Tag Archives: Max

004.005

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Irene let out a sigh. Something she had been doing a lot of recently. There wasn’t really any one thing that was making her sigh, just a lot of little things that all added up.

First and foremost would be the knowledge that one of her professors was a demon. A demon that had attacked Juliana and Shalise. Thankfully, he wasn’t around anymore. At least, no one had seen him since the ‘incident’ had happened. His class had been taken over by a substitute with no word on his return or permanent replacement.

She glanced over to her side. Another of the primary sources of her exasperation sat in the seat next to her.

Jordan had descended into a serious phase. Possibly because of the aforementioned demon wandering about. It wasn’t something Irene would have thought would bother him, what with his whole shadow thing. More likely, he had been acting as he had due to his father being around town.

Mr. Anderson had a way of stalking around that sent chills up Irene’s spine. And that wasn’t even related to the fact that he could do the whole shadow thing and plenty more besides.

As for Shelby, she wasn’t acting the same either. She still sat next to Jordan, yet she wasn’t so talkative. Not once since the incident had she reached over to touch his elbow during a shared laugh. Even now, as they sat in class, she leaned away from him, preferring to doodle on a notebook rather than to pursue her attempts to engage Jordan in conversation.

They both were… subdued.

Irene wasn’t all that different, but she had always been far more introspective than the others.

Someone towards the front of the classroom cleared their throat, ruining her peaceful reminiscence.

Dolt, Irene thought. They had been sitting in peace and quiet. Left to her own devices, she was more than happy to read through textbooks.

Drew–of course it was him–just had to ruin it.

Their substitute glanced up from the front desk’s computer at the noise. Upon seeing Drew’s eager glare, she rolled her blue eyes.

Irene joined her. At least that was something they shared; a mutual disdain of that idiot.

Eye-roll complete, Catherine–she never had mentioned her last name–finished a few quick keystrokes at the computer before standing. She sauntered around to the front of the desk. She rested against the desk, sitting on the very edge with her feet pressed firmly on the ground.

As she leaned forwards ever so slightly, almost the entire class sat up straighter. The motion wasn’t confined to guys or girls. Even Shelby sat up straighter, Irene noted with some disdain. Jordan did as well, though it felt different in his case; he was giving her attention as deserving of their professor rather than attempting to sneak a peek down her shirt.

Apart from Irene, the only other student who didn’t move for a better view was Timothy Dewey. He was one of the ones with a smarter head on his shoulders, so maybe there was some correlation with that as to why Irene didn’t care for the teacher. Everyone else seemed to enjoy her a little too much.

The substitute had to be doing it on purpose. The cut of that shirt alone should be against school rules. Not to mention the skirt–or lack thereof. It was a good thing that her legs were pressed together.

At the same time, Irene had a feeling that she couldn’t shake. Like the professor wasn’t actually trying to do anything. It was all just her natural state of being. There was a certain casualness to it that Irene had to admire, as if she had been doing it her entire life. It would never be something that Irene could just do.

“Well, class,” she said with clear disdain. The rest of the students didn’t seem to notice or care. “While I am certain that you are all itching for a continuation of yesterday’s lesson. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that such lessons are strictly off-limits pending excruciatingly painful punishment.”

Thank goodness, Irene thought. She did not need to learn how certain objects placed in very specific places would lead to various magical effects. Even more pleasing was that she wouldn’t be doing the continuation. Which, by her words yesterday, would have implied that Catherine herself would be demonstrating such magic.

Predictably, there were several groans from most of the class. Shelby included.

Irene vowed to punch her sister in the arm later.

“Today’s lesson plan, according to notes left by Baxter, was to be on the Stratogale Principle.”

Irene sat up even as most of the class slumped over. That was a topic she had been looking forward to discussing.

“But,” she said, prompting a groan from Irene. “Even with all the magical remedies and life extensions available to mages, not a single one of you will live long enough for it to apply. If you did live long enough, you probably would have done something to get reapers or some other minion of Death on your tail.”

Irene blinked. Death? She could almost hear the capitalization in Catherine’s voice, yet the substitute punctuated her statement with a casual wave of her hand. And she mentioned minions as well, as if He was a real thing and not some bogey man to scare children.

She shuddered anyway.

“The only beings that need worry about the Stratogale Principle are non-mortals. Demons, for instance.”

The hackles along the back of Irene’s neck all rose. That was a word she had heard far too much of in the past few weeks. There was no chance that it was a coincidence.

