Tag Archives: Irene

009.005

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“I volunteer.”

Everyone in the room turned to look at Eva.

Nobody knew what the event would be. Wallace Redford had been keeping extremely tight lipped about the matter. Eva knew that more than one demon had tried following him around. Probably several humans as well. Then there were the other schools which probably had their own spies. If they had found anything, they weren’t sharing.

They were supposed to be discussing possibilities. Personally, Eva was just hoping for straight up combat. Maybe a secondary objective of a flag or something. Nothing strenuous and, more importantly, nothing weird. She had enough weird things on her plate as it was.

But Eva wasn’t interested in discussing. So long as they didn’t know, it really didn’t matter. More, she was supposed to be meeting with Juliana out in the Infinite Courtyard.

Her ward was holding steady. Mostly. It required near constant maintenance. To the point where she was thinking about talking with Professor Lepus again about the possibility of using a runic array to store magic that could be slowly fed into the ward.

But it kept water out, both the frozen and liquid varieties, while allowing Eva and anyone else to pass through into the center. In that aspect, it was an amazing success.

She had no idea how Professor Lepus managed to find the time to maintain all of the spacial expansion wards that were set up everywhere around Brakket Academy. Actually refueling the ward wasn’t hard. It wasn’t even taxing. But did take a bit of time.

And that was including her ability to cheat a little. Normal humans didn’t store magic in their bodies, requiring a focus. Eva did store magic. She didn’t have a way to quantify the difference. If she really cared to find out, she would have to ask Zoe. The fact of the matter was that she could dump more magic into the ward at once.

Of course, Professor Lepus was a professional while Eva an amateur. The weather ward was a rough, barely stable piece of work. The space expansion wards were so subtle that Eva barely noticed them at all. The professor probably had all kinds of tricks.

But it didn’t need to last forever or anything. Just long enough.

Unfortunately, the events were going to make her keep it up longer.

Hence her volunteering for the first event. Best to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

The nine other competitors had gathered together to decide on who was to participate in the first event. A fairly diverse bunch. Anderson had selected people from all walks of the school environment.

Sitting next to Eva, Irene and Saija looked to her. One just looked bewildered and in over her head. The other perked up, nudging the former in the side as she whispered in Irene’s ear with excited motions of her hands.

Irene clearly hadn’t signed herself up. Anderson still picked her. Given her familiarity with Jordan, they probably knew each other.

Unfortunately, as much as Eva spent time with her, she had no idea how advanced Irene was in thaumaturgical terms. She was the youngest in the room if Eva didn’t count herself. Eva had gone through all the same classes with the exception of enchanting—Eva had taken golemancy instead.

But would Irene be able to keep up with everyone?

She supposed she would have to wait and see.

Eva brought fiery explosions, physical strength, and the ability to blink to the table. A fairly well-rounded deck of cards. In fact, she thought, musing over the possible events Redford might have come up with, instead of combat, maybe a race would be interesting.

It was doubtful that many people could blink, though Eva had to admit that she didn’t know the other schools’ curriculums.

Across from them, the light-haired Randal just frowned. Eva wasn’t sure which demon was inside him—she couldn’t detect even the slightest demonic sensation from him—but he had been acting like the leader of their little group.

“You don’t even know what we’re supposed to do.”

“Neither do you. As such, it hardly matters who participates in which events.”

“On the contrary,” he said, crossing his legs. “You don’t know what the event is. I might.”

“Might?”

He shrugged.

Eva rolled her eyes.

Glancing around the room, everyone else had expressions ranging from disbelief to straight up confused. Henry… something-or-other—a student a few years older than Eva—was actually glaring daggers at Randal as he sat back in his chair with his arms crossed. Eva had to wonder if his stare had something to do with him being one of only three humans in the room.

Pure human, anyway. Randal and two others had bound familiars. The three others in the room were demons. Then Eva, whatever she counted as.

“Alright, Randal,” Eva said with a sigh. “What do you know?”

With a grin fit for a demon, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small silver cube.

Eva blinked, about to ask why he was showing her a metal die of dubious quality—Juliana could have made something far more ornate—when Irene’s sudden breath interrupted her thoughts.

“That’s a gorgon scale.”

Eva looked back, wondering how bulky gorgons were if they had cubes for scales, only to find Randal rotating it between his fingers. It was much flatter looking from the side. Not quite a cube.

“Indeed,” he said. “Now, I know there are all manners of creatures wandering the halls of Brakket Academy, especially with the Nod Complex representatives, but I haven’t seen any giant snake monsters so hideous that a mere glance at them will turn you to stone, have any of you?”

“No,” Eva said slowly, getting a few echoing statements from the others.

“So where did you find it?” Rachael Davis—another student a few years older than Eva—asked.

“I was following Redford into the Infinite Courtyard. Trying to snoop around on what he was doing, you know? He disappeared, but right next to where he vanished, this was lying on top of a small mound of dirt.”

“Suspicious,” Rachael said, “but that hardly confirms anything. They wouldn’t put us in an arena with a creature so horrible that no one can even look at it. Didn’t they say that this was being filmed? If the cameras accidentally catch a glimpse, the whole world will be turned to stone. Because you know everyone is going to be watching.”

Randal actually seemed to deflate a little. “Maybe there’s some special shielding on the cameras? A filter to block the magic.”

“Is that actually how gorgons work?” Irene asked, almost more to herself than anyone else. Despite her quiet tone of voice, everyone turned to look at her. She started for a moment before clearing her throat. “I mean, the turning to stone. Like… demons aren’t quite what I imagined when I first heard of them,” she said with a glance towards Saija and Eva. “So maybe gorgons are different.”

Henry twisted in his seat, pulling out a notebook. “Professor Twille has taught about gorgons during his Greek lessons,” he said, flipping through a few pages. He stopped, putting his finger to the page before speaking. “Non-sapient beings with snakes for hair, scales made of platinum, horrifying visage that turns people to stone. But they live exclusively on the islands between Greece and Turkey, nobody has even seen one in centuries as far as he knew. They were thought to be extinct. Obviously that’s wrong.”

Eva crossed her arms with a frown. “Scales made of platinum? Defeated by a mirror? That doesn’t seem right.”

“Oh?” Henry said, voice dropping a few notches as he turned to glare at Eva. “And have you taken sixth year magizoology?”

“Well, no–”

“I thought not.”

“But doesn’t that seem too easy? They would have been hunted to extinction. Especially given their limited living area.” Eva paused in thought before turning to the door. “Arachne,” she called.

The spider-demon—who Eva had asked to watch out for anyone from the other schools, namely the nuns and the vampire—burst into the room in an instant, ready to fight. She calmed down after only a few moments upon seeing that there was nothing to attack. Though she didn’t completely drop her guard, she did walk up to Eva’s chair.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine. But we were just having a discussion about gorgons. I don’t suppose you know anything about them?”

Arachne frowned, opening her mouth.

Henry cut her off, actually standing as he glared at her. “And what would a demon know of the species of Earth?”

Arachne reacted much as Eva would expect her to act while being demeaned or insulted. Ignoring the noises coming from the back of her throat, Eva just smiled.

She had no idea what Henry’s problem was. Maybe he didn’t like that only three people in the room were normal humans. Maybe a younger sibling had been the one Timothy attacked before the doll showed up. Frankly, she didn’t care.

Eva just smiled and said, “Are you deaf? Or just a complete idiot.”

“Wha–”

“Arachne. The Arachne. The weaver from the time when the Greek pantheon walked the Earth. I’d say she knows a little bit about the creatures of the era.”

Without waiting for Henry to cobble together a response, Eva turned back to Arachne and waited.

Glare vanishing in an instant, Arachne took a deep breath as if buying time to gather her thoughts. “The gorgons were protectors,” she said slowly, her words coming uncharacteristically uncertain. “Terrible, yes, but terrible to their enemies. They often took up residence in villages and smaller townships, defending the town from roaming bandits, raiders, and the like.

“We carved their box-like faces and wide grins into all kinds of architecture, coins, pottery, and even tapestries and other weavings. Partially as warnings to any who would do us harm, partially as worship. So long as they were respected, the gorgons were said to be far better protectors than those so-called gods.”

“So,” Eva said after an extended moment of silence in the room, “we’re fighting protectors, not monsters.”

“Fighting?” Arachne asked with a far more dangerous edge in her voice. “How are you fighting gorgons?”

“I suppose that is what we are discussing today,” Eva said. “I still volunteer myself. I can see perfectly fine without my eyes, so gazing upon anything that turned me to stone will–”

“Eva.”

Eva blinked. Arachne interrupting her was not a common occurrence.

How are you fighting gorgons? King Polydectes ordered their destruction, both using his army and with enough gold on bounties to turn a slave into a prince. The last gorgon was killed before I was born.”

Another bout of silence followed her statement.

Until it was broken by Henry bursting into laughter. He got to his feet, mumbling something about how this whole meeting had been a waste of his time as he stormed out of the room.

“Huh,” Rachael said with a lazy shrug, “I guess he’s opting out of this event.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Eva said. She wasn’t even lying.

Though he was annoying with his disdain for demons, Henry had arrived prepared. As much as she wanted to get out of the meeting, she wanted to find out if they would be expected to fight something actually dangerous before she found herself face-to-face with something too strong for her to tackle.

“What other creatures are there with metallic scales?” she asked. After receiving no answer for a few moments, she looked around the room. “Please tell me somebody else took magizoology.”

The demons couldn’t be counted on. None of them were from Earth, save for Arachne. Her expertise was limited to Greece and even then, Arachne had not been a mage. Gorgons were one thing. As she had said, they were protectors with their visages carved into everything. Quite prevalent. Other creatures, not so much.

But there were still six humans in the class. Five if she didn’t count Irene, given that Irene probably didn’t know much more than she did about magizoology.

Yet nobody jumped up to respond in the affirmative.

“Well, we still have some time,” Eva said. “I suppose we’ve got our homework cut out for us. Though keep your questions quiet and your research in private. I know for a fact that several members of the opposing schools have been following some of us.”

Eva blinked, wondering just when she had become so invested in the tournament. Wasn’t she supposed to not care, or even actively sabotage her own team if the events were too annoying?

Yet, it was kind of fun.

More importantly, Eva didn’t like losing.

— — —

Juliana twisted to her left.

A series of cracks ran up her spine.

She twisted to her right.

More cracks echoed the first set.

And yet, she still felt as if she needed to stretch for another hour. Or maybe just hang from her arms and let her spine decompress.

Juliana had drawn out ritual circles before. Well, summoning circles. Summoning circles were a type of ritual circles.

And this ritual circle was designed to summon something.

The terminology was fairly moot.

The point was that she had performed similar tasks before, carving out channels in raw earth to achieve a magical effect. However, nothing she had done had been larger than a small room. Also, she hadn’t needed to harden the surrounding land.

To be fair, ‘harden’ was a fairly generous word for what she was doing. Her mother could have waved a hand and turned the whole landscape into sandstone. Or close enough to not be particularly worth noting. Juliana was barely managing a soft clay-like texture that hardened over time. Enough to keep casual footsteps from deforming the lines she dug for the actual ritual.

That was another major problem. Where ‘harden’ was too generous, ‘line’ was far too weak. The circles she had drawn to summon Willie and the other demons had lines about as thick as the width of her finger. Channels or maybe troughs fit what she was carving out now much better than lines. Her shoe couldn’t fit in lengthwise, but it had a little space on either side of her foot when she angled it in-line with the carving.

Juliana didn’t know why it needed to be so thick. The whole circle could be shrunk down if the lines were smaller.

At least the work was fairly simple. A bit repetitive. Definitely in need of double and triple checks to verify that everything was in its proper place. But not that taxing of a job. Juliana and Eva had taken Vektul’s designs, applied them to a grid, sketched each section of the grid out on a piece of paper, and were slowly making their way through each segment. They had a whole tub filled with papers.

Correction, Juliana thought with a tinge of annoyance. I am working my way through.

Eva was supposed to have popped into the meeting with the other participants, told them she would be entering into the first event, and run right out to join in the misery that was massive ritual circle creation.

An hour later and Juliana had still seen no sign of Eva.

She wasn’t sure if she should be worried of angry.

Probably both.

Worse, it was dark and had been for most of the hour. Juliana could make little lights through the use of order and fire magics, but they were dim and flickered. Eva’s light spells were much more advanced. Because of the poor lighting, Juliana had a feeling that she would be redoing a good chunk of her current segment.

With a resigned sigh, Juliana decided to stop what she was doing. Instead of fumbling around in the poor light, she turned to her only companion.

“Any problems?”

“I would have mentioned if there were,” Srey replied, not even looking up from his book.

He had no lights around him. Demon eyes must be amazing.

It made Juliana wonder just how Eva saw the world. She had said that her eyes only made things mildly crisper. No night vision or heat vision. But was that actually the case?

Maybe she was trying to hide what her eyes actually did. She was trying to hide her teeth.

Juliana had not missed how infrequently Eva flashed a grin these days.

If Eva was trying to hide things, who was Juliana to argue. She was just curious. Though, if she could do something awkward like see through clothing, Juliana could completely understand why she might keep it secret.

“What are you reading?”

Srey flicked his eyes to her. Contrary to the hostile glare she had expected to get for interrupting his reading, he just stared. He set his book down in his lap after a moment, keeping a finger between the pages.

“A tale about a city, the inhabitants, and how it was all built and destroyed by one man who thought he might be a being equivalent to a Power.”

“Fiction?” Juliana said, surprised at the choice.

His voice turned a few degrees colder when he next spoke. “Is that a problem?”

“Not at all. I just wasn’t expecting that. Maybe magical theory book, spell casting, or a book on rituals.”

“Just because I am a demon and you a mage does not mean that we can only read related books. We are allowed our pleasures, after all.”

Juliana was about to ask what else the demon enjoyed doing when his head snapped to the side. He stared off into the darkened woods with narrowed eyes.

“Trouble?” Juliana asked as the metal coating her body started flowing, ready to encase her in a suit of armor.

“I don’t sense anything,” he said slowly. “I just thought I heard something.”

Oddly enough, that had Juliana relaxing. Someone was nearby and he wasn’t sensing any hostile intent. That probably meant Eva. Or maybe Vektul decided to help out.

