessly in the city anyway. She did want to go find where her clone had perished. Still, no pressing need for it.

“Why don’t we find Zoe then. See if she knows anything more. Your mother won’t object to you running around the school, would she?”

Juliana shrugged. “Don’t think so.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said. After slinging her bag up over her shoulder, she started out of the room with Juliana, Srey, and Arachne in tow. The hall was packed with students. More than normal, anyway. Packed wasn’t an easy state to achieve in Brakket Academy. Not even with all the other schools running around.

Maybe it just felt packed. Everyone was in their little groups. Some walking and talking, some just standing and talking. They were all talking. Eva didn’t even need to listen in to guess the topic. She hadn’t been the only one to notice the fluctuations in the violet streaks overhead.

A few pointed at her or otherwise glanced in her direction as she walked past. She had no idea why. Not beyond the obvious anyway. Even though he looked more or less human, most people knew Srey was a demon. Arachne stood out by appearance alone, as did Eva. After a few weeks around the new schools and several months with Brakket’s students, they shouldn’t stand out quite as much as they did. Perhaps some rumors had gone around about the last time a similar announcement had interrupted classes. Or maybe about the hunter she had fought and killed just before the other schools had arrived.

Eva ignored them and continued on her way.

Yet they didn’t even make it halfway to Zoe’s room before a group of students ran up to them. Saija headed said group, pulling Irene along at her side. Behind them, Jordan, Shelby, and Shalise all followed along.

“See. I told you she was here,” Saija said, slowing down with her hands on her hips. “I can always tell where Eva is.”

Eva held up a hand before anyone else could speak. “Something fell from the skies. I don’t know anything else. I also didn’t have anything to do with it. Whatever happened was entirely not my fault.”

Saija curled her lips slightly, showing off her sharp teeth. “And that just makes you sound guilty.”

Shrugging, Eva turned and continued walking towards Zoe’s classroom. “I’m stopping by Zoe’s office. I won’t object if you all want to come. But apparently the situation has resolved itself. According to the announcement. So there probably isn’t much need.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere on my own after–”

A low rumble in the ground cut Shalise off. The Earth shook, nearly sending the group to the ground. Only Saija, Arachne, and Eva—who grabbed a hold of Arachne’s arm—managed to avoid waving their arms around to retain their balance. No one said a word as they waited, widening their stances to brace themselves against any additional shocks.

Eva slowly let go of Arachne’s arm, standing on her own. “Huh,” she said when nothing else happened. “I wonder what that was about.” She half expected another announcement over the speakers. Even after waiting a few minutes, they stayed silent.

The hallway, however, did not. After the initial shocked silence wore off, everybody in the hallway exploded in conversation. Nobody really freaking out, but lots of questions. Especially from the foreign students, most asking if earthquakes were common around the area. The Faultline students, of which three were walking down the hall, barely seemed to notice the quake. She had thought their school was just a name, but maybe they lived right on top of an actual fault. She actually hadn’t looked up its location.

“I-I don’t like this,” Shalise said, wrapping her arms around herself as she glanced around. “There were earthquakes constantly, or nearly so, in Hell.” Her last word came out a little more than a whisper.

“There are earthquakes all the time on Earth,” Jordan said, voice soft but steady.

Shelby poked him in the side. “Not here there aren’t.”

“Well, no. Not here. At least not recently. There was a fairly sizable earthquake around Yellowstone in nineteen-fifty-nine.”

Shalise shook her head, moving slightly to lean against the brick wall. “And w-what are the odds that a natural earthquake just happens to happen after,” she paused, swallowing her saliva and licking her dried out lips as she glanced towards Eva. “After something fell from the sky. After that announcement.”

Frowning slightly, Shelby moved over to the wall and put an arm around Shalise’s shoulders and gave her a few comforting pats. Juliana moved closer as well, though she refrained from actually touching Shalise. Instead she just leaned against the wall with an uncomfortable look on her face. An almost sick look. Maybe she felt guilty over the Hell thing.

“Still, nothing has changed.” Eva paused as her group gave her flat looks. “I mean, nothing in terms of us not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Juliana leaned forward slightly, pulling out her cellphone and frowning at whatever she saw on the screen. She tapped out a short response before slipping it back into her pocket. “What are we going to do?”

Eva didn’t bother responding. A musical tune carried down the hall. The second Juliana heard it, she winced.

Genoa charged up the hallway with her cellphone in hand, obviously using it to track down Juliana. Eva had caught sight of her a few moments ago, which was really the only reason she hadn’t continued onwards to Zoe’s class. That and Zoe was with Genoa, both coming towards them.

“Juliana, you are going to be sticking with me.” Genoa paused for a moment, looking over the gathered students. Nodding towards the wall, she continued. “Shalise as well. The rest of you… well, I can’t order you around. However I suggest sticking with adults and finding safe places.” Genoa turned to address Eva. “I spotted two enigmas on my way here. There might be more.”

Eva glanced to Zoe, giving her a look. “I felt at least two demons out there as well. I can still feel them, though they’re extremely weak. Maybe imps?” she said with a glance to Arachne. She got a shrug in return. “And Nel said eight things fell when she texted me, though she didn’t elaborate much on what exactly they were. Ylva headed out to take care of some of them.”

“And with the announcement,” Zoe said, “I assume Brakket security took care of the remainder.”

“I didn’t realize that the security team had been replaced after the attack early in the summer.”

“He brought on two almost immediately after assuming Martina’s position, but hired another three after the armored hunter attacked. Though, unlike Martina’s security force, I do not believe any of them are demons. Most seem to be former mage-knights. Except for Lucy, that is.”

“Two security guards worked for the school and didn’t help fight that hunter?” Eva shook her head, deciding that it didn’t really matter how many security guards Brakket had if they weren’t going to help out in the big events. Supposedly they did something today with the things that fell from the sky, but for all Eva knew, that had actually been Ylva.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “let’s get out there and find out exactly what is going on. Nel and Ylva should have some information. It’s a bit worrying that Nel hasn’t messaged me back, but–” she cut herself off as her phone buzzed in her pocket. “Never mind,” she mumbled as she pulled up her messages.

Okay! Finished. We disabled four enigmas. Three of which were drawn into portals to Hell when they ‘perished,’ and left something behind. I don’t understand what that means, but Ylva seemed a little upset at it.

“Huh.”

“What is it?”

Rather than answer, Eva just handed her phone over to Zoe. Genoa leaned over to peer over her shoulder, both reading the message. It wasn’t a long message, but Zoe kept staring at it for a lot longer than Genoa. Eva actually had to clear her throat to startle Zoe into looking up.

“Right,” she said, handing it back to Eva. “And this doesn’t have anything to do with you?”

“For the twentieth time, no. I was just sitting in class and maybe trying to bait out the demon hunter at the same time. She didn’t bite. Something that fell from the sky targeted my fake body out in the city and landed on it.”

It had to have targeted her. Maybe if more than eight things had fallen she would have believed that random chance could have wound up with one landing on her. But eight? Brakket wasn’t a big city, but it was still a city. And if Genoa had seen a few on her way over from her house—completely out of the way from where Eva’s clone had been wandering around—then it wasn’t like they had all fallen on top of her.

“So I’m going to head out there and look around a bit.”

“Alone?”

“Arachne will be with me. I’m not opposed to others joining as well.”

Juliana glanced up to her mother and nodded her head towards Eva. Genoa pretended to ignore her, but did put on a slightly more thoughtful expression.

“Anyway, come with me or not, I would like to get moving before the blood dries too much.” Eva waited just a moment before she started walking. Arachne followed after her immediately. Zoe said a few words to Genoa before coming along as well. Despite Juliana’s glare, Genoa stayed where she was, as did the rest of her friends. Not even Saija moved to follow.

Eva didn’t mind so much. Fewer people meant traveling faster. As soon as she made it out one of the side doors, she picked up the pace, moving to a light jog. Just light enough to not completely outpace Zoe. Which had the unfortunate side-effect of inviting conversation.

“Enigmas falling from the sky?” Zoe asked between breaths. “Eva, this doesn’t have anything to do with your ritual circle, does it?”

“I don’t see how it could. The circle is still incomplete.”

Though that did remind Eva that she should text Catherine. Maybe more enigmas had fallen over towards the prison area that Nel had missed. The streaks through the sky did extend over the prison as well, after all. Come to think of it, someone should probably be checking the fields between and all around Brakket as well. It would be just Brakket Academy’s luck for an enigma to wander into town while everyone was unprepared.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I assume this is just a natural progression of the apocalypse. Obviously nothing apocalyptic has happened just yet. Assuming it stops for the time being, that is. Zagan never did give us a time frame. Maybe little things will happen for the next three centuries before anything truly bad happens.” She slowed just a little to look at Zoe out of the corner of her eye. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Zoe started to respond, but Eva reached the end of Brakket Academy’s main campus, turned down the first street they came across and immediately slipped into an alley between two shops. Having been running right alongside Eva, Zoe just about missed the abrupt turn down the alley. Really, Eva didn’t need to take the alley. She had been walking on the open roads not far from Brakket. However, a few quick jaunts down a couple of alleys would save her a little backtracking.

Unlike Zoe, Arachne kept right at Eva’s side. She didn’t need prompting. Nor did Eva’s turn come as a surprise. Eva couldn’t say exactly why, but guessed that it related to Arachne’s fixation on Eva. Small tells in her body language showed Arachne where to go before Eva actually made the turn.

And yet she managed to keep her head turning around, scanning for potential threats on rooftops, streets, and shadowed building entryways. Really, every time she thought about it, Eva was all the more happy that Arachne was an ally and not an enemy.

“I still haven’t told Wayne,” Zoe said as they exited the final entryway. “I want his input before anything. Even if…” she trailed off with a glance at the sky as they slowed down.

Eva followed her gaze, glancing up as well. But there wasn’t much to look at. A gray, partially cloudy sky lined with purple veins. The streaks had returned to their previous stability, looking much the same as just a week prior. Something Eva took as a good sign. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining enigmas and demons anytime soon.

“It looks like we’ve got a little while. I still want your and Catherine’s input as well. In the meantime,” Eva slowed to a stop just in front of a large splatter of blood in the center of the sidewalk. “I would like to find out what attacked me specifically.”

