Tag Archives: Jordan

010.004

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“Dean Anderson here.”

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

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

Only Arachne sat with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enigmas maybe? Or demons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana shrugged. “Don’t think so.”

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

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

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

Eva ignored them and continued on her way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh.”

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All at once, it turned and spread its wings.

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

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009.022

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

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

Not today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had gotten the information she needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

“I’m going to drop you!”

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

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

But Saija’s words eventually registered in her mind.

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

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

“Then just set me down somewhere.”

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

“Wai–”

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

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

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

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

She was right in the middle of all the defenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the ground was her domain.

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

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

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

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

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

And stepped right on top of his own rune.

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And wound up with nothing to show for her efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could carry it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like a fight at our base.”

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.003

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No one could say that Brakket Academy wasn’t welcoming towards its guests. Anderson had pulled out all the stops to make them feel as comfortable as possible even with all the demons wandering around. Though with his order for the demons to remain hidden, the only obvious demonic beings were Arachne and Eva.

After having her inhuman hands revealed in public, Eva had gotten her fair share of stares. Getting a few more was nothing special. And the meal was doing a decent job of distracting everyone.

A feast had been laid out for everyone. In typical Brakket Academy fashion, Eva couldn’t tell what most of it was. The mashed potatoes and roast were obvious. That is where the food she was familiar with ended.

An orange soup that smelled of lilacs seemed to be favored by one of the schools, though nobody Eva was sitting with had touched it. Perhaps it was a local delicacy of some sort. There was a thick, almost honey-like drink for everyone to partake of. Though it wasn’t sweet like honey. Rather, it had a taste not unlike that of lightly salted butter.

Eva had taken a single sip and decided that between the thickness and taste, that one sip had been more than enough for the rest of her life. Which, assuming all went well, would be practically forever. Luckily the feast had water available as well. Something Eva was much happier with.

Still, the students from another school were guzzling it down by the glass, making Eva wonder if it hadn’t been laid out specifically for them. Each school seemed to have some odd food that they favored over the others.

The thought had Eva’s mind running off on a tangent. She had never actually met the cooks at the school. With all the weird stuff they served for lunches, Eva wondered if they were even human.

But, that was just a tangent. She shook her head and went back to inspecting the new arrivals.

They were staring at her. She would stare right back.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t stare at one of them for even half as long as they stared at her. Luckily, she didn’t have to. As soon as her eyes met with someone else’s, they would always look away first. Usually in the first second and with a slight jump of shock.

Once or twice, when faced with a student who didn’t look away fast enough, she would even smile at them.

While amusing herself with making everyone uncomfortable, there wasn’t all that much to look at. Not everyone was human, but none particularly stood out to Eva as they ate. Well, except for the woman apparently made of wood and leaves over at one of the tables. So far, that woman hadn’t even looked to Eva. Aside from that, small talk was made, often with points or gestures in her direction. In fact, few people actually seemed to be eating, focusing more on the talking.

Not really surprising.

Well, almost nobody stood out. There were a few she was suspicious about. A group of twenty students from one of the schools in particular.

There were only supposed to be ten contenders, but apparently the other schools had been welcome to bring friends or family. Or maybe just spectators that had wanted to come.

Eva didn’t really care. She hadn’t paid any attention when the schools were being announced. Her interest in the event amounted to how much she could avoid participating while still participating enough.

Not paying attention was coming back to bite her at the moment. Two members of that school had something unusual about them. Each had an eye-like object implanted right around their sternum.

Leaning over past Shelby, she tapped Jordan on the shoulder. “Which school was that group from?” she asked with a nod of her head in the direction. He should know, he was the dean’s son after all.

“Isomer Holy Academy. A school for thaumaturgy from where the Elysium Order gets most of their recruits.”

Eva slowly nodded as she glanced back to the two girls a table and a half away.

The two immediately locked eyes with her, not flinching away in the slightest.

“They’re nuns in training,” Eva murmured with a groan. She really did not want to deal with some half-baked nuns out for revenge because of her various humiliations of the Elysium Order.

Nobody had even died last time save for Arachne, and she returned the stupid obelisk. They should just get over themselves already. Eva wasn’t even holding that big of a grudge for them killing Arachne—it was mostly her own fault for assaulting them, even if she hadn’t had much of a choice at the time.

But maybe they didn’t even know about that. Would the higher-ups in the order have told two lowly recruits? They were probably the freshest of all the nuns, given that they were still in school.

Maybe they just hated her because she wasn’t human.

The rest of the students looked hostile, but not quite to the level of the relentless glare that those two nascent nuns were giving Eva. Most glanced away as soon as Eva looked at them.

Oddly enough, the two adults with that school—the headmaster and some other authoritative chaperon—were looking more uncomfortable than angry. Both sat up with the rest of the visitors, professors, and the dean, quietly talking to each other as they ate. Neither had eyes implanted in their chests. They were, to the best of Eva’s ability to detect, two perfectly normal humans.

The Elysium Order must employ regular humans as professors and staff.

“I’m surprised they bothered to come at all,” Eva said, glancing back to Jordan.

“The Elysium Order isn’t currently operating in North America, but they didn’t shut down the school. It is, after all, just a regular school for mages. As for actually showing up,” he paused with a shrug. “Maybe they wanted to keep an eye on you. Or us.”

“As long as that’s all they’re doing.”

Eva shrugged her shoulders, breaking eye contact with the nearly-nuns. Technically, she looked away first. It wasn’t that big of a deal to her though.

Besides, she was in much too good of a mood to have it ruined by a few sticks in the mud.

She had been practicing her warding. Right over her own plate of half-finished half-pushed-around food was a small bubble. A ward she had been toying with. It let her hands pass through and it let food out—when she deigned to take a bite—yet the few droplets of water that she flicked over the ward hit it, stopped, and ran down the side to pool on the tablecloth.

Eva grinned for a moment before clamping down on her expressions. While she had flashed a brief smile at a few of the students just to make them uncomfortable, she really wasn’t interested in being known as the girl who sat around playing with her food and smiling at it.

Not only that, but this ward still had problems. She had a feeling that snow would pass through without trouble. The potatoes had a good amount of moisture in them and they went through without trouble. Of course, it couldn’t be completely impermeable to water. Humans were basically bags of the liquid.

Which was probably why so many of her failures were completely impassable, now that she thought about it.

Though pleased with her current success, the situation as a whole was frustrating enough that Eva was actually thinking about seeking help. Weather wards weren’t exactly uncommon, so it wasn’t like she was trying to invent a whole new branch of magic. She wanted someone to straight up teach her how to make one or just do it for her. Probably the former as the latter would require bringing someone else out to what was obviously a ritual site.

Luckily, it just so happened that Eva had a teacher who was supposed to teach her these kinds of things. While weather warding wasn’t on the schedule for another few months yet, she might be able to ask about it in an extracurricular fashion.

Glancing up to the table, Eva watched Professor Lepus for a moment. She, as always, had her hair tied up in a ribbon that pointed straight up, resembling the ears of a rabbit. Unlike most of her coworkers, she wasn’t talking to anyone. Her fork ran through her food, pushing it around much as Eva did when killing time waiting for others to finish.

Lepus never really struck Eva as very unsociable. She spoke well in class and never so much as stuttered. But those were all prepared lessons. Maybe she suffered when forced to interact in more improvisational situations.

Eva considered playing a brief prank on her. Just a little thing to get her attention and maybe signal that she wanted to talk later. All the professors had office hours extending beyond the regular school day, so she could just walk in without any sort of appointment. But still, she was growing increasingly bored of this feast.

Just as she was about to attempt a long-range ward around the professor’s food, blocking all access to the plate, Eva caught a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye.

All thoughts of her warding professor were lost as Eva scanned the room. She used both her eyes and her sense of blood to pick out anything unusual. Perhaps a suspicious insect buzzing around or someone not where they were supposed to be.

Especially towards another school’s table where the flicker looked like it had been heading towards.

After staring for a moment and finding herself unable to locate any real threat, she glanced back to Jordan.

“Nod Complex for the Supernatural,” he said, preempting her question. “The only school in America that openly accepts non-human students. Aside from Brakket I suppose.”

As soon as he said that, Eva turned back to the table and started paying attention more to their insides than their outsides. Now that she was actually looking, she quickly found a few problems. One of the boys had a tumor growing in the rough shape of a third lung.

Actually, on closer staring, Eva decided that it was a third lung.

A few of them were obviously plain and ordinary humans. The others, she wasn’t so sure about. One girl’s heart was beating faster than a frightened rabbit’s. While she could be simply scared of knowing that demons and nuns were about, Eva found it far more likely that she wasn’t human. Three more were elves, only really noticeable because of their ears.

One boy, slightly older looking than the rest of them, actually waved when Eva turned her attention to him.

She couldn’t understand how she could have missed him before. Perhaps she had just been distracted with the nuns.

His heart wasn’t beating and his blood wasn’t pumping. While not as deathly pale as Serena, he was still a vampire.

Slowly and without making a single expression on her face, Eva turned her head to look back at the Isomer table.

The two nuns were still staring straight at her. If they had noticed the vampire, they were being extremely subtle about it.

And they didn’t have a single subtle bone in their bodies based on how they were staring at Eva.

Just as slowly as she had looked away from the vampire, Eva turned to face nothing in particular. She stayed staring at nothing for a few moments before finally speaking in a hushed tone of voice.

This was supposed to be a serious yet somewhat friendly competition. Yet with those nun trainees, Eva had a feeling that there would be a good amount of blood spilled by the end of it. Either theirs or the vampire’s.

Not Eva’s blood. Well, not unless she was using her blood magic for some reason. But she intended to be the one spilling blood if it came down to it.

“Hypothetically, can vampires even learn thaumaturgy?”

Her friends were silent for a few moments before Shelby shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “By all accounts and Professor Bradley’s personal testimony, they’re magical beings. Thaumaturgy isn’t exactly human exclusive. Elves have been known to learn it on a fairly frequent basis.”

Eva blinked at the information before remembering where it came from. Shelby was taking Bradley Twillie’s magizoology elective.

“That makes sense. Though, they do have their own magics, don’t they? Things that normal humans wouldn’t be able to learn.”

“Yes, I believe so. Exactly what they can do varies by strain. Why do you ask?”

“Oh. No reason. Just a thought that popped into my head.”

She might have to ask Serena about vampire specific magic later on and whether or not there was a way to tell what strain the vampire was. She found herself wondering just how old the vampire was and for how long he had been a vampire. And, perhaps more importantly, just how he was to compete.

Serena had needed a full winter regalia including an umbrella and heavily mirrored skiing goggles just to watch her treatment early on in the summer. Unless all the events were at night—which wouldn’t surprise Eva—the vampire might stick out like a sore thumb if he tried the same.

But the vampire was several leagues above normal humans. Probably on par with some average demons, based on observations she had seen of Serena fighting. He would be a threat to everyone even if he couldn’t do any thaumaturgy.

It seemed like the Nod Complex was stacking their deck just as much as Brakket was. She didn’t know what the other non-humans brought to the table, but they probably had their own advantages.

Actually, Isomer was cheating as well. The two with the eye implants could probably do the white magic of the Elysium Order. And then there was the connection thing that gave them a sort of hive-mind while connected—or something, she might need to ask Nel again.

No wonder Brakket had never been able to compete before.

It made Eva curious enough to start scrutinizing the other schools a bit more in-depth. They were probably cheating as well. Maybe they had brought literal dragons shoved into human skin as their contenders.

Before she could, Anderson got to his feet. The quiet murmurs died off almost completely as he cleared his throat at the head of the center table.