During her thoughts, Catherine had continued talking. Irene quickly tried to pay attention. “–ends up not affecting demons much at all. Only a few especially stupid actually suffer for it. Since it is a vastly more interesting topic and one that, ironically enough, is quite related to you all, who can name a type or race of demon?”

Irene stiffened. This was definitely not a coincidence. At her side, Jordan stiffened as well. They shared a brief, worried glance.

Max–that traitor–lifted a hand in the air. He probably wanted to show off for his new best friend, Drew. Or Catherine herself. Probably the latter, more likely.

At Catherine’s nod in his direction, he said, “Arachne?”

“Incorrect,” Catherine said. “Arachne is an individual. She has no siblings, spawn, or progenitor to share her name with. Should she, Void forbid, decide to breed one day, that might change. There is, however, a demonic race of spiders called jorogumo, but they aren’t sentient. Not that you would be able to tell the difference. Anyone else?”

Jordan, to Irene’s great surprise, was the next to raise his hand. “Succubi,” he said without waiting to be acknowledged.

Catherine’s face split into a lecherous grin. “Ah yes, succubi. Arguably the most well-known race of demons among humans. And for good reason. We–” She stopped and cleared her throat for a moment. “We often hear tales of how beautiful and wonderful and perfect those enticing beings are.”

A sinking feeling settled into Irene’s stomach as the substitute went on about succubi. There was no sign of her diatribe slowing, nor a hint of an end.

There was, however, a small nagging feeling in the back of Irene’s mind. It made her look at the substitute in a new light.

And not necessarily a positive light.

— — —

Alicia Heiden gasped for breath.

She sucked in the air as fast as she was able.

It had only been thirty-seconds–she’d counted the first few times–but her lungs were burning all the same.

As soon as her head emerged from the water, the cranks of the wheel slowed. The clicking became audible as water drained from her ears. The rest of her body had to sit in that murky liquid until the wheel turned enough. By that time, she would have her head at the peak of the wheel. There wouldn’t be time to dry before she started back towards the water.

And then she would be fighting off all the blood rushing to her head. Once again, she would be sitting on the edge of passing out.

Every turn of the wheel made Alicia that much more exhausted. That much more tired. That much more likely to succumb to passing out.

She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t nap. Early on, she had guessed that each revolution took roughly one half hour–that included the times the wheel sped up while her head was underwater. If she could guarantee that she would only sleep during the upward motion of the wheel, Alicia would take the chance in an instant.

As it was, she was certain that she wouldn’t wake up thanks to the blood rushing to her head.

Alicia knew without a doubt that she would drown if that ever happened.

After she caught her breath, Alicia started to relax. Going up the wheel was infinitely better than going down. Far less stressful. Enough so that she often felt bored.

Bored! During torture!

She had lost count after about twenty revolutions, but she was running out of things to occupy herself with.

Alicia had already imagined herself in each of the other torture room implements. In comparison, the water-wheel wasn’t bad at all. There was another wheel device across the room; except that one looked designed to move along a bed of hot nails, pressing the helpless victim into them as it turned.

Her wheel didn’t even have spikes! What luck.

Sure, she might have preferred a stationary chair or bed of some sort. Most of those she could see had something uncomfortable about them, whether that be flames, more spikes, or a bladed pendulum. One device looked designed to dip a restrained person into a trough of molten lava.

On second thought, the water wheel was one of the best devices to be–

Alicia shook her head. Her mind was wandering, becoming loopy. She would rather not be tortured in the first place.

But as long as she was…

The wheel ground on, clicking and clanking as it brought Alicia up to face the ceiling.

This was even worse. At least there had been something interesting to look at before, even if they sent her mind down weird tangents.

Here, there was just the ceiling.

She had already counted every tile in the room.

Boredom was dangerous. Boredom led to sleep. Sleep led to drowning.

So Alicia turned her thoughts towards the same subject that always occupied her mind during this phase of the wheel.

Why is this happening to me?

She wasn’t being asked questions. She wasn’t being held for ransom, as far as she could tell.

No one had so much as been in the room since she had first awoken strapped to the wheel. No tell-tale rattling of skeletons, no draining of her blood for vampires, no stench of rotting corpses.

Though Alicia was willing to admit that she might have simply become used to whatever smell permeated the torture room.

Necromancers, or other undead, did not make much sense given that they had been battling demons. Alicia had no idea what to do about that. The meaningless torture made sense in that case; she wouldn’t put it past demons to torture her for fun. But something didn’t sit right with her about that. If she had been captured by demons or a diabolist, she would have expected there to be voyeurs.

Or more painful torture.