Black blood covered a small portion of the sidewalk and street, barely glistening in the overcast day. Some even splashed up on the brickwork of a nearby bookshop. Not a hint of a person was left behind. Which Eva expected. Her blood clone was just that, blood. It had no bones or organs. Not even real skin, just blood with some magical food coloring to look like her held together in her shape. As soon as it had been disturbed to the point where it couldn’t hold together, the spell had broken and the magic had dispersed.

Sending off a burst of flame from her fingertips, Eva immolated every trace of the blood. Leaving parts of herself lying around for others to mess with just didn’t sit right with her, even if none of it could actually be used for more blood magic.

“This was the same bit of magic you used to fight me that one time?”

“Yep. Just a simple blood clone with orders to wander around. I was trying to draw out the hunter so Nel could get a bead on her. Didn’t work out quite how I hoped.” Eva glanced around, including back down the alley to the side of the bookstore. “No sign of whatever landed on it. I half expected mangled remains of something or other. Or maybe footprints leading away.”

There were a few droplets of her blood that had either splashed a great deal away or dripped from something. Eva, incinerating each droplet as she followed the trail, was leaning towards the latter theory. Especially once she found a few streaks of blood leading up the side of the bookstore. There weren’t any real claw marks, it was more like someone had dragged their hand along the wall. Maybe something capable of flying or levitating around. If something was flying, it was probably a demon. She hadn’t yet encountered an enigma with wings.

That she felt an extraordinarily faint presence nearby only confirmed that idea.

“Up on the roof,” Eva said as she incinerated the trail. It was a good thing the building was made of bricks. A wooden bookstore probably wouldn’t have survived even her tiny flames half as well. As soon as she had finished, she blinked straight upwards, higher than the top of the roof. Once up high, she blinked to a standing position right on the ledge of the building. Arachne followed her up, though by sprouting a few extra legs and scaling the wall rather than teleporting.

Zoe made it up as well, teleporting herself directly to the top without the intervening hop. But Eva barely paid attention to the blast of cold air that accompanied her disappearing.

Her eyes were focused on the creature curled up at the far corner of the next roof over. Just barely out of the range of her blood sense. Its four arms and two legs were covered in fur, which it was licking and grooming as a cat might, but with a humanoid face. The rest of its body was a smooth skin, fur stopping abruptly just above the elbows and knees. Its back had wings, which explained the droplets of blood, but that wasn’t all. A series of tentacles curled around it protectively. Each capped with a tiny mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Eva grit her own teeth, staring at a large gouge in the side of the creature. Violet blood dripped down its bare stomach, matting the dark fur.

“An enigma?” she hissed. But it felt like a demon.

The moment she spoke, two pointed ears on top of the creature’s head perked and angled towards her.

A beat passed before it sprung up, landing on all six legs. Twin tails stuck straight up in the air, black fur puffed out as wide as it could go as it bared its sharp teeth—both on its face and its tentacles—in Eva’s direction.

All at once, it turned and spread its wings.

“Catch it,” Eva shouted as it took off, already running after it.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.022

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“To be fair, if she hadn’t summoned a demon, Arachne and I wouldn’t have known where to look. In fact, we had been heading in the wrong direction prior to her summoning.”

Both Genoa and Carlos turned away from their daughter to glare at Eva. Behind them, sitting in the living room chair like it was the hot seat in an interrogation room, Juliana looked up and gave Eva a slight smile. A smile that did nothing to offset the intensity of her parents’ glares. Under other circumstances, Eva might have wilted under their combined stares.

Not today.

“It worked,” Eva said. “She got away and she is unharmed. Do you really need to berate her quite so much?”

Genoa’s face softened ever so slightly, though Carlos was exactly the opposite. He opened his mouth to say something. Genoa beat him to the punch.

“Eva, I appreciate what you did to help tonight. But Juliana is not your child. I’ll thank you to leave her raising to us.” She shared a brief glance with her husband, who still looked like he wanted to complain, before turning back to Juliana.

“Juliana is safe. You can berate her later if you really feel the need,” Eva said, keeping her voice firm and ignoring the sudden look of betrayal on Juliana’s face. “More importantly, a demon hunter is out there targeting my friends.”

And wasn’t that a scary thought. Eva was quite confident in her ability to fend off a majority of threats, perhaps even to the point of self-admitted overconfidence. Her friends? If that had been Shalise instead of Juliana, things could have gone very differently. Even if Juliana got kidnapped again, the hunter was sure to take more drastic precautions against demon summoning or other escapes.

Though depending on exactly what Juliana had done with Zagan, that might not be too much of a concern anymore. At least not for Juliana.

So far, she had just been sitting in silence, only speaking when spoken to or to clarify exactly how the events had gone. All the while, her parents talked at her and managed to argue with each other despite never quite addressing the other. However, she had yet to mention Zagan by name, only referring to the demon she had summoned as ‘the demon’ and overtly insinuating that it had gone back to Hell shortly before Genoa broke down the walls.

Eva couldn’t tell if her parents believed her or not, but she wasn’t going to be fooled so easily.

“You’re right,” Genoa said with one last glance towards Carlos. “We need to prepare. And inform the school. The hunter could decide to attack just about anyone under the assumption that you might be involved with them.”

Anderson was going to freak out. Eva could see it now. Doubly so if the media got wind of it. He really should have just taken out a bounty on the woman after her first attack, though news of a bounty around the school would have likely gotten out, ruining his media presence anyway.

In fact, if he took out a bounty now, he might even be seen as proactive depending on how much information about old incidents got out.

“I’ll go send a message to Zoe,” Eva said. “A detailed one explaining everything Juliana told us.”

Genoa gave Eva a curt nod. “I’ll send one to Wallace and Anderson. Though I can’t say I have much hope that Anderson will be willing to do much.”

Pulling out her cellphone, Eva slipped out of the room before Carlos could go back to explaining how Juliana was to be escorted to and from school every single day, how she wasn’t ever allowed out of his sight, and how happy he was that she was alright. Really, she didn’t need to be there for that.

She had gotten the information she needed.

The hunter had been after her. And had been walking around on two feet, though Juliana thought that her armor was helping her move rather than any real healing having been done to her back. Which was good for Eva. But potentially also bad. If her armor could do the things that the dead hunter’s armor had done, she could prove to be quite the troublesome foe. Especially because this time, it wasn’t very likely that the doll would show up to distract the hunter while she murdered them from behind.

“So what happened?” Jordan asked as Eva slipped back into the theater room. He, Shelby, and Shalise were all standing around the doorway talking as she entered. Despite the television still being on and showing Irene being hoisted up on Saija’s shoulders before she went flying off into the sky, none were watching.

“Juliana got herself kidnapped by the partner of the hunter who attacked a month ago. She freed herself mostly, with myself and Genoa helping out. Watch out for hunters sneaking up behind you in the dead of night as they’ll likely go after anyone who is friends with me. And that’s it, I think.”

“Concise,” Jordan said as he looked at the other two.

“B-But, wait. Coming after us, you mean?”

Eva gave Shalise a sorry smile. “Yeah. Though don’t worry too much. I don’t have a definite plan just yet, but I’m not going to let this woman run amok while threatening everyone.” She would have cracked her knuckles, but her knuckles didn’t work like that anymore. “I’m going to tear out her throat. In the meantime, just stick with others and don’t wander around the city without an escort.”

Juliana’s father was right about that much, at least.

“Oh. W-well…” Shalise was stuttering again. Eva hadn’t really heard her stutter much since before she got trapped in Hell. Though, Eva had to admit that she hadn’t spent all that much time around Shalise since then. And, in Hell, she had had Prax with her.

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to leave this person to run around for any length of time.”

— — —

Wind blew past Irene’s face, throwing her shoulder-length hair back behind her head. Trees whizzed past down below and wisps of clouds drifted overhead.

All the while, Irene could only think of how much she hated flying. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad under other circumstances. Airplanes didn’t bother her. But there was something about cutting through the air with no windshield, walls, or floor to keep her from falling to her death that just rubbed her the wrong way.

“I’m going to drop you!”

Irene, one hand in a white-knuckled grip around Saija’s horn as she rode on the demon’s shoulders, took a moment to process exactly what Saija had said. She focused entirely on using her wand to tear down an earthen shell around the Mount Hope crystals while Saija flew them through the air, weaving and dodging the fireballs, icicles, and whatever else the enemy mages were tossing up at them. Or, to be more accurate, Irene’s focus was on holding tight to Saija while occasionally considering the possibility that she really should be thinking about sometimes attacking the earthen shell.

Just because she was an earth mage didn’t mean she was afraid of heights. The two were entirely unrelated.

But Saija’s words eventually registered in her mind.

“Wait, drop me?” she shouted, grabbing on to both horns and almost dropping her wand in the process. “Saija! Don’t you dare!”

“It’ll be fine! You can do more if you’re not trying to shake yourself off my shoulders. I’ll keep distracting them and I’ll even be free to pick some of them up and drop them farther away.”

“Then just set me down somewhere.”

“And give them time to target me?” Saija scoffed with a shake of her head, just about throwing Irene off her shoulders in the process. “Get ready!”

“Wai–”

Saija banked upwards, carrying them high into the sky. She didn’t flap her wings or otherwise try to keep her momentum going. Once gravity caught up to her, she turned and embraced the dive. Irene didn’t. She gripped Saija even harder, wrapping her legs around her neck. Only pure fear of biting off her own tongue kept Irene from screaming.

Five feet from the ground, Saija pulled up at a sharp turn, spreading her wings. As she did so, she shrugged her shoulders and slipped out from under Irene. Her head twisted just enough for Irene to lose her grip.

Irene bounced on the ground butt first, barely feeling like she had dropped much farther than if she had fallen off her bed. Not that she fell off her bed often enough to really know. Above her, Saija continued her flight, aiming straight at one of the Mount Hope students.

Unfortunately, while she had survived the drop, Saija hadn’t dropped Irene off in an isolated patch of the enemy’s camp.

She was right in the middle of all the defenders.