Ha, she thought, like that would ever happen.

In Juliana’s personal opinion, all these demons really should be making the ritual circle themselves. At least helping a whole lot more than they were.

“About time you showed up,” Juliana said. She didn’t quite call it out in a shout, just in case it wasn’t Eva. But neither did she whisper it to herself.

“I didn’t realize I was expected,” a suave voice answered from directly behind where Juliana and Srey were looking.

Juliana didn’t hesitate for a moment. That was not Eva’s voice. Neither was it Vektul.

A blade sprouted from her wrist as she spun around, lashing out.

Her blade struck something solid, sending reverberations up her arm. The metal snapped. Juliana’s arm continued in it arch as the tip flung off, hitting the ground and continuing for a short distance.

Juliana ignored the destruction to the segment of earth. It wasn’t that bad and she would already have to redo most of it.

Instead, she flung out a small light from her ring foci, brightening the area enough to properly see her foe.

The first thing she noticed were the two sharp points on either side of a toothy grin. Her eyes flicked upwards, staring at two dark almost burgundy-red eyes. Dressed in a fanciful suit, the student from the Nod Complex casually waved at her.

“Vampire,” Juliana hissed.

She had only ever met one vampire, that being Serena. Despite Eva’s assurance that Serena was normally a happy-go-lucky girl who might have been starved for attention, Juliana really couldn’t see it that way. Her first experience with Serena had nearly ended in being eaten. That incident combined with her mother’s stories really did not endear her to the blood-dependent race.

Srey snapped his book shut as he stood, setting it down almost lovingly on the small segment of log he had been using as a chair.

The vampire glanced at him. Srey looked back. Both regarding each other, sizing each other up.

Neither made to attack.

Which made sense. Srey hadn’t detected any hostile intent. The vampire wasn’t here to attack them. Unless drinking their blood didn’t count as a hostile action and therefore wouldn’t trip Srey’s senses.

Still, she was glad to have the demon at her side.

“What do you want?”

The vampire took his eyes off Srey, looking towards Juliana with bared teeth—she couldn’t think of him as smiling anymore.

“I was just taking a little walk, looking for a hint of what the event might be. Imagine my surprise when I catch the sent of a snack I had been wanting to try. I followed the trail here.” He mimed glancing around, not taking his eyes off Juliana and Srey. “But no snack is here. Pity.”

I,” a voice behind Juliana thundered.

Juliana whirled around.

Twin eyes blazed in the darkness, bathing Eva’s face and short hair in a bright red light. Eight more eyes, far fainter than Eva’s, glowed just behind and over her shoulder.

Am not a snack.

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009.001

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“Everyone must be on their best behavior,” Saija said in a mocking tone of voice. It wasn’t hard to guess who she was mocking.

Anderson had been running around the entire school, snapping at anything out of place. Which, in his eyes, was just about everything and everyone. Especially anyone who had their uniforms crooked, ate messily, slacked off during class, or breathed too loudly. He had landscapers come in and tidy up every visible plant around Brakket.

Eva had been concerned that they might stumble across her fledgling ritual circle until she realized that visible just meant visible from the main building and the pathways in the Infinite Courtyard. They wouldn’t be going half as deep as her circle.

Construction crews had been working at all hours of the day and half the night just to repair the damage to the plaza fountain and the relatively minor damage to the dormitory buildings.

Eva’s blood-based floor replacement was still around. She got the feeling that it was one of the few things he was actually pleased with.

“Apparently, he changed his mind. We are not to display any inhuman characteristics unless told otherwise.” With an overly exaggerated sigh, Saija flopped over on the table, spreading her arms out against the surface. It wouldn’t be surprising if she went off and joined the drama club.

When she first sat down with them, Eva hadn’t recognized her. Without her wings, tail, and bright red eyes, Saija was just an exceptionally pretty human. She still felt like Saija. Eva got over her confusion relatively quickly once she realized that.

Not to mention the fact that she sat down with them and immediately started complaining. Humans, outside her group of friends, did not simply sit down for a casual chat at her table. If they approached at all, they would be timid and constantly shooting glances at Arachne.

Even with demons walking the halls on a regular basis, apparently Arachne was still intimidating enough to ward people away.

Looking around the hall, Eva found that every demon besides herself and Arachne were entirely human looking. Most had been human or human enough anyway, but many of the smaller characteristics had vanished. Horns and tails mostly. She could still feel them, so she knew where to look.

Of course, three demons weren’t anywhere to be seen. Technically four, if she included the deceased Timothy.

It was strange. She knew they were still around. She even knew who they had bound themselves to—three of the older members of the diablery class.

But she couldn’t feel them. Not even the slightest hint. And unless the human was actively channeling one of their demon’s powers, there wasn’t a single tell that she could pick up on from the outside. No changing eye color or sharpened teeth.

Which, really, she shouldn’t be surprised about. Though Shalise and Prax had somehow messed up their bond, Shalise had looked perfectly normal unless using Prax’s muscles.

The whole situation had made Eva somewhat self-conscious. Her first thought upon looking around and realizing that everyone was looking human was to wonder if she shouldn’t be wearing gloves and her blindfold again. Unlike all the demons around her, she couldn’t just magic away her demonic appearance. Neither could Arachne. If the two of them wanted to hide, they had to physically do so.

Her second thought was to screw that. The blindfold was annoying and the gloves uncomfortable. Her contacts had been obliterated along with her disguise when she had paid a visit to Martina, so they were out of the question as well.

The demons were likely to come out sooner or later. Why bother hiding what they were for a day or two.

And poor Saija was obviously thinking the same thing. Unfortunately for her, she had a contract requiring her to obey Anderson. The only way out of it was to get one of the human students to partner up with her, either as a bound familiar or a simpler contract.

In the week and a half since the demon hunters attacked, Saija had been sitting with them at lunch every single day. Always next to Irene. She followed her around and sat next to her in every single class.

The hinting could not be more obvious. Why Saija hadn’t just asked Irene to take up her contract was beyond Eva. Maybe the human had to initiate the request to make it valid. Or maybe she had asked and Irene declined.

But it wasn’t really any of Eva’s business. The succubus could go ahead and–

Her thoughts were cut off as the three tone pre-announcement chime played over the speakers.

“Evaleen Spencer, please report to the dean’s office immediately. Evaleen Spencer to the dean’s office.”

It took a great deal of effort not to grit her teeth. The new secretary had apparently not gotten the memo about her name.

Her anger dissipated with a short sigh. Something she never would have been able to do two years prior. She really didn’t know why she was getting so worked up. What did it matter what she was called. It had been forever since she last saw her father. With any luck, she wouldn’t see him again for the rest of his life.

“Ooh,” Juliana cooed. “Did you get in trouble again?”

“Doubt it,” Eva said as she stood. “Probably just wants me to make changes to the plaza. Maybe he decided he wants a pattern in it after all.”

Arachne stood along with Eva. As Eva expected of her.

Taking a moment, Eva checked her friend’s stomach. It still had a hole in it from the blade of the hunter. Every so often, Eva needed to readjust the hardened blood. The hole was healing and she didn’t want the blood to be in the way.

But it was so slow.

She could normally heal whole limbs in a week or so. A thin slit like the one in her stomach should have mended itself by the morning after.

All the more reason she had been lucky not to have her heart tube punctured.

“I guess I’ll see what he wants,” Eva said. “See you guys in class.”

With a wave of her hand, she stalked off through the cafeteria with Arachne at her heels.

Arachne being around was something of a great comfort. Eva didn’t like Dean Anderson half as much as she liked Martina and she really hadn’t liked Martina all that much. Being alone with him set her on edge for some reason. Probably just Catherine’s paranoia rubbing off on her.

Whenever Catherine had business around Brakket Academy, she always found an excuse to be escorted everywhere. Usually with Eva being the escort. Though she never said it directly, she was obviously trying to avoid being alone with Anderson. At least, that’s what Eva got from her fairly lame excuses. Often involving Eva sticking around her for some odd reason that didn’t make sense once the situation was over.

Such as asking Eva to walk with her so that they could discuss their upcoming ritual, only to not speak a word of it the entire time.

Thinking on the ritual brought up a flash of irritation. Though it was in the middle of November, the typical month for her treatment, Devon hadn’t said a word about her treatment until Eva asked him when they would be doing it. His response had been to shrug and say that they were delaying it. Possibly by as much as three months.

Ever since Arachne died and they had to use the new version of the ritual, there had been drastic changes to Eva after every one. The nubs on her forehead, the sharp teeth, her elongated tongue, and her blood to name a few. He was concerned that her body wouldn’t hold up to such rapid changes and, despite the danger in waiting, wanted to give her body more time to acclimatize to everything.

And that was in spite of Eva’s protests. She felt fine. Nothing hurt. Even a day after the treatment, she had felt fine. What acclimatizing did her body need to do?

But he was the expert. If he thought his precious test subject needed her rest, she really didn’t have much room to argue.

Eva pushed open the doors to the office area adjacent to the front lobby. The secretary—a distinguished older man with circular spectacles—glanced in her direction. As soon as his eyes met hers, he flinched back.

Something that just had Eva rolling her eyes. If Anderson was going to get a new secretary, he could at least get one that wasn’t uncomfortable around demons. The man should know better.

Though, maybe the secretary wasn’t all that bad. He looked mildly ashamed of himself as he cleared his throat. “The dean is in his office,” he said without a hint of a tremor in his voice. “You can go right in.”

“Thanks,” Eva said as she did just as he suggested.

“Ah, Eva.” Anderson turned around as the door to his office opened up. He had been standing next to the window, staring out into the afternoon light.

Martina’s office had been a dark environment. The window curtains were always closed and the overhead lights kept off. Her only source of lighting came from a desk lamp and a few standing lamps around the corners of the room. Her desk had usually had piles of paperwork mounted on top that never seemed to get any smaller.

The current office was almost completely opposite. Natural light poured in through the open window, joining up with the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling.

His desk was clear of all but a single pen and a sheet of paper. He might have cleared it just because he had called up Eva, but it could also be a sign that his secretary was actually doing his job. A stark contrast from the game-obsessed Catherine.

One more obvious difference caught Eva’s eye.

Anderson’s desk was just in front of the window, angled so that his back would be facing outside. He would face the door in a far more welcoming manner than Martina.

When she had been the dean, her desk had been tucked away in the corner. She still faced the door, but also faced her perpetually closed window. It felt far more paranoid than the welcoming of the current room.

“Please, come in,” he said with a gesture of his hand. “Have a seat.”

His eyes were locked solely on Eva, never once glancing over her shoulder to where she knew Arachne would be glowering at him. But she had no real reason to refuse, so she took the center of three chairs. Arachne stood behind her, not taking either of the empty seats. As she sat down, a thought occurred to her regarding just why Anderson might wish to speak with her.

“I’m not wearing gloves or a blindfold,” she said firmly, brokering no room for an argument.

Apparently, she had guessed wrong. Anderson frowned as his face changed from false pleasantry to confusion.

“I’m sorry?” he said after a moment of pondering.

“You told all the other demons to disguise themselves as humans,” Eva said, figuring she may as well continue with her line of thought. “I refuse.”

“Ah.” Anderson closed his eyes and gave a tiny shake of his head. “No, no, that isn’t why you’re here at all. The demons are as they are for one simple reason; I merely wished for our guests to not be too shocked upon their arrival.

“One or…” he trailed off, finally glancing towards Arachne for the first time since they entered the room, “or two abnormalities is far more palatable than a dozen.”

Well, that was good news. For a moment, she thought he was going to ask her to skip class and stay hidden for a few days. Something that Eva would have been opposed to in principle, but would have gone along with anyway to work more on the ritual site.

As it turned out, having an open-sky field was more troublesome for rituals than she had expected. It had rained the day after they started tracing out ritual lines, ruining much of their efforts. Mostly Juliana’s efforts as she was the one who could dig out deep troughs in the ground. Luckily, rain soaked into the ground, vanishing after doing only a little damage.

She would probably be a whole lot more irritated if it had been cold enough to snow.

As such, they had decided not to waste their time trying to dig more until Eva had the time to set up some protections against the weather.

Blood wards were neat things. They didn’t require much effort to set up. Just a little globule of blood being told to keep an area safe would have a sort of invisible mist spread through an area, killing anything not keyed into the ward. It needed a bit of blood as fuel, but not much.

Unfortunately, a blood ward did nothing to protect against falling rain or falling anything for that matter. It certainly hadn’t protected against the falling boulder that Genoa had dropped on the women’s ward during her first meeting with the former mage-knight.

She could put up a blood shield. She had done so during the aforementioned incident with Genoa. Such a shield was not cheap. With the area it needed to cover, she would be going through as much blood as currently made up the ground of the new plaza every week.

Probably. Rough estimates were hard when she had never done such a large shield for any real length of time.

Not really a tenable option unless she was willing to sacrifice huge numbers of people. Which she was, so long as they were the wrong sort of people. But even with her contact in Florida—whatever his name had been—Eva doubted that she would have enough people for more than few days of powering a shield of that magnitude.

Luckily, she had a third option. Thaumaturgy. Setting up such a large ward would be complicated, but not impossible. To make matters better, weather wards were among the simpler types and didn’t take much magic unless it was raining or snowing. Even then, the magic required was mostly negligible. Stopping by once a day to ensure that it was topped off should be plenty.

Eva was planning on trying to conjure up a ward as soon as school ended for the day. She hadn’t ever done a weather ward as part of class, but how hard could it be?

Anderson clearing his throat snapped Eva out of her thoughts. He stared at her, clearly expecting a response to a question that Eva had not been paying attention to.

“Sorry,” Eva said, shaking her head. “What did you say?”

“I said that I called you here to ask about this,” he said with a frown as he tapped the sheet of paper on his desk.

Eva leaned forward to read it as he continued speaking.

“You didn’t sign up for the interscholastic–”

Cutting him off with a wave of her hand, Eva slid the sign-up sheet away from her. There were several names written down. More than she had honestly expected. A number of perfectly normal humans—mostly those in the top two years of school—along with all three of the former diablery students who had taken on demons.