Someone was watching her. Upon first waking, she had attempted to connect to the source. The moment she had, the wheel spun and held her beneath the water until she stopped.

After refilling her lungs, she tried again.

Let it never be said that Alicia Heiden couldn’t learn a lesson. She hadn’t tried a third time.

The wheel clicked on. Alicia felt her heart pick up the pace as it worked overtime to keep all the blood flowing to the rest of her body.

While the other side of the room was as interesting as the first, she couldn’t spare it much thought. It only took a few minutes for the headache to settle in. Alicia pinched her eyes shut.

The clicking stopped.

Alicia snapped her eyes back open as the wheel ground to a halt.

Why did the clicking stop?

There was a low groan from somewhere deep within the wheel’s mechanisms.

Alicia had a bare instant to panic.

“Cra–”

The wheel spun under her weight.

She tried to take a gasp of air, but the wheel spun too fast.

Alicia crashed head-first into the trough of water.

Her lungs burned for oxygen. The small bit of water she had inhaled before submerging gave a need to cough.

I am going to die. Whatever kept the wheel turning broke and now I am going to drown in knee-deep water.

Her head broke the surface of the water a second later.

There must have been enough momentum to bring her head all the way through.

Alicia gasped and coughed at the same time, resulting in nothing but pain. She forced through the pain and took in as much air as she could before holding her breath.

She waited for the wheel to swing back under the water.

It never did.

The wheel lifted her until she was almost facing the ceiling again.

Two dead eyes obscured her view of the five-hundred-thirty-seven tiles. Long, platinum hair fell down the front and back of a dress cut for a scandal.

Finally, Alicia thought as she coughed and sputtered again, gasping for more air. Finally someone is here.

There was joy in her heart at that very fact. Anyone was better than no one. After Lord knows how long, another person was a Godsend. Unless she was hallucinating. Alicia would rather have no one than a hallucination.

But she didn’t look like a hallucination. A fresh corpse, maybe, but no hallucination.

Maybe she would be lucky and that corpse would mean necromancers. Alicia knew how to handle necromancers.

Unfortunately, most of the things she had been fighting before being captured had looked like corpses, yet the source insisted that they were part of a demon.

As she finally got off the emotional roller coaster that seeing something else caused, Alicia had to remind herself that this person was not a nun.

That meant that she was not her friend.

“So,” she managed between waterlogged coughs, “my host finally shows themselves.”

Without waiting for a response, Alicia gathered what was left of the fetid water in her mouth and spat at the woman.

Her eyes went wide as the small bit of water turned to ice. She heard it crash into the floor a moment after, all without the woman even twitching her fingers.

Ice blue lips tipped down into a disgusted frown. “Your disrespect is unappreciated.”

With that said, the woman turned and walked out of the room with all the grace and dignity of–of something very graceful and dignified.

As soon as the door slammed shut, the clicking started again.

And the wheel started turning.

The cranks stopped. A moment later and the wheel spun up to force Alicia to face the dead-eyed woman.

Finally

Alicia didn’t speak. She waited, enjoying the reprieve from the clicking and the turning.

She closed her eyes. It was hardly a break if she had to look at that woman’s face.

Counting backwards from ten wasn’t enough. It would have to do. She couldn’t remain silent forever.

“Do your wors–” Alicia’s eyes flicked over to some of the more creative pain-causing instruments in the room. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“We had yet to speak.”

Alicia frowned. ‘We?’ She craned her neck. There was no one else in the room as far as she could see.

“Doesn’t matter,” Alicia said with a shake of her head. “Whatever you want, I won’t betray my allies.”

“Allies?”

The woman tilted her head. She started bending over as if to sit despite there being nothing there to catch her.

Alicia smiled, preparing to laugh at the foolish woman when she sprawled herself out on the ground.

Her smile quickly vanished.

A massive chair–a throne, really–rose from the black marble tiles. Other than sitting down, the woman hadn’t made a single motion. She had no wand, no foci visible.

There must be someone out of sight casting these spells.

The woman’s elbow came to rest on one of the armrests. Her fingers curled under her chin.

Alicia’s wheel cranked downwards until she was eye-to-eye with the woman once again.

“What allies?”

Alicia blinked. That wasn’t the response she had expected. “What do you mean?”

The woman tilted her head once again. She went silent for a moment. “We found no room for ambiguity in Our query. What allies are you concerned about betraying?”

Alicia clamped her mouth shut. She shook her head back and forth before staring down at the woman’s knees.

The clicking started a moment later.