“Looks like most everyone is done eating,” he said as he cast a slow gaze around the room. “If you are still eating, don’t worry. There are no further events planned for tonight so you may consume and mingle until there is nothing left.

“However, there are a few announcements to be made and they should be made before we disperse for the evening. First, living accommodations. Isomer and Faultline academies will be housed in the Gillet dormitory building. For reference, when facing the dorms with your back to the main school building, that is the building on the right. You’ll be on the second floor. Your rooms should have your names posted on the doors.”

Eva let out a small sigh. That was good news. She really didn’t want Isomer or its nuns to be in her building if at all possible. Maybe it would be a good idea to just sleep over at the prison for the foreseeable future.

“The Rickenbacker—which is opposite of the Gillet—will be housing the students from Mount Hope and the Nod Complex. You can find your rooms on the third floor.”

Which had Eva groaning.

While her blood might be a bit ‘sugary’ for Serena’s tastes, that didn’t mean that she was an unattractive blood bag to other vampires. And then there was everyone else in the dorms. Since Eva only knew that he was a vampire because of her ability to sense blood, she highly doubted that anyone else knew.

If he lived with the other students at the Nod Complex, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal. He probably had an agreement with one of the other students or a professor to give him a food supply. Honestly, she should probably be more worried about Serena deciding to snack on students than him.

Especially given that she had already drank at least one student’s blood on Eva’s recommendation.

“But,” Anderson said, “living accommodations are not the most exciting of events. Luckily, we have far more interesting things planned than where you all will be sleeping. I’d like to invite up someone many of you probably already know.” He took a step back, gesturing to his side. “Director of the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights, Wallace Redford.”

Eva blinked. She really was not being half as attentive as she should be. She hadn’t even noticed the older man up among the professors. Not having seen him since the start of the school year, she had almost forgotten that he even existed.

He was seated just as all the professors were, facing the students. Next to him, a woman with golden-yellow hair sat to his side with her eyes closed. Though she appeared to be asleep judging by her face alone, she was sitting upright in her seat. Eva could tell through her sense of blood that her body was as active as any other conscious person.

But there was something off. Eva couldn’t quite place what it was. Everyone had their individual characteristics in their circulatory systems. To liken them to fingerprints would not be an exaggeration. If anything, it would be an understatement.

So everybody was different. But she was differenter. Perhaps not human? But human enough that Eva couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong.

But, if she was up there with Redford and the professors, she was probably not a dangerous person. At least, not towards the students or staff.

So Eva ignored it as Redford began moving.

A loud click echoed throughout the gymnasium as his cane tapped into the ground, silencing the hushed murmurs that had started up upon his name being announced. A scowl on Redford’s face slowly deepened as he got up and moved to the front of the stage alongside Anderson.

He looked out over the assembled students, looking from table to table. After scanning the entire room, he took a deep breath.

“Honorable combat,” he said, “is a fantasy. A byword for stupidity, should you believe in such a thing. In the real world, entering combat with a bow and a hope for a good fight will get you killed before you can even right yourself.”

Again he paused to glance around, though his eyes never seemed to settle on any one person.

“You may have heard that phrase before. ‘In the real world’ things are different. I’m here to tell you that they aren’t. Or, to be more accurate, you live in the real world. People, especially those up here on stage with me, have a stake in the victor. Brakket Academy wishes to elevate its reputation. The others would find losing to them to be an embarrassment.”

Anderson, standing just to the side and slightly behind Wallace, didn’t flinch in the slightest. He had an almost genuine-looking showman’s smile on his face.

“I was asked to tailor events in such as way that they might be fair to all five schools. A fascinating problem. One I considered for a great deal of time. I knew without a doubt that all five schools would attempt to gain unfair advantages. To cheat, in simpler terms. Some more obviously than others,” he said with a glance towards a still smiling Anderson.

But Anderson’s face was far from the most interesting expression.

The headmasters and chaperons of the other schools, formerly listening politely with either happy or neutral expressions, all took an immediate downturn as Wallace spoke. The headmaster of Isomer actually started turning red in the face in spite of the fact that his cheating was far more obvious to Eva’s eyes than any other school.

Well, save for the vampire with the Nod Complex.

“And then, it came to my attention that it was custom for the schoolmasters to act as moderators and judges.” Casting his gaze to his feet, he shook his head. “This will not do.”

Much as Anderson had done when he introduced Wallace, Wallace waved his own hand to the side. Except his hand held a cane. One that pointed at a small gathering of people who had been sitting with him, though slightly away from the woman. None looked particularly pleased to be singled out.

More than one wasn’t even paying attention, choosing instead to stare at Eva.

“I have invited a special group of judges. Five people who have absolutely no stake in any of the participating schools. Five people whose identities I have kept secret for the past few months to avoid any bribing or threatening.” He turned, putting his back towards the students to face the professors, headmasters, deans, and other adults. “Speaking with them outside of an official capacity in public is grounds for forfeiture.”

None of the adults really reacted. Not like they had when he mentioned that they were cheating. They had probably been informed of this beforehand—and likely agreed to it in the first place—and he was just making the statement public.

“They are mundanes,” he said, spinning back around to face the student body. “Incapable of magic. I expect them all to be treated with just as much respect and–”

“This is an outrage!” The Isomer headmaster jumped to his feet, face red and bulging as if it were about to burst. “You cannot bring mundanes into a magical school–”

“In my school, Headmaster Drosselmeyer, I decide who is welcome and who is not.” Anderson said, turning to face the outspoken headmaster. His smile was still on his face. However, something was slightly off about it. The way the corners of his lips rose made it look all the more predatory. “You already agreed to allow Wallace to choose the judges. So, unless you wish to forfeit…”

Drosselmeyer puckered his lips as he glanced to the other school heads. None seemed ready to jump to his support. With one last glare towards Anderson, he retook his seat.

“Good,” Anderson said. “We are all… sapient beings. I would have hated to announce that one of our illustrious schools withdrew on the grounds of classism. Our viewers might have found that distasteful.”

“Viewers?” Drosselmeyer asked in a far more subdued tone of voice.

“Of course! I forgot to mention that detail. If you don’t mind, Wallace.”

The leader of the Guild glared at him as if to ask why he couldn’t have waited just five more minutes. “Go right ahead,” he said through loosely clenched teeth.

“As you’re well aware,” Anderson said as he moved up to address the students. He kept his body slightly angled to keep the schoolmasters in view. “Brakket Academy has been under observation by the mundane news media, mostly because of our beautiful sky.”

Eva took a moment to roll her eyes.

“A few pillars of light in the past month renewed their interest. Rather than keeping them at arm’s length while such an event was going on, I decided to invite them in to observe. We’ve kept ourselves mysterious and hidden from mundanes despite them knowing about us for years. For too long. As such, I am pleased to announce that for the first time ever, the Interscholastic Competency Competition will be aired live over mundane news networks.”

Silence reigned over the gymnasium.

For about ten seconds.

Students and adults alike both burst into chatter. It grew loud enough that Eva could barely hear herself think. She couldn’t even pick out a single conversation to listen in. At least, not outside her table.

Shelby was poking Jordan in the side, asking if he knew about that bombshell. Juliana shrugged her shoulders while Shalise just sighed, saying something about her mother that Eva couldn’t quite catch with all the noise.

Eva wasn’t entirely sure what to think about it. She would have to take even more care not to be seen using blood magic. Not that she was planning on it during the actual events. However, if there were cameras around at other times, all it would take would be one nosy journalist sneaking through the Infinite Courtyard at the wrong time.

Three loud clicks echoed over the noise. They were loud enough to be almost deafening. Wallace must have some sort of enchantment on his cane.

“You’re all distracted, so I’ll skip over much of my speech. The first event will be next Saturday. Each school is to select three of its ten competitors.”

There was a bit of murmuring among the students at that proclamation. It died off with a glance from Wallace to the loudest group of students—those from the Faultline school, if Eva wasn’t mistaken.

“These three will not be allowed to participate in the second event, so choose wisely. Perhaps you’ll wish to select your top three students, or maybe save some of your best for the following event. The choice is yours. Further information will be given on the day of the event.”

He gave one last look around the room before turning and retaking his seat.

“Exciting, exciting,” Anderson said, his smile once again fit for a salesman. “Now, feel free to continue mingling or to disperse to your dormitories. The evening is yours to do with as you wish.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.008

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Eva’s forehead throbbed.

Not horribly. She had suffered through worse headaches before. The ritual to share Sawyer’s senses for one and anytime enigmas were around for another. And this current headache was already subsiding to unnoticeable levels.

The only reason the headache was special at all was the cause.

A dozen demons were making their way from the outskirts of town towards Brakket Academy. Altogether, they weren’t so bad. It was just that they had all come into Eva’s range at the same time.

Each of them had their own feel. None Eva could really place as anything specific.

All the demons that Eva knew had their own distinct feel. Zagan was power. Ylva had a chill to her aura. Catherine felt a bit sultry. Lucy, Prax, Qrycx, and all the others were easy to separate as well. However, the only reason that Eva knew which feel went with who was because she knew all the demons.

As such, even if she could feel a certain slime from one or a feathery floating from another, Eva couldn’t tell who or even what they were. Maybe in describing them to Devon, he would be able to tell their species. Except they would be in town long before Eva had a chance to run off to Devon. It would be far easier to meet them in person.

But they were still a ways away. Eva didn’t know precisely how far her range extended. And a good portion of that also depended on the relative power of the demons she was sensing. Zagan could be felt in the city while she was all the way out at the prison.

That she felt one or two of the new demons a great deal before the others all made it into her range meant that some of them were stronger than others.

They were all together though. All traveling at the same speed. A bus perhaps. Maybe a shipping container if Anderson was feeling a bit inhumane.

“Are you alright?”

Eva blinked, glancing over towards Shalise. She had a spoonful of… whatever Brakket Academy was serving for lunch today. Some gravy-like slop that made Eva extraordinarily grateful that she didn’t need as much food as regular mortals.

Juliana, Irene, Jordan, and Shelby were all gathered around as well. All eating lunch together for the first time since forever. At least, it felt like forever. Between Shalise and Juliana being gone and school taking a major back-seat to other events, Eva could barely remember the last time that everyone had a bit of downtime for regular school activities.

The only real difference was the lack of Max. He had stopped sitting with them a long while ago. Since before Shalise and Juliana’s trip to Hell. Looking around the cafeteria, Eva couldn’t spot him at all. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen him since the year started.

Maybe he had decided that Brakket was just too exciting for his tastes.

Arachne had taken his seat at the table. Sitting directly across from Eva, she drew the eyes of everyone around even after a week. Of course, anyone who stared too long or got too close got a glare and maybe a growl, but she hadn’t actually done anything to anyone.

Hopefully, people would just learn to ignore her.

Still waiting for an answer, Shalise gave a slight cough as she raised an eyebrow. “Eva?”

“Oh. I’m fine. I was just a bit distracted by all the demons currently on their way to school. Trying to get a feel for them all.”

Everyone stilled, including people not sitting at her table. Eva hadn’t thought that she had spoken too loudly, but nearby forks clattered to their plates catching the attention of people at more distant tables. In short order, the entire room was nearly silent. The only sound was the faint wisp of whispers explaining Eva’s words to those farther away.

Soon enough, even the whispers stopped.

The entire room sat and stared at Eva.

Eva just rolled her eyes. There had been a definite tension among the student body over the last few days. Ever since Anderson’s introductory speech. To have him effectively confirm all the rumors that had been circulating beforehand, especially those about the fight with the demon hunters over the summer, had only served to keep people a little paranoid.