Saija had put her name down for whatever reason, just above Irene’s name. Both names were in the same handwriting and Eva was betting that the handwriting hadn’t come from Irene’s hand. Shalise, Shelby, and Jordan were all missing from the list while Juliana’s name had been crossed out.

Eva distinctly remembered hearing Juliana complain for a few days about how her parents didn’t want her participating.

A few other demons aside from Saija were listed as well. Some on their own, but a few on the same line as human names in parentheses. Bound demons and their contractors, most likely.

“I’m really not interested,” Eva said, keeping her voice polite yet firm.

“After the show you put on last week, and several other events that Martina made me aware of before her untimely passing, I’m afraid I really must insist.”

“Show?” Eva said through grit teeth. “You mean when I skewered a man with crystallized demon blood and blew it up to the point where nothing but his legs remained?”

Anderson winced ever so slightly.

“I didn’t realize this contest would be so vicious and that killing the other schools’ competitors was the goal.”

“It certainly isn’t the goal. It isn’t even an option.”

He sighed, sliding into his chair. “Eva, I know you’re smarter than that. You’re a powerful mage as clearly evidenced by your various altercations with enemies of Brakket Academy. Participating would go a great deal towards ensuring Brakket’s victory.”

“I thought this tournament was to show off our school, what we learn, and how it stacks up to the other schools around America.”

“That’s all true,” Anderson said, dipping his head in an agreeable nod.

“Then I should be the last one to participate. Nothing I do has come from this school. I’m a few months into my third year of instruction. In thaumaturgy, I think I’m right where I should be. Juliana is far ahead of me in that respect. You should be speaking with her instead of me.”

“As soon as we are done here, I will be calling her and her parents in to discuss just that.”

“Outside thaumaturgy,” Eva continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “I have a handful of demonic traits. Which I could ignore and participate with. It might even be representative of Brakket Academy. Especially if you make demons a more permanent fixture.”

“That is the plan.”

“Demons are one thing, but I consider myself primarily a blood mage. I can’t imagine that would be a subject coming to Brakket anytime soon.”

“No, certainly not. In fact, that is another topic I wished to discuss.” He clasped his hands together and looked over the top of his fingers with his elbows on his desk. “I must ask that you do not use blood magic while the other schools are in the area.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

And that was the honest truth. Being a diabolist did not automatically make one a murderer. The same wasn’t true about blood magic. While her demonic secrets had pretty much all come out over the course of her school days, she was quite pleased that her blood magic was still a secret to most people.

Even her fairly public use of blood magic when she had killed the hunter wasn’t obviously blood magic. Most humans saw black liquid and didn’t make the connection with blood. Given the size of the pool, who would ever think it was blood? Even if they suspected, she could claim that it was a demonic trait that allowed her to control it.

Which, for all Eva knew, was the truth. She hadn’t dipped her dagger into the blood. It had heeded her commands without any bloodstones touching it. Though it was a useless point to consider. Not a single person had commented about it while Eva could hear.

Though a number of people had started avoiding her. More than normal, anyway. Probably because she had publicly killed a man. Though it was a clear case of self defense.

“Good,” Anderson said with a smile as he put his hands down into his lap. “Now, about signing up…”

Eva let out a long groan as her mind searched for some other excuse to skip out on the stupid contest. Anderson was giving her a feeling that he would keep pressing no matter what she said.

“You haven’t even told anyone what the contest is going to entail. I have so many things to be doing and zero time to study for written exams or whatever this is going to be.”

“No one is going to be told until after the other schools arrive. There will be a large feast on Sunday night where most of the details will be announced. I will say that it is nothing so boorish as exams.”

“It isn’t going to be something like fighting dragons or finding your way through a trap-filled maze, is it?” Both of which sounded far better than exams, but still not things that Eva wanted to do.

Anderson just gave a slight shake of his head before sliding the paper over towards her. He dropped the pen right on top of it.

Eva sighed, glancing towards Arachne and getting nothing but a shrug in return. She could keep fighting against Anderson, but missing golemancy would be annoying. Sitting here staring at his unpleasant smile, Eva very much doubted that he cared how many classes she had to miss.

Whatever, she thought as she picked up the pen. It’s not like this is a binding contract.

Fae could make a binding contract, but this obviously was not one. There were no contract details. Just a simple note at the top saying what the sign up sheet was for. And there were more than ten names. Unless Brakket Academy had some home-school advantage and could field a lot more students than the other schools, some of these people wouldn’t be chosen to participate.

Demons could also form a contract, but their contracts weren’t written ones. If a demon wrote down the terms of their contract, it was more to get a full look at what was being agreed upon before actually committing.

“Happy now?” Eva said, dropping her pen. “If this contest is tedious, I’ll skip it. Find a way to force me to and I’ll deliberately sabotage our school.”

“Don’t worry,” Anderson said, smiling as he took the paper back, “I’m sure you’ll find it both entertaining and enjoyable.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Juliana turned away from Eva with a slight shudder.

Her skin had cracked and broken in the blast. If her hair loss had been the extent of her injuries, that would be one thing.

It had taken an effort to not throw up when she first saw Eva coming up the stairs. Between her charred black skin, cracks in the char looking like a dried desert, and a red almost glow emitting from between the cracks, she did not look well. Worse, if such a thing was possible, Eva didn’t even seem to notice herself. She walked up with only a ghost of a limp.

‘Terrible’ was the understatement of the century.

But then, while she had been talking, Eva’s skin changed. Some of the charcoal flaked off, replaced by fresh skin. The red glow dampened. She didn’t heal. Not all of her, at least. But the start was there.

It was somewhat creepy.

“Mom,” Juliana said, turning away from the staircase once Eva had disappeared. “She’s going alone.”

“We established that during our conversation. You heard her. She’ll be fine.”

“Not even Arachne is with her.”

“She’ll be fine, Juliana. Stay here and help me.”

“Help you?” Juliana marched over to the window and stared out at the fight below.

“I’ve done nothing so far. What am I supposed to do now? Throw stones at him? I can’t make a giant golem to fight for me and you won’t let me go down there.”

Juliana paused as Arachne moved from her webs at the edge of the fight, darting into the fray. The swordsman tried to move out of the way, but Arachne’s bulk still clipped him. He came out of his flash step in a stumble. Though his step carried him a good way away from Arachne and Genoa’s much slower golem, the doll was on him in an instant.

He twisted out of the way of her first slash and blocked a second with his sword. The stumble and the twist both put him off-balance enough that he didn’t have a steady hand while blocking the strike. He managed to keep a grip on his sword, but it still got knocked to the side.

Leaving him wide open.

The doll brought down her sword again in an overhead strike, apparently intending to split the hunter straight in two.

Ducking his head, he caught the sword right in the center of his off-hand’s vambrace. It didn’t stop the sword completely. The blade bit into his armor far enough to strike his forearm. Bright red blood ran down the blade, dripping to the ground from the end of the hand guard.

Both the doll and the hunter pulled back. The former attempted to strike again, but the hunter activated his speed and once more found himself with a small bit of breathing room.

The golem and Arachne moved in, keeping him from having too much breathing room and pressing their advantage over his injury.

“And what would you be able to do if you went with Eva?” Genoa asked as her golem moved to the hunter’s injured side. “Imagine fighting another one of these people. What would you do against them?”

“I don’t know. Something. Something more than I’m doing here. At least Eva wouldn’t be fighting alone.”

“Or you could find yourself in over your head. These people will not stop with their blades at your throat and ask you to surrender. They will run you through without a second thought.”

She threw her arm out in a wide sweeping gesture out the window. The action came at a cost in her concentration; her golem froze solid, missing an opportunity to grapple the hunter.

He took advantage of the lapse, diving between the golem’s arm and body, using its bulk as a shield against Arachne.

“Look at what they’ve done. There were people out there. Students. Human children. They essentially bombed this place, showing little regard for anyone’s life in trying to hit their target. It is a miracle that everyone had run indoors beforehand.

“If, somehow, they end up walking away from this, I will be personally taking out a bounty with the mage-knights on these demon hunters. Fighting demons? Fine, I can understand that. Attacking a school? Unacceptable. It wasn’t like they were sieging the school. The demons, by all evidence and observation, were behaving and simply attending the school as well.”

Except the demon who the doll killed, Juliana thought. One student had fallen into his trap, possibly more. If the doll hadn’t come along and gotten rid of him, who knew what might have happened. Half the school could be trapped in his delusions.

She refused to believe that her mother had forgotten about him, given Irene and Saija had just told everybody about it less than an hour ago. But, by observation only, the school had been running fine.

Even if the demon hunters knew about Timothy and his indiscretions with his contract, they hadn’t done anything about it. They had gone after Eva and Arachne. Nobody else. Or rather, anybody else had just been a bonus target.

So her mother’s explanation still fit.

“But that doesn’t change a thing. They’re still here now. Eva is still going off on her own. You, Arachne, and the doll are holding off this knight. He only has to fail once and he dies. But even if the other one is severely injured, she could still be a match for Eva on her own. I can’t do nothing.”

Juliana turned, preparing to head up the stairs and see if she could catch up to Eva.

A hand on her shoulder stopped her.

“Juliana Laura Rivas. I won’t stop you. But you come back.”

“Of course I will.”

“Good. I love you.”

Juliana turned back around, staring at her mother. There were no glistening tears in her eyes. Not even a hint of moisture. Her mother was much too hard of a woman for that. There was a certain tightness to her jaw.

“I love you too, mom.”

Genoa gave a curt nod before releasing Juliana’s shoulder. “If your father asks, you hit me over the head and escaped my grasp. In my weakened state, I could do nothing to stop you.”

Juliana rolled her eyes and turned back around. Halfway up the flight of stairs, she heard her mother again.

“And if you die,” Genoa said, voice unusually harsh, “I swear I’ll take up necromancy, summon you back from wherever you’ve gone, bind you to your room, and ground you for the rest of your afterlife.”

Already halfway up the stairs, Juliana didn’t bother addressing her mother’s empty threats.

Probably empty threats.

There was a chance that she would follow through.

In fact, the more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed that her mother was being serious.

She would have to be extra careful to not die.

Eva had to be heading up to the roof. If she wasn’t, Juliana expected to run into her coming back down the stairs. Her conversation with her mother had taken a bit of time. Eva was probably already gone.

Juliana slowed down around the third floor corridor. Even though Eva was probably gone, she still was going to check the roof. However, a pair of familiar voices caught her ear.

“So scary. I thought I was going to die when she looked at me.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I don’t know what happens to you humans when you die, but a demon’s death is no fun at all.”

A short distance down the hall, just in front of Juliana’s open dorm room, Saija was…

Crying into Irene’s shoulder?

“Worse,” Saija said, wringing her hands with the sleeve of Irene’s shirt, “I wouldn’t be able to experience all this anymore. What if I never got summoned again?”

Irene, standing perfectly straight with her arms at her sides, grimaced as Saija wrapped her arms around her. She tilted her head away to avoid one of the succubus’ horns. As soon as she tilted her head, she caught sight of Juliana.

‘Help me,’ she mouthed.

Seeing her dorm room open gave Juliana hope that Eva hadn’t left yet. She must be collecting weapons inside. So, against Juliana’s better judgment, she walked down the hall.

Irene’s face lit up, but fell to despair as Juliana edged around the two to get to her room.

The lights were on, but nobody was in. A few of Eva’s clothes had been thrown about the room. The desk drawers that Eva kept her spare vials of blood in were open and missing their usual contents. With the bathroom door open and the light off, Juliana had lost hope that Eva was still around.

Turning back to the two girls, Juliana gave Irene a shrug. She doubted that Saija had even noticed her presence; her head was still buried in the other girl’s shoulder.

“Eva already left?”

Saija jumped, snaking around Irene to hide behind her. Her apparent fear lasted only a few moments as her wide red eyes narrowed.

“Oh, it’s just you,” she said, moving out from behind Irene. “I thought Eva came back.”

“So she is gone.”

“She just left a moment or two before you arrived,” Irene said.

“And good riddance. She tried to kill me, you know?”

Juliana glanced over at Irene, who gave a brief shake of her head, before she said, “I didn’t know that. You probably did something to deserve it.”

Pressing a hand to her forehead, Juliana ignored the succubus’ outburst of protests.

What do I do now?

She hadn’t seen Eva on the stairs. She might have teleported. Juliana couldn’t teleport or even blink.

Her first thought was to summon a demon. It was a terrible thought. Something she realized a mere instant after thinking it. No demon she had ever summoned had proven useful with the exception of Zagan. Almost all had tried to kill her. The ones that hadn’t tried to kill her had still not been very friendly.

While Zagan had proven useful, even unusually helpful, it hadn’t come without a cost. And, at the moment, Juliana was far from desperate enough to try summoning him.

Assuming any demons could even be summoned. Nobody had gotten anything but enigmas since early in the summer as far as Juliana was aware. Her demons had tried to kill her, but they could usually be argued with for a few minutes before they did so. The enigmas would just kill her, eat her, maybe become her? Eva had explained something about vampire enigmas, but she really didn’t get it. And then they would try to tear holes in reality to bring Hell through.

A great way to make a bad situation worse.

Not something that seemed like a good idea at the present time.

But the idea of demons wasn’t wholly without merit. They could sense Eva to some degree, most had ways of getting around quickly—either through super strength, flight, or outright teleportation—and perhaps best of all, one was standing right in front of her. No summoning required.

“Saija,” Juliana said, interrupting her continued diatribe about how innocent she was and how terrible Eva was for nearly killing her, “your wings are lovely.”

The comment stopped Saija’s comments in their tracks. She drew herself up to her full height, puffed out her chest, tilted her chin upwards with only a shadow of a smile showing on her face, and spread out her wings. The action knocked Irene off to the side, prompting a short grunt from her as she recovered her footing, but Saija didn’t even blink.

In a most humble tone of voice, Saija said, “Thanks.”

“They’re real right? I mean, they let you fly?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t just show them off for looks,” she said with a chuckle. For demonstration, she flapped her wings a few times. A fairly uncomfortable breeze stirred up in the hallway, but Juliana didn’t look away even as it dried out her eyes. Saija’s feet left the ground as she kept herself aloft. After a second or two, she dropped back down, landing with all the airs of a professional performer completing a difficult stunt.