Alicia lolled her head from side to side. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake. Have to keep awake.

The clicking stopped again. It took but a moment for the wheel to spin up and stop with Alicia facing the black throne.

Alicia closed her eyes with a sigh. Such a welcome sight. A reprieve from the spinning and the water and the turning and the clicking.

But she had to stay awake.

If she fell asleep, Ylva would leave. The clicking would start.

And the turning.

And the water.

She had almost drowned once already. There was still a constant need to cough from some amount of water that made it to her lungs.

“Last time we spoke, you seemed so certain that you would be rescued. How long has it been?”

Alicia shook her head. More than a hundred half-hour long revolutions. She had stopped bothering to count. “I don’t know.”

“And where are these allies of yours now?”

Again, Alicia shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Ylva nodded. For a moment, she was silent.

Alicia loved the dramatic pauses the demon–for what else could she be–often used. As long as she was not spoken to, Alicia didn’t need to speak. She was free to rest. Even as far as shutting her eyes for a few blessed seconds.

“Your allies abandoned you,” Ylva said, voice soft. Sad. Almost regretful. “They know you yet live. They know where you are. None have come to rescue you. None will come to rescue you.

“You are an expendable asset to them. A casualty paid in a meaningless conflict.”

Ylva went silent. She shifted as her head switched its resting spot from one hand to the other. Her free hand came up and gently rubbed against Alicia’s cheek.

Alicia leaned her head into it, savoring the sensation. She hadn’t felt anything except cold water and slowly drying skin in days. Weeks? Months? Lord, Alicia thought. How long have I been here?

“Do you know the reason for your suffering?”

Alicia jerked back from Ylva’s soft hand. It was a strain to keep her eyes focused, but she managed for a few seconds. That beautiful woman in front of her gained corpse-like features as she looked harder.

“You’re a demon!” Alicia shouted.

Ylva withdrew her outstretched hand.

And she frowned.

Just the corners of her lips. She tipped her head up, looking down at Alicia past the tip of her nose.

Alicia’s heart sank. She made Ylva mad again. She was so stupid. How could she have shouted at Ylva.

Ylva stood from her throne. She maneuvered around it and turned her back to Alicia.

“I’m sorry,” Alicia said, not even bothering to hide the desperation in her voice. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t go.”

Ylva stopped. Her head turned to align with her shoulder, not quite looking at Alicia.

“Our servant has been stolen from Us. We will not allow Our servants to suffer. All in Our path will be demolished until Our property is returned to Us.”

Her words said, Ylva turned and walked out of the room.

Alicia hung her head. Some lingering water started dripping from her face at a steady pace.

And the clicking started.

A cool hand brushed the loose water from Alicia’s face. It stroked gently, massaging away fatigue. Two arms wrapped around Alicia’s head. It was a cold embrace, but not an unwelcome one.

“We care for Our servants, Our property.”

Alicia nodded into the crook of a shoulder. She had to show she was listening. Had to stay awake.

“We care for those that assist Ourself. Those that help us. Friends, one might say.”

The voice was gentle. Soft. Soothing.

“And We assist Our… friends in return. We protect Our servants. We rescue those of Ours who have managed to place themselves in the hands of an enemy. Because we care.

“We wish We could care for you, Ali. Will you not let Us?”

Alicia pulled back from the fingers, from the voice. Her head lolled side to side.

And the clicking started.

Alicia crept along the wall. Keeping her own noise down was far more difficult than she had expected. Her habit was both soaked and torn. Soiled with foul liquids. Most of the fabric around her wrists, ankles, and waist had worn away thanks to her struggles against the restraints.

She slipped out of her robe, only wearing the undergarments. Parts of what she slipped out of were blessed. Tossing them on the floor so carelessly was disrespect almost to the point of heresy.

Caring about such a thing was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t like the cloth wasn’t ruined anyway.

Alicia slipped out of the torture chamber into a massive room. A throne, far larger than the one Ylva had used during their sessions, sat suspended over a gigantic pit.

There were doors everywhere. The walkway was circular and there was a door right next to one another.

The exit could be behind any one of the doors. But if Alicia had built the place, she would have built the throne facing the main entrance.

Assuming the throne couldn’t rotate.

Still, it was a better option than checking every door and stumbling across other people.

Halfway around the ring, Alicia heard voices coming from one of the rooms. A meeting perhaps? She considered stopping by and listening. Shaking her head, Alicia continued on. She had wasted so much time already. It was too important that she get back to the Elysium Order as soon as possible.

She hefted open the heavy doors.