Really, if they were so worried, they should have just left the school.

“They’re on their way,” Eva said, ignoring everyone not sitting at her table. “Maybe fifteen minutes? Twenty? Unless they stop somewhere else for some reason. I sort of just assumed that they’d be housed in the dorm buildings and that they would be heading straight there.”

“What–what are we going to do?” Irene all but whispered. She had hunched over, leaning half past Juliana in an attempt to get a better view of Eva.

Eva had no idea why she was so concerned. Out of all of the people in the school, Irene knew more about shackles and how to at least stop demons from approaching.

Barring Eva, of course. And maybe Juliana. Eva hadn’t actually discussed how much she knew in terms of summoning circles and shackles. Enough to summon Zagan, at least.

But shackles had been one of the things that Irene was most interested in studying during the diablery class. Eva doubted that she would have let her studies slide over the summer. Not to mention all the lessons she had been given on demons in general.

In comparison, her sister was entirely blasé about the whole thing. Maybe she had spoken to Jordan more. Maybe she just didn’t view demons as being all that scary.

She was sitting immediately adjacent to Arachne. The only reaction Shelby had to Eva’s words had been to shrug and continue to eat.

“Maybe we should go say hello,” Eva said. “Missing out on Wayne’s class wouldn’t be so bad.”

Eva didn’t know why she had bothered signing up for it again in the first place. Potions barely did anything for her.

“Though,” Eva added, “I do want to be back before golemancy. That class has actually been enjoyable.”

Shelby frowned, putting her spoon down. “I like alchemy.”

“We don’t all have to go. But I think I will.”

“Me too,” Juliana said. “It would be better to get a view on who is going to be around early on so that I can come up with explanations for my family.”

“Alright.” Eva gave a pointed glance towards Irene. “Anyone else?”

The girl in question hung her head with a long sigh. “They’re not going to hurt us, right?”

“I doubt it. Arachne and I will be there. I’ve been told that I’m quite intimidating towards demons.” Eva paused, feeling out some of the more familiar demons around. “Besides,” she said with a smile, “Catherine will be there. That should make you happy, right?”

“Not really,” Irene said with another sigh.

“Well, I think Ylva might be there. Though I’m not sure if you’ve actually met her or not…”

Eva shook her head with a shrug. It didn’t really matter. None of the approaching demons were on Ylva’s level, let alone that of Zagan.

“I’ve already met them,” Jordan said. “And I don’t really want to anger Professor Lurcher by skipping his class.”

“Probably for the best.” Eva raised her voice ever so slightly—she didn’t want to be obvious in her machinations, but she wanted to get a message out to all the nosy students who were pretending not to listen in. “We shouldn’t crowd them. Making demons feel like they are zoo animals might disturb them.”

Another moment of silence descended on the cafeteria after a brief whisper session to transfer her message around the room. Eva watched with a barely concealed smile as half the room lost a good deal of blood from their faces. Many had probably been planning on following along. Whether they would have kept a distance or walked right up alongside her didn’t really matter. She would have been annoyed with their presence.

Eva didn’t really care whether or not the approaching demons would feel the same. Maybe they wanted to meet a bunch of mortals. If all of them were like Lucy and hadn’t ever been summoned before, they might find it exciting.

Though, some of the paling faces had Eva worrying. A few people almost looked sick—at least as far as she could tell through blood sight alone. Hopefully her words weren’t being too distorted as they made the rounds. The last thing she needed was to have the people farthest away thinking that she was going to kill anyone who followed her.

“In that case,” Shalise said, “I think I’ll stay here. I’ve had enough of demons to last a lifetime or two.”

“They are going to be around the school. You’re going to meet them anyway, most likely. You know that right?”

“Well… yeah, but…” Shalise trailed off into a short sigh. “I wouldn’t mind one year of school that was just nice and normal. No zombies. No trips to Hell. No camping out in the woods.”

Eva shrugged. “You picked the wrong school.”

“But I didn’t pick it. Professor Baxter came and found me.”

“Anyway,” Eva said with a wave of her hand in Shalise’s direction. She glanced between Irene and Juliana. “You guys ready to go?”

“I suppose.”

Juliana shoveled in one more spoonful of whatever was for lunch before she nodded her head.

“Great,” Eva said, standing. She nodded to the others. “We’ll see you guys later then.”

“Hello Ylva,” Eva said as she walked up to the demon. “And Catherine.”

Both were standing around the center of the plaza between the dormitory buildings. They weren’t really together, just near enough to speak if they wanted to.

Which created the perfect opening for Eva to slip in.

Catherine didn’t respond save for a shallow nod. She, as always, was absorbed in her cellphone. Peeking over her shoulder, Eva found a lack of a game on the screen. A series of nonsensical scribbles covered the screen. It took Eva a moment to puzzle out just what they were. Catherine zooming out was the clue that Eva needed.

It was section of a ritual circle. Likely a new version of what she had already done.

In contrast to Catherine’s lack of response, Ylva turned to face Eva fully.

“Greetings.”

“I know I technically visited you just the other day when Nel helped to find Shalise, but we didn’t really talk. How have you been? Keeping busy with anything interesting?”

Ylva’s cold eyes stared, forcing memories to surface in Eva.

She suddenly recalled just why she had been avoiding Ylva. Perhaps it was subconscious. Eva didn’t think that she had been thinking much of anything while in Ylva’s presence. At least not towards avoiding her.

But Ylva had killed her—or came close enough so as to be indistinguishable—not so long ago.

“We have been ruminating on the idea of Life being Our opponent. Though the motivations of a Power are difficult to pierce, We believe that We have come to a conclusion.”

“Oh?

“Our mother is a primary target. Hel, being a servant of Death first and foremost, is a direct opponent of Life. Aosoth would be another target as another demon touched by Death. Life is targeting Void because of Void’s alliance with Death. An attempt to weaken Death’s influence and power base.”

“But Death has other, non-demonic… uh, servants?” Eva wasn’t entirely sure what the proper terminology was and Ylva had used the word ‘servant’. She had always called them gods. “The Baron isn’t a demon. He was—or is—a human.”

“And the enigmas have made attempts at breaking into the mortal realm as well. Some through Hell—the issue with your dormitory room was not caused by you, therefore the enigmas caused it. Who is to say that the Baron is not a target?”

Eva fell silent, considering. Ylva was probably right. Life was attacking Death and going through both Earth and Hell to do so. When she had agreed to become a guinea pig for Devon’s demonic treatments, he had failed to mention all the politicking between Powers.

Granted, he probably didn’t know. If he had known, they wouldn’t have been so surprised when the enigmas had appeared in the first place.

As they talked, the demons continued to get closer. Eva had been about to ask Ylva another question.

The question died before she could voice it as she caught sight of the approaching vehicle.

Eva wasn’t sure what she had expected.

No. That wasn’t true.

She had expected a shipping container or a bus. Something large enough to carry a dozen demons comfortably. In that sense, she had guessed perfectly.

A bus rolled up to the edge of the plaza. One of the larger charter buses that would look more at home in Florida than around Brakket City despite the bold text on its side stating the name of the academy. Eva could see and sense a number of demons inside.

What she hadn’t expected was for the bus to look like something out of a junkyard. The sides were dented inwards as if someone had taken a shovel all up and down the length. The windows weren’t faring much better. Not a single one was unbroken. Most were missing entirely.

The top of the bus had been peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. Shards of metal, fiberglass, plastic, and whatever else went into the making of bus roofs all stuck out at odd angles. A portion was gone, but the rest looked as if it had been through a blender.

“I hope they have insurance.”

Eva glanced over to Irene and just shook her head.

“Probably best to sell it for scrap at this point.”

Despite the condition of the bus, none of the demons inside appeared alarmed in the slightest. Their heart rates were calm and their gazes around were cool and collected.

Most of them, anyway.

The poor driver—the only person on the bus with an elevated heart rate—was unable to open the door. Whatever mechanisms opened it had been damaged enough that there was only a slim crack. The first demon to the door just turned into a misty form and slipped through, reforming on the other side.

One demon objected to being forced through the small opening and took matters into his own hands. He tore the door from its hinges, tossing it out to the ground before stepping out of the bus as if nothing had happened.

Three demons elected not to take the door at all. One phased through a shattered window, gliding down to the ground. He solidified, brushing off some imagined dust from his shoulder as another used leathery wings to fly up and out of the bus. She landed with enough grace to make Eva think that she was a succubus of some type. Another demon hopped through the hole in the roof, following after the succubus and landing with a heavy thud against the ground.

At least she didn’t crack the bricks making up the ground when she landed. All the effort gone into restoring the dormitory and plaza area would have gone to waste.

As the rest of the demons filed out of the bus, Eva started to notice something.

Every single demon paused for a moment after getting out to stare at Eva. At first, she thought that they were merely looking in her direction. Idle curiosity at the group of humans and demons that had come to greet them.

She quickly decided that idle curiosity was not the reason for their stares.

They were staring at Eva and no one else. Not Ylva. Not even Arachne or Catherine.

Really, she should have expected as much given how Catherine, Qrycx, and Arachne acted around her. But it was still somewhat shocking to see.

And she didn’t quite know how to react to it. Should she go up and say hello? What would they say in response? Surely they wouldn’t try attacking her. If they did, Arachne would jump in without a doubt. Maybe Ylva and Catherine as well, though with how they left Daru out to hang while the demon hunters were around, Eva wasn’t too sure about them.

The last of the demons made it off the bus. They were quickly joined by Anderson, who gave a light pat on the shoulder of the bus driver before stepping through the doorway. He looked around, passing straight over the group of humans and demons as he searched the area. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find it. Which seemed to please him for some reason, if the smile he turned towards Eva was any indication.

Catherine stepped forwards first and Eva followed after. Arachne, Juliana, and Irene took a minute but followed along as well. Ylva stayed where she was, not moving forwards or away.

“Trouble on the way?” Catherine asked as soon as they were close enough.

“Demon hunters.” Anderson glanced back to the bus with a sorry sigh. Before Eva could ask who the demon hunters were, he responded as if he had known her question was coming. “A small group of four, not the same ones that attacked earlier in the summer.”

That was somewhat disappointing. Eva hadn’t seen any evidence that the two hunters were still around. If the female had even survived, that was. If she hadn’t, then perhaps the armored knight would run off.

Which, every passing day, was looking all the more likely.

Of course, Eva wasn’t letting her guard down. She had shown up to ruin Sawyer’s day completely unannounced and entirely successfully. The demon hunter might be planning the same.

“I take it you fended them off without issue?”

“They are dead. Though, I expect that they won’t be the last group to come after us in the coming months. How they found out about the bus schedule is a much more interesting question.”

“Obviously they knew about Brakket Academy. They may have just been watching for our buses to move out and collect someone.”

“Possibly,” Anderson allowed with a nod of his head. He placed his hands on the shoulders of one of the demons. “Srey believes that they had been watching them for weeks now at their apartment.”

The demon narrowed his eyes at the touch, but otherwise didn’t protest the contact.

“Now then,” Anderson said, addressing the gathered demons. “This is Catherine. She will be in charge of finding you suitable rooms. If you require any accommodations outside what is offered by default, simply ask her and she will get you what you need. I’ll be back to meet with you all later this evening.”

With that said, Anderson walked off towards the direction of the main school building.

“I have so many better things to do with my time,” Catherine mumbled to herself. “Why did I agree to this?”

Eva shifted, somewhat uncomfortable with the stares that she was receiving. Now that Anderson was gone and everyone else was closer, it was plain to see just how much they were staring at her and not at anyone else.

Catherine, in an act that unintentionally saved her from further scrutiny, led off the majority of the group towards the Rickenbacker dormitory building.