“Wonderful,” Juliana said, clapping a few times. “But I suppose they’re too small to carry much more than yourself. Maybe a few small packages.”

“Nonsense. Just today I offered to carry Irene around,” she said, wrapping one arm and one wing around Irene.

Still partially recovering from being shoved aside, Irene might have fallen again as Saija dragged her back had Saija not wrapped her up in a hug.

Juliana had to admit to herself that she felt a bit bad for the girl. Saija didn’t have any friends as far as Juliana could tell. Everyone who hung out with her fit more in the category of admirer. By the looks of things, Irene didn’t quite fit into that category.

She was more of a plaything.

“Really?” Juliana said, not letting her thoughts appear on her face. “That’s pretty impressive. I wonder if you might be willing to offer me a quick ride?”

“Right now?”

“I’m not that heavy,” Juliana lied. Her armor didn’t double her weight, but it was a significant extra. Were she just going for a ride, she would probably shed it. However, she was going to fight. There wasn’t a chance she would be shedding it for any reason.

Though, if she was going to get carried by Saija, she should push any of the demon-harming metal deep inside her armor, covered by regular metal and her clothes.

“But if you’re worried, I understand. They’re very pretty, just not very functional.”

Saija narrowed her eyes. She parted her lips in something of a sneer, enough to show off her sharp teeth. “I could carry ten of you,” she said.

Which made Juliana feel much better about her armor.

“It’s just a bit… hectic outside.”

“Ah,” Juliana said with a knowing nod of her head. “You’re scared.”

Saija actually let out a low, guttural noise from the back of her throat.

“But,” Juliana continued before Saija could say something about how she definitely wasn’t scared and just didn’t want to scratch her nails or whatever, “I’m a little scared too. So why don’t we fly away from the battle, towards the city. We can get a nice bird’s-eye view of the fight while keeping nice and safe.”

And if Juliana was lucky, she wouldn’t have to ask Saija to sense Eva. The succubus didn’t seem to like her too much, so she might be more cooperative if she didn’t mention her goal. Nel had mentioned that the other hunter was on a roof in the city. Flying overhead might let her spot them much easier.

Juliana waited with bated breath as Saija seemed to consider the proposition. She had wanted to watch the a fight between the doll and Eva earlier, so mentioning being able to watch the fight could help sweeten the deal.

Saija hummed, eying Juliana. Almost as if she didn’t trust Juliana’s intentions.

Sweat dripped down Juliana neck. Here she was, trying to manipulate a demon that probably had centuries more experience than her in everything. There was no way that Saija would agree. Even with the needling of her pride in her wings and her ability, it wouldn’t be enough. She would realize and lash out, maybe even–

“Okay,” Saija said with a smile. “I haven’t had a chance to stretch my wings much since arriving here. I do want to get a better look at the fight and flying seems a safe location. I’ll do it.”

Juliana sighed, letting out a small breath. “Excellent,” she said, giving a half-shrug to a thoroughly confused Irene. “Let’s head up to the roof then.”

Not willing to give the succubus time to reconsider or otherwise back out of her commitment, Juliana took her hand and pulled her along. Being a demon, Saija could probably break free with relative ease. She didn’t. After a few steps, she started walking along on her own.

A few steps more and Saija was practically dragging Juliana instead of the other way around.

Once they got up, Juliana paused.

A human—or human-like being in Saija’s case—carrying a human in flight seemed like it would be incredibly awkward at best, uncomfortable at worst. Well, not quite. Being dropped at a high altitude would be far worse than merely uncomfortable.

“So how are we going to do this?”

“Well, first I’ll wrap my tail around you,” she said, moving up close and wrapping the tail around Juliana’s chest, just beneath her armpits. “That way I will have a chance to catch you if you fall. Like a seatbelt in your car things.”

Juliana glanced down at the tail. It was a thin bit of leathery flesh, far smaller than any staircase handrail, with a spaded tip at the end. Not very long either. Even with Saija standing right up against Juliana, it barely made it all the way around her.

Given its size, Juliana wasn’t feeling very confident. If Saija’s much more normal sized arms couldn’t hold her up, what hope did the tail have?

Maybe I should drop off a few pounds of metal before we get started, Juliana thought.

But Saija had other plans. She bent slightly, hooking one arm right against the backside of Juliana’s legs. Juliana flailed as she fell backwards, eventually grabbing onto both of Saija’s shoulders just as Saija caught her back with her other arm.

“There,” the succubus said. She let out a short, slightly strained breath. “You weren’t kidding about your weight.”

Taking a moment to make sure she wasn’t about to fall, Juliana readjusted some of her metal to make the side closer to Saija a bit thicker. Moving their center of balance a bit closer to the center seemed a good idea. Still, she had to ask. “Too heavy?”

Saija tilted up her chin with a smug look on her face. She tried to puff out her chest, but it wasn’t as effective with Juliana in her arms. “Never. When I said I could lift ten of you, that might have been a bit of an exaggeration. One is still fine.”

She took a few steps forward, each more steady than the last as her confidence grew.

“However,” she said, pausing, “maybe think about a diet? Some of the people I was eating lunch with were asking how I could eat so much and still maintain my figure. I didn’t really understand, but I guess a diet makes you less heavy. So try that.”

“I’ll think about it,” Juliana mumbled. It’s just the armor.

Saija walked them right up to the edge of the building. Craning her neck, Juliana managed to get a quick view of the fight below.

Arachne was missing several more legs. They were lying scattered about the plaza. She had actually shrunken down to her humanoid form, perhaps because she ran out of legs to keep her bulky form mobile. Or even standing.

The hunter was actively trying to disengage. He kept snapping away from the demon and the doll. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t get away. Nearly the entire ground level had been webbed in like some sort of arena cage. Anytime he tried hacking away at the threads, Arachne or the doll made it to him before he could get through.

The doll would hound him relentlessly until he managed to get away again while Arachne just occupied his attention long enough for the doll to get over. She would stop fighting and repair the fencing.

Being less mobile, the golem would help keep him away from Arachne while she worked. Occasionally a rock would fly across the arena like a missile, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting but always forcing him to back away from the fence.

They watched for a few moments before Juliana remembered the whole reason they had come to the roof in the first place.

“Shall we take off now?”

“This seems to be a perfectly good view of the fight.”

“Well, if you can’t do it, I understand. I was just so looking forward to the flight.”

Saija didn’t respond. She tipped forward and stepped off the edge of the roof instead.

Juliana’s hands, already tight around the succubus’s shoulders, clamped down. Saija might survive, but Juliana wouldn’t.

The fall didn’t last long, however. Saija’s wings spread out, catching the air and turning their dive into a glide. A few quick flaps and an angle slightly upwards had them climbing and soaring straight over the battlefield.

“Please don’t do that again,” Juliana shouted over the wind.

“It’s more fun that way.”

Well, I’m not here to have fun, Juliana thought as she turned her attention to scanning the rooftops below. They were quickly moving away from the battle and towards the city, which was good for Juliana. She didn’t need to steer Saija. At least not yet.

“Oh. I wondered what that was,” Saija said.

It didn’t take long to realize what she was talking about.

One of the rooftops was lit up like it belonged in Las Vegas. Neon lights danced around in a large ring, flickering between green and red. Squinting her eyes, Juliana could barely make out the tiny form of Eva hammering her fists away at the flickering barrier.

“Quick,” Juliana said, “put me down on the edge of the roof.”

“Put you down? After all the fuss you made about getting to go flying?”

“Saija…”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.020

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Eva! You look…”

“Terrible. I know.”

Eva let Juliana run up to her. She expected some help. Maybe assistance walking or a potion that probably wouldn’t do all that much for Eva.

But she stopped just short of Eva with a face full of uncertainty and fear.

Without having a mirror handy, Eva couldn’t tell exactly how terrible she looked. For her appearance to have stopped Juliana cold, Eva was now thinking that it was worse than she had expected.

“I’m surprised you survived,” Genoa said from the window, not taking her eyes off the fight going on outside. “And yet you’re climbing a stairwell.”

“Not actually feeling that bad anymore,” Eva said. Which was true, but only relatively. Compared to the pain she had woken up in, what she was experiencing now was significantly less hurtful. Though she did notice that unless she was careful, each step jolted her body and sent short spikes of pain everywhere.

“I think my shield absorbed most of the impact,” Eva said after a moment of silence. “I only caught the tail end. Residual heat and such.”

Which was a total and complete lie. The unglassed brick hadn’t been in the shape of a bubble around her. It had been in a person shape. Which meant that her body had shielded the ground more than her shield had. It helped and had probably taken the initial portion of the blast, but her shield had failed early on in the grand scheme of things.

Genoa just hummed, not giving any sort of real response. To be fair, she was fighting, even if it didn’t look like it from her still position at the window. So she probably wasn’t considering anything related to Eva and her demonicness.

Definitely.

“Zoe and Wayne?” Eva asked, switching the topic away from herself.

“Wayne tackled Zoe to the ground. When the light cleared, neither of them were there. I assume he teleported them out of there. Haven’t seen them since.”

“Neither have answered their cellphones,” Juliana added. “Um, do you need a jacket or anything?”

Frowning, Eva glanced down at herself. “I’m a bit raw at the moment,” she said, glancing back up. “I’d rather not have fabric rubbing against my skin.”

“Fair enough,” she said, looking away. “I got your message. Nel is searching for the other hunter. She said that she would call me back if she found anything.”

Eva wanted to groan. Wasn’t Nel supposed to have been watching specifically to prevent something like this from happening? Eva could give her the benefit of the doubt for the moment. After spotting them in the field, she had said that she could watch them without her vision ‘sliding off.’

Maybe they had split up and Nel had been watching the wrong target, unaware that something like this was about to go down until it was too late.

But Nel would definitely be getting a few harsh questions when Eva next saw her.

For the moment, she just moved up to the window next to Genoa.

The fight was still going on outside.

Sparks exploded off the demon hunter’s sword as he danced around the doll’s blade. Danced might not be the right word. He was definitely on the back foot. Eva had only been watching for a few seconds, but she could already tell that the doll definitely had the advantage.

In fact, the hunter was barely able to keep up a defense against the doll.

Unfortunately, he had gotten free of his ice prison. It gave him the leeway to actually dodge instead of just block. But that was all he was doing. The doll attacked in a flurry. One strike of her sword followed immediately after the last in smooth, fluid movements.

He never actually returned a strike of his own.

Arachne circled around the knight, not really attacking but keeping herself between him and any obvious escape paths. With the doll now fighting as well, actually killing him was looking more viable. Arachne was making the right choice in trying to keep him from escaping.

Genoa’s golem was being far more aggressive. Not to the point where it was hammering its fists over him again and again—she was making an effort to keep out of the doll’s way—but every time the hunter blocked with his sword, the golem tried to grasp on to him. He had to dodge immediately to avoid being rooted in place.

More than that, the ground beneath his feet wasn’t quite as solid as it should have been. Maybe it had been going on the entire time and Eva just hadn’t noticed between her poor eyesight and pain-induced lapses in concentration. Everywhere he stepped was more like mud than any kind of glass or brick. Eva could see it sticking to his boots, slowing his movements.

Whatever speed magic he was using allowed him to escape easily enough, but it did slow him down ever so slightly.

Perhaps if Eva had held him still from the waist up, Genoa could have better glued down his legs.

“I tried collapsing some of the earth into sinkholes,” Genoa said, as if reading Eva’s mind. “None of them worked. He moves too quickly. Almost as if he can sense where they are before I actually place them down. A field a mud everywhere he steps is far more effective.”

“I wish there was more I could do,” Eva said.

“The ice hands were good.”

“The ice wasn’t mine,” Eva said, leaning slightly away from the window. “And the hands take a bit more blood than I can comfortably lose during a big fight. Too many and it leaves me full of headaches and lethargy.”

Genoa fell silent for a few moments as she concentrated on directing her golem to attack. Her golem’s hand actually managed to grab hold of his sword. Unfortunately, the armored hunter managed to slice off the fingers in time to catch the doll’s blade on his own.

“They kept him in place long enough for you to convince that doll to work with us.”

Eva frowned, watching the doll flash between her attacks. “I think she is doing this more out of personal need than interest in helping any of us.”

“Eva,” Juliana said, running the short distance over to the window. Again she paused, leaving a small space between herself and Eva. She had her cellphone in hand, hesitating just long enough for Eva to notice her hesitation before she held it out. “It’s Nel.”

“I hope she has good news,” Eva said as she took the phone. Speaking into it, she said, “Tell me something–”

“Rooftop. Near the school but towards the city. She’s watching with a pair of binoculars and keeps flicking them straight towards you even though there are like three buildings in the way of seeing you. Not to mention the building you’re inside.”

“She can see through walls,” Eva said for the benefit of everyone else. “Good to know.”

There was a loud crash on the other end of the phone. Loud enough that Eva had to pull the phone away from her ear for a few moments while it died off. When she finally put it back to her ear, Nel was already talking at a rapid pace.

“–got to go,” she said, pausing for another crash in the background. This one was much quieter than the last. “The hunter on the roof has the idol. Please destroy it this time. It’s… not right.”

Eva ignored the former nun’s concern. She would destroy the idol. Not because of some idea that the Elysium Order had the ‘pure’ version of the idol, but because it was dangerous to Eva and her plans.

Instead, she focused on the noise in the background. It was still going on, but nothing extraordinarily loud at the moment.

“Are you in trouble?”

“Other hunters are here. Ylva is taking care of them. I don’t think–” She cut herself off again. Eva held the phone away, expecting another cacophony to partially deafen her.

None came.

“I’m fine,” Nel said as Eva moved the phone closer. “Got to go.”

With that, she hung up. A simple click on the other end and nothing. Eva paused just a moment before handing the phone back to Juliana.

“Trouble?”

“Hunters attacking Nel and Ylva as well, but Nel thinks Ylva has it covered.”

Which gave Eva a new theory. The reason Nel didn’t call Eva to warn her was not because she had been lazy or skipping out on her auguring. She had her own problems at the moment.

In fact, the hunters—Eva’s hunters—had probably conscripted the ones attacking Ylva specifically to distract Nel long enough to launch their own attacks. It might have been nice to have been warned about that, but Eva could understand the pressure of imminent attacks. Though she apparently had the time to glance over at Eva’s fight with her augur sight.