The sun beat down on her.

It had been so long, she just sat, staring.

Smiling.

Voices behind Alicia shook her from her reverie. She sprinted out into the prison compound.

The cold air bit through her damp clothes, giving her instant shivers. Was it still November? December? Could it even be January?

It didn’t matter except to show how much time she had wasted with her foolishness.

She sprinted on, looking for any kind of exit.

Alicia stopped in her tracks and almost broke down in giggles. It had been so long, yet it was so easy.

With a moment’s concentration, Alicia connected. The source flowed through her, warming her cold body. It had been so long. Such a foreign feeling.

With a second thought, Alicia teleported. The prison fell away to reveal a pure, radiant white.

Elysium Grand Cathedral formed up around her.

Priests, monks, nuns, and all manner of other clergy turned as one to her direction.

She collapsed to her knees as the startled gasps and shouts echoed around her. Alicia had to remind herself to keep her hands as still and nonthreatening as possible. The Elysium Order wouldn’t hesitate to kill her if they thought she might be a threat.

“Sister Heiden,” someone shouted. That someone ran up to her, wearing the gold trimmed inquisitorial robes.

Alicia was sure she knew the inquisitor. It was someone familiar. She couldn’t quite grasp the name.

It didn’t matter.

“Water,” Alicia choked out.

Once the Elysium Order was certain that she was Alicia Heiden, it didn’t take long for her to find herself wrapped in a warm blanket with a glass of cool water in hand.

She had been sequestered away in one of the cathedral’s side rooms, probably with guards just outside.

The door opened. In walked one of the most highly decorated members of the Elysium Order. He wore black robes with actual platinum weaved in. The light always caught it in strange ways, giving it a shine unlike anything else.

He stopped just in front of Alicia, smiling down at her.

She smiled back. It was hard, forcing a relief filled smile. Probably not as hard as the smile he was forcing. The corners of his mouth kept twitching in a way Alicia had seen only once before.

During Sister Cross’ briefing just before they began their ill-planned assault on Ylva’s servant.

Brother Maynard reached out, placing a hand on Alicia’s shoulder. He gave a light squeeze before withdrawing his hand.

Alicia had repress narrowing her eyes. His face wrinkled slightly, especially around his nose. He was, however, less subtle in wiping off his hand onto his own robes.

Ylva had never done that.

Alicia knew she stunk. That water hadn’t got any cleaner as the days went on.

She didn’t need it rubbed in her face like that.

“My dear sister,” he said, “I can only imagine a fraction of what you must have gone through. Torture to leave you in such a state must have been cruel indeed.”

Alicia shook her head. “They care about the augur, Nel Stirling. I had no useful information on the subject, and they never asked me questions. I was kept, not tortured.”

Brother Maynard’s face lightened for a moment before his features turned downwards. “However did you escape, my dear?”

“One of the people there, a little girl. She would bring me my meals–a single roll of bread. Earlier today, I bit down into a key. I guess she felt sorry for me.”

“Most fortuitous indeed. Perhaps salvation is not yet out of reach for that one. I shall keep her in my prayers.”

Alicia nodded. She looked down into the glass of water she had been given, looking at her own reflection.

She wasn’t quite sure what was staring back at her.

I need a shower.

Repressing a small chuckle, she took a drink. It tasted… stale.

Looking back towards Brother Maynard, Alicia met his eyes. “Sir, I’m not hurt. Tired and hungry, yes. Give me a few days of rest and I will be fit for duty.”

His eyes darted between her own, looking left and right over and over again. Searching for something.

Alicia kept her own eyes steady, focusing on his right eye. “And a shower,” she said.

Brother Maynard laughed. A good, hearty chuckle, fitting for a slightly rotund monk.

She had to fight to keep her eyes steady. The nerve. He laughed at her.

“I’m glad you’re eager. We have much work to do, my dear. It is good you’ve returned, Sister Heiden. We were all very worried.”

“Yeah, it’s good to be back,” Ali lied.

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003.017

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The clouds were unnatural.

Yesterday had been bright and sunny. Not a cloud for miles around. Eva wasn’t in the habit of watching the news, but she imagined the forecast would have been sunny for the next several days.

The sheer level of overcast hanging over the school’s campus–and only the school’s campus–had several students skipping school. It was far too ominous for their tastes.

Eva might have agreed had she not known the cause. While she hadn’t specifically asked for clouds, it could only be Ylva.

It was for the best. She had no idea what madness took hold of her when she scheduled this meeting for Monday morning. Nighttime, or a weekend, or not at school at all would have been better. At least with the clouds, people wouldn’t be starting rumors about her walking around with a skeleton.