A half-sphere of earth covered each of the four crystals that Mount Hope had acquired. Someone far more experienced in earth magic than Irene had formed the dirt into solid shells as tough as granite. Likely that same earth mage had erected walls around the four spheres, partitioning off their camp from the rest of the Infinite Courtyard.

The walls weren’t continuous. A single wall stood in front of each of the four spheres that protected the crystals. All four together were more like barricades than anything else. At the very center of each wall, the coat of arms for Mount Hope stood out in gleaming blue. Apparently their water mage had been a bit bored and fashioned the coat of arms from ice four times over.

Each sphere reached up roughly to Irene’s shoulder, only slightly lower than the walls protecting them. Which made the spheres perfect cover.

Ignoring the student Saija had charged towards and carried off into the sky, she focused on the three that were still standing around the makeshift walls and barricades. One fired off fireballs towards the sky, apparently not caring if he hit his companion. She felt safe in ignoring him and leaving him for Saija.

The other two both started launching projectiles at Irene. One fire and the other ice.

Irene scrambled around the half-spheres, putting their own crystals’ defense between them while barely peeking around the side to watch what was happening.

Shards of ice swirled around the mage’s wand, forming a silver chain-like whip that dangled from the end. Pointed spines grew from each link in the chain, making her whip look far more vicious than anything Irene wanted to see in what was supposed to be a friendly competition. The mage held tight to her wand, waiting and watching while her fire inclined partner slowly circled around the dome.

Much like the water mage, the fire mage started spreading around flames. His, however, weren’t orbs of fire like what she might have expected. He traced out burning embers into the dirt. They formed into patterns, but Irene didn’t know what they were. Some kind of runes. Traps, most likely. Something to explode in her face if she stepped on them.

But the ground was her domain.

Sort of. She wouldn’t claim to be an expert or anything, but that didn’t really matter at the moment. All that did matter was the runes.

Her first thought was to simply disrupt them. Mixing around the earth should render whatever he had done inert. However, that was just a stalling tactic. The mage was still coming closer and his partner was still watching and waiting for her to emerge.

Pointing her wand out from around the dome—just the very tip—she aimed right at the small patch of earth that held his most recently drawn rune.

His eyes were glued on the dome she had taken refuge behind, not his feet. His footsteps paused as her wand poked around the side.

But when no attacks came and she withdrew her wand, he continued moving.

And stepped right on top of his own rune.

Irene raised her arm, shielding her eyes and face from the sudden light and heat. It only lasted for an instant. That instant had probably been long enough to get a mild sunburn from. When she finally felt safe enough to open her eyes again, the fire mage had been knocked clear back against one of the earthen walls. Maybe ten feet or so.

Though charcoal covered his entire front side, his chest still heaved up and down. That combined with some coughing and moaning meant he was still alive. Probably just fine.

Probably.

So it was nice to know that accidentally stumbling over his traps wouldn’t be fatal. She still disrupted the land around the rest anyway.

The water mage, still with her ice whip, ran to his side. She knelt down to check on him.

But Saija didn’t give her the chance to even touch him. Swooping out of nowhere, Saija hooked her arms underneath the mage’s armpits and carried the now screaming girl off into the night.

Not knowing if the fire mage was in any shape to stand up, Irene pointed her wand at him. The dirt around him turned to a murky soup, sucking him in. As soon as he was a few inches into it, she went ahead and hardened it as much as she could. It wasn’t quite the stone-like granite that made up the spheres around the crystals, but it was good enough for a few moments. She felt relatively safe considering she also moved the mage’s wand away from his hand.

With a sigh, she turned to the spheres. Now that she wasn’t flying around at dangerous speeds and heights, she had a moment to actually examine the crystals’ granite shields. Conjuring stone or turning regular dirt to stone was an advanced technique. Way up there at the end of sixth year kind of advanced.

However, breaking it back down into dirt wasn’t. Destroying things was always easier than creating.

Irene cracked the shell. She didn’t turn the entire thing to dirt, that would have taken far too much effort, she just created hairline fractures in the rock and then pried away the dome like it was a hardboiled egg. And found nothing.

Nothing at all. The hollow shell didn’t have any crystals within. Just an empty patch of earth.

Turning, she cracked open each of the other domes. As with the first, she found nothing inside any of them. Just in case they had decided to be a little tricky, she dug down beneath the spheres for a good ten feet.

And wound up with nothing to show for her efforts.

Neither could she find anything underground between and in the very center of the spheres.

Saija dropped down at her side, startling her half to death. “No crystal thingies?”

“They have to be here somewhere,” Irene said, pointing a finger up to the sky.

Overhead, a massive magical billboard displayed a list of all the schools and how many crystals each had in their possession. Only two were listed under the ‘in transit’ section. Mount Hope supposedly had four still.

“The crystals have to be within the boundaries of their camp or they don’t count. So they’re somewhere around, just hidden.”

Saija frowned as she craned her neck to see the billboard. “We’re running out of time. Need to find them fast.”

Only six minutes left on the clock. Even with Saija flying them back, it would be tight.

“But don’t worry,” Saija said, puffing out her chest in undeserved pride and spreading her wings out. “I’ll handle this.” Turning from Irene, she sauntered over to the soot-covered fire mage.

Irene followed a few steps back, frown on her face as she wondered just what Saija was going to do. She had a pretty good idea, but…

“Hey there hot stuff,” Saija said, obviously suppressing a slight giggle as she leaned over the trapped mage with one hand on her hip. Her other hand tugged slightly at her neckline. “My friend and I were just wondering if you might be willing to help us with a little problem. If you could tell us where you hid the crystals, I would consider it a personal favor,” Saija breathed more than spoke.

The mage, whose eyes had already been slightly glassy—a concussion, maybe?—fell entirely into Saija’s sweet words. Trapped as his arms and legs were, he could do nothing but nod his head. “The domes are decoys.” His words came slow and slightly slurred. “They’re in the center of each wall. Behind the school’s logo.”

“Aww,” Saija cooed, reaching forward to brush his cheek. The moment her long fingernails grazed over his skin, his head slumped forward and his eyes fluttered shut. Smiling, Saija turned to smile at Irene. “Well, what a nice young boy.”

Irene rolled her eyes. Since the mage had collapsed against one of the walls, she got to work right away.

Only to find her magic not working quite as well. Shattering the domes had been easy enough. The icy coat of arms… It was exactly what Juliana had said to do except disguised as an emblem. But it wasn’t as complete as what Juliana had done to the miniature castle. The icy emblem only covered the outsides of the wall. Knocking down a portion of the surroundings exposed a few inches of pure rock.

Splitting that revealed a hollow cavity and a glowing green crystal.

“Earth,” Irene said with a click of her tongue. “Too heavy. Just leave it.”

“I could carry it.”

“Yeah, but I can’t. Not if I want to carry the others. And you’re going to be carrying me.”

Running over to the next wall segment, Irene didn’t even need to break the wall to get at the split in the middle. Water ran off the emblem, pooling on the ground below. As expected, opening the wall revealed a fire crystal. Coating it in a thick layer of dirt provided enough insulation to handle it with her bare hands for a few seconds at a time, but she still handed it off to Saija while running to the next.

The last two were air crystals. Neither required any special preparation to hold on to. In fact, they were the best of all the crystals to carry. They wouldn’t freeze or burn whatever they touched and they didn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball.

Taking off her jacket, Irene wrapped all three of them up for easier carrying. A single large bundle was much simpler than three separate items. And it would help keep the air crystals from flying off like a feather.

“Alright,” Irene said, “four minutes. Think you can make it back?”

Saija grinned. A vicious Eva-like grin filled with sharp teeth. “Just who do you think you’re talking to?” She scooped Irene up into her arms and took off in one smooth motion.

Irene managed to suppress her yelp of surprise. Being ready to be picked up helped quite a bit. “No shoulder ride?” she said after they were well underway.

“That was attack position. This is comfort flying. For both of us. Do you know how annoying it was having you jerk my head around?”

“That’s… well, sorry. I suppose I can’t argue against the comfort though.” Riding on her shoulders had carried a constant feeling of being one slip away from falling off. So long as Saija held tight, that was almost gone. Still no windshield. Her hair was whipping around all over the place and she couldn’t even fix it without dropping the crystals. Some even got into her mouth.

Really, she was lucky it was winter. There weren’t any bugs out to get splattered across her face.

“Looks like a fight at our base.”

“Just circle around overhead inside camp boundaries. We’ll keep our three safe. The others on the ground should be able to keep the three there safe for the last few minutes. Then we win!”

“That sounds good,” Saija said, flapping her wings a few times before her flight shifted to a far more languid drifting than the high-speed rush it had been before. “We should do this again sometime. When there isn’t all this fighting going on.”

Irene hesitated for a moment before allowing her head to nod up and down. She wasn’t afraid of heights. Just the falling part. Like this, with Saija’s arms wrapped around her, flying wasn’t so bad at all.

Finally feeling her heart rate drop down to more normal levels, she just watched and waited for the clock to run down while hiding from the cold air in the warmth of Saija’s body.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.019

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“A lot of help she is,” Eva mumbled as she slipped her phone back into her pocket.

Deep wrinkles of thought and worry lined Genoa’s face. Since picking up Juliana’s cellphone, she hadn’t stopped pacing up and down the street. She did pause as Eva finished her call. “Nothing?”

“Nel was using the armored hunter’s blood to track them, assuming it is that hunter again. He died. Plus her vision was slipping as well. She only really was able to watch them thanks to her watching them non-stop since they did their beam attacks near the prison. The hunters that attacked her and Ylva interrupted that.

“However, it is most likely that hunter. When Nel tried to use Juliana’s hair to track her down, her vision slipped off just like the hunters. So unless more people have all suddenly developed the ability to evade Nel’s sight, it’s that eye patch woman.”

Eva couldn’t quite understand how it was that woman. She had been crippled. Blood sight didn’t lie. The woman had three holes in her back, hadn’t moved in the slightest, and even had a neck brace with a focus built into it. Tearing up the street this much just wasn’t something a woman so badly crippled could do. Maybe Juliana had done some of it, but the damaged cellphone had been hers and the imprint of a body had been about her size as well.

Though there wasn’t any ice around, and that definitely seemed to be the woman’s favorite tactic. At least, it had been in previous encounters. Maybe the hunter had found a new henchman to do her dirty work.