She might still get a somewhat harsh talking to from Eva when all this ended.

“The other hunter—that’s attacking us, at least—is on a roof towards the city. I’m going after her. She’s the one that casted the light beam and can’t be allowed to do it again.”

“On your own?” Genoa asked just as Juliana opened her mouth.

Juliana snapped her mouth shut, giving a slight glare at her mother. It only lasted a few seconds before the glare softened. “I’ll stay here,” she said. “Make sure mom stays out of trouble.”

“I should be fine,” Eva said with a half-smile towards Juliana. She turned to face Genoa full-on before continuing. “The hunter was injured worse than you were far more recently than you were. No offense, but I think I might have a sporting shot against you as you are now.”

“Come at me anytime and we’ll see just how sporting of a chance it is,” Genoa said. Her gaze never left the battle down below save for one brief moment to glance at Eva. “Though now might not be the best of times.”

“Later then,” Eva said with a half chuckle.

Much later. Like around never. She really didn’t want to seriously fight Genoa. Not only might her injuries reopen, but Eva didn’t fancy losing to a cripple.

I need to win against this hunter.

Three punctures to the spine should have been enough to keep anyone down and out for a good amount of time. It had been a few months, but that was far from what Eva had in mind. Shalise had the nerves in her wrist torn out when the zombie bit her. That had taken Elysium Order magic to heal. Without it, she hadn’t been expected to regain much use of her hand.

The holes in the hunter’s spine should have been Shalise’s injury compounded over and over again. She should be paralyzed. If she wasn’t and Arachne had missed ever so slightly, then she still should be too wounded to move around much.

Which meant she would have other ways of defending herself.

“Be wary of traps,” Genoa said, interrupting Eva’s thoughts while echoing them at the same time. “Juliana told me about the room you found the other demon in. Lucy, was it?”

“I know. I was just thinking the same thing.”

All the anti-demon shackles and circles in the apartment room with Lucy had been doubly protected by either wards or enchantments over the walls and floors, preventing them from being destroyed easily.

With Eva’s warding class, she might be able to spot some wards. But this was likely an expert and Eva had only been taking the class since the start of September. Unraveling them was a bit beyond her abilities at the moment.

Still, if she spotted a magical ward making something invulnerable and couldn’t see any demonic shackles around it, it was bound to be some other type of trap. Good to know, at the very least.

“Just keep that hunter here. Even if you can’t kill him. I can’t do much against him at the moment and won’t be able to fight the other one if he shows up.”

“Don’t worry about that. I can handle him. Focus on not dying. I am not interested in finding out how Arachne would react.”

Eva glanced down at the spider-demon. She was now going between a number of pillars that Genoa had created and creating spider webs between them, further blocking in the hunter. The weavings were abnormally thick. Each strand stood out simply because they could be as thick as one of Eva’s fingers. She was really outdoing herself. Arachne’s threads were normally thinner than a single hair.

She must really be worried about the hunter’s sword.

“As am I,” Eva said quietly. She turned away, preparing to head up the stairwell. A quick comment from Juliana stopped her.

“Good luck.”

“Same to both of you,” Eva said without turning. “Stay safe.”

With that, she sprinted up the stairs.

She stopped at the third floor. There were a few things in her room that might help out. And she might not have been entirely in the right when she declined Juliana’s offer of clothing. She needed pockets for vials of blood, after all.

“Aww, I liked your long hair.”

Eva paused with her hand on her room’s handle.

Irene and Saija emerged from the former’s room just in time to catch Eva heading in. Both were staring. Saija was a bit more obvious about it. Irene kept glancing off to the side before looking back at Eva. More specifically, the top of Eva’s head.

Running her fingers through her hair, Eva found a distinct lack of resistance. Not a single strand of hair came away as she dragged her hand in front of her eyes. She was completely bald.

Eva grit her teeth. “Me too,” she grumbled.

That hunter was going to pay.

“Well, don’t worry. I’m sure there is some hair growing magic around. You should worry about your skin.”

Eva shook her head. “No time to talk. I have hunters to kill.” She swung open the door and took a step inside before pausing. “Speaking of, why aren’t you and all the other demons out fighting? You know he’ll come after you next if he wins.”

“With the doll out there?” Saija said as she slipped around Eva into her room. “Not a chance.” She glanced around the place, eying the fairly spartan room.

There wasn’t much in the room. Everything important was over at the prison. As such, Eva just ignored her to focus on finding some clothes and a few spare vials of blood. She wasn’t sure how much help the blood would be. Not if the hunter could just freeze it all.

But best to take it anyway. Just in case.

For clothes, Eva picked out the lightest shirt and skirt that she could find. Things that wouldn’t agitate her raw skin yet still had pockets. Her belt and its pouches that were specifically designed to hold vials—potion vials, but they worked for blood just the same—was gone. Destroyed along with her hair and her old clothes.

“I have to say that I think most of the demons are hoping that the hunter will win. After the doll is dead, then I’m sure some of us will help out. The–”

“Are you still talking?” Eva said as she glanced around the room one last time.

She wished she had time to go get Basila, damaged though she was. Maybe a few spare bloodstones just in case she found a use for them. Unfortunately, they were important things that she kept at the women’s ward. Teleporting was quick. However, Eva had a really bad habit of finding herself distracted.

It would be just her luck to teleport over there only to find out that nuns were attacking again. Or more hunters. Devon, Catherine, Qrycx, and the waxy demon were all over there. They could handle whatever problems had arisen. Problems that Eva was now certain were definitely going on.

Ignorance was bliss at the moment, or so the saying went.

“Excuse me?”

Saija had her hands on her hips and was glaring at Eva. At least, she was until Eva turned to her. A flap of her wings carried her back behind Irene, once again hiding behind the human girl.

“If you aren’t out fighting, I really don’t care what you have to say at the moment. Of course, I don’t know what I expected from a lowly succubus anyway. Run and hide. Just know that humans are fighting while you cower.”

Eva blinked past them, not even bothering to squeeze by or push them out of the way. Nel hadn’t bothered to say which roof, so she had some scouting to do. Even this little detour to collect clothes and blood might have been enough time for the hunter to leave. Especially if the hunter could see through walls.

Not really the scrying method Eva had expected when Srey mentioned it, but it probably counted as being watched. If the hunter saw or suspected that Eva was coming after her, she would probably leave. Or set up more traps.

But she wasn’t in such a rush that she couldn’t stop for one quick moment. She felt a little bad about her words. Eva didn’t feel bad for Saija. But she wasn’t the only one around.

Irene was looking guilty, rubbing her hands together and averting her eyes—not in an embarrassed way as she had before, but just to avoid looking at Eva.

“Don’t worry, Irene. There are real monsters out there. I wouldn’t expect anyone to fight unless they were monsters as well.”

She stayed paused for just a moment, wondering how Genoa might react to being called a monster before shaking her head. It really didn’t matter at the moment.

The shake of her head almost sent her stumbling. Not because of the all-encompassing though gradually lessening pain of her body. It was almost like she was shaking too hard, despite not moving her head any faster than normal. Her hair wasn’t there to act as a counterweight to her brain. Probably her imagination, but the sensation was there.

Without waiting for a response from Irene, Eva sprinted back to the stairwell and climbed it to the top. From the roof, she blinked straight out towards the nearest building. It was a bit too far. Eva reappeared mid-air. She blinked again before she could fall more than a full foot, landing on the roof of another building.

About three inches away from a circle drawn in chalk that was not quite shackles but was definitely unfriendly towards demons.

“That could have been bad,” Eva hissed to herself as she took a step back. She double checked to make sure that there wasn’t another circle behind her before doing so.

Scanning the rooftops, Eva frowned. They were a veritable minefield of shackles. Concentrating harder on more magical effects, she found a number of spherical wards set up around the rooftops and down on the streets. Some might be barriers. Some Eva couldn’t even tell what they might be used for.

Best to avoid them.

However, in scanning the rooftops, Eva spotted her target.

The bright red hair made her difficult to miss.

Eva had no doubt that she had been spotted. And yet, the hunter made no motion. Not a twist of her head or an attack slung in Eva’s direction. For a moment, Eva thought she might be a mannequin designed to lure people closer into some larger trap, but she caught the hunter’s eyes moving ever so slightly.

A couple of roofs away and who knew how many traps in between, Eva now had her target in sight.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Analyst 001.002 up over on the preview site.


008.018

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“Well, that’s definitely the doll that I saw in Hell.”

Eva stepped away from the window, looking at the others. Irene and her succubus were standing towards the back of the stairwell. One was trying to look as small as possible while the other continually preened as soon as she thought someone was looking in her direction. Unfortunately for Saija, the doll standing out in the courtyard below was of far more interest to everyone.

Juliana and Genoa were both forward a bit more, both looking out the window. Even after her brief run around her house, Genoa wasn’t looking significantly worse off than she had during their earlier discussion. Still strained, but maybe even better. She didn’t look quite so out of breath as Eva would have expected. Getting out of the house and getting some fresh air might have done her a world of good.

Zoe rounded out their group for the moment. She wasn’t paying so much attention to the doll outside. Her focus was on her cellphone. She was coordinating with other members of Brakket staff to find any possible missing students. Saija’s warning about the recently deceased demon and how he had likely broken some part of their contract.

Given that she was looking much calmer than she had when Saija first mentioned the possibility, Eva was guessing that the headcount was going well.

Srey had gone to find out where Vektul was on Eva’s request. The demon was somewhat essential to Eva and somewhat absentminded. There needed to be some measures in place to ensure he didn’t go do something stupid.

Like run off and try to speak with the doll. For all Eva knew, the doll would strongly object to interacting. Srey had worried that any even extraordinarily minor breach in their contracts would set the doll off. Something that was only a breach because of some innocuous wording that nobody would have complained about under normal circumstances.

Eva didn’t have a contract. So she was feeling fairly safe around the doll at the moment. Neither did Arachne, but Arachne hadn’t been summoned in the usual manner. Eva wasn’t so sure how they might react if brought near each other.

Though, at the moment, Eva wasn’t sure that the doll was even alive anymore.

For the fifteen minutes Eva had been back at Brakket, and longer according to Irene, the doll hadn’t moved. No breathing, no fidgeting of the arms. The doll hadn’t even blinked, as far as she could tell.

Nobody had gone near it. Anderson had made an announcement over the Brakket speaker system warning against going outside. Genoa and Juliana, being unable to teleport long distances on their own, had to have Zoe bring them inside to avoid going too near the doll.

They might have been able to sneak in through one of the back doors, but it was best not to take any risks with someone who could apparently fall out of the sky to skewer people.

“Nobody missing,” Zoe said as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. “However, Cindy Lovechild’s roommate has been unable to wake her. Wayne took her to the school nurse.”

Saija stepped forward, making sure everybody noticed her before speaking. “If Timothy had enraptured someone in his delirium, they should recover soonish now that he’s gone.”

“How soon?”

“A day or two,” Saija said with a shrug.

“I suppose that is good. I’ll let them know,” Zoe said, pulling her phone back out. “However,” she said with a nod towards the window, “what do we do about her?”

“If she doesn’t ever move, I suppose we could put her up on a pedestal. A free new statue for the school.”

“Eva…”

“Or we could try to talk to her. She was open to speaking the last time I encountered her.”

“Alright. What do we say then? ‘Please leave?'”

“Or find out what she is sticking around for. Maybe another demon has broken its contract in the area.”

“If that is the case, perhaps we should offer our assistance.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I told Anderson that his grand idea was idiotic. One of his perfectly innocent demons has already gone off the wall. When will the rest?”

“Hey,” Saija said. “I’ve got no such plans. I’m rather enjoying myself as I am. I don’t need a sword through my gut either.”

Eva turned back to the window, biting her lip. Being his school, Anderson should be the one out there speaking with the doll. He had a demon bound to him. He should know what it was.

But he was nowhere to be seen or heard of, save for the announcement he had made.

The only real reason why he might not be out there was because he broke his portion of the contract somehow. Perhaps he was worried about being dragged down to the abattoir.

Why isn’t the doll going after him then?

Maybe it was waiting for more orders from Void or the Keeper. Wherever it got its orders from.

She could speculate all she wanted. It wasn’t going to change matters until someone went down there to speak with her.

“We shouldn’t all go down at once. It might startle her,” Eva mumbled to herself.

Not quiet enough, apparently.

“You’re not going alone,” Arachne said almost instantly. “In fact, you’re not going at all. Someone else can deal with this. You don’t need to be involved in all the things that go on around this place. You’re already involved in enough.”

Eva shook her head. “You might think that, but there are enough complications around Brakket as is. It is in our best interest, and everyone else’s, to ensure that another one doesn’t crop up from this. I’d prefer if everything went as smooth as possible in the future.”

Like the ritual, she mentally added. With everyone around, she wasn’t about to speak aloud. Arachne should understand without being explicitly told.

She still wasn’t sure what to do about the ritual. They had cleared that area of the wilderness beyond the prison, but so long as the demon hunters had that replica of the nun’s ability to crack the sky, using that field was somewhat untenable. Perhaps if they had someone running an actual distraction for them. They could still be caught off-guard by a beam of light from the sky.

That wasn’t to say that the wilderness they had started on was the only possible location. The Infinite Courtyard was another possibility. It was still open to the sky, but at least it had Brakket Academy surrounding it. They could set up some sort of defenses around it.

A blood shield might work. It would have to be enormous. Larger than any Eva had ever made. She was fairly certain that she could power it through bloodstones. Provided her minion in Florida had done his job in finding suitable targets for more bloodstones, it could potentially be run indefinitely.

The only real problem with that was that she wasn’t sure how well a shield might hold up to an attack of that magnitude. Her blood shields were strong. Stronger than anything she could produce through thaumaturgy. But strong enough to withstand what was essentially a massive laser from the sky?

Eva wasn’t so sure.

The other option she had considered was somewhere indoors. Someone had set up a thaumaturgical ward that expanded what would have been a few hundred square feet into a few square miles for the Infinite Courtyard. Surely something similar could be done to a room. She wouldn’t even need a single square mile of space. So the ward could be drastically scaled down.