One stayed behind.

A shorter demon with eyes just a bit too large for his head. He walked right up to Eva despite Arachne posturing for defense.

As he approached, Eva watched him and felt him out with her sense for demons.

All she got was a blank spot. She could sense him, feel a demon in front of her, but there wasn’t anything to that feel. No sultriness or slime. No feeling of power. Just a demon.

“I am here to help,” he said, voice toneless and face lacking any emotion.

Before Eva could say a word, he turned and followed the rest of the group towards the Rickenbacker.

“Well, that happened,” Irene said, sounding much more confident than she had during lunch. “I thought we might talk with them a bit more. They didn’t even glance at me. If that is how they act around school, I’ll be fine with it.”

Juliana stepped up beside Eva. “What did he mean by that?”

“Not sure,” Eva said. Glancing over Juliana’s shoulder, she met Arachne’s eyes for just a moment before focusing back on her friend. “I’ll have to ask when I see him next.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.007

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Welcome. To some of you, this will be a welcome back. To others, an initial greeting.

“This year, we will be making history with our students and among other schools around the country. We will be blah blah blah.”

Eva filled in her own words in place of the new dean’s speech. She already knew what was happening. For the most part, at least. Really, she didn’t know why she had bothered attending. Beginning of the year speeches were never interesting, this one least of all because of her foreknowledge.

And yet, Juliana and Shalise had dragged her into the auditorium for the assembly.

There was one thing that might get her to listen. If he started explaining how he was planning on summoning demons while Devon couldn’t, she would start paying attention. That seemed far too specific for a speech like this.

No new demons had popped up around the academy since Martina Turner’s demise. If he had success in summoning any, he had sent them back while Eva was off at the prison or otherwise gone. More likely than him having any success was that he was either hoping to get lucky or hadn’t even tried yet. Eva was leaning more towards the second option of him simply not having tried in a while.

While there weren’t any new demons, there also weren’t as many professors sitting up alongside the dean. Zoe and Wayne were there of course. Bradley Twillie, the magizoologist was there as well. But Yuria and Alari Carr were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had resigned. Whether because of fear or because they didn’t want to support Anderson’s plan, Eva couldn’t say without asking.

At least, Eva assumed that Anderson had told the staff what was going on. It was possible that he hadn’t, but hopefully he had planned for more resignations when he revealed it all.

To her sides, Juliana and Shalise were paying a great deal more attention than she was despite Eva having explained this year’s ‘contest’ and new demons to them. Dean Anderson hadn’t actually mentioned demons yet. He had barely touched on the contest, choosing to start with a far more generic greeting.

More of Eva’s friends sat slightly farther away. Irene was next to her sister, chewing on her thumb as she glanced between the dean, Jordan, and Shelby. For her part, Shelby appeared at ease. Far less worried than Irene at the very least.

Eva’s eyes met with Irene’s for just a moment. For a bit of reassurance to the obviously distressed girl, she gave a closed-lip smile—something she had taken to doing since the treatment.

No one had mentioned her teeth. Or her mouth, for that matter. Eva was still not sure if they were being polite, too scared to say anything, or honestly hadn’t noticed.

Irene shook her head before looking back to the front of the room.

Next to her, Jordan was sleeping. Leaning back in his chair, he had his eyes closed as he took in deep breaths.

Eva wasn’t the only one looking around. They were sitting as far back as possible which gave her a decent view of everyone. And everyone had a decent view of her. If she had to guess, hardly anyone was actually paying attention to the dean.

It probably had something to do with Arachne and how she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed just behind Eva. She was only in her humanoid form, so it wasn’t like she was a gigantic spider hogging all the attention.

No one was particularly fearful. A few, obviously. That was to be expected given Arachne’s look and the look Arachne gave people who stared too long. The simple fact of the matter was that all the squeamish people had been filtered out. They were all off attending different schools.

Which made it somewhat amusing that this contest was starting up. They would be meeting with schools—hosting events even—where former Brakket Academy students who had fled or who been pulled out of school would be forced to confront their fears.

Another portion of the student body was staring at the figure next to Arachne. Specifically the figure. Eva doubted that anyone even realized that she was a demon. And that was in spite of the horns, wings, and tail. Catherine’s physical appearance hadn’t changed. It didn’t really need to in order to draw the eyes of pubescent humans.

Eva wasn’t sure what she was doing at the school. Showing off, perhaps. Anderson had to know that Martina was dead and Catherine unbound by her familiar bond.

Now that Eva thought about it, Lucy’s contract had likely terminated with Martina’s death as well. Something should probably be done about her. While Eva doubted that she would go on a rampage, it couldn’t hurt to be safe. But such a thing could probably wait. Lucy wasn’t the malicious type. She was just curious about the world outside her domain.

The real question was whether or not Anderson realized that anything was different about Catherine. She didn’t look different.

She felt different.

Before her ritual the other night, Catherine had had a presence to Eva’s senses. Nothing big. Eva could pick her out from the other demons so long as Zagan wasn’t too close. Now she was different. Bigger. Zagan would still overpower her entirely. Even Ylva was far greater than Catherine.

But Catherine was crisp and clear. A sort of sultry presence filling the auditorium.

While there hadn’t been any physical alterations like Eva had gained, Catherine had certainly not come out of her ritual unchanged. Even discounting her new emanating presence.

Catherine stood against the back of the room, chin high as she drank in the attention the students were giving her. She kept a haughty air about her, never quite glancing at any one student in particular.

Her attitude wasn’t anything new. Ever since the completion of her ritual, Catherine had been absolutely insufferable.

Being unable to sense her own presence, Eva couldn’t say how she stacked up to Catherine. Arachne insisted that Eva was far higher than Catherine in terms of power, but Eva wasn’t sure how far she could trust her friend not to exaggerate. Catherine hadn’t shown off any greatly enhanced abilities, so Eva wasn’t sure what she was acting superior over.

Initially, Eva had been somewhat put off by Catherine’s new haughty attitude. After thinking about it more, perhaps even a slight change was worthy of celebration after an eternity of stagnation. Because of that thought, Eva had decided not to complain too loudly. Catherine could have her moment of happiness.

For a while at least. Insufferable Catherine could only last so long before Eva took the word literally. If she kept it up… well, supposedly Eva was kneel-worthy now. Getting Catherine to kneel might be enough to knock the smug superiority out of her.

As for Eva herself, she didn’t really know if she had any new special abilities, but walls had bled around her multiple times in the past. Trying to consciously make that happen was her current project and an ability that still eluded her.

Arachne saying that she had been stuck in her largest form for a hundred years before figuring out how to shrink into a humanoid form hadn’t helped Eva’s mood.

“They are demons.”

Eva’s attention snapped to the dean, breaking her out of her thoughts. Whereas before only the few rows in the back had been facing in Arachne and Catherine’s direction, the entire auditorium swiveled around to gawk at Anderson’s words.

It wasn’t hard to guess what he had been saying immediately before, but Eva still wished she had heard what he had said. Probably just pointing out their guests to anyone who hadn’t noticed. The ones who had already been seated and forward facing when Eva, Catherine, and Arachne had come in towards the end of the seating.

“You need not fear,” Dean Anderson said, voice extra loud through the microphone to talk over the crowd’s growing noise. “Demon is a poor word filled with all sorts of negative connotations. They are beings from another plane of existence, true, but not necessarily evil and certainly not about to steal souls.”

Eva rolled her eyes. Most of the faces still turned in her direction paled at his words, turning all sorts of sickly colors.

More than a few gazes went from Arachne and Catherine straight to Eva.

Great job reassuring them, she thought, glancing off to one side to avoid all the eyes.

“In addition to the interscholastic contest of ability, we will be taking this year to assist in integrating a number of demons into human society around Brakket. Some as students. Others merely as residents. A few have expressed interest in more… contractual bonds with students who have the permission of their parents.” He added the last line after a brief glance towards Zoe.

The theory professor gave a firm nod of her head.

Eva frowned, staring at Anderson as he went on to quell more fears of the student body. Or attempting to, at least. He even took a few questions from the front row.

She didn’t need her fears quelled. She just needed to think for a few moments.

Maybe he didn’t need to summon demons at all. His words sounded like he already had a warehouse full of them that he’d be distributing around the city later on. Which, now that she was considering it, might make a great deal of sense.

It would be foolish in the extreme to just summon up a host of demons and expect them all to play nice. If he summoned them in advance, it would have given him time to watch them. Any that seemed unstable or overly hostile towards humans could have been sent back before even bringing them to Brakket. Assuming he didn’t want to kill the entire student body. But as long as he was careful in picking demons and had warehouses full of Lucys and Catherines, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Were they all under contract to not harm anyone?

But Eva wouldn’t like to see an assortment of Arachnes running around. One Arachne was fine. Eva trusted her not to act out against people. However, that likely depended on Eva. If Eva were gone or were to say that she didn’t care, Arachne might not be so kind to those around. She would probably still ignore humans for the most part, but ones that particularly got on her nerves might find themselves in the infirmary.

If they were lucky.

Zagans would be even worse. Hopefully Anderson wasn’t so foolish as to summon more pillars of Hell.

Some demons that Eva had summoned in the past weren’t ones she would like to see around regular people. Some she wouldn’t want to be around herself. The haunter, for instance. Just about anything that Devon summoned as well. If Anderson was planning on having a dozen of those waxy demons running around the place, Eva might just skip school for the rest of the year.

“Lynn wouldn’t be happy about this,” Shalise said in a near whisper.

Eva glanced to her side but didn’t say anything. Shalise was right, most likely. Eva could ask after school if she really felt like having a conversation with the former nun.

To the best of Eva’s knowledge, Lynn hadn’t actually gone to visit Shalise even once after her little rescue from the forest. A simple letter to say that she was alright was the extent of their communication. She had spent the rest of the time around the prison.

Much to Eva’s chagrin.

Lynn had decided to be useful by continuing her research into enigmas and Life itself—as strange as that sounded. Though cordial at the moment, neither liked or got along with the other. Eva tried to avoid her as much as possible and, judging by the fact that Eva had barely seen Lynn since chopping off her arm, Lynn was doing the same.

“Just wait until my family hears about it. I’m going to be grounded for sure. Or have dad escort me everywhere. He already threatened to do so, you know.”

This time, Eva raised an eyebrow as Juliana groaned. “They already know, don’t they? That was the whole point in having a meeting with Anderson and your mom.”

“He didn’t mention a word about ‘integrating’ demons into society. There are going to be demons everywhere. It’s going to be impossible to hide it from them.”

“Maybe he means only one or two,” Shalise said, voice lacking any sort of conviction.

“There are twelve.”

As one, everyone turned their heads to glance at Jordan. Even Irene and Shelby turned to look.

“Though seven are looking to find a suitable master for a familiar bond. Eagerly looking.”

“You’ve met them then?” Eva asked. “Any that seem… troublesome?”

“I can’t say for sure. None have been homicidal in my presence. Most were content if given tasks by my father. Busy work, things to pass the time. Of course, they might be deceiving me for all I know. Father has a contract with each of them at the moment to dictate their behavior while around the academy, so we shouldn’t have to worry too much.”

“At least until one manages to get out of its contract.”

Arachne had managed to get out of her contract with Devon and create one with Eva thanks to a wording error on Devon’s part. If Devon, the master of demonology, could make an error like that, who was to say that Anderson couldn’t?

Of course, Devon had likely been lax in his vigilance. Arachne was a demon who he had frequently summoned in the past for more than just Eva’s treatment. She was the only demon that Eva had known him to have summoned, allowed out of the shackles, and not dominated. At least until the carnivean. Had he used another demon that night, he would have probably been more careful about the wording of the contract.