She would have rumors about the giant instead.

Students on their way from the dorms to the school stopped to gape. Ylva was gathering glares, stares, looks of awe, and plenty more. Several of those looks shifted towards Eva, often turning to confusion at some point. Eva even caught the eye of Des who stopped to glare for a moment, though that glare was aimed undoubtedly at Eva.

Let them try to figure out a connection. What is a blue-lipped giant of a statue doing walking next to the monster girl? What Eva wouldn’t give for a peek into their thoughts.

Though only those that were early to school would see them, Eva held no doubts that the rumors would spread through the entire school by lunch. They would likely explode into full-blown conspiracy theories by the end of the day.

Maybe some of those theories would even be right.

“We gather an audience.”

“Don’t worry about it. It isn’t your fault.” Partly. “I’ve been drawing plenty of attention on my own lately thanks to my hands and eyes.”

“Change your form. Become human-like in appearance.”

Eva glanced up at the demon. She didn’t appear to be joking. Though she had to wonder if she would even recognize an Ylva joke. If Ylva knew what a joke was.

“I can’t,” Eva said with a hesitant shrug. “I’m stuck like this.”

Ylva managed to look down at Eva while keeping her head straight. A faint smile touched her icy lips. “We will teach.”

“While that might be nice,” Eva said slowly, “I can’t say that I am interested in being a slave for hundreds or thousands of years.”

“We treat Our property well.”

“And I can see that with Nel. She appears very… content.” For the most part. Any time Eva was around and Ylva wasn’t, Nel became far more skittish. “It just isn’t the life for me. Perhaps I’d take you up on the offer eventually. Not in the foreseeable future.”

“You repeat the mistakes of your companion. A disgrace.”

“Like I said, in the future. You would be my first choice, especially over someone like Zagan.”

“Surely I’m not that bad, am I?”

That silky smooth voice appeared right in her ear. She felt the hot breath caress her ear. Eva jumped. Her claws raked through empty air almost of their own accord. She couldn’t help it.

“Calm yourself, embryonic one.” Zagan stooped over with a smile on his face–his nose was a mere millimeter from the tip of Eva’s claw. “Lashing out in fear makes you look weak, yeah? Look at this one,” he said with a wave towards Ylva. “Her composure didn’t waver for even an instant despite being equally startled by my presence.”

Eva clenched her fist. She had half a mind to step forwards and punch him in the face. A mere glower would have to suffice.

“You are one of the ten kings, Great King Zagan.”

Zagan managed to move in front of Ylva, sweep up her hand with his own, and press his lips against it all in the time it took Eva to blink. She didn’t move or even acknowledge his actions. Ylva just stared with her usual dead gaze.

“I am. And you are a daughter of Hel. Tell me, how is the old woman?”

“Busy. Liches plague the mortal realm.”

“Ah,” Zagan said with a nod. “The more humans multiply, the more will attempt to stave off the machinations of Death. But, what of you? Dithering here when your sisters and mother require you elsewhere? Surely the only hel with free access to the mortal realm has more interesting things to do than babysit.” His eyes flicked over Eva for just a moment before returning to Ylva.

“We have Our own mission.”

“I see.” He pulled himself up to his full height–still two heads shorter than Ylva–releasing her hand in the process. Despite Ylva towering over him, he still had several inches on Eva.

This must be how Juliana always feels.

Looking at Zagan all but confirmed that Carlos had been correct. Eva was shrinking. The distance between them hadn’t been so great even as recently as the first day of school. It was too bad. She rather liked her newfound height. Hopefully it wouldn’t shrink too much.

She needed to surround herself with more people of Juliana’s stature. At the very least, Eva would still be taller than her.

“Martina asked me to escort the two of you. I think the presence of someone uncontracted is making her somewhat nervous.” He glanced down at Eva and added, “she gets like that sometimes.”

Eva frowned. He had said something similar on the rooftop while trying to find a summoned demon. “So long as she doesn’t bother me, I don’t care what she’s doing. I’ll not interfere unless her plans bring harm to me or anyone I know. If that is what you’re wondering.”

“I will let her know,” Zagan said with a sneer.

Was that the wrong answer?

Eva’s frown deepened as Zagan turned back to Ylva. Did he want interference? She let out a soft sigh. Between regular school, her own studies, and this demon attack on Zoe, she just didn’t have time to dedicate to snooping around Martina Turner’s plans.