It would be much safer than going outside. Depending on who Eva had to get to set up the ward, the whole thing could be kept much quieter as well. No big fanfare or large crowds to find out what might be going on if people stumbled across the ritual circle. It could all be done in the privacy of one of the side rooms in the women’s ward.

She would cast the spell herself, but she had only been in her warding class for two months. Not even quite that. They hadn’t even discussed spacial expansion. What they had discussed was complex enough that Eva doubted anything useful would be covered for some time.

The teacher, Professor Chelsea Lepus, seemed the easygoing sort so long as her class wasn’t being interrupted. Eva might have to ask her.

But that would be neither here nor now.

They had a doll to deal with first.

“I’ll go,” Zoe said before Eva could open her mouth. “As a member of Brakket staff and someone who wants to ensure that the students are kept safe—safe as can be at Brakket anyway—it falls to me.”

“I’ll follow along at a distance, ready to blink in if anything goes wrong.”

“Eva…”

Eva held up a hand. “It will be great if you can shoo the doll away. Unfortunately, this is a demon thing. You’re not much of a demon.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“I’ll be there as well,” Genoa said, stepping forward.

“Mom, no. They can handle it.”

The older woman sighed, glaring down her daughter. Juliana drew herself up, unwavering under Genoa’s gaze.

“You’re staying right here,” Juliana said, voice firm.

Closing her eyes, Genoa shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be taking care of your old mom for several years. At least.”

“Then focus on recovering. You can go back to being mom after that.”

“Very well. But if something does happen–”

“If something does happen, you can cast long-range support from up here. I’ll be up here to protect you from anything that might come near.”

“If that doll comes up here, I’m running away. I’m not going anywhere near that doll,” Saija said, hands on her hips and chest puffed out with a certain amount of pride that didn’t really fit her words.

Half-hiding behind the succubus’ wings, Irene glanced down towards the ground. “Me too.”

“That’s fine,” Eva said. She hadn’t been counting on either one of them for any kind of support.

“If you do get into a fight, try not to die quite as fast as Timothy did. I mean, it was cool, but a drawn out fight would be better I think.”

Eva gave the succubus a light glare. Just a simple glare of annoyance.

That didn’t stop Saija from jumping backwards, trading places with Irene to hide behind her back.

Cowering behind a human? Eva had to stop herself from speaking aloud. It was amusing, but she just rolled her eyes in the end. Especially because saying something might just bring up the topic in everyone else’s minds. They had surely noticed how the demons acted when in Eva’s presence. It was annoying enough to deal with as it was.

“Right,” Eva said. “I’ll keep that in mind. If there is nothing else of note, let’s get moving.”

Arachne moved in front of Eva, leading the way down the stairwell. Zoe, though she was supposed to be the one speaking with the doll, was trailing behind. Her cellphone was out, typing away almost like Catherine with a deep scowl on her face.

Eva found the reason for her typing as soon as they hit the ground floor.

Wayne teleported in. He appeared entirely unannounced and just about got one of Arachne’s limbs through his throat for his troubles.

To his credit, he didn’t flinch. Though that might have just been him not noticing until Arachne had already started to draw back. Or maybe his mind was accelerated to the point where he had processed the shock of everything already.

Were Eva in his place and she saw Arachne’s leg coming straight for her, she would have moved out of the way. Just in case Arachne didn’t stop in time.

“I told you not to come,” Zoe said. “We don’t want to startle the doll into rash action. We already have more than enough people with Eva and Arachne.”

Wayne just gave a light grunt before narrowing his eyes in Eva’s direction. “We could argue. I’d win. Let’s just get this over with. I have tomorrow’s classes to prepare for.”

“Wayne–”

He turned and marched out of the the lobby ahead of everyone else, leaving no opportunity for argument.

Zoe just looked on, somewhat stunned as Wayne threw open the lobby doors and beelined towards the doll. She recovered fast enough and chased after him. Eva had to step to the side in order to avoid being trampled.

Following along behind the two of them, Eva just hoped that he wasn’t about to do something rash. Poorly thought out actions didn’t seem like the kind of thing that Wayne would do often. In fact, he was quite level-headed. But who knew what Zoe had sent him in her texts. She might have said something that would set him off.

Now that she was on ground level and fairly close to the doll, Eva could clearly see the woman. Only with her own eyes. As before, Eva couldn’t sense the slightest sensation of blood from the woman. Her silver hair framed her face. The entrance and exit of Prax’s domain had been lit, but not nearly as well as proper daylight. As such, Eva wasn’t entirely sure if she had noticed the doll’s eyes.

They were bright silver. Almost glowing.

And currently staring off into nothing. They didn’t move to track Wayne and Zoe as the two approached. They just… stared.

Neither Wayne nor Zoe spoke. They stopped about ten feet away, more at a loss of what to do than anything else. Both seemed to expect the doll to speak first. A fact made evident as Wayne cleared his throat. Loudly.

The doll didn’t react. Not even a twitch of her gloved fingers.

“Can we help you?”

Wayne shot Zoe a questioning glance out of the corner of his eye.

Zoe answered with a shrug. ‘We had to say something,’ she mouthed back.

“Perhaps,” the doll said, drawing all attention back to it. “I am locked in indecision.”

Literally, it seems, Eva thought.

She had moved her mouth, but the doll was still as a statue even after acknowledging the two professors.

“Well, we can help you come to a decision,” Zoe said. “Though I must ask before anything else, do you intend harm—physical or otherwise—to any of the humans around the area?”

“Not at this time,” the doll responded in a whisper. Her head turned slightly. While her eyes were still unfocused, Eva got the distinct impression that she was staring straight at the prison.

Eva immediately made a mental note to warn Devon that an enforcer from Hell might have an interest in him. Of course, the prison was a fair distance away. For all Eva knew, the doll was staring at something else. Maybe one of the demon hunters around town was off in that direction and had done something to displease the doll.

Still, best to err on the side of caution.

“That’s good,” Zoe said after a moment of silence. She probably didn’t like the phrasing, but would take what she could get. “Why don’t we move somewhere to sit down and discuss this then?”

Somewhere away from the children, Eva mentally added.

But the doll didn’t move. A brief moment of silence passed before she spoke. “The target of my indecision is present. I was considering tracking down my target, but that option has been removed. Until I have come to a decision, none shall move. Leaving may allow an escape.”

Up until the doll spoke, Eva had been fairly calm. With both herself and Arachne present, she was suddenly somewhat concerned.

She had several vials of blood. Both her own and Arachne’s. She could form shields and she could attack with ease. But would she be able to in time? Juliana had spoken of the doll’s speed from her experience in Hell.

In preparation, Eva uncapped one of the vials behind her back and prepared a decently sized shield. It would be up and around her in the blink of an eye.

Zoe shared a brief look with Wayne before continuing her questioning.

“What is it you’re having trouble deciding?”

“A demonic beacon was taken from Hell to the mortal realm by a demon. Multiple times. A crime worthy of five centuries imprisonment.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a problem from where I’m standing,” Wayne grumbled. “Less demons around, the better if you ask me.”

“Why don’t we not interrupt the… person,” Zoe said, clearly fumbling for words to call the doll. Facing the doll again, she said, “What is the problem anyway?”

“My information was incomplete,” she whispered. “The demon in question is not quite a demon.”

Both Zoe and Wayne turned slightly to glance in her direction while Arachne moved from ahead and to the side of Eva to directly between her and the doll. The latter let out a low growl as she bent her knees, ready to jump into action.

Eva grit her teeth, mind searching for possibilities. Unless there was another ‘not quite a demon’ running around, the doll was talking about her. But I haven’t done anything wrong. What is she talking about?

A beacon.

Her hand drifted up to brush at her throat. The only beacon she had been in contact with aside from her own—something that never left the mortal realm—had been Arachne’s. But that had been destroyed. Arachne had never used it. Void sent Arachne to Earth.

It had been around her neck nonstop before that.

Eva clenched her fists together.

Including when I sent Sawyer to Hell.

She had taken both Nel and Serena up to the mortal realm. And the beacon had gone with her both times.

“I destroyed it,” Eva said, stepping around Arachne. The blood was still floating behind her, just in case she needed to use it. For the moment, she would try to get out of this mess through words. “I realized my error and destroyed the beacon. It was never once used.”

Through her sense of blood, Eva could tell that Arachne was looking at her. Her carapace didn’t have blood flowing through it, but she was still obviously questioning Eva’s words.

Eva didn’t glance to the side in the slightest. Her focus was on the doll.

Who was now focused on her. Bright silver eyes stared straight at Eva.

“I didn’t help any demons to the mortal realm. The beacon was destroyed. So there shouldn’t be a problem regardless of my status of being only a partial demon.”

That should work. Hopefully. The logic was sound from Eva’s perspective. But would a demon—no, a doll feel the same?

“It is not my place to make such a decision. And something…” the doll’s whispering voice trailed off, staring at the sky for a moment. “Something is preventing my contact with the Keeper.”

Thank Life for that, Eva thought to herself. Had everything been working properly, Eva might have found herself on the receiving end of a sword falling from the sky. It would have come completely unnoticed, as it likely had for that Timothy demon.

“But you said that perhaps these humans might be able to assist in your decision,” Eva said, turning her stare on to Zoe.

“Right,” the professor said after clearing her throat. She shifted slightly, even less comfortable now than she had been when first approaching the doll. “Well, if no crime was committed, there shouldn’t be a punishment, right? There wasn’t even any intention in the actions.”

Still staring at the sky, the doll made no indication that she had even heard Zoe. “I need to reestablish contact.”

Eva followed her gaze up to the sky.

And noticed something.

A white crackling stood out against the blue sky, the clouds, and the violet streaks.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.017

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Irene stared at her phone. She had been all worried for Eva and yet Eva just hung up like it was nothing. With a joke about succubi, no less.

“Last time I worry about her.”

“See,” Saija said with a wide grin, “I told you it was nothing.”

“Well, not nothing. She said it was some doll that she knew. Doll,” Irene scoffed. “And she has the gall to tease me about…” she trailed off with a slight cough. There was no need to mention what Eva had been teasing her about in front of Saija. Who knew how the succubus might react. It would be just her luck for Saija to take the teasing as a challenge.

She might be alright to talk to while Drew and her other followers were gone, but she did not need anything more than talking.

Especially with the way Saija had followed her up to her room when she ran to collect her cellphone. Shelby wasn’t in at the moment, leaving the two of them all alone.

Though, now that she was glancing up at Saija, she realized that the succubus had gone very still.

“Saija?”

She jumped, causing a few creaks in the third and normally unoccupied bed. “Sorry,” she said. “A doll, was it?”

“Eva mumbled something about a doll. Maybe I misheard. Droll? How droll? Does that make sense? It was very quiet.”

“Doll makes more sense,” she said, standing. “I should go and make sure the others know a doll is out of Hell.”

Irene blinked, watching in confusion as Saija walked to the door and left the dorm room. She considered letting the demon go. Something was obviously up. Likely nothing she wanted anything to do with.

She stood anyway and chased after Saija.

“Wait. Hold on. I thought it was nothing!”

Saija didn’t stop. If anything, she sped up. Though she did glance over her shoulder to give Irene a wan smile. “Still probably nothing,” she said. “I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong. But there are eleven other demons around here. Odds aren’t with them.”

Apparently seeing Irene’s confusion, she explained a little farther. “Think of dolls like police officers. They come after people who break their contracts.” She paused, narrowing her eyes at nothing in particular. “Have any of us made proper contracts yet?”

It wasn’t a question Irene could answer. Luckily, Saija didn’t seem to expect one of her. She shook her head and continued onwards, down the staircase.

Following along, Irene moved up right next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just tell it to me straight, should I be panicking right now or not?”

Saija chuckled. Not a very mirthful chuckle. Almost a sad laugh. “You haven’t made any contracts have you? Then no,” she said as Irene shook her head. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“I think I’ve heard that before,” Irene said, voice flat.

Despite her misgivings, she followed along behind Saija as the demon ran around knocking on the doors on the first floor of the dormitory building.

Irene stayed behind Saija and tried hard to be as uninteresting as possible. She had enough demons—and people—interested in her as it was.

But she did watch their interactions.

Saija knocked on the first door. It took a moment, but a demon answered with relative promptness. Some demon stood in the doorway with glassy eyes. One Irene hadn’t spoken to before.

Irene hadn’t spoken to most of the demons, now that she considered the thought.

“Something you need?”

“Just thought you ought to know that a doll is running around the mortal realm for some reason. That’s all. Ta~ta!”

With a half-skip and a wave, Saija left the room and moved on to the next one.

The glassy-eyed demon froze much as Saija had when Irene first mentioned the doll, but didn’t ask for any clarification. He eyed Irene for one moment before slamming the door shut.

And then Saija repeated herself at the next room. She never stayed for long to speak with the other demons. Only long enough to tell them that a doll was in the area. She spoke lightly yet dispassionately, using the exact same tones and inflections as she had for the first demon. And, as with the first, none of the demons asked questions.

Almost as if she didn’t actually care whether or not the demons knew. It was like she was telling them out of mere obligation.

Knowing a thing or two about demons from the diablery class, Irene found it odd enough that she wondered just what was the wording of these demons’ contracts. Perhaps something like they couldn’t sabotage one another. Not telling them might count as some sort of betrayal.

As for the other demons, they all reacted in varying ways. Some didn’t seem to care. One or two started shaking with genuine fear on their faces.

But the last one…

Saija knocked as she had with the others. No one answered immediately. That wasn’t so strange. Not everyone answered as quickly as the first. A few of the other rooms had even been missing their occupants. Irene and Saija had just assumed that they were out mingling with the humans and had slipped a note into the little message box at the side of the doors.

However, someone was obviously home here. The noises coming from the other side of the door were evidence to that. Just a few moments of hearing them had Irene pulling away from the room.

The squelching and thumping. It was like someone was using eight meat tenderizers at once while singing with all the ability of a deaf walrus.

She had never actually heard a walrus sing, but that was beside the point.

Saija didn’t seem disturbed in the slightest. Angry, perhaps. Her arms were crossed over her chest. One of her fingers thumped against her arm in tempo with the thuds coming from within the room. After a moment, she hammered her fist against the door and didn’t stop until the door swung open.