Jordan didn’t respond to Eva’s suspicion. He just shrugged his shoulders before looking back to his father up on the stage.

“None of them are named Willie,” Juliana said after a few moments, “right?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Good. Then I’m fine with it.”

Anderson continued his speech, never quite giving out enough information to interest Eva while still allaying fears of the rest of the students. It took a while, but he eventually moved off the subject of demons. The rest of his speech consisted of simple announcements and notifications that would be standard for any school. Changes in staff and important dates.

Whatever was happening with the interscholastic contest was still to be decided.

The only thing that immediately stood out to Eva was the date the demons were arriving.

Two weeks from now. Halfway through September.

— — —

Catherine grit her teeth together. The moment Anderson’s speech had ended, swarms of mortals encircled her, blocking off any and all avenues of escape as they invaded her personal space. Their mouths opened, spilling forth inane questions and comments.

None were showing her the proper fear and respect that she deserved.

Even Arachne had taken on a more respectful tone while speaking to her. Somewhat. Probably.

It was really hard to say. They didn’t speak all that much. Before or since.

Glancing to her side, she found Arachne gritting her teeth almost as much as Catherine was. Maybe more.

The children were mostly avoiding the armored spider. That was to be expected. Even before the ritual, few demons could hope to attract as much attention as a succubus. Even one as lowly as Catherine had been. It was only natural that she be the center of attention.

But whatever Arachne’s opinions towards Catherine were, they barely mattered. The ritual had worked. Catherine could feel it deep within her chest. A swelling of something more than she had been before.

The thing that did matter was Arachne’s slowly clenching and unclenching fists. She was about to tear somebody apart. While Catherine really didn’t care what happened to most of the mortal children, she really didn’t want to get into a fight. She had ritual circles to improve and maybe a game or two to play.

Now that this first ritual was complete, she felt like she deserved a little bit of unwinding downtime.

Letting out just a hair of that swell within her chest had the entire auditorium falling silent. The children looked at her with lovestruck eyes, mouths still gaping open yet silent.

“Do me a favor,” Catherine said, injecting just a hair of magic into her voice. “Go to your classrooms and leave me alone.”

A few vacant nods followed before the children started scrambling off to follow her orders.

Catherine started chuckling. She couldn’t help it. The spell would wear off after a few minutes, but she had just charmed an entire auditorium full of mortals like it was nothing.

The adults at the far end of the room were still around. Catherine had specifically excluded them from her spell. Some were staring at her with mild disapproval. Others were the opposite; perhaps because she hadn’t killed anyone.

Really, it was absurdly easy to exceed expectations when expectations couldn’t possibly be any lower.

Zoe had her lips pressed thin. Despite her obvious disapproval, she gave Catherine a brief nod of her head.

Catherine rolled her eyes. She didn’t need the professor’s approval.

There were a few others in the auditorium. A couple of the students who had participated in the diablery class the previous year. They would have spent enough time around Catherine to understand what she had done and were able to resist it. Catherine had no doubts that she could ensnare them should she wish. All it would take was a little more power.

Eva and her group of friends hadn’t moved either. Catherine had not expected her spell to work on Eva and wasn’t sure that more power would be the answer. Though Catherine had become stronger, Eva felt stronger still. Even if the girl didn’t act like it.

More worrying was that Devon said that there were still treatments to undergo. At least one though possibly as many as three. His original schedule had been thrown off with the death of Arachne. He hadn’t locked down the exact functions or limitations of the new one just yet.

And if Eva decided to perform more rituals of the type that Catherine was doing…

Catherine shuddered. She didn’t want to think of what might result. There had to be a limit to the power one could gain. But where was that limit? For all Catherine knew, it was far enough out that it wouldn’t really matter that there was a limit because nothing but a Power would be able to stand up to Eva.

Of course, if Catherine continued with her rituals, maybe that would be her instead.

Whatever the future held, Catherine was still just a little giddy at the moment. She walked up to Eva and glanced around.

Jordan, Irene, and Eva had all come out of that unaffected. Irene had her arm clamped around her sister’s shoulder, keeping her from wandering off to class. Eva’s blond friend was rubbing her forehead while Eva had an arm on the other’s shoulder, similar to Irene.

Catherine didn’t much care for any of them. She looked right towards Eva and grinned. “Did you see that? The whole room fell under my sway in an instant.”

“You couldn’t do something like that before?”

“Maybe to a small group of people. This was a whole auditorium. At least a hundred people, right?”

Eva glanced over to her friends before she shrugged. “No idea. Do that many people even attend Brakket?”

“They do. Trust me. I used to be the secretary here.”

“You never even did your job. You just played games the whole time.”

“She did enough of her job to cause trouble now that she is gone.”

Catherine scowled as she turned to Anderson. He had left the stage and was walking straight towards her. Or as straight as he could walk with all the auditorium seats in the way.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come back?”

“Quite certain,” Catherine said. “Replacing me cannot be that difficult. A monkey could do the job.”

“Even monkeys get nervous when hearing about demons around. Truly an unfortunate name for your species. Imagine if you were named ‘hoogoozlaps’ instead of demons. No one would fear you or take you seriously in the least.”

Catherine, and the children still around, stared. Anderson wasn’t one to make a joke. At least, Catherine hadn’t known him to. Perhaps he had always been so ticked off with Martina that his humor had fled.

That was something that Catherine could understand.

But if this was his sense of humor, perhaps he should have left it alone.

“I think I will stick with demon,” she said after a moment of awkward silence.

“Very well. Anyway, thank you for coming. I know you don’t have to follow my directions at the moment.”

Catherine narrowed her eyes. She didn’t much like his phrasing. At the moment sounded like he intended to get her under his thumb. “I don’t appreciate being made into a zoo animal for your students. I came solely because you offered a computer.”

“Don’t worry. You served your purpose well enough. Dismissing the students as you did helped immensely as well. It calmed a great deal of my professors, though I did hear a comment demeaning mind control. But I can see that this does not interest you,” he said as Catherine just glared. “If you’ll follow me, I can get the computer I promised you.”

Finally, Catherine smiled. She took a single step before a thought crossed her mind.

“Eva,” Catherine said, “if you and Arachne would accompany me. Perhaps along with your mortal friends.”

The semi-demon in question blinked before slowly nodding her head. “I don’t have a problem with that. Zoe is my first class and I’m sure that she would understand. Why?”

“Computers have many small components. I’m strong enough to carry just about anything, but carrying so much can be tedious. A few extra hands would be appreciated.”

So Catherine said. In truth, she did not want to be alone with Anderson after that comment of his. It might be completely innocuous, but Catherine was unwilling to take chances.

Anderson didn’t look upset in the slightest, lending credence to the idea that it had been an innocent comment.

Their entourage had made it through the school and into the offices area unmolested. With the classes starting, the hallways were empty.

There was a cardboard box on top of Catherine’s old secretary desk. From a brief glance inside, she found it to be full of her the secretary computer. That suited her just fine. Everything was already customized for her.

Though her excuse for having Eva come along with her now sounded somewhat weak, but Catherine really didn’t care what they thought so long as she was left free.

“The other reason I asked you here was to ask a favor,” Anderson said. “I wanted to ask if you might meet with the demons I have coming in. Address a few questions and concerns.”

“Demons have concerns?” Catherine didn’t believe it. A nervous demon? Preposterous.

“This is something of a special batch. Selected specifically with the help of Zagan before his untimely disappearance.”

That had Catherine on edge. Anything Zagan came up with had to have some catch.

But maybe some of them would work well for her next ritual. Zagan had been the initiator for her ritual research. Perhaps he had thrown in a few demons that had special characteristics.

“What would I have to do?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.030

<– Back | Index | Next –>

The tension in Irene’s muscles had to be reaching their peak. She felt like she had been exercising nonstop for the past two hours. Her body couldn’t possibly tense up any further.

Every impact against the shackles she had set up only caused her grip on her wand to tighten, proving that notion wrong. Every high-pitched whine had her arms shaking just a tiny bit more than they were before. Every cannon blast that followed the whine had her ears ringing and her vision blurring for a second or two afterwards.

Shelby, woken by one of the first cannon blast noises, had her own wand in her hand. Her free hand held Irene’s in a tight grip.

Jordan stood off to one side. His shadow curled around him on the ground and walls, ready to act at the first sign of trouble.

While the noises left Irene with a momentary headache, each seemed to do far worse to Jordan and Lucy. Jordan actually swayed in place for a few seconds. Lucy had given up any pretense of maintaining her human form. She was just a puddle of spaghetti on the ground between Irene and Eva’s room.

Early on, it hadn’t been so bad. The creatures in Eva’s room would make the occasional noise. They were loud enough that most of the Rickenbacker dormitory had woken up, but infrequent enough that the students felt they could wander past and gawk like Eva’s room was some sort of zoo.

That had ended rather quickly once the creatures started their attempts to escape.

Irene wanted to run with the other students. This wasn’t her mess. Lucy was here–though she didn’t look so reliable at the moment. Catherine had asked her to write out the shackles. She hadn’t spoken a word about sticking around and ensuring that nothing escaped.

The safety of everyone would probably be better assured if she just ran and found more of the security guards. Preferably ones that wouldn’t turn to spaghetti upon hearing the noises the creatures made.

But something kept Irene’s eyes glued to the shackles. Some otherworldly feeling that the moment she turned her back, the shackles would break and she would be caught, trampled, and possibly eaten.

Thus far, her shackles were holding admirably. They were a lot stronger than the ones she had set up to contain her first summon. Even the three beasts working together couldn’t break out. Irene might have taken a notion of pride in her work if she wasn’t so concerned about what might happen if they did fail.

One of those three beasts was actually on its side, face bloodied and raw from charging head on into the shackles repeatedly. The other two were more prodding at them than ramming themselves into them.

It was almost disturbing how intelligent they appeared.

“What’s taking so long?”

Irene jumped. Her sister’s voice came just as one of the creatures scraped a few tendrils around the barrier. For a moment, she had thought it shattered. It took her mind a second to process that she was hearing words for the first time in a long time.

“Taking so long?”

“Shouldn’t more security guards have shown up by now?” Shelby asked with a nervous glance at Lucy. “Or a professor? One of the others had to have told someone.”

“You saw the sky.” Irene bit back the tremble in her voice. She wanted to keep strong for her sister’s sake, if nothing else. A moot effort, in all likelihood. Shelby wasn’t so oblivious that she would miss how tense Irene was or the slight shakes in her arms.

Then again, Shelby wasn’t the epitome of steady at the moment either.

“Who knows what all is going on outside. They probably decided that Lucy could handle such a small thing on her own while they deal with other matters.”

“Well, I disagree. I can’t believe you knew about that,” she nodded towards the doorway. She might have been gesturing towards Lucy, but it was difficult to tell with just a nod.

Irene clamped her mouth shut. Shelby could make all the inferences she wanted, but Irene couldn’t offer up any response.

“We’ll be fine,” Jordan said, stepping up next to Shelby. “If anything happens, I can have the three of us at the stairwell in seconds. It won’t be hard to run.”

“Should we run?” Irene asked, grateful for the change in topic and not willing to let it slip away with just what he had said. “If these things escape, they could go on a rampage. Maybe some students haven’t got out of the dorms.”

She hated being contrary. Especially because the contrary position was to stay. But, as she had thought about earlier, she just couldn’t leave. It would be nice to be any other ignorant student, able to run off and bury their head under a pile of sand.

Her eyes had been opened to a larger world.