“And Ylva cannot do anything? That ring she gave Juli…”

“She can confirm that Juliana was alive.”

Genoa’s voice cracked. “Was?

“The ring has been removed. Juliana was alive up till the ring was removed at the very least. She doesn’t believe that Juliana is dead, however. With Juliana still likely on Earth, one of her reapers could figure that out. I guess. Nel wasn’t being perfectly clear.”

Closing her eyes, Genoa dipped her head as she let out a short sigh. “But they can’t locate her?” she asked after a moment of silence.

Eva shook her head.

After a quick thought, she pulled her cellphone back out. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby all deserved to know. They were with Carlos. They should be safe, according to Genoa. But they should be on their guard at the very least. She sent a message to Zoe as well, though she probably wouldn’t answer it until after the event.

If she looked during a commercial, would they cancel the event? Continue as planned to avoid creating a panic?

For that matter, were there other people she should send messages to? Eva was limited by the low amount of phone numbers she had collected. So it wasn’t too big of a list to scroll through. She did send off a message to Catherine.

And received an immediate reply. Catherine had probably been on her phone when she received the message. Nothing had happened out at the prison, but she would keep an eye out. Which, for Catherine, probably meant that she would be playing games or researching ritual circles until she realized that the prison was burning down around her.

“I’m a spider, not a hound.”

Eva blinked and glanced up. Genoa was… not quite glaring at Arachne. Arachne definitely had an annoyed look on her face. She could only guess what Genoa had asked while Eva had been distracted.

“Alright,” Eva said. “Someone kidnapped Juliana and is keeping her alive. Most likely a demon hunter at that.”

“Which means she is going to be used,” Genoa said, voice stone cold.

“There are a lot of demons in the city. The first time they actually tried, they killed a good half of the demons. Last time, I think they were specifically trying to get me. Since I killed her partner, I am willing to bet that a similar plan is running through her mind with a little more reckless vengeance involved.

“But don’t worry,” Eva said. “Getting Juliana out will be simple. I just turn myself in.”

“No you won’t,” Arachne growled, stepping closer to Eva.

“I’m not going to let her kill me,” Eva said. “We get Juliana out then either I escape on my own or you come rescue me.”

“This is a terrible plan. We would trade a more powerful demon for a weak human.” A slight pause passed by before Arachne turned to face Genoa. “No offense.”

Eva winced at the phrasing, only to find herself surprised as Genoa started nodding along.

“No, Arachne is right. Unless you have a guaranteed way of escaping—and fast—you’ll get killed. Assuming her goal is to kill you, she needs to keep Juliana alive to draw you out to her. Once she has you in her hands, there is no reason to keep you alive. Or Juliana, for that matter. She may tell you to kill yourself before she will hand over Juliana and then won’t follow through anyway.”

“Possibly,” Eva said with a slight hum. Thinking back, she wasn’t so sure. The hunter might kill Juliana if she thought she could get away with it, that much was true. Especially if she was aware of Juliana’s own demon summonings. However, just straight up killing Eva didn’t quite align with what little Eva knew of the hunter.

The hunter had blood covered hands back in Martina’s office. Like she had torn apart demons with her bare hands. And sure, that had been before she had been crippled. But even if she captured Eva now, she would probably want at least a little torture.

“Actually, it would probably be best for you to return to your prison. Stay far away from this hunter. Keep anything that may give her cause to kill Juliana far away.”

“You want me to run away? Abandon Juliana?”

“Not necessarily. If running away ensures Juliana’s safety, then yes. Definitely. Whatever ego you have, whatever you think you might be able to do against this hunter, it is secondary to Juliana’s safety.”

Eva took a deep breath. “I understand. Running away might be worse. If the hunter wants me to stay, threatening to kill Juliana would be a good way to ensure I don’t run.”

“I am aware of that. That is why I said if running ensures her safety. For now, we need to find her.”

— — —

“I’m not going to be bait,” Juliana mumbled. She put her finger in her mouth again and bit down. Spitting the scrap of skin off to the side, she waited just a moment for the blood to well up.

Then she got to smearing it around the floor.

“I’m not going to be bait.”

She was being an idiot. She knew very well that there was little chance what she was doing would work. Sitting around and waiting for rescue would be the much better option. Safer option. Maybe. It depended on how truthful the hunter had been when she said that Juliana could go free after she got what she wanted.

Frankly, Juliana was willing to trust her word about as far as she could throw the woman. With all that armor on, Juliana probably wouldn’t be able to lift her, let alone throw her.

So she had come up with a secondary plan. A terrible, foolish, bound-to-fail plan. Juliana was self-aware enough to realize that much. But she couldn’t do nothing. This was like Willie all over again. Except worse because her captor was specifically intending to kill Eva rather than just toy around for her own amusement.

Juliana paused in her smearing of blood to wipe sweat from her brow. It stung in her open wounds, but that was really only a tingle compared to the rest of her injuries. Still, it had to be done. She didn’t want sweat dripping down and ruining her circle. It was already sloppy enough without sweat thinning the blood.

Dust drifted from the rafters as the woman stomped about upstairs. Juliana held her breath. It wouldn’t do her any good if the woman did come downstairs, but it was more of an involuntary response. She did not want to know what would happen if the woman came down and saw a partially constructed summoning circle in the middle of her basement floor.

“What a stupid plan,” she mumbled as she resumed her drawing.

An enigma was going to pop out. She just knew it. But really, what choice did she have but to try? She had no wand, no focus. Eva had taught her a little runework, but none of it would help her out here. Not that she could think of anyway. Maybe if Shalise were here—she had taken to that a bit more seriously. Juliana knew of ritual circles, but didn’t know any specific ones. She lacked an eye implanted in her chest that would give her access to the Elysium Order magics. She lacked the natural magics and abilities of nonhumans.

So Juliana was hoping for a demon but planning for an enigma.

She had already finished several layers of shackles in the far corner of the room. The actual summoning circle was right in front of the door. The nice wide open door, enticing if not for the invisible ward over it. She was hoping that the enigma would ignore her behind her several shackles and go for the path of least resistance. Or least obvious resistance, anyway.

If the enigma did decide that she was the tastier target, well, she was actually pinning her hopes on the hunter. Or, at least, that the hunter did want her alive for the time being.

Juliana probably wouldn’t come out unscathed, but that was a risk she was willing to take at the moment.

Hell, maybe the enigma would decide to go straight through the ceiling. It was probably easier than the barrier or her shackles.

Demons, on the other hand, Juliana wasn’t too sure about. Assuming she got one. A simple imp or even a succubus probably wouldn’t suffice. The woman was a demon hunter, after all. Ylva might win. Ylva had faced off her own hunters, several of them, back during the attack with the doll. But Juliana couldn’t exactly summon Ylva while she was on the mortal plane. She had sisters, but did they act like Ylva? Would they be nice or would they shout at her to kneel until they interacted with people enough to mellow out a bit?

She didn’t know.

Really, that was the problem with most demons. Juliana simply didn’t know enough about them. She had thought Willie was generally nice before everything. That whole situation had turned out about as well as jumping into a meat grinder. Aside from Prax, she couldn’t even think up a demon that she knew and was in Hell. And really, she wasn’t interested in summoning up Prax. Even if he was strong.

So why go for the demon she didn’t know when she could go for the devil she did.

“Ah, I’m such an idiot,” Juliana thought as she finished drawing out the summoning circle. “But I am not going to be bait.”

If she did end up dying, then problem solved. She wouldn’t be bait anymore. Her mother would take up necromancy, summon her ghost—pissing off Ylva and Death in the process—then bind it to some object and throw it in a tomb for ten thousand years while she was grounded. But she wouldn’t be bait.

Juliana paused, staring over the completed circle. She hadn’t drawn one in some time, but she felt confident. It wasn’t too complicated anyway. That didn’t mean she didn’t want to check it for errors. Who knew what she might get?

She had considered trying for a transference circle. Diving into Hell would be away from the hunter. However, there were even more problems with that than trying a summoning. First, nobody would know she had gone to Hell. Which meant that the hunter could still use her as bait. Second, prison had really not been fun the first time around. She liked being attached to her soul and definitely did not want to fight through a jail break to escape again. Third, she really didn’t want to end up in Willie’s domain. Zagan had killed him, but he was probably back by now. He had been able to redirect her away from heading into Prax’s domain. Who was to say that he couldn’t do the same again.

In fact, Juliana didn’t want to end up in any demon’s domain except for Eva’s. Or Arachne’s or Ylva’s, she supposed. But they were three demons among an endless population. The odds were not in her favor.

And lastly, Hell was, presumably, full of enigmas. A single one being brought to Earth was far more manageable than diving into a pit of them no matter how she considered it. Best to deal with one rather than a potentially unlimited number.

Juliana licked her lips, tasting the half-dried blood. It was finished. And now… she was just delaying.

The longer she delayed, the greater chance that something bad happened. Either Eva or her mother would walk into the hunter’s trap or the hunter would come back downstairs.

So she crawled onto the circle, doing her best to avoid messing up any lines.

After closing her eyes, Juliana started pouring magic into the summoning circle. Like clockwork, the circle lit up and started slowly rotating. That was Juliana’s cue to get out.

She scrambled off as fast as she could, trying to get to the shackles in the corner.

It wasn’t fast enough.

Something slimy wrapped around her one good leg just before she could make it off the circle. A tentacle. She hadn’t been trying to summon anything with tentacles. Which meant enigma.

Eva had said something once. They were weak. Except they also bit off her leg. Juliana didn’t quite understand, but she didn’t want her leg anywhere near its mouth.

She reached forward with her good hand and started prying the slimy tentacle off her leg. It wasn’t constricting too tight, but it had wrapped around a good half a dozen times. Unfortunately, peeling it away just made more tentacle rise up out of the slowly rotating summoning circle, which tried to wrap around Juliana’s hand as well. She barely pulled back in time.

A high-pitched whine started winding up between her ears. She tried to press one ear to her shoulder and a hand to her other, but didn’t make it.

A cannon went off. Juliana’s ears rang and her vision blurred. For just a moment, she thought she might pass out again.

But the feeling passed. Her eyes slowly focused.

