Tag Archives: Irene

009.019

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“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.

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009.017

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“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.

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009.016

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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.

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