Could she run knowing that a single one of these creatures had held a being like Catherine for as long as it had, all while fighting off a number of older students?

Actually, Irene considered as she thought back, yes I can.

Even if they stayed, what could they do? The older students hadn’t done any good until they worked together to freeze the creature. She might have slowed it down by manipulating the tiles at its feet, but that had been with the assistance of Randal.

Irene had no idea what room or even which dormitory building Randal was housed in.

“Wait,” Irene said before either of the others could call her crazy. “We can’t fight them. But maybe we can trap them? More permanently than they are now, at least.”

The ice had been fairly permanent. Long lasting enough to get everyone away safely and Eva in to set up her shackles.

“You have a plan?”

No. “Maybe.”

None of them were water mages. Though none of them would be able to conjure up the water necessary anyway. Maybe they could have run the water in one of the dorm rooms.

A moot point without any of them being a water mage.

Irene’s mind immediately latched onto what she had done to the creature back in the diablery class. Turning the tiled floor into a sort of mud-like quicksand to hold them in place. It wouldn’t be easy. Tiles were just rock, but rock was far more difficult to manipulate than dirt and loose earth.

True, she had needed Randal’s help during class. This wasn’t class and the creatures were not already loose. She had the time to concentrate.

Her arm being properly set into her shoulder couldn’t hurt either.

She didn’t know how an air mage would help contribute, but Jordan could help. He was an earth mage.

Moving a few steps down the hall, Irene pointed her wand at the floor. “Step back, near me please. Jordan, help me out. I’m making quicksand.”

Once they complied, Irene set to pushing her magic into the floor. Lucy was left on the other side, still between the shackles and them, but Irene wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the demon. She didn’t exactly have a shovel to scrape her off the floor.

She’d probably be alright. She was a demon.

To protect them properly, the quicksand would need to stretch the entire width of the hallway as well as be a few feet long. She couldn’t risk them jumping over it. “Shelby, if you have any ideas on how to help, feel free to jump in.”

“Into the quicksand?”

Irene shot a glare at her sister. “You know what I meant.”

The quicksand wouldn’t be deep. Maybe an inch or two at most. That was the problem with working on a building. But, unlike regular quicksand, hers could be hardened as the monsters trampled over it. She should be able to stretch it up and trap them. At least for a short amount of time.

“Perhaps you could set up more shackles on this side,” Jordan said. He had his own wand out, pointing at the floor. “They’d get caught in the quicksand and then have a whole other set of shackles to break through. With all the trouble they’re having with the first one, it should buy plenty of time to find other solutions. Like grabbing a few teachers or security guards.”

With a slight groan, Irene slapped her forehead. She should have been doing that anyway. The entire hallway, lined with nonstop shackles. It would take these things days to escape had she done that instead of sitting around watching them.

But she kept her mouth clamped shut. After rubbing her forehead slightly, she went back to liquefying the tiles without so much as a nod.

In retrospect, she should have sent everyone away while drawing the initial shackles. It was somewhat surprising that she could. The contract specified spoken or written words, so sigils and circles must not have counted. Maybe she could use sign language to tell her friends what she had been up to.

Of course, that plan required learning sign language. Worse, it involved Shelby learning sign language. That was never going to happen.

Shelby gripped her arm. “Did you hear that?”

No, I was concentrating. Rather than listen further, Irene hastened her efforts with the floor. If it was nothing, then great, oh well. If it was something, then she didn’t want to pause to listen.

Manipulating the floor was going better than she had expected. Jordan was helping, but she could feel her own magic flowing much easier than it had when she had first failed at summoning the imp. Maybe because she had done this before? Or she was just getting noticeably better at magic in the two months since the previous incident.

“I’m serious,” Shelby said, tightening her grip. “Like glass cracking.”

The all too familiar sound of her shackles failing echoed through the hallway. Maybe it was because she had turned her back or because she had walked out of sight of the creatures. She couldn’t say for sure.

“They’re coming,” Irene whispered as the first creature rounded the corner of Eva’s room.

It had the unfortunate fate to tread on top of Lucy.

Her limp tentacles jumped like they had been electrocuted. As one, they lifted up and encircled the creature, mimicking the bulb of a tulip.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Shelby groaned.

Irene might have been as well, had she not noticed the second creature charging around the side of Lucy. It completely ignored the pig-like screams and pieces of violet-tinted flesh flying out of the mass of tentacles.

It reached the edge of her quicksand and jumped.

Gripping Shelby’s arm, Irene pulled her sister back. Her moat was nowhere near long enough to stop it.

Time seemed to slow down as its round face filled with sharp teeth flew towards them, its tentacles flailing around in the air.

Irene’s vision went black.

This is the end, she thought in a moment of tranquil despair. I’ve failed. And I’ve dragged Shelby down with me.

Shelby’s scream only compounded her despair tenfold.

Until, underneath Shelby’s scream, she heard a sound not unlike a hunk of meat being dropped on the floor.

The darkness passed over her and she could see again. Shelby at her side, eyes wide in horror. The walls and the floor.

And Jordan. He stood just in front of them. A wall of darkness stretching from one side of the hallway to the other.

The darkness collapsed after a moment with a gasp from Jordan, perspiration dripping from his face.

There was the creature, lying on its side in her moat of quicksand.

Suppressing the desire to let loose a hysterical laugh, Irene caught her wits in an instant. Gripping her wand, she hardened the tile as fast as she could. It was much easier than liquefying it in the first place.

Not all of the creature was stuck. At least half of the snake-like tendrils coming off its back were free. And they were not pleased.

The tiles cracked. Even with Irene repairing them as fast and as best as she was able to, it wouldn’t hold for long.

“Lucy!” Irene shouted. “Listen to the sound of my voice and come here. Crawl towards me please!”

Another crack in the tile. Irene tried to repair it as well, but a third crack.

Lucy spat out something from her bulb of tentacles. A violet-stained slab of meat.

“Hurry!”

The mass of tentacles stretched and inchwormed along the ground. Slowly. Too slowly.

A chunk of tile came off the creature. It clambered to its feet and glared at Irene.

That was the last thing it did.

Lucy’s tentacles came down on top of it. Unlike last time, there was no curtain of tentacles shielding them from the sight.

Thin strands of tentacles binded themselves together into thicker tendrils. They started with the creature’s own tentacles, to keep them from fighting back. Even after pulling a tentacle from its back–releasing a spray of blood as they did so–the tentacles tried to fight. Lucy was having none of it. She squeezed and crushed, pulled and rent until no single piece was larger than her thumb.

At a sudden gagging sound from Shelby, Irene slapped her hand over her sister’s eyes.

There was still one more creature, but it hadn’t shown up yet. Still incapacitated from ramming into the shackles over and over again, most likely. Irene needed to go and fix those before anything more came through.

But for now, she would stick by Shelby’s side and keep her comforted. At least until Lucy had finished with the creature.

As Lucy started on the creature’s legs, Irene held her sister tighter. She wished she had extra arms to cover Shelby’s ears. Yet, she never averted her own eyes.

For some reason, she just couldn’t bring herself to look away.

— — —

“Eva!”

Zoe caught the girl before she could collapse to the ground. As expected, she was shivering and seizing up, unable to put strength in her arms. Taking care not to bump her head, Zoe gently placed Eva against the floor of the women’s ward gate room.

With Eva on the floor, Zoe took a good look at her eyes behind her mask. While her pupils were still thin slits, her irises were no longer bright and burning, having returned to their usual red.

The blood coating Zoe’s arms and most of Eva had also stopped moving. It was still there, just inert.

Small mercies, Zoe thought. At least neither of them were in danger from… whatever Eva had been about to do.

“Wayne?” she called out before realizing her mistake.

Wayne wasn’t here. He wouldn’t be here and neither should she be here. In her panic to get them out of the cathedral, she had skipped past the meeting place entirely and went straight back to the women’s ward.

Cursing under her breath, Zoe pulled out her cellphone. Some of the black blood on her hands smeared over the screen. Zoe did not stop typing even for a second to wipe it away.

Out. @ women’s ward.

She sent the text away before anything else. If Wayne went back in thinking that she hadn’t escaped and something happened to him… Zoe doubted she would forgive herself.

Arachne dead?

She wasn’t entirely sure if dead was the right word to use.

Eva panicked, had to escape.

Setting the phone to the side, Zoe turned her attention back to the girl on the ground.

Even taking into account the effect that her teleportation had on Eva, she had been still for far too long.

“Are you alright, Eva? Can you–”

Zoe’s voice was cut off by her cellphone buzzing against the stone floor of the women’s ward.

Injuries?

Short and to the point.

Zoe considered the question for just a moment. She had a raking pain in her lower back from where Eva’s claws sunk into her skin. She didn’t think that the girl had intended to hurt her, but had simply done so as a reaction to Zoe unexpectedly tackling her.

Eva, on the other hand, was injured. Given that she was covered in Arachne’s blood and that her own blood looked almost exactly the same, it was a bit difficult to tell exactly where she was injured. The few shards of carapace sticking out of her chest were definite signs of injury, however.

Bits of Arachne’s head.

None looked too deep or too large, however. With how well she could heal minor cuts using blood magic, Zoe doubted that she was in any real danger.

Zoe shuddered at the thought as she sent a reply.

Minor wounds on both of us. Nothing life threatening. Bring a few potions anyway. Serena not keyed in, Eva in no shape to do so at the moment. Leave her behind.

“Eva,” Zoe said as she set her phone back down, “can you hear me?”

“I can.”

The answer was cold. No real emotion in it.

“Are you injured? Do you need anything.”

“Arachne,” she said in the same tone of voice.

“Is a demon,” Zoe said softly. She reached up and tried to remove her mask, wanting to look down and offer a reassuring smile to Eva. Only, she found it difficult to remove. Prying her fingers under the seam was almost impossible due to how closely it had been molded to fit her face.

Instead, she reached out and gave Eva’s shoulder a squeeze. “She’ll be fine. Right? Demons don’t die permanently.”

Eva shook her head side to side. Her long hair splayed out behind her own mask bunched up as it rubbed against the ground. “It will be years. At least. Maybe longer. I’ve never,” she choked over her words. “I’ve never seen her die. She hasn’t died for as long as I’ve known her.”

Before Zoe could offer any comforting words about how death was a natural part of life–though that might not be entirely applicable in this exact situation–Eva grit her teeth. She balled up a fist and sent up a scattering of dust as she rammed it into the floor.

“I’m not a stranger to death. I’ve seen people die. I’ve killed people. Ones who weren’t coming back. It’s just a shock. Seeing my friend’s head explode in front of me.” She shook her head again, further mussing up her hair. “Not something you prepare for.

“And now she’s gone. Floating in a void–in Void until she manages to put her head back together.” Eva shuddered. “I can’t–I don’t want to imagine what it is like. Will she even come back? Demons without purpose and drive lose their minds when they die, stuck in the abyss of their own heads.” Eva gave a dark chuckle. “At least, that’s what Arachne said once.”

Zoe pressed her lips together. She wasn’t enthusiastic about Arachne, but she had to say something.

“She has you,” she said, lightly flicking the forehead of Eva’s mask while idly wondering if the girl was ever going to get rid of them. “If she cares for you half as much as she says she does, she’ll pull through. You just need to be ready to receive her when she gets back.”

Eva was smiling. Zoe couldn’t see it through her mask, but the mask did have holes for her eyes. Her eyes crinkled the slightest bit. It wasn’t a bright, tooth filled smile. But maybe just enough to make her feel better.

At least, that is what Zoe thought until the crinkles around Eva’s eyes vanished.