And she saw the wide round maw of the enigma emerge from the summoning circle. Rows upon rows of shiny black teeth filled the beast’s throat down as far as Juliana could see. And she could suddenly understand exactly how Eva got her foot bitten off, though not so much how she reattached it. If Juliana’s foot went into that blender, it would turn to mincemeat. Maybe this was a different breed.

Not that it would matter in a few minutes. Now that the body had emerged from the depths, the tentacle around her leg had tightened and was pulling her towards it.

Juliana scraped at the hard cement. A fingernail snapped off as she tried to dig it into the unforgiving ground. She managed to move. Barely. Possibly because the enigma was still emerging from the circle, moving slightly forward and giving Juliana that much more room.

Still, as she scrambled away, she didn’t scream. Even as another fingernail split up the middle, Juliana just clenched her teeth. If she could get just a few inches more, she could get her leg to the shackles. Most of her body was already well beyond the threshold.

Just as her leg touched the shackles, the enigma shrieked. Not the high-pitched whine into explosion, but more like a dog being kicked in the stomach.

Her leg went taut with a snap as the tentacles yanked her back. A brief spike of pain crossed her hip. She gripped the flat cement as best she was able, even with her injured arm.

And still felt herself being drawn back.

“I will not go to Hell again,” she hissed through grit teeth as she struggled against the sudden pressure on her leg. “And I’m not going to be eaten either.”

Over her shoulder, the enigma looked like it was having just as many problems as she was. The tentacles streaming off its back were pulled as tight as Juliana’s leg, tense and all leading down into the summoning circle. Its wide maw snapped at the air, not actually managing to accomplish anything.

The tentacles leading into the summoning circle jerked. The enigma jerked with them, slipping a bit into the circle.

Juliana jerked back with it.

She let out a clipped whimper, cut off as she grit her teeth. Something in her knee snapped.

A hand emerged from the depths of Hell, grabbing onto the enigma’s face. Two fingers actually slipped into its razor-sharp maw.

The enigma, snapping down, broke its teeth rather than slicing through the fingers.

Juliana slid back just a little more before everything stopped.

Violet blood painted the walls. Teeth exploded outwards and burrowed into the drywall. The tentacles, save for a little end around Juliana’s ankle, were gone.

Standing with a frown on his face was a golden eyed demon.

“You,” he said in his silver voice, deep and familiar, “are looking far worse than the last time I saw you.”

Juliana didn’t have a proper response. She tried, but all that came out was a pained squeak. Trying again was impossible. Her eyes fluttered shut as her blood-covered face hit the concrete.

— — —

Irene pressed her back against an earthen wall, ducking her head as a fireball flew overhead.

Why did I sign up for this? she thought with a narrowed glare towards Saija. Oh wait! I didn’t.

But Saija was completely oblivious to her thoughts. In fact, she was completely oblivious to everything, including the battle going on around them. A stone the size of Irene’s fist slammed into her shoulder, but Saija barely noticed.

She was just… staring.

Behind her, just to the side of another barrier, Sebastian had stood up and was staring as well. An icicle whizzed past his face and he didn’t even blink.

Both were staring in the same direction.

Something knotted in Irene’s stomach. Something wrong. Two demons, both completely ignoring the battle around them?

“Saija?” Irene said, reaching to grab the succubus’ hand.

Saija didn’t even react until Irene pulled her back down behind the wall. And then, it was just to stare at Irene.

“Are you alright?”

“Perfect!” Her voice came bright and cheery. Almost forced. “Come on, let’s show these humans how real demons fight.”

Saija didn’t wait for a response from Irene. She vaulted over the wall, spreading her wings. She was gone in an instant.

Blinking, Irene realized that Sebastian was back to fighting as well. Fighting with, of all things, cutlery. A dinner fork flew from his hands over the wall. A short moment later, someone cried out.

With a short sigh, Irene felt the tension leave her shoulders. If they were both back to normal, it couldn’t have been anything too bad. She stood with her wand in hand.

Only to dive to the side as a fireball crashed against the wall, knocking shards of hardened earth into the air.

“I’m not a demon, Saija,” she mumbled. “I don’t even want to fight as a human.”

— — —

Zoe’s heart lurched.

Something happened.

Both demons at the Brakket post had frozen. That on its own might not be worth noting; however, the scout demon had frozen as well. A second camera showed him over by Isomer’s post. All three of them froze at the exact same time. No matter how she considered it, something was off.

Eva. Because what else would it have been.

She considered making an excuse to step off stage for a moment. To at least grab her cellphone and tell Wayne to be on the lookout for anything odd.

Next commercial break, she thought as she reinforced her smile.

“Glad you asked, Hank,” she said, hoping there was no strain in her voice.

— — —

Catherine jolted. A full cup of coffee spilled all down her front.

And all over the front of her cellphone.

Letting off a stream of curses at the audacity of some demons, she ran to the bathroom to grab a towel. Though she did pause at the window for one moment, looking out over her ritual circle.

Perhaps it was for the best that she had been delayed in committing to the next version.

— — —

Eva and Arachne spun around in sync with each other, turning to face the exact opposite direction from where they had been running.

“We’re going the wrong way,” Eva said.

“How can you be sure?”

“I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt since…”

Eva didn’t bother finishing her sentence. She took off at a sprint with Arachne following close behind.

<– 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 –>


009.016

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva couldn’t be more pleased with the way things were going.

The second event was coming up in two days. She didn’t have to participate in it. The ritual circle was nearly finished. It wouldn’t be done by the time of the second event, but would definitely be done before the third. Especially if they decided to have a longer break between events for the December holidays.

With Anise and Chris both helping, their progress had been through the roof. Of course, Eva still needed to find people for the ritual itself, but she was actually relatively certain that wouldn’t be much of a problem at all. A quick check-in with Vektul let Eva know that despite having the eye implanted in their chest, both nuns should work just fine. Probably.

He actually hadn’t been absolutely certain. If she could, Eva would try to get fully normal humans. Just in case.

Still, no demon hunters had shown up to accost Eva. Or anyone else, for that matter. No laser beams had destroyed the ritual circle, or her prison, or the school, or anything else. No nuns had shown up aside from the two expected ones, though Ylva hadn’t gone to the inquest in their place just yet. It wasn’t scheduled until just before New Years. And Sawyer was still dead as far as Eva knew.

Not even the vampire had shown up to accost her. Though she had caught him staring at her a few times during lunches or around the halls. It was enough that Eva had taken to either skipping lunch or eating outside. She didn’t eat much anyway and the food served by Brakket Academy often made her lose her appetite even if she did feel peckish.

Since both Chris and Anise were more or less following her around outside school hours, they probably served as a decent deterrent to the vampire as well.

Despite everything going exactly as Eva hoped, she couldn’t help but feel a niggling concern in the back of her mind. Everything was going too well. The metaphorical other shoe was going to drop. It had to. Nothing had ever gone so well for Eva before.

She didn’t know what the shoe was going to be or where it would fall from. She didn’t even have any proper means of preparing for it.

“And that’s why you need to watch out for anything suspicious. Don’t go anywhere alone. Keep an eye out after dark, especially outside the main school building and the Infinite Courtyard. Even take care inside your rooms.”

“Paranoid much?”

Eva narrowed her eyes at Chris. Considering how she had acted before Ylva agreed to help them, she was the last person Eva wanted to get a lecture on paranoia from.

“Just be careful.” Eva pointed to Irene, Saija, and Chris. “Especially you three. Who knows what Redford is going to do. If he puts you into a position where you can easily be ambushed, things could go bad fast if one of our enemies decides to make a big deal out of the event.

“Other than that, take tomorrow off. Rest up or prepare for the event. Both. Whatever you want.”

“Take tomorrow off? Since when did you become our boss?”

Juliana’s tone implied that she was joking or otherwise trying to lighten the conversation. Still, something in her voice made Eva feel like she wasn’t being completely humorous.

Her frustration wasn’t wholly incomprehensible. She had been working for the longest amount of time and was easily the hardest worker of the four. Even taking into account her frequent breaks to spar with Arachne, she still got more done than any two of the others combined.

Before Eva could actually comment, Irene stepped up to Juliana.

“Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure? You don’t have to ask my permission.”

“Well,” she paused with a glance towards the nuns, “it’s about the event.”

Chris put her hands on her hips. “Oh I see how it is,” she said, turning and walking away. Anise hesitated for a moment before following after her. “Plot your strategies,” she called over her shoulder, “they won’t help you. We might be working on this nonsense together, but we are still enemies.”

As they walked away from the ritual circle, Eva turned back to the other two humans. “If you’re going to be discussing the event, I’m going to take off.”

“Hold on,” Juliana said, grabbing Eva’s arm. “Where are you going?”

“Catherine has been texting me all day. Something back at the prison that she wants to show me, apparently.”

Juliana gave her something of a pointed look before giving a quick glance towards Irene.

Repressing a sigh, Eva said, “Did you want to come along as well? Irene and Saija can come too.” She paused as she tried to remember if either had actually been to the prison before. “I might need a few drops of blood though.”

“Blood? I–”

Saija decided to talk right over Irene’s cry of alarm. “Your mysterious prison? We’d love to go. Wouldn’t we?” She wrapped an arm around Irene’s shoulders. “Irene can ask her questions there.”

Irene, even with her arms all locked up by Saija, shook her head back and forth.

“It shouldn’t be anything big. Catherine said that it wasn’t vital. But it has been a while since I actually visited because of all this,” Eva said, spreading her arms out in a gesture towards the ritual field. “At the very least, I need to make sure that Catherine and Devon haven’t burned the place down.”

Saija perked up at the mention of burning. “Sounds exciting,” she said. “I think I know the place. There’s another group of demons there, right?” At Eva’s shallow nod, Saija grinned. She scooped up Irene before Irene could protest and spread her wings. “We’ll meet you there!”

Eva cupped her hands to her mouth and called out after them as they took off. “Don’t go past the walls without giving me blood! You’ll explode!”

She was fairly sure that she heard a shriek from Irene, but the two disappeared over the forest canopy too quick to tell.

Looking back to Juliana, Eva grinned with a shrug of her shoulders. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

“We should probably hurry.”