Though, if Zagan wanted her to interfere, not doing so was probably the correct choice.

“Let’s get you two into Martina’s office and away from all the gawkers,” he said with a wave towards two students who were standing just far enough away to not hear them talk.

Probably.

With Zagan leading the way, nothing really changed. They might have even gathered more stares than they had before. Whether on account of Zagan being an authority figure or Zagan being Zagan, Eva couldn’t say. The students who weren’t interested in Eva or Ylva made note of their professor walking around.

A few even greeted him by name. Zagan would return their greetings with a few words or a wave. Although he never mentioned names, he was polite. There was the barest hint of disdain in his voice, but it was well covered.

Ylva walked with her head straight forwards, apparently not taking notice of the peasants walking beneath her. That was just an appearance. She was noticing. She wouldn’t have mentioned their stares otherwise.

Zagan brought them through Brakket’s lobby and into the adjacent offices.

“Morning Catherine,” Zagan said to the lesser succubus sitting at the front desk. “We still on for tonight, yeah?”

Catherine’s eyes flicked over the group. They started with Eva, narrowing as she looked over Ylva and stopped at Zagan. There was a brief flash of red as her eyes reverted to a more demonic state. It passed as quickly as it came.

“In your dreams,” she said with a snarl before looking back to her makeup compact.

“I certainly hope so.” He flashed a bright smile before turning his golden eyes back to Eva and Ylva. “Well, best not to keep Martina waiting.”

He pushed open the door labeled with Martina’s nameplate.

The room was dark, lit by a single desk lamp and a standing lamp just behind Martina Turner. All the chairs had been moved to the far corner of the room, save for the one behind the desk. Paper stacks covered her desk, save for one corner that was occupied by a pair of boots.

Forcing her guests to stand? How rude.

Though Ylva standing might backfire somewhat.

Martina Tuner’s eyes widened as Ylva had to duck slightly to enter the room. If their meeting went on for any length of time, it would be Martina’s neck that would be in pain.

The dean set aside a manila folder she had had in her hands. She had to recline as far back as her chair would allow in order to keep Ylva in sight as they neared the desk. Zagan moved up to stand behind her. His polite smile turned somewhat sinister the moment he moved behind Martina.

If Eva had to guess, the chairs and Martina not getting up were his doing. He advised for this petty power play knowing exactly how it would turn out.

Martina realized at least part of that. Enough to slowly move her feet to the floor. She still did not stand.

Eva cleared her throat. If they wanted to play their little power games, they could do it without her. She had better things to. Namely, anything. “Ylva, this is Martina Turner. The dean of Brakket Magical Academy. Martina, this is Ylva. The daughter of Death’s goddess, Hel.”

“So you told me over the phone.” Martina’s eyes glanced over Ylva again. “And you’re wanting to assist in our little rogue demon problem?”

“We do as We will. This meeting is offered as a courtesy.”

Ylva’s tone was harsh. Angry even. A few steps away from the booming voice she occasionally used in her domain.

And Eva couldn’t blame her one bit. Martina had no idea how to handle meeting with powerful entities. Or trusted in Zagan’s advice far too much. Eva was betting on the latter. After all, she somehow wrangled Zagan into a contract.

That was scary enough on its own.

Zagan looked to be suppressing a laugh behind Martina. His eyes met Eva’s glare. A shrug of his shoulders was the only answer to her unasked question.

Martina looked unperturbed. “While here, you are to remain away from Brakket Campus. There will be other guards stationed around the school on Saturday. You are free to wander the town so long as you do not draw undue attention to yourself. Something I see you might have problems with.”

Eva took a casual step away from Ylva as the demon narrowed her eyes.

“You presume to order Ourself?” The wall shook as Ylva’s voice thundered out.

“If you cannot abide by my terms, Zagan will be force–”

Said demon cleared his throat. “It would be unwise to antagonize the hel, Martina.”

Martina’s calm expression shifted into a frown. “Explain.”

“As the little embryo said, her mother is dear old Hel. One-sixth of Death’s deities. Not the strongest of the bunch, but Hel has the others’ ears at the very least. I’m sure the Baron would be happy to wipe this town off the map for her.”

“And you can’t simply snap your fingers and turn them nonexistent?”

“I could try, but those six have been touched by Death Himself. They break several rules. They’re able to kill the unkillable, for instance.”

“And you’re afraid.” Despite being told that her current course of action would lead to ruin, Martina grew a wide smile with that statement.

“Nonsense. Nothing to be afraid of so long as I don’t do anything to anger them, yeah? Something that hurting one of Hel’s daughters would surely do.”