“Void is being attacked. We’re ceasing all summoning. Even Ylva is cutting off ties between the mortal realm and Hell. Even if Arachne does pull herself back together in record time, she may be stranded on the other side.”

“I accepted a beacon from her,” Zoe said slowly. “Did she use it without renewing it with me?”

Zoe could hear Eva’s mouth opening, but it was a moment before she said anything. When she did speak, her voice had the smallest hints of hope. “I don’t think so. As far as I know, she has been in her room for months barring tonight and when Lynn Cross attacked.”

“See?” Zoe said with a small smile. “She’ll be back. And I highly doubt that she’ll bother with staying in Hell even if everyone told her not to come back.”

Eva opened her mouth, only to jump slightly as Wayne appeared in the gate room. He held his emergency sack of potions in one arm and a smaller vial of dark liquid.

Probably far too many potions. Zoe’s text had asked for a few potions. Not all of them.

For a moment, he just looked between the two. Eva, lying flat on her back and Zoe sitting over her.

Zoe did not miss his eyes darting to the wound on her back. She couldn’t actually read his expression as he still had his mask on as well, but what she could see of his eyes did not look pleasant.

She hadn’t actually seen her wound for herself, choosing instead to focus on Eva. Following his eyes, she found four thin lines of red along with her clothing torn around the area.

The actual part where Eva’s claws had first hit her back would have required a mirror or far too much twisting. As it was, just moving to look sent a sharp pain through her side.

Nothing near as bad as when she had been hit by lightning from the inquisitors, and even further from the agony she endured at the hands of the jezebeth and carnivean.

Shaking the pain off, Zoe met Wayne’s eyes. “Just a scratch,” she said, voice firm and leaving no room for argument.

Eva didn’t need to be shouted at by Wayne at the moment.

Without a word, he reached into the sack and withdrew two vials. He tossed both to Zoe. He dropped the dark vial right on Eva’s chest.

“Serena’s blood,” he said. “Add it to your wards. I’d rather have her here than back at home. If they do find a way to follow us, proximity to Ylva should discourage any ideas they might get. So long as she is around, that is.”

Eva held up the vial, her first real movement since arriving, and turned it over in front of her eyes. “Will it work? This blood is… dead. I think.”

“You’re the blood mage.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never met a vampire before. I mean, I can try. I’ve no real objections to her being here. Just, maybe start her outside the prison and walk her in slowly. Any tingling or pain and she should stop immediately. Do vampires even feel pain?”

Wayne just shrugged.

“Maybe have her walk with her arm out. If her arm explodes, don’t go in any further.”

“That works.”

Wayne took a moment to glance around the room. “You did get that thing we went for, right?”

Eva started, jumping a hair into the air.

Placing a hand on her chest, Zoe shook her head. “It’s alright. I got it before we left.”

Taking out her dagger and pointing at the ground, Zoe pulled the obelisk out of its storage. It appeared an inch above the ground. The loud thud that it made as it hit the cement floor was enough to send a few cracks through the ground.

Thankfully, the obelisk itself was undamaged.

“Hope this was worth it,” he said. “Time to lay low for the next ten years again.”

Eva pushed herself up into a sitting position. “Yeah,” she said. “I hope it works.”

For a moment, a silence fell over the three. Until a grunt from Wayne shattered the peace.

“Now quit moping around, Spencer. Get these damn masks off us and go get Ward out of Hell.”

Eva jumped at his voice. She shot him a glare, but nodded. Both of their masks melted off their faces after Eva fingered her dagger.

“I’ll add Serena’s blood to the wards before,” she trailed off as she glanced at the obelisk. Her eyes flicked up to meet with Zoe’s. “It’s heavy. Even for me. I might need help.”

“I can levitate it, at least partially.” Zoe didn’t hesitate in her response. She could almost imagine the thoughts going through Eva’s mind. Arachne could have lifted it without breaking a sweat. “Landing in your domain might be awkward, but we can manage.”

“Great,” Wayne said. His tone was almost sarcastic and he spoke with a frown, but he didn’t say anything more about her going to Hell again.

Maybe this time, I’ll have a chance to look around and inspect some things, Zoe thought. Her tutoring sessions with Shalise were just that, tutoring. All of Shalise’s classes compressed into the span of an hour or two every other week left no time to really get a thorough understanding of how Hell worked. I’ll need to grab a notebook.

“I’ll bring Serena in five minutes. Be finished by then.” Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Wayne vanished with a burst of cold air.

“Better get started,” Eva said with a sigh as she climbed to her feet. “I hope Nel finished with that salt.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.025

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe stopped before a well-worn wooden door with a familiar brass handle. She pushed the door open, fully expecting to be welcomed into the bar and parlor by Tom’s smiling face.

A bright light had her wincing away the second she stepped inside.

It took her mind a moment to catch on to the fact that something was wrong. The bar was never brightly lit. Lights were kept perpetually dim. Tom was not a mage, but she had often wondered if he didn’t have some sixth sense for incoming customers. The lights were low even when she had walked in during the off hours on occasion, when he was in the middle of cleaning–a task that Zoe would never consider attempting without decent lighting.

Blinking away the spots in her eyes, Zoe peered beyond into the rest of the room. Or tried to. With a frown on her face, she realized that the rest of the bar was pitch black. Even her enhanced eyes were having trouble seeing past the few spotlights that had been moved directly in front of the door.

Her enhanced ears, on the other hand, picked up the sound of heavy metal being lifted from a wooden surface.

Zoe slipped off her backpack full of ritual supplies in the same swift motion she used to draw her dagger.

“Keep your hands where I can see them!”

“Tom?” It sounded like his voice. For the most part. It lacked the ever friendly tones that it normally carried.

Zoe kept her hand firmly on her dagger, ready to erect a shield at any moment. “Tom? It’s me, Zoe Baxter. I’m not here to hurt you.”

There was definite hesitation in the darkness. She could almost feel the uncertainty.

“What did you order when you last came here?”

Zoe blinked, trying first to think when the last time was here. It had been at least a month. Two? A long time to remember something as insignificant as a drink.

“I didn’t,” Zoe eventually said. “I asked for a drink, you decided what.”

That was what she most often did, anyway. His question made her second guess herself, but she was fairly certain that she hadn’t actually ordered anything.

Her suspicion was confirmed a moment later as Tom sighed. Whatever he had landed on a table with a clunk. A half empty glass bottle scraped against the wood as the lights in the rest of the establishment slowly brightened to their normal levels.

After once again closing her eyes to help adjust to the light, Zoe surveyed the war zone–for a lack of a better word.

Tables had been flipped on end. Several propped up against the rear exit while the rest served as barricades and obstacles between the front door and the bar’s counter. Most of the chairs had been set up in the same manner.

Sitting behind the counter was a fairly disheveled Tom, currently in the middle of sampling his own wares.

“You gave me a right fright,” he said between drinks.

“I’m sorry about that,” Zoe said as she slowly stepped into the parlor, picking up her backpack before she moved. She kept a wary eye on the pistol lying on the counter. While not knowing much about mundane weaponry, the pistol made her somewhat nervous. “It wasn’t my intention. Has something happened?”

Despite being set up for war, Zoe couldn’t spot a single bullet hole around the room. She was fairly certain that she would notice anything made by that gun. It looked large enough to take out an elephant and still have enough punch to kill a horse on the opposite side.

“‘Has something happened,’ she says as she walks into my bar at such a strange hour. The lights in the sky weren’t enough for you, Zoe? Or did you miss them completely?”

“Well, yes. I had noticed that. But I hadn’t realized they warranted all of this.” She waved her hand around the tables, ending at the pistol laying on the counter.

“Apparently you missed out on the zombies and other monsters wandering the streets over the last few years.”

Can’t argue with that.

“New shop policy,” he said with a smile, “anything strange happens and I’m closed.” After taking another swig of his drink, he held out the bottle towards Zoe.

“No thank you,” she said, waving a hand in front of her. Realizing that hand still held her dagger, she quickly sheathed it.

“Suit yourself. So, what is going on out there?”

“Not a clue. Wayne is talking with some people to try to find out the answer to that. However, I’ve been wandering around and haven’t noticed anything immediately dangerous. No creatures running the streets, at least.”

“Well, that’s a small relief.” He started to take another drink, but paused with the bottle halfway to his mouth. After a moment of deliberating with himself, Tom capped the bottle and placed it somewhere behind the counter. “So, what brings you to my humble bar at such a late hour? I take it you didn’t come for just a social call.”

Zoe shook her head. “Nothing dangerous, but it might cause your business some problems. I need salt. Non-iodized sea salt. Everything you have, probably. I already cleaned out the local food mart–they didn’t have quite enough on their shelves. The woes of living in a small town, I suppose. Without a clerk present, I didn’t want to search around their back room.”

“Must be desperate times,” Tom said, lifting an eyebrow, “if you’re stealing from the local shops.”

“I left my name and number, along with a list of everything that I fully intend to pay for once someone contacts me.” Zoe let out a small sigh. She had had to teleport straight into the building. There had been a momentary concern over alarms before deciding that Shalise came first. “And I intend to reimburse you as well. But yes, something of an emergency with a student. One unrelated to the changes in the sky.”

Probably.

Eva had mentioned Hell’s changes and its likeness to the sky over Brakket City, but someone chasing after Shalise didn’t seem to line up with that particular problem.

“Welp, let’s take a look-see at what I’ve got in the back room.”

Tom pulled up the part of the bar that allowed access behind the counter. He gestured for her to follow as he slipped into the door labeled ‘Employees Only’.

The room itself wasn’t all that large. Larger than your average pantry–Zoe couldn’t touch the shelves on both sides at the same time–but not by much. It did, however, have a large trap door in the center of the floor. A wine cellar of some sort, Zoe assumed.

But they weren’t headed there.

Tom stopped at a section of the shelves labeled ‘Dry goods’ and bent over to pull out a large bag.

Zoe almost sighed in relief as she spotted the label. Twenty-five pounds of sea salt would work perfectly. She had eleven, single pound containers from the grocers.

“I think this is all I’ve got,” he said, hefting the bag over his shoulder. “Unless I start draining the table shakers.”

“That should be plenty. Thank you, Tom. You might have just saved a student.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever done that before. Strange day.”

“Indeed.”

“What do you want done with the salt?”

In response, Zoe pulled out her focus–her wand, not her dagger. No need to make Tom more nervous. With her wand, she dropped the sack straight to between.

Tom stumbled slightly at the sudden lack of weight on his shoulder. He looked around as if expecting it to be levitating above him. “Handy trick,” he said when he failed to find it.

“It is,” Zoe agreed. Especially for lugging around more than thirty pounds of salt and other reagents. She would have been making several trips without that little trick. “But I try to use it as little as possible. Items that I put away for long term storage have a tendency to become unrecoverable. Shouldn’t be a problem here as I intend to withdraw it in a minute or two. Speaking of, I should be leaving.”

“Don’t let me hold you up. I can handle myself.”

Zoe let a small smile touch her lips. “I’m sure that our illustrious dean will be releasing a statement sometime soon, but I’ll keep you appraised of the situation as I can. I don’t think you’ll need your barricade tonight, though.”

Tom gave a short shrug. “Can’t hurt.”

“Might scare off any customers that wander in.”

“Anyone who walks in this late, I don’t care if they return. Present company excluded. I run a classy bar, not a hostel.”

“Have you tried locking your doors?”

Giving the scoffing Tom a slight wave, Zoe used her wand to drop herself into the blinding white of between. The walls of his bar tumbled off into the light, only to be replaced by the women’s ward gate room.

She made her way from the ward to Ylva’s domain, stopping just outside to pull everything out of between that she had stored there. Most of it went into her backpack. Everything else, she simply levitated.