“I had been planning on teleporting…” she said, trailing off with a glance towards Arachne.

The spider demon clicked her tongue. “I suppose I can carry Juliana. Did you want a ride as well?”

Eva opened her mouth, about to decline. Even if she didn’t teleport out there, running on her own wasn’t much of a problem.

How long had it been since she actually let Arachne carry her? A long time. Maybe even before Arachne had given her legs away. Since then, Eva had always run on her own. Or teleported.

“You know what? Sure.”

A smile spread across Arachne’s face. One that Eva couldn’t help but mimic.

“Alright,” Arachne said, growing to her full form. “Hang on tight.”

— — —

Catherine took a few dainty steps around the latest version of her personal transformation circle. It was a bit beyond a mere ritual circle. Instead of just increasing some abstract level of power, this circle should actually grant her traits of other demons involved with it.

Should. So long as she programmed it correctly.

She and Devon had both gone over every inch of it, both in theory and in the actual physical circle. Neither had found anything wrong. At least, not with the latest version. The first concept would probably have killed everyone involved. Potentially permanently for the demons. But they worked out that little kink.

Probably.

Unfortunately, the way the transformation circle was now set up severely limited the number of demons that Catherine could use. Lucy, for example, was right out. Catherine had absolutely no intentions of becoming a tentacle monster if she could help it. Not even if Lucy was the most powerful demon currently in the mortal realm.

Which she wasn’t.

That title currently belonged to either Eva or Ylva. She wasn’t entirely sure which. If Devon were willing to do another treatment, it would probably be Eva without a doubt. Tragically for her, he was still wanting to hold off and ensure Eva had stabilized before doing anything more.

And tragically for Catherine, Ylva wasn’t willing to participate. Catherine had done everything that she could to ensure that the donor demons would be perfectly safe, but Ylva had still declined.

Eva wasn’t entirely demon. With the old version, that hadn’t mattered so much. This one… she needed to do a few tests first.

Never in a million centuries would Catherine have believed that she would actually want Zagan around. He would have been the optimal subject.

Even though no other demons could be summoned, Zagan wasn’t other demons. Catherine had a theory that if she really tried, she probably could summon him. Or Devon could; Catherine wasn’t interested in ending up on Keeper’s hit list. Especially not with a doll potentially still running around the mortal realm.

However, she didn’t want Zagan around quite that badly and Devon was absolutely unwilling to even entertain the idea.

So she was really hoping that Eva would work out.

Aside from Eva, there were a number of demons back at the school that she had her eye on.

The one demon she could feel coming closer to the prison was not one of them.

With a drawn out sigh, she stepped away from her transformation circle. Eva was rapidly approaching as well. Which was good for her test, but she wasn’t so enthusiastic about having another succubus wandering around.

“Couldn’t she have brought the more worthwhile demons?” Catherine mumbled to herself.

She spread her wings and prepared to take off to meet the guests. It had been weeks since she had hidden her demonic form and weeks since she had worn proper clothing as well. There were a number of distinct advantages to living so far from prudish humans. Devon was the only human around and he didn’t care in the slightest.

Which Catherine found slightly insulting. It was nice that she didn’t have to fend off any advances, but at the same time, he didn’t even act surprised when she had first gone without clothes. Not even the slightest blush on his cheeks. To him, she may as well be a talking wooden board.

Of course, there were disadvantages as well.

Eva’s prison was habitable. Mostly. With runework, it had lighting and running water, heating and cooling, and plenty of space for relaxation or experiments. But that was the end of the amenities. It did not have much in the way of proper electricity or internet connections. Just keeping her cellphone charged was a nightmare.

To say nothing about unwinding by slaughtering countless humans on the various multiplayer games Catherine had taken a liking to.

Ah the sacrifices she made in the name of self-improvement.

Of course, with her being completely free of a contract, she should easily be able to disappear into the mortal world and live out a life of decadence once satisfied with the progress of her rituals.

Touching down on the wall of the prison, Catherine narrowed her eyes as she scanned the horizon. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the flying succubus. Despite it being early December, the sky was bright blue. Save for the purple streaks.

The succubus was the only moving dot on the sky.

As she got closer and as Catherine squinted just a little more, she saw something carried in the succubus’ arms. Something familiar.

Catherine couldn’t help but grin. She hadn’t toyed with Irene in quite some time. Maybe she could thank the other succubus just for that.

Although…

Catherine’s smile slipped. Just what was Irene doing with another succubus anyway?

Crossing her arms, Catherine tapped her foot against the wall as she waited for them to get closer. Only to deepen her frown as they pulled a tight u-turn away from the wall. It took her a moment to realize just why they had done so. Neither had been to the prison before. Obviously they had been warned of Eva’s wards.

Squinting her eyes more, Catherine found Eva. Or, more accurately, Arachne. The massive spider wasn’t too far behind Irene despite being land based. She had to wonder just how big of a head start Arachne had.

They made it up to Irene just as her feet touched the ground outside the prison walls. Some talking went on between the groups—which also contained that other human Eva was fond of hanging out with—before Eva drew some blood from each of the newcomers.

A jump and a blink had her up on the wall next to Catherine. “I’ll be right back,” Eva said. Without giving time for a response, she blinked off towards the women’s ward.

Catherine considered following for a bare moment before shaking her head. She looked back down to Irene—who was in the middle of arguing with the other succubus.

Irene said something to the succubus only to turn away with a huff. As she turned, she finally noticed Catherine.

Putting on a wide grin, Catherine gave her a wave.

She didn’t seem all that happy to see Catherine. Which just made Catherine want to toy with her more.

Eva blinked back after only a minute or two and skipped past Catherine once again.

As everybody climbed on top of Arachne—including the succubus—Catherine hopped off the wall and made her way back to the transformation circle.

The demons, humans, and Eva joined her as soon as Arachne scaled the wall.

“Don’t go into any of those buildings,” Eva said, pointing out the cell blocks. “Actually, don’t go into any buildings except the women’s ward. And inside the women’s ward, don’t go into my room.”

The succubus started to jump off Arachne’s back without giving more than a hum in response. Eva gripped her by the chin and yanked her head over to lock eyes with her.

“Am I understood, Saija?”

Now panicking and squirming, the succubus nodded her head up and down as much as she was able to with Eva’s hand clamped down on her chin.

Eva smiled.

Against Catherine’s will, she actually felt herself shudder. Eva’s smile was not a happy or genuine smile. It was one that promised pain if her rules were broken.

There was something of a saying among demons. One always had to be wary of the polite ones. If a demon was being polite, it generally meant one of two things. Either they were mentally unhinged or they had enough power to back up their words without needing to resort to open threats and violence.

Sometimes both cases were true at once.

While Eva’s smile and voice glowed with politeness, her actions weren’t quite there. A truly scary demon would have stopped Saija with her sweet voice alone and not have needed to grab hold. Still, she was shaping up to be a fine demon. Though Catherine couldn’t help but wonder if Eva had even noticed.

“Good,” Eva said as she released Saija. “Then you’re free to wander around as you will. Just don’t break anything.” An subtle softening of her features crossed Eva’s face as she turned to look at Irene. “If you have any questions, you can ask Juliana. She knows her way around.”

With that said, Eva blinked off Arachne’s back and helped both Irene and Juliana down.

“What are you going to be doing?”

Eva glanced to the blond girl with a shrug. “Finding out what Catherine wants. Maybe paying a visit to Devon if he is around at the moment. After?” She shrugged again. “Honestly, sad as it is, there isn’t much here at the moment. Probably just head back to the dormitory. We shouldn’t worry Shalise and Shelby by being out too late.”

“I’ll send out some texts, just in case.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said, starting to turn to Catherine. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Saija wandering off through the prison. With a sigh, she turned back to Juliana, leaned in close, and whispered something that Catherine couldn’t quite catch.

Though Catherine could guess at what she was saying. The succubus obviously required a chaperon.

“Anyway, show them around I guess. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

As Eva left the humans behind and walked up to her, Catherine sighed. She would have to speak with Irene later. Perhaps while Eva was speaking with Devon.

If he was even around. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Devon in a few days. He kept whining about needing a new test subject. Maybe he had finally gone off to find one.

Oh well. There would surely be time.

“So,” Eva said, “you’re looking well.”

Catherine had to suppress a little preening at the praise.

She was a succubus. It was in her blood to be vain.

“You as well. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“I liked your hair better when it was longer.”

Eva sighed as she ran her claw through the short hairs on her head.

“It’s a work in progress. So, I got your text,” Eva said as she leaned around Catherine to see the inscriptions on the cement platform. “What did you need?”

“Welcome to Transformation Circle version twelve point oh-seven.”

Eva looked it over for a few minutes before shaking her head. “I don’t know enough about the previous version… versions? To tell what is different about this one.”

“Well, it needs only one donor demon this time around. In fact, it can’t have more. There is no room for them. The total time it takes to run should be drastically shorter than previous versions and it shouldn’t knock the center person out. Both improvements should be applicable to your treatment circle I think. With Devon’s approval.”

“That sounds nice.”

“However, this circle is specifically keyed to me. If someone else sits in the middle, I don’t know what might happen. I can’t recommend it. Aside from that, a lot of the code is the same.”

“Code?”

Catherine’s grin widened. “I’m so glad you asked. Ritual circles work a lot like programming an application on a computer. They have their own language, essentially. You write them out with a goal in mind. It is purely theoretical at the moment, but I’ve been looking into the possibility of developing a computer programming language that I can use to write spells. Even rituals. All, after some programming, at the touch of a button.”

With both hands on her hips, Catherine stood with her chest puffed out and her wings spread wide. Come now, she thought, praise me!

“Huh,” Eva said, face blank.

Catherine felt an eyebrow twitching. She waited for just a moment, just in case Eva was about to say something slightly more profound.

She didn’t.

Huh? That’s it? I can potentially revolutionize all spell casting for mortals and demons alike and all you have to say about it is huh?”

“Sorry. I can type essays on a computer. Beyond that, I don’t know anything. And I know even less about computer code.”