The thumping within the room ceased at the exact moment that the door cracked open.

Irene looked away, almost afraid of what she might find in there.

Curiosity got the better of her.

She peeked an eye open.

Then both eyes.

A young man stood in the doorway wearing a polo shirt and slacks. His hair was neatly combed and his nails were clean, shiny, and cut short. Irene only noticed his fingers because his hand was up by his mouth as he let out a long yawn.

“You caught me while I was napping,” he said in a completely casual tone of voice.

Were it not for the noise that had been coming from his room, she might have thought that they had accidentally knocked on the door of a regular student. In fact, maybe that had been music of some sort. She had thought that something in that noise sounded like singing.

Saija kept her eyes narrowed as she pushed past the student into the room. “What were you up to?”

“Napping. I just said as much.”

“Liar. I’ve not slept once since coming to the mortal realm.”

“Don’t assume that everyone is the same as you.”

“Hmm.” Saija continued looking around the room.

From her position at the doorway, Irene couldn’t see anything odd about the room. Just a normal dormitory room. Three beds with desks at their feet, a mini-kitchen, and a door leading to a bathroom on one side of the room.

Actually, once she started really looking at it, the room was almost too clean. All three beds had their covers smoothed out without a single wrinkle. No bits of old clothing lying anywhere on the floor. The kitchen looked unused.

But there was a strong scent of lemon cleaner around the place.

“Whatever,” Saija said. “Only came by because it is demanded of me to tell you that one of the Keeper’s dolls might be somewhere around the mortal realm.”

This demon was the first to do anything more than slam the door in their faces. Something he might find difficult with Saija already inside the room. Even still, his reaction was different.

A lock of his perfectly combed hair slid out of place.

“Excuse me? I’m not sure I heard you properly.”

Saija’s face split into a grin as her gaze turned towards the demon for the first time. “Oh, I don’t believe that for a minute. Worry? Concern? I can smell it on you. Someone has been naughty. What’d you do?”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I honestly didn’t hear you.”

“Like you honestly were napping.”

The demon opened his mouth, but Saija waved her hand.

“Protest all you want, I don’t care. It will be interesting to see if you’re still around in a few days. But I’ve done my part. Good luck,” she said, starting to leave the room. “Or not,” she added before slipping out.

Saija didn’t hesitate in beating a retreat. She gripped Irene’s arm on the way—quite a bit rougher than Irene would have liked—and dragged her down the hall.

“Ouch, hey–”

Irene cut herself off as Saija squeezed her arm. Slamming a finger over her lips, she jerked her head back towards the room they had just left.

The demon was leaning around the corner, watching them leave with a perfectly normal expression on his face.

“He isn’t what he seems. Best to get away sooner rather than later.”

The way the demon was staring at Irene in particular removed all arguments and complaints from her mind. She nodded and just about ran forward, almost dragging Saija along with her. They only slowed once they made it back to the stairwell.

“What was up with that?” Irene said after taking a moment to catch her breath. She wasn’t sure why she was so out of breath, the hallway wasn’t that long.

“He’s an odd one. Don’t worry about him too much. Though he was acting a little suspicious,” Saija said, tapping her chin. “Have any of the students gone missing recently?”

“I don’t think so… Is that a thing? Should I be worried that he’s been eating people?”

“Oh no. He would just pretend to grant people’s wishes while trapping them in a sort of alternate reality where everything is perfect, feeding off their emotions in the meantime.”

“Thats–” Irene started. She had been about to say that it wasn’t so bad, but changed her mind after thinking about it for another second or two longer. “That might be worse.”

“Yeah. I mean, technically it isn’t hurting the humans, but probably still violates the spirit of his contract. Fascinating. Let’s watch and see if the doll shows up.”

“What? Why? I thought you didn’t care about him.”

“I was just saying that. If a doll is really here to take him out, I want to watch it happen. I’ve heard about them and yet have never actually seen one.”

After being kind enough to let Irene finish filling her lungs with fresh air, Saija dragged her straight up to the second floor.

At the junction between the rest of the stairs and the second floor landing, Irene had tried to slip away. She really didn’t want to watch some demon, especially one as creepy as that perfect guy. Homework had been light so far into the year, but Irene still had an essay to write.

The second she had tried to break away from Saija, the succubus had her hand on Irene’s shoulder once again.

She could have protested, but she didn’t. Irene just sighed and resigned herself to her fate. Eva, Catherine, and now Saija, all of them traveled at their own paces and expected the same of everyone around them. Seemingly especially of Irene.

Though maybe she was the only one who needed to be dragged into things.

Juliana followed along on her own as did Shalise. Obviously Arachne wouldn’t need to be dragged into things. She was a demon and part of the things that needed dragging into. Shelby and Jordan…

Wait, Irene thought, pausing her light pacing in front of the second floor stairwell windows, Shelby and Jordan are never a part of anything. How do they manage it?

She didn’t get a chance to consider the answer.

Saija pressed her nose against the glass. “I can feel him pacing back and forth. He keeps moving up next to the window. What are you going to do?” she said, more to herself than to Irene. “Stick around? Maybe flee and try to put some physical distance between yourself and the doll?”

“If he sticks around for more than a minute or two, I’m leaving,” Irene said.

Waving a hand in Irene’s direction, Saija kept looking out the window. Irene wasn’t even sure if the succubus had heard what she had said beyond some noises coming out of her mouth.

Looking out the window herself, Irene spotted the few demons who were out of their rooms, mingling with normal students. Since they had only been left a message, they were completely unaware of the possible danger presented by this ‘doll’ thing.

“Wait,” Irene said, “what’s that up there?”

The roof of the other dormitory building wasn’t that far away. The roof of it was clear to see. Squinting her eyes, Irene could see someone standing right on the edge of the roof. Almost leaning over the edge.

Her heart clenched, thinking someone was about to jump. But the person had one boot up on the ledge as she peered over the edge. Irene had never seen someone about to commit suicide, but she doubted that they would appear so aggressive in their stance. Squinting her eyes, she was almost certain that there was a long glint of metal around her waist.

“It’s the doll!” Saija said, sounding far more enthusiastic than Irene would have expected. “I bet it is watching our dear friend on the first floor. He’s pacing still and hasn’t become more agitated. I doubt he’s noticed.”

“Shouldn’t you tell him?”

“And ruin my fun?”

“Well, you had to tell him in the first place. I figured that telling him again would be part of your contract.”

Saija waved a hand. “No no, I told him that there was a doll in the area.” She pointed out the window. “That’s a doll. It’s in the area. Anything more would just be going above and beyond the stipulations of my contract. I–”

She stopped suddenly.

Irene glanced up at the roof, but the doll hadn’t moved. Turning towards Saija, she actually took a step backwards. The succubus had her eyes narrowed in Irene’s direction. She let out a noise from the back of her throat before speaking.

“How did you know the details of my contract?”

“I guessed?”

“Well don’t,” she said, turning back to the window. “I like my private affairs to remain private.”

Irene watched Saija for a few moments, making sure that the girl wasn’t about to bite her head off for suddenly speaking again. “Sorry. I didn’t know it would be such a secret thing.”

“The problem is that I think demons can get trapped. I tell you something that I can’t do then you put me into a position where I can’t not do said thing. That’s how I wind up getting that thing after me,” she said, pointing across the way to the other dormitory building.

Before Irene could respond, Saija pointed downwards. “Wait,” she said. She hummed for a moment with a disturbing grin on her face. “He’s moving.”

Sure enough, a perfect bundle of clothing walked out onto the courtyard. Bundle might be the wrong word, but he did look dressed up for a cold day. A fluffy blue scarf was wrapped around his neck and he wore a slim coat. He took hold of the scarf and hiked it up over his nose after taking a quick look at the demons and humans still around the courtyard.

He never once looked up as he made his way out towards the city.

The doll atop the other building walked right along the edge, following along with him.

“Come on,” Saija said, turning back towards the stairs. She started upwards before realizing that Irene hadn’t followed her.

“Do I really need to go with you? That ‘doll’ thing is just going to kill him right? I don’t need to see that.”

“You don’t think it will be exciting?”

Not the word I would use for it, Irene thought as she shook her head. Morbid, more like.

If she had a book on these dolls and a nice safe place to read, she might find the topic far more interesting. She had been around far too many fights involving demons as it was. Especially if the demon found himself cornered. He might try to take hostages.

Saija had said that humans wouldn’t have much to fear from the doll things, but Irene had her doubts. If the doll really was after this demon for breaking a contract, who is to say that either would care if they had to skewer a human to get at the other.

“What would you find interesting–” Saija cut herself off as her eyes drifted over Irene’s shoulder. “Wait, where did the doll go?”

She ran over to the window once again.

Sure enough, the roof of the Gillet was void of any life. The demon was still walking down towards the city, growing smaller to Irene as he moved.

He had no haste in his gait. He didn’t betray any panic by looking around. His arms swung casually at his sides as he moved down the street. The drawn up scarf around his neck was the only real oddity and that was just because it wasn’t that cold out. And that could just be personal preference.

The demon who Saija claimed was worried out of his mind looked no different from a student heading into town to pick up some new school supplies.

At least, that’s what Irene thought up until the moment he looked up towards the sky.

His skin bubbled and boiled. Black tar escaped from his eyes.

Anything else was cut short by a sword plunging through his open mouth, skewering him and pinning him to the ground.

The leather-clad doll came down from the sky next, planting both of her boots right on the demon’s chest. His body, which had been arched and mostly upright, hit the ground hard. The sword passed right through his mouth and chest as his body moved.

Halfway split apart, the demon still tried to attack back. His arms grew longer, reaching out towards the doll with obsidian claws in place of hands.

Though there was some distance between them, Irene couldn’t detect a hint of concern on the doll’s face. She said a few words before pulling her sword from the demon’s chest.

A portal opened beneath the demon, drawing him while leaving the doll standing alone.

She brought her sword straight up in front of her before flicking it down to her side at an angle. Black tar flung off the blade, leaving its shine pristine. In the same smooth motion, she spun it around and sheathed it on the other side of her hip.

“Now you’ve got to admit, that was pretty neat.”

Irene shook her head. Her stomach was churning. It had been a relatively clean kill, all things considered. Nothing was even left of the demon. And she knew that demons didn’t die when they… died. But seeing him split open even for a moment brought up ill memories of the monstrosities that had attacked her and Eva the previous year.

The other people, both humans and demons, were panicking in various ways. Most of the humans were fleeing towards the dormitory buildings. The two demons were staring, clearly preparing to fight. One had lightning crackling between his fingertips while the other had fully reverted away from his human form, becoming a sort of music box with legs and a head. One arm poked out the side, winding a crank.

But the doll made no motion to attack. She merely glanced around the area, stopping briefly on each demon.

When she stopped on Saija, the succubus took a full step backwards. Irene could almost feel the air shaking around the demon.

As with the others, the doll eventually passed over Saija. She stared for a few seconds before turning away, facing out towards the city.

“Neat and a little scary,” Saija said, voice much quieter.

“I think I should call Eva again.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: There is a new chapter over on the preview site. Not Analyst or Demi-God, something new tentatively titled Specter. Longer notes at the bottom of that chapter.


008.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Wow.”

Eva rested her head on the table with a soft sigh. She had tried to keep her discussion quiet. That had failed within seconds.

Vektul, as Eva had asked of him, had gone around and warned the other demons of the sky cracking idol and the demon hunters. Unfortunately, he had gone around and told everyone during lunch. Everyone, in this case, included more than just the demons. Eva would be surprised if anyone in the whole school didn’t know what had happened the night before.

Having only gotten back to Brakket early in the morning, Eva had promised to tell her friends what she had been up to the night before as soon as school was out and they could have some privacy. After Vektul created an uproar, Eva figured that she might as well explain now.

“There were some flashes on the horizon. Shalise actually woke me up after the first one. I had been asleep.”

“I was just studying,” Shalise said. “I thought it was lightning, but there weren’t any clouds.”

“I can’t believe you ran off to all the excitement without us again,” Juliana said with a half-hearted glare.

Shalise shifted, glancing between Eva and Juliana. “I could do without all the excitement, personally,” she whispered.

“Says the girl who tried to convince Arachne to fight her without even talking to me,” Eva said, pretending she hadn’t heard Shalise’s hushed comment.

“I said I was sorry.”

Eva waved a hand. She really didn’t care if the two sparred or not. It was heartening to see Arachne consider Eva’s feelings. However, as long as she kept herself under control, they could spar all they wanted. There were more important things for everyone to worry about.

“But there wasn’t supposed to be anything exciting last night for you to miss. Just a simple terrain survey and cleanup.”

“You still haven’t explained what for.”

Eva glanced around the cafeteria.

The people who weren’t paying attention to Vektul’s robotic repetition of last night’s events were all leaning in on Eva’s conversation. Originally, he had only spoken with the demons. Loudly. Once a regular human asked for clarification on a point and he had responded without murdering them, that had opened the doors for all kinds of questions.

While the exact details of last night were no longer secret, the ritual still was. He had the sense for that at least.

Eva intended to keep it that way.

Knowing about demon hunters and the ways they could attack might be valuable for someone. Maybe it would even save someone’s life.

But not her ritual.

For Zoe, Eva had simply said that she had noticed something odd outside her prison and had gone to investigate. Eva doubted that Zoe actually bought it, but she hadn’t pressed too hard.

At least not about her reason for being out there. She asked a great deal of questions about the hunters.

Eva could understand her concern. If the hunters decided to use their sky-cracking idol around Brakket, they might kill a few demons. However, they would probably catch a great many humans in the collateral.

Looking away from Juliana, Eva just shook her head slightly. “How did they find us? They weren’t watching us before we went to my prison. Nobody was watching us when I told Srey and Vektul to meet me out there. While they might have wondered why we weren’t at Brakket and assumed that we were at the prison, they weren’t watching us before we left. We didn’t leave much of a trail for them to follow. We could have been anywhere.”

“Some kind of demonic tracking device that doesn’t trigger Srey’s sixth sense?”

“Yeah. Maybe. The good news is that they can’t block Nel’s vision. Or, if they can, they haven’t yet. She’s keeping an eye on them.”