Wayne and Nel sat at the table that had been set up on Ylva’s throne platform. Both seemed deep in a fairly heated discussion. Most of the heat was coming from Wayne if the scowl on his face was anything to judge by.

After crossing the gap with only the slightest modicum of hesitation, Zoe dropped her supplies on the table. “This should be everything on the list,” she said. “Where’s Eva?”

“Off talking with her spider,” Wayne snapped. He let out a strained sigh through grit teeth as he ran a hand down his face.

Frowning at his entirely unwarranted hostility, Zoe narrowed her eyes. “Did something happen?”

“Not much… Oh, except for the Elysium chapel I need to figure out how to break into and out of without getting myself killed.”

Zoe blinked, going over what he said a second and third time in her mind. Just to make sure she had heard him correctly.

“The obelisk that you need is inside the Salem Cathedral,” Nel said, answering the question that Zoe had been about to ask.

“Alright,” Zoe said slowly. That explained Wayne’s mood.

“Spencer only wants a teleport nearby. She thinks she can do it alone.”

Again, Zoe had to go over what he said a second time. “She what?”

“That is roughly what my response was. Even with her pet’s help, maybe other demons, I doubt she has what it takes.”

“Alright. I’ll talk some sense into her. But,” Zoe bit her lip, wondering if she should say anything at all. With a side glance at Nel, she decided that it couldn’t possibly hurt. Nel had no love for the Elysium Order. “But can’t you do it the same way that you did it last time?”

Ignoring the expected stiffening and gasp from Nel, Zoe focused on Wayne.

He just looked confused more than anything. “Last time? Last time I…” His confusion vanished into a mounting look of horror. “You’re not seriously suggesting–”

“If it helps, why not?”

“I could think up a thousand reasons,” he grumbled. Pressing his hands into the table, Wayne stood. “I have a phone call to make.” Without a backwards glance, he walked out of Ylva’s domain, phone in hand.

Last time?”

With a smile on her face, Zoe turned to Nel. “Well, he wasn’t stealing an obelisk, but he got in and out. Otherwise, long story.”

— — —

Irene sat in the hallway with her back to the wall, staring at the door to Eva’s room and wondering just when Professor Lurcher was going to return.

Or if he would return.

Irene would like to think that the condition of Eva’s room was worth at least an urgent rating. Unfortunately, she had a sinking suspicion in the back of her mind that it barely made it on the ’emergency’ scale at all.

Especially not after Shelby had dragged her off to their room’s window. After seeing the real sky, Irene doubted that Eva’s room was even worth remembering. Compared with purple veins stuck in the sky, a little sand was nothing.

Nothing for the people who weren’t sitting outside, constantly reminded of it, anyway.

Irene had had the sick sensation of butterflies in her stomach ever since Catherine left, something that should have provided some peace of mind. If Catherine didn’t think that it was that big of a deal, it probably wasn’t. But she had said to draw out the highest tier of shackles that Irene knew. That did not provide any comforting feelings.

Shelby had gone to bed. Right next door to Eva’s room no less! She hadn’t been worried about it. She just assumed that both things would be solved by the professors and security staff by morning. Shelby hadn’t been aware of the implications behind the markings that Irene had drawn.

And Irene, quite literally, could not tell her. Not without violating her contract. All of Shelby’s inquiries had been responded to with simple ‘nothings’ and ‘Catherine asked me to.’

Jordan could have. Irene didn’t pretend for a moment that he was unaware as to what she was drawing. But he had run off to find his father before the sky had changed. He had probably forgotten too, in light of the veins in the sky.

Irene sighed as she bit her lip. I suppose I should be grateful, she thought. Taking into consideration what had happened with the hot springs, watching an empty room was a vacation. Perhaps she had the easiest job of the people who must be awake this night.

So long as morning comes without anything coming through the room.

Irene jumped a good foot in the air as a wet slopping noise echoed down the hall. Heart beating a million beats a second, she gripped her wand and got off of her chair. Just what the wand was meant to do against anything, she wasn’t entirely certain. But it was a small comfort as she ran to the edge of the shackles and peered into the room.

Nothing. Not a single thing. The sand still held her own footprints, and those of both Professor Lurcher and Catherine, but was otherwise smooth and undisturbed. She couldn’t see into the corners of the room without stepping onto or over the shackles, but Irene felt fairly confident that the room was empty.

Unless it isn’t.

A shiver ran up Irene’s spine as she recalled the first sentence in their diablery textbooks: ‘Never make assumptions when demons are involved.’

Scenarios ran through her mind. What if there was something in there.

She couldn’t see it, so it had to be using a spell of some sort. Either it was invisible or capable of altering her perception.

Irene took a step back from the shackles. It could even be right in front of her, hoping she would step over the line.

But it couldn’t be invisible. It would still leave footprints.

Unless it could float over the sand.

The only other possibility was that it had burrowed beneath the sand. Mundane logic said that the sands would be disturbed at least somewhat. But mundane logic generally went out the window when dealing with magic. Any half-baked earth mage would be able to smooth over sands enough to avoid notice from the distance she was standing.

Well, that’s not the only other possibility, Irene thought as she pressed a finger to her temple. My imagination could be playing tricks on

“What are you doing?”

Irene screamed. She would never admit to it, but a high-pitched shriek sprung from her mouth as she felt a hand come down on her shoulder.

Her mind took an extra minute to process Jordan’s voice.

Clutching her chest, Irene tried to calm down. Her efforts weren’t helped any by Jordan’s snickering.

“It isn’t funny,” Irene said, giving him a punch in the shoulder.

Jordan rubbed his shoulder, but didn’t stop his snickering. If anything, it only made him laugh harder. “You were concentrating so hard,” he said between chuckles.

“I heard something like a barrel of spaghetti being dumped on the ground. It scared me, alright? You don’t have to make fun of me for it.”

His laughter died down with a single, “ah.”

“What? Did you find something out?”

He shook his head. “Dad is meeting with Dean Turner and Professor Zagan. They wouldn’t let me in. I ran into someone who I thought might help watch Eva’s room, but…” Jordan trailed off with a glance over his shoulder. “See for yourself.”

Following his gaze, Irene spotted… something. Something had spilled? With a rag on top of it. Maybe. It was at the far end of the hallway, just at the top of the staircase.

“What is it?”

“Well, it used to be a security guard. Now however, well, your barrel of spaghetti example might not be so inaccurate.”

“Oh, it’s Lucy.”

Irene started towards the demon, moving around Jordan. Seeing Lucy was actually something of a relief. The day she had come into class, they got a brief introduction to contracts. Lucy’s contract was essentially to act as security for Brakket Academy and to protect the students at all costs.

If there was something inside of Eva’s room, having Lucy around would be a great reassurance.

Or not, Irene thought as she got closer.

Lucy was well and thoroughly disassociated with herself. She had flattened herself out on the floor, her spindly tentacles making no effort to maintain her human form. Or do much of anything at all. Only her security uniform kept her in any kind of recognizable shape.

In other words, she was something that would be incredibly difficult to explain if anyone emerged from their rooms.

Irene glanced up and down the hallway, but apart from Jordan, there was no one around. And that was in spite of her earlier scream. The rooms had some protection against noise, but the scream should have gone through.

Then again, it was the dead of night. Most people were probably in deep sleep.

Irene stooped down to be a little closer to the mass of tentacles. “Lucy? Can you hear me?”

Something that might have been a response in tentacle-people language emerged from the mass. An effort was made, but whatever it was, Irene found it entirely unintelligible.

“You’re going to have to form a mouth if you want to talk to me. And everything else you use for speech.”

Irene immediately regretted saying anything at all.

Watching as the pile of wet spaghetti noodles twisted around to form a set of disembodied lips was one of the more disturbing things that Irene had witnessed in her recent memory. Possibly ever.

“This place feels gross.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Irene said. Though, now that it was mentioned, Catherine had been complaining about something similar before she had left.

But she wasn’t, Irene glanced down at the mass, like this.

“Do you think you can pull yourself together?”

Rather than give any verbal response, Lucy’s tentacles trembled. She was trying, that much was clear. Slowly, ever so slowly, her body started to gain some definition.

“Huh.”

Irene jumped again. She shouldn’t have, she knew that Jordan was right at her side. He was just so quiet and easy to forget about.

At least he was a distraction from Lucy. When she had demonstrated her true form in class, she had only done an arm. Even that had been quickly and easily decentralized into the strands of tentacles and put back together. As Lucy was now, it looked almost painful.

Irene was thankful that her uniform was covering up most of her body.

“You don’t seem very surprised. I expected more shock.”

Putting on a frown, the only thing that Irene could think of in response was that the contract was incredibly inconvenient. Jordan knew about demons anyway. There should be an exception for people like him, if nothing else.

“Neither do you,” Irene said with a shake of her head.

“Oh, I was plenty surprised when she fell face first into the ground and exploded into ribbons.”

“I’m sure.”

To avoid any continuation of the topic, Irene reached down and helped the mostly solid Lucy to her feet. She made sure to only touch Lucy on her clothes; the demon was covered in some slimy mucus.

She wobbled a fair amount, but managed to keep from falling on her face again. There was a bit of wet gurgling noises coming from–Irene wanted to say from Lucy’s throat, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. It was just coming from Lucy in general.

“Why is this place so gross?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Irene said. “I don’t feel anything.” Except a constant butterflies-in-stomach feeling, she thought. She was fairly certain that the feeling wasn’t related. Glancing over at Jordan, Irene asked, “do you feel anything?”

He shrugged. “Not particularly. Maybe a little unsettling sensation, but that could have just been from watching Lucy put herself together.”

“Something is here. But not? It’s,” Lucy paused, scrunching up her face in concentration.

Given her lack of bone structure or human muscles, the look sent chills up Irene’s spine. She was clearly mimicking what she had seen other people do in similar situations, but wasn’t quite succeeding. There was just something uncanny about it. If asked, Irene wouldn’t be able to point out any one thing in particular that was wrong with it. It just looked off.

“I don’t know the words,” Lucy eventually said, sagging in defeat.

On instinct, Irene reached forward to help steady the demon. When Lucy sagged, she sagged.

A stray thought couldn’t help but slip in. She’d be great at limbo.

“Maybe if you saw the room?” Jordan asked with a shrug. “Couldn’t hurt, could it?”

Irene wasn’t so sure about that. They might have to go get a mop if Lucy fell again, or worse, passed out. Just to sweep her down the staircase.

But Lucy had already taken one wobbly step forward. That was followed by a second and a third, each more steady than the last. Irene wanted to say that her eyes were unfocused as she moved, but that wasn’t all that different from the other times she had seen the security guard around school.

Considering for a moment that her eyes were strands of tentacles too… Irene shook her head before she could think about it too hard. Demon physiology was not covered in their course work and probably for good reason.

Moving up next to her, Irene stopped Lucy from stepping over the barrier of the shackles. If there was an invisible creature trapped inside, she didn’t really want Lucy to be trapped inside as well. Even if nothing attacked her, Irene would have to break the shackles to let her out, potentially letting out whatever had gotten trapped.

Irene gasped as she looked into the room from Lucy’s side.

There were definitely new footprints in the sand. She had spent long enough staring at it that she was sure of it.

Something was in there. Judging by the footprints, it had moved around to the blind spot to the side of the door.

A sharp noise from Lucy sent Irene’s heart into overdrive.

“Mushy mortals should stand away,” she said as her hands unfurled into their natural form. “Something in here is–”

Her comment was cut off by a high-pitched whine.

That whine terminated in thunder resonating between Irene’s ears.

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