Catherine let her shoulders droop. Her wings sagged behind her.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, patting her arm. “I’m sure it’s amazing. It’s my fault I don’t see it.” Despite her words, she was sounding fairly patronizing. As if it were Catherine’s theory that was bad. “Maybe if you talked with Zoe, she could properly appreciate your genius. She might be able to help you too.”

“I suppose,” Catherine said as she scratched at the base of her horn, brushing a lock of hair out of her face. It wasn’t a bad idea. The theory professor was fairly intelligent. For a human. “I’ll send her a text sometime.”

“Good. Now, was that everything?”

“Actually, I wanted to run a test on you. It should only take a few seconds.” Catherine thumbed over her shoulder towards the transformation circle. “If you just sit down in the donor circle, I’ll get it started up.”

“Alright. I can do that,” she said, stepping over to the proper spot without even questioning Catherine’s intentions.

It was weird. Demons didn’t normally trust one another like that.

Shaking her head, Catherine pulled out a long rod of void metal from its holder near the edge of the circle. A slight flap of her wings carried her straight to the center of the circle where she would normally sit. She pressed the rod into a small hole in the ground, leaving it standing up to roughly her waist.

Rod in place, Catherine flew back to the edge of the circle.

“What’s that for?”

“A stand in for me. Don’t worry about it. Are you ready?”

“I guess so.”

Catherine nodded. Pouring a tiny portion of magic into the circle had everything lighting up. A black wispy tendril stretched out from Eva and connected with the void metal rod.

The end.

The ritual circle powered down. The tendril disappeared.

And Eva looked up at her with a raised eyebrow.

“That was it?”

“I told you it would only be for a few seconds.”

“Well, yeah but… I expected something a little more… dazzling. What now?”

“Now? I’ve got a number of tests to do on the rod,” she said, fluttering forwards to grab it. “If all the tests go well, we can do the transformation ritual for real.”

Catherine paused at the rod. Her fingers hovered over it for a moment.

She could feel the heat coming off it. And see it. Little hazy lines in the air distorted the neat lines of the transformation circle.

Which was odd. Void metal didn’t get hot. Ever. She could leave a ring of it in a crucible capable of melting steel and still be able to touch it the second she pulled it out.

What might have caused that?

“On second thought,” she said, backing away. “I think I’ll test it later. Maybe it is time to go visit Irene. I haven’t teased her in so long.”

Eva made a face. Catherine wasn’t sure what the face was supposed to mean, but it didn’t matter. The face turned back to normal after a quick shake of Eva’s head.

“Hey, I’ve got my own ritual circle I’m working on. Maybe you would like to come see it soon. You can even visit Zoe about your computer project at the same time.”

“Your own ritual?”

“I’ll let you see if you can figure out what it does. It’s supposed to be secret, but it requires a few humans and a few demons. So it can’t be completely secret much longer.”

“Demons and humans?” Catherine said with a frown. It probably wasn’t a copy of Devon’s treatment circles. Not with plural humans. But she couldn’t think of anything else that it might be for. “I think I’d like to see that.”

At the very least, it might be interesting.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.013

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Construction?” Neuro asked with a frown, toying with of the golden triangles that adorned the tips of the demon’s long hair.

“Yep. Building a house maybe,” Eva said with a shrug. She couldn’t really think up anything else it might be.

Saija’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, glancing off to one side to avoid looking at anyone. Her lips curled back into a teeth-clenched grimace.

“Building?” She nudged Irene in the side. “I told you we should have done that last event. How am I supposed to build things?”

That was a good point. Something the other two demons apparently agreed with, judging by the nods of their heads. Really, even regular mages might find themselves not particularly useful. A fire mage wouldn’t have much to do in a house building contest. Unless they acted like a kiln to harden an earth mage’s structure. Really, it was air mages who wouldn’t have much to contribute.

Maybe not building houses then, but something else that still needed construction.

“For all I know, Redford is going to drop you off in the amazon jungle and tell you to survive for a week, build some shelters and hunt or scavenge for food.”

That would certainly be more exciting for viewers than some house building. Though long. Unless they streamed it on-line and let viewers tune into it whenever. Eva didn’t know how that would work with the television station, but maybe they would show a few hours a night. Or highlights from the day.

Henry crossed his arms as he glared at Eva with narrowed eyes. “And where did you get this information? We didn’t win, in case you forgot. Or did you forget which school we belong to again.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, Eva returned his glare. “Believe me or not. I don’t care.”

She considered taunting him for running off and having a temper tantrum when Arachne disagreed with him about the gorgon, but doing so would probably have him running off again. As she wasn’t participating in this event, she should probably leave the remainder of the team fully intact.

Though a small part of her mind couldn’t help but wonder if she could talk Anderson into swapping him out for someone else.

Juliana would be nice to have. She hadn’t signed up because of her parents, but they might have changed their minds after having seen—or participated in, in Genoa’s case—the first event. Anderson and Redford were obviously taking pains to make the tournament safe.

Given the cameras centered on the event, there were probably even more safety features behind the scenes. Redford would want to make good impressions on mundanes while Anderson wouldn’t want to frighten away prospective new students. Someone winding up mangled or dead would dissuade most normal people.

“Plan for what you want,” Eva said after a moment of silence. “I told you what I heard. Since I’m not allowed to participate, you can deal with it as you want.”

Henry took his eyes off Eva and looked over the rest of the students with a far less hostile glare. At least, far less hostile when he wasn’t looking at a demon or a human associated with demons.

Which was basically just Rachael.

Still, he reserved the majority of his ire for Eva.

And she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe he was friends with the Burnsides. Or simply had a bad experience in the past.

“There’s two weeks before the event,” he said, getting to his feet. “See if you can find something out for yourselves.”

With one last glance around the room, he snapped his notebook shut. Henry moved out of the room before anyone else could even stand. He barely managed to keep from shoulder-checking Eva on his way past.

Though only two days had passed since the night of the first event, Henry had grown far more hostile. During the feast, he had alternated between glaring at her and avoiding eye contact entirely. She could understand him being upset that Brakket Academy had lost, but he was apparently the only one.

At least, the only one of the competitors. A few regular students had alternated between blaming her or Randal.

More so Randal. His dormitory door had been vandalized with several scathing messages about his heritage and bound demon alike. Something about how a demonic elf should have been faster.

As if they would have done better.

The vandalism only contributed to his now obvious depression.

Even now, Randal sat with his head resting on his knuckles, staring at the ground. He hadn’t spoken once during the entire meeting.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say to him beyond her words at the feast the night before. But he didn’t have to participate in the next event, so he should be able to take some time to himself to get sorted out.

As for the next event, the vampire had so far not come up to Eva to beg for blood or to renegotiate their deal. As such, she was torn between whether she wanted Brakket to win or to lose. Losing could take some heat off Randal. Depending on how and why they lost, it might knock Henry down a peg as well.

On the reverse side of things, winning was generally better. Not to mention the potential amusement if the demon-majority team had lost the predominantly destructive event only to turn around and win the constructive one. The only two humans who could participate and didn’t have bound demons were Henry and Irene, and Irene was heavily associated with Saija.

Of course, like Saija had said, demons really weren’t great at building things. She was a succubus. Her talents lay in manipulative magic, though her raw strength could come in handy.

The other two demons, Sebastian and Neuro, Eva didn’t know half as much about. Sebastian sat in his chair, stirring a cup of tea he had procured from somewhere with an ornate silver spoon held in his gloved hand. He had a faint smile on his face as he stared off towards Henry’s vacant seat.

Neuro’s eyes swirled in thought. Literally. They were a brilliant green rather than the usual demonic red. He was supposedly smart, but Eva hadn’t been in a position to confirm it thus far. Maybe he would come up with something.

Unless he was thinking about something entirely unrelated to the tournament. That was a decent possibility as well.

Meeting apparently adjourned, Eva turned and started away from the small conference room that they had been using for tournament related business. She wasn’t the only one. Rachael had been out the door almost as fast as Henry.

However, she stopped as she reached the door. A completely impulsive thought took hold. A somewhat dangerous thought as well.

“Irene,” Eva said, “might I have a moment of your time before you run off to wherever?”

She sat up straight, offering a slow nod of her head. “Did you need something?”

“Just a little training exercise I thought you might be interested in trying.”

“Training?” she asked with a frown. “For fighting?”

Eva shook her head. “You’re an earth mage and I’ve got a project I’m working on that needs an earth mage.”

“Juliana isn’t helping you?”

“She is, but maybe it will help train you for this event. It isn’t a problem if you don’t want to do it.”

Irene’s frown deepened. She crossed her arms, staring at Eva as Eva moved to the side to let another student out of the room.

Saija stood up, strutted over to Eva, and walked around her in a short circle. She hummed to herself as she looked Eva up and down. When she stopped circling, she was a bit close for comfort.

Eva glared at her the whole time. It wasn’t that she disliked Saija, but the succubus was a bit much sometimes. Eva didn’t know what kind of relationship Irene and Saija had in private. Ever since the demon hunters had attacked, the two had been nearly inseparable. Really, she didn’t care what they did.

So long as she was left out of it.

And, at the moment, she really didn’t need Saija’s face quite so close to hers.

“What are you plan–”

Eva snapped her hand up to Saija’s chin, clamping her mouth shut. “Saija. You can ask your questions from a respectable distance. If you want to go with us, just ask.”

Releasing her with a slight shove, Saija sulked back to Irene and desperately tried to look like she wasn’t hiding behind the human.

Really, it had been months since they started going to school. Yet she was still thinking that Eva would bite her head off at the slightest provocation? Sure, she had just grabbed her jaw. But she hadn’t hurt Saija.

Thinking more, if they likened her to Zagan, maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do. Even knowing that Zagan wasn’t going to permanently hurt her, Eva still wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.

“Go with you?” Irene said, still frowning.

“Yep! I’ll show you,” Eva said, starting towards the door.

She paused as a thought occurred to her. As sensitive as she was to cold, Eva had barely felt anything the other night during the event. The entire ward had to have been heated. Just because it hadn’t snowed yet didn’t mean that it wasn’t cold. Eva solved the problem through heating spells, but not everybody was a fire mage.

“Ah. You might want to bring a warm coat,” Eva said with a smile.