A task she had taken to with a great deal of enthusiasm. When the inquisition had originally attacked Eva’s prison, she had put up a small protest against destroying their idol. Nothing had ever came of her momentary anger. She had either realized the necessity or had forgotten about it with her capture at Sawyer’s hands.

But seeing this mockery of the idol had set her off. Eva had a stack of maps and notes to go through as soon as school ended. Everywhere the hunters had been since their departure last night, everything they had been up to, anyone they had met with, and any possible traps around the farmhouse outside of town that they had co-opted as their base of operations.

“So we’re going to counterattack them, right?”

Eva glanced over with a frown on her face. Juliana had used the word ‘we.’

Her mother would probably kill Eva if she knew what her daughter wanted to get into.

The only real advantage Juliana had going for her was that she wasn’t a demon. None of the traps would work on her. At least, none of the ones set up to counter demons specifically. Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of generic traps.

As for counterattacking them…

Charging into Sawyer’s lair could have ended extraordinarily painfully had Eva not spotted his haugbui. That had been a stroke of luck in retrospect. He never would have gone to it had he not suspected the vampires of treachery. That had only happened because Eva failed to provide some secret passphrase, which had only happened because the vampire had gotten a call off and she needed to try hiding it from Sawyer.

A chain of luck that probably saved her life.

Even if they spied on the demon hunters for a week, Eva doubted that Nel would see every trap they had set. Even if she did see them all, who knew if she would recognize things dangerous to demons.

She could still remember opening up their apartment door to find Lucy amidst so many anti-demon magical circles that it had taken the complete destruction of the room to get her out. According to the note left behind, Eva had just about stepped into a trap that was supposed to have reduced Ylva to a scorch mark.

Attacking the hunters in their home base would likely leave them facing far stronger and far more prepared defenses.

“I don’t know,” Eva eventually said. “But something has to be done. We need a large place to work with. Their sky cracking thing ruins outdoor locations.”

“You’re just going to leave them alone? They tried to kill you!”

“I know. I’m not going to do nothing. But I’m not sure what to do.”

Juliana fell silent. She idly stirred some green sludge that had been served for today’s lunch. Eva hadn’t seen her actually take a bite of it. She couldn’t tell what it was and wasn’t about to put it in her mouth. For all she knew, it could be poisonous towards demons. Or humans. Both, probably.

“Do you want to talk with my mother? She’ll have interacted with these sorts before. Maybe enough to give you good advice.”

Not really, Eva thought. Seeing Genoa was just a little awkward these days. Avoiding the woman in the wheelchair felt wrong and yet Eva still did it. But… thinking about it a moment longer and it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

“Maybe,” she said. “Though I’m not so sure about Carlos and your brother.”

“Brother left, actually. His vacation from his job ran out a while ago. ‘Family emergency’ only held out as an excuse for so long.”

Well, that was a positive, at least.

“Of course, if we go there, we might be leading the demon hunters right to your family. With your mother still not up to full speed…”

“I’ve been going there every week since school started,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Given my relation to you, I’m sure they already know about it.”

“But they might not have attacked because they’re seemingly unrelated to me outside of our friendship. This might be just what it takes to warrant an attack.”

“You know what?” Juliana said as she pulled out her cellphone. She held up a finger when Eva went to respond. After tapping twice, she held the phone up to her ear.

“Mom? I– No, everything is fine. Nobody is in trouble… No. Nobody died as far as I know.” She paused, rolling her eyes towards Eva before shaking her head. “I don’t know! Look, no emergency at the moment. I just wanted to ask if Eva could come over and ask you a few questions.”

“Also,” Eva added, “we might be dragging demon hunters to her home.”

Juliana rolled her eyes again. “Eva wants you to know that she is worried that some demon hunters might notice where she’s going and attack you sometime.” She paused while her mother answered on the other end of the line. After a few seconds, she turned to Eva and smiled. “She said that’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to worry about her.”

Back to her phone, Juliana said, “I told her. Yes. Alright, we’ll be over after school. Bye. Love you too, mom. Alright, bye.”

Juliana slipped her phone back into her pocket. “There. No more excuses.”

“They weren’t excuses. I was just concerned.”

“Well, be concerned no longer.”

Eva sighed, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll go.”

Now I need to think up some actual questions.

— — —

Irene watched as Eva, Arachne, Juliana, and Srey took off for the day. During their conversation at lunch, she had kept quiet and tried to draw as little attention to herself as possible. She had already gotten involved in far too many things with the group of them.

Learning about shackles and even demons was one thing. A mildly enjoyable thing.

Being chased around town by demon hunters was another entirely.

And it did not sound appealing in the slightest.

With a sigh of relief at having gone apparently unnoticed all day, Irene started into the dormitory.

Only started.

The exterior door opened up just before she could reach it and she found herself running into another troublesome individual.

“Irene!” A certain succubus said, beaming at her as she skipped the short distance between them. She put her hands on Irene’s shoulders before drawing her close and planting a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been so long.”

Pushing away from the other girl, Irene wiped off both of her cheeks before glaring at her. “You pulled me aside in the halls just earlier today. And what’s with the kissing?”

Saija was a succubus, but she had never been touchy feely like that before.

“Drew said that humans greet each other this way.”

“Maybe in France. And I don’t believe that anyway. It’s just a thing that happens in movies that people think is real.”

Saija pouted. A real lip-out pout. “Then why would he say that?”

“Because he just wants you to kiss him. Next time slap him or something,” Irene said. Drew was such a slime ball. He was supposedly going out with Kristina anyway. What was he doing tricking a succubus into kissing him?

Saija just shrugged, not looking disturbed at having been taken advantage of in the slightest.

Whatever, Irene thought. If the demon wanted to go around kissing everyone, it really wasn’t any of her business. Just so long as Irene didn’t get kissed anymore.

“Was there something you wanted?”

“You ran away from me in the hall earlier today. Did I do something wrong?”

Irene hesitated, about to deny the claim. She thought better of it after a moment and decided to simply answer with honesty. “The people who you have leashed to your little finger are not really the sort of people I hang out with.”

Especially Drew.

“Leashed to my finger? My friends?”

Irene snorted, cutting it short as she shivered a little. Summer had dragged on a little longer this year, but it was still getting to the point where she needed a light jacket while outside. Winter was coming early. She hadn’t brought a jacket as she hadn’t expected to be stuck in the entryway of her dorm for ten minutes.

“If you think those people are your friends…” Irene shook her head. “Well, you’re probably wrong. Is there a reason you stopped me out here instead of somewhere inside?”

“I didn’t want you running away again. If I’m here, then you have to get past me to get to your room.”

“There are side entrances.”

“That’s… Why aren’t they my friends? I thought humans who hung out with each other were friends?”

Irene tried to slip past Saija. The succubus spread her wings out, blocking entrance as she had said she would. While Irene could go all the way around to a side entrance, now that she had mentioned it to Saija, the succubus would probably just move to block her there.

“Those kinds of people–” I assume “–are shallow. You’re the cool new thing. A demon and a beautiful person. Once something new comes along, you’ll be dropped so they can worship that instead.” Irene paused, glancing down at the succubus’ chest. “Well, at least the ones who aren’t following you around because they’re enamored with your… assets.”

Saija glanced down at her own chest, up at Irene’s chest, then up at Irene’s face.

With a smirk.

“Ugh.”

“Don’t worry. You’re still growing, right? Humans keep developing for most of their life. Especially if you eat more,” she said, poking at Irene.

Slapping her hand away, Irene said, “I don’t care about that. Just go… play with your fake friends.” Again, she pushed past the succubus. This time, when Saija spread her wings out, Irene pressed into the leathery material until it gave way and let her into the building.

Though it took a lot more force than she had anticipated. The wings gave way not because Irene pushed more than they could handle but because Saija let her past. Without the resistance of the wing, Irene stumbled forwards. She almost fell to the ground.

A tail wrapping around her waist kept her upright.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Irene said with a sigh.

“If you really wanted past that badly, you need have only asked.”

“I’m sorry. I just…” She trailed off with another sigh, dropping her head as she did so.

I suddenly wish Eva were here.

The diablery class, barring a certain specific incident, had been somewhat enjoyable. With Eva there to watch and keep an eye on the more rowdy elements of the class, it had been a safe environment to learn in. At least, as safe as such a volatile subject could be.

Interacting with demons—even Eva on occasion—was not something she envisioned herself doing more than strictly necessary. They didn’t act like humans. They didn’t react like humans. They didn’t think like humans.

Without Eva around to act as a buffer, Irene just didn’t know what to do.

Irene idly thumbed at the leather cord around her waist.

Maybe the problem wasn’t in the demons. Maybe it was her.

Saija was easily the most personable demon of the bunch. Almost everyone got along with her just fine. But other demons had been opening up in the recent weeks. Each had their own cadre of friends, though none had as large of a group as Saija. They all, people and demons, seemed to handle themselves fine.

It was just her.

Of course, some days had Irene thinking that she was the only student in school who got bullied. Jordan never got bullied. Juliana never got bullied. Even Shalise never got bullied. Her own twin sister never got bullied.

Eva did get bullied for a short time last year just after her appearance had been revealed to everybody, but that had died off quick enough. Irene wasn’t sure if it was Eva’s menacing appearance or something else, but it wasn’t a thing that had lasted very long.

So maybe it wasn’t the demons that were the problem.

It was that Irene couldn’t properly interact with other sentient beings.

Shaking her head, Irene pulled her hand back from the leathery tail as if it had been shocked. Saija was a succubus and Irene didn’t want a scatter-brained idle action while she had been lost in thought to give the demon any ideas.

“Are you going to let me go any time soon,” Irene asked, glancing towards Saija.

But the demon wasn’t even paying attention to her.

Saija’s eyes were narrowed, glowing bright red as she gazed outside the dorm building.

Following her gaze, Irene peered out into the courtyard.

At absolutely nothing. A handful of students were meandering about. None doing anything suspicious. It was only a half-hour after school. Given the only mild cold, it wasn’t too odd to see her peers outside enjoying themselves. Two of the demons were out there as well, speaking with humans.

Interacting with people. And people were interacting with demons. Casually.

It was enough to make Irene sigh.

Though they had been warned about the sky laser beam thing—they and most of the school thanks to Vektul—apparently they felt safe enough to be outside around people.

Irene watched the two of them for a moment before deciding that nothing worthy of alarm was going on with them. They were just chatting. No rampant murders or demon hunters attack.

“Is something the matter?”

When Saija failed to respond, Irene pushed a wing out of the way to place a hand on the demon’s shoulder.

“Saija?”

The demon jumped at the contact. Her tail tightened around Irene’s waist. Not painfully. Just reflexively as part of her startled jump.

“Sorry. I thought I– It’s probably nothing.”

That made the hairs on Irene’s neck stand on end. “What was nothing?”

“Nothing,” Saija said with a smile and a shrug.

Irene shook her head. “No. You don’t get to say nothing. There are demon hunters running around, hunting demons–”

“As demon hunters are wont to do.”

“So you can’t just dismiss something that had you glaring at the air as nothing,” Irene continued, ignoring Saija’s quip.

“Sure I can. I dismiss tons of things every day as nothing,” she said, waving a hand to one side with a chuckle. “I’m not paranoid.”

“It isn’t paranoia when they’re really out to get you!”

Someone was watching them. Some demon hunter saw Irene with a demon’s tail wrapped around her waist. They would come after her thinking that she was related somehow. Her throat would be slit in the middle of the night without her even knowing.

Irene froze solid. I sit with Eva and Arachne at lunch. I am already related.

She didn’t have special powers to help defend herself. No super strength. No wings to fly away quickly. She was just a boring human caught in things that she really shouldn’t have ever–

Though already frozen, Irene stiffened further.

Saija had her chest pressed against Irene. Both arms were wrapped tightly around Irene’s shoulders as the tail tightened and dragged Irene closer. Her wings wrapped around her, shielding them from any prying eyes.

Or shielding Irene. Saija would obviously still be visible from the outside.

For a moment, Irene thought she was about to be eaten. Or something equally as terrible. But the succubus just rested her chin on Irene’s shoulder and stood there in the entryway of the dormitory building.

It took two minutes of enduring the… hug? —before Irene welled up the courage to push Saija off her.

Carefully.

She made sure she touched nothing but the demon’s shoulders. And even that was as ginger of a touch as she could manage.

“Um, Saija? No offense, but I don’t think I really… like you in a way that involves so much touching.”

“Drew said that hugging helps humans when they’re worried, nervous, sad, happy, and several other thing.”

Irene frowned. At least Saija’s tail wasn’t wrapped around her anymore. But…

“You really need to stop listening to Drew.”

“Alright,” Saija said, voice firm and slightly chipper.

“Alright?”

“I’ll tell him to go hang around with someone else.”

“I don’t– I mean, why? Why listen to what I say?”

“You were the first human to talk to me. You even invited me out to that place outside of school. It’s made me sad that you never come talk to me during school.”

“That…” Was Juliana, Irene thought. She had only been there—and at the demons’ initial arrival—because she had been dragged there by the others.

“Besides, he’s obviously been lying to me. I came to the mortal realm because someone summoned me. However, I’m still here to learn and have fun.”

“Well, okay,” Irene said. That sounded far more innocent than she had expected. Especially of a succubus. Were all of the student-demons like that?

Irene glanced over Saija’s shoulder, watching the other two demons interact with the humans around them. Maybe so.

And besides. The dean of the school wouldn’t have brought dangerous demons to interact with schoolchildren, would he? She knew Jordan’s dad. He could be scary, but he wasn’t evil.

She shuddered a little as she considered, remembering just why she had ‘needed’ that hug in the first place.

“What did you see just now?”

“Just an older woman in a long leather coat running around.”

“Old woman?”

“Well, she had white hair. That means old for humans, right?”

Irene considered Randal. His hair varied between white, silver, and plain gray depending on the lighting. But he was an exception, not the rule.

“Yeah, I suppose so. She was running?”

“Yep. Just dashed across my field of vision. She was pretty quick, I almost wasn’t sure I saw anything. Probably nothing. Though I do wonder why she had a sword. Most humans don’t carry them. Just that one professor.”

“Sword?! That doesn’t sound like nothing!” Irene paused, trying to think of something to do. There really was only one option. “We should warn Eva.”

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