“Alright, we’re out here without anyone else,” Irene said as she nearly tripped over a stray branch despite the light spell Eva had thrown out for her benefit. Saija caught her, keeping her from falling to the ground. “You avoided mentioning exactly what you need help with. I assume it was because other people were around.”

Eva turned with a smile, walking backwards through the rough brush. “Thanks for having the tact to not ask about anything.”

“Well I’m asking now.”

“We’re almost there.”

Irene stopped moving. “Eva,” she said. “You’re dragging us out here in the middle of the night and being awfully creepy about it. I don’t want to get involved in anything big again. I’ve had enough as it is.”

Eva sighed, stopping as well. Rather than answer right away, she craned her head back to stare at the sky.

“The night you fought the monsters that came out of my dorm room, those purple streaks appeared in the sky.”

Looking up to the sky as well, Irene let out a soft groan. “I knew it. This is something big.”

“They’re a connection between the mortal realm, Void, and Life itself. Two Powers and a battlefield.”

“Right. Way too big,” Irene said, backing up. “Eva, I’m–”

“Involved no matter what you do. Life is trying to pull Void into the mortal realm. Most likely in an attempt to make Void vulnerable. Unfortunately, Void will be bringing along all of Hell. Maybe Hell will take the shape of another planet or galaxy, or maybe it will catastrophically merge with the mortal realm, or simply unleash all the demons of Hell onto Earth. I don’t know.

“One thing is certain, it probably isn’t going to be good for us. Especially because Life’s reason for attacking Void seems to be because Death and Void are allied. Death might be the next target. Something, believe it or not, that would not be good for anyone.”

Eva took her eyes off the sky, looking Irene in the eyes. “So we’re going to bring Void over without the rest of Hell ahead of whenever Life wanted to do it in the hopes that Void will be able to seal away Life. Or at least remove the mortal realm from the playing field,” Eva said with a smile.

Irene didn’t say anything.

Neither did Saija.

After waiting a full minute, neither had so much as moved. Eva felt her smile start to slip. If Irene got scared and went around telling people, things could go poorly. She didn’t want to kill Irene, so maybe Serena could perform a little memory trick to make her forget.

Except Serena wasn’t in on the ritual’s secret either.

Eva bit her lip before smiling again. “So how is that for a sales pitch?” she asked, trying for a small bit of humor.

“Terrible,” Irene said, voice flat. “But you’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Unfortunately.”

Irene’s hands shot to her hair where she started tugging. “Why me?” she moaned.

“Well, because you’re an earth mage and Juliana–”

“I just wanted to come to school, learn some magic, work on my studies, and other normal things. I wanted to become an enchantress, maybe own a shop. I’m not a mage-knight or some thrill-seeker. And now the world is ending?”

“Apocalypse has been used to describe the situation by some of the people who know, yes,” Eva said with a reluctant nod of her head. “But we’re trying to avoid–”

Irene sank down to her knees, getting her pants covered in dirt, and cupped her hands to her face. She wasn’t crying… but she obviously wasn’t taking the information half as well as Juliana had. Of course, Juliana already knew half of it. The only thing she hadn’t known was Arachne’s mission to bring Void over to Earth without Life’s involvement.

At her side, Saija fluttered a pair of wings that hadn’t been out a mere ten minutes ago. She hovered over Irene, bobbing from one shoulder to the other without quite knowing how to help her troubled friend. Only when she placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder did Irene finally move.

She glanced out of her cupped hands, looking at Saija with a half-hearted glare. “Did you know about all this?”

Her head whipped back and forth in a definite negative. “Sounds neat though. I’ve never seen Void. Do you think Powers are cute–”

“I used to think I was the only sane person who went to Brakket,” Irene said, face back buried in her hands. The low volume of her voice combined with her hands forced Eva to take a step closer to properly hear her. “I was right,” she said with a groan.

Irene popped up, brows furrowed. She stuck a finger in Eva’s chest. “You can’t just say that we’re on the verge of apocalypse all nonchalant-like.”

“Ah huh.”

“‘Ah huh,’ she says.” Irene turned to glare at Saija. “‘Do you think a Power is cute,’ she says. Do neither of you have any sense of gravity?”

“Of course I do,” Saija said with a disarming smile. She spread her wings ever so slightly. “Every time I fly, gravity is there to drag me back down to Earth should I lapse in my gliding.”

Irene stared, gaze deader than Ylva’s. Without even a sigh or a simple shake of her head, she turned and started off in the direction they had been coming from.

Saija gave a questioning glance towards Eva.

Eva had her own frown leveled at the succubus.

Saija let out a little noise from the back of her throat before moving straight to Irene’s side.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. Not really,” Irene said without inflection. “I just need to go have a mental breakdown. Don’t worry about me.”

Eva blinked in front of her, hands up to stop her from going forwards. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to have your breakdown later? There are still a few things to go over. Like who it is safe to talk about this with. Also I’m sure Juliana would–”

“Safe to talk about it with?”

“Well, we don’t want to cause a panic now do we?”

“So you do have a sense of how big this is,” Irene said, hands on her hips.

Eva just smiled, ignoring the panic on Irene’s face. “Come on,” she said. “Juliana should be waiting for us. She’ll probably be mad at me for being so late again, but oh well.”

— — —

Zoe paused as her companion stopped to sniff the air. A vampire’s sense of smell wasn’t good for much aside from the scent of blood. A fact that had Zoe instantly on edge.

“Something wrong?” she asked, hand closing around the hilt of her dagger.

“I don’t think so,” Serena said. “Just a familiar scent heading off towards the forest again.”

“Eva?”

“Yep. Along with a demon who isn’t Arachne and someone else.”

Zoe let her arm drop to her side with a small sigh. Eva and demon likely meant it was nothing to be worried about. Especially because Serena had smelled Eva off in the forests on occasion ever since she arrived. They were probably just training for the next event.

Still, she couldn’t help but ask. “Who is the someone else?”

Serena shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know. A human. I haven’t really interacted with anyone aside from you and Wayne, so everyone else sort of muddles together. No real distinct scent.”

“Could you find them again if they were in front of you?”

“Probably. Why?”

“Just curious,” Zoe said, continuing off towards Wayne’s classroom.

“If you’re really curious, I’m sure you could just ask Eva,” Serena said, skipping up and around Zoe until she was walking backwards down the hall. “Last time I asked, she told me that she was working on a weather ward. Something to keep rain and snow out. I wonder if she’s still working on that.”

“Weather ward,” Zoe repeated with a frown. Maybe something to erect around her women’s ward. She had confessed a certain distaste for snow in the past. Or it could be homework for Chelsea’s class.

Either way, it didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Zoe knocked on Wayne’s door, waiting just long enough before opening it for Wayne to grunt out an answer.

“Come in,” he said. He didn’t even look up as the door opened. A boiling pot of orange liquid bubbled underneath a stooped over Wayne. His eyes never left the pot even as he gathered up a fistful of powder and sprinkled it in the liquid.

The orange liquid turned almost completely clear. Enough for Zoe to see the cast iron insides of the cauldron.

Which was something that struck Zoe as odd. Not the potion. Finding Wayne tinkering with potions wasn’t strange in the slightest. The fact that he was using a cauldron over an open flame was the real oddity. Modern potionwork almost exclusively used modern tools. Flasks and burners that could be found inside mundane chemical laboratories.

“Do you ever wonder why a potion designed to shrink things doesn’t shrink what it’s made in? Or the flask it is stored in, for that matter.”

“Potions are more your specialty than mine, but I would assume that it is because potion making equipment is enchanted to resist magic.”

“That is more of a safety precaution than anything else,” Wayne said, tapping the edge of the cast iron cauldron. “This thing isn’t enchanted in the slightest. No growth, no shrinkage.”

Zoe stepped closer to the pot, looking it over with sharpened senses. “Perhaps the potion making itself imparts some protection while it is being made and shortly after, keeping it from acting until poured onto something unprotected. Have you tried it in regular glassware?”

“Not yet.”

“What brought on this line of thinking?”

“Watching the first event, actually.”

“Eva’s basilisk golem?”

He gave a slight murmur of agreement as he dropped a crystallized essence of water into the potion. The clear liquid expanded instantly, going from half-filling the cauldron to an inch short of the lip.

Zoe actually took a step away. If that was some shrinking solution, she did not want it spilling onto her.

“Growth and shrinking potions are not very useful,” Wayne said, almost more to himself than anyone else in the room. “You can’t shrink a suitcase as the clothes inside don’t shrink. You can’t embiggen a cube of wood and carve out a house because the wood will revert after a time when the magic runs out. As such, I haven’t worked with them often. Seeing that basilisk grow just sparked my curiosity.”

“There are other potions that should affect the flasks,” Zoe said slowly. “Essence of Luminosity, for instance. It doesn’t usually make the glass glow afterwards.”

“Never really thought about it before. Or had assumed it was because of the enchantments. But watching some of Spencer’s potion spill onto the ground got me curious.”

He took a pinch of leaves and dropped them into the pot, turning the clear liquid to a milky white. Only then did he finally take his eyes off the potion.

“Ah, Serena. You’re here too.”

“You didn’t notice?” the vampire gasped, clutching at her chest like she had been shot before collapsing into one of the empty classroom seats.

Wayne didn’t so much as blink an eye, instead turning to face Zoe.

“I assume you’re here about Anderson’s request?”

Zoe nodded. “I haven’t mentioned it to Ylva yet–”

“Good. Don’t. As…” he trailed off, curling his lip into a nasty smile. “Nice as she seems to be, having her anywhere near children seems to be the worst possible idea that man could have come up with.”

“You were at the hospital at the time, but she has been around the students before. She disguised herself as a little girl.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Zoe just shrugged as she leaned against one of the tables in the room. “It’s true.”

“Well I’m against it,” Serena said. “And I doubt the other vampire would like having a minion of Death running around, trying to rekill us both.”

“I’m actually more worried for the Isomer students. Ylva has not been kind to the Elysium Order.” Zoe shook her head with a sigh. “Unfortunately, I think Anderson intends to speak with her regardless of my choice in the matter.”

“When you suggested he bring on security guards, I had been hoping he would not go the route of Turner. Let’s just find some nice retired mage-knights and throw them in front of him before he wanders around to all the demons in the area and begs for their help.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>