“I see.” Martina turned back to Ylva with a genuine smile. “Well, Ylva, I do apologize. Someone,” she said with a glance towards Zagan, “was under the impression that a firm hand would be required in dealing with you.”

Ylva simply stared, though some of the anger seemed to have fled. Her eyes returned to their base, unnarrowed state.

“I see now that I can’t order you around. Though I do ask that you attempt to keep a low profile. As a side note, I wonder if you wouldn’t consider a contract of mine when your task is complete.”

“We are unable to accept further contracts. Our current contract may continue for some time.”

“You are already contracted? I was under the impression that you weren’t.”

Eva blinked. So was I, she thought.

Devon? No. Not likely. He didn’t trust demons enough to do anything other than use them, and they didn’t get along very well in the first place. Perhaps Nel? Eva shook her head. Nel was property. If she was contracted, their relationship was far more complicated than Eva could work out in her mind.

Eva dismissed Zoe almost immediately. She hadn’t been as afraid of her since the whole demon attack thing, but not enough to want a contract. Juliana spent time around the demon, but she would have mentioned something as big as contracting with Ylva, right?

Someone else then. Yet another thing for Eva to add to her plate.

“Well,” Martina said after Ylva failed to respond, “when you complete your current contract, I may have use for you.”

“We shall keep your offer in mind.”

Ylva spoke in her usual commanding tone. There was something more to it–a certain flatness. Eva had never heard the demon do anything resembling sarcasm. At least not before now.

“That’s all I ask. I’d ask Zagan to see you out, but I find myself needing to have a few words with him.”

“She’s going to be with Zoe for the day before heading home with her,” Eva said. “I’ll show her where to go.”

“Is that wise? I mean, the students…”

“Ylva will be disguising herself. The cover is that Zoe will be caring for a friend’s daughter, Ylva being that friend. She came in today to clear it with you. Zoe asked me to show her around because she was too busy.”

A pillar of fog erupted in the office. It dispersed into tiny-Ylva.

“I see,” Martina said. She leaned over the top of her desk with a frown. “Is she going to be wearing that dress?”

— — —

Devon snapped his tome shut. With a flick of his rings, the enchanted bindings activated. He placed it in his desk drawer and turned on similar enchantments.

And he waited.

It might have just been his imagination. Eva wouldn’t knock. Neither would Arachne. The eyeball girl couldn’t leave Ylva’s domain and Ylva wasn’t here at all. That meant it was one of their ‘guests’ or he was finally losing his mind.

He was hoping for the latter.

For a long moment, nothing happened.

Three rapid knocks broke the silence.

Devon sighed. Maybe if he pretended not to be–

“I know you’re in there.”

With a groan, Devon stood up. The voice belonged Janice’s mother. Julie? Maybe Jean. Whatever.

Best not to keep her waiting. She had been fighting with Arachne every day. And, while not winning, she was not losing either. Probably not wholly human. I wonder if she’d submit to an examination.

“What do you want?” Devon asked before the door had fully opened.

Jean stood there with a smirk on her face like she had won something. “I’ve spoken at length with everyone else here. Except you. I’d actually forgotten you existed until Eva offhandedly mentioned you.”

“I’ve got just the thing.” Devon turned to the potion cabinet just next to the door–always keep potions easily accessible–and rummaged through the drawers until he found the foggy gray vial. “Here. That will fix your issue.”

Jean accepted the vial. She turned it around in her fingers, letting the foggy goop slide around inside. “I don’t want to forget,” she said as she offered the vial back. “Especially not with that poorly brewed drivel. It shouldn’t be clumping and sticking to the glass like that.”

“Brewing isn’t the problem. Age is.”

“Poorly preserved drivel, then.”

“I’d like to see the state of your potions after thirty years.”

“Thirty years? Why?”

Devon shrugged. “Haven’t found much use for a memory altering potion. I brewed a batch thinking I could erase everyone’s memories of my work.”

“You decided to kill everyone instead?”

“No. Decided not to tell anyone.”

“Prudent,” Jean said. “Are you going to invite me in?”

“No.” Devon tried to slam the door in her face. A boot–steel toed if he had to guess–wedged in the crack. “You’re toeing my wards,” he said.

“I can feel them,” she said without even the slightest flicker of pain on her face. “Not the same type that Eva uses.”

“I’m no haemomancer. They’re standard thaumaturgical wards.”

That same winning smirk crossed her face again. “Ahh, thought so. The blood needed to key me in tipped me off. She wasn’t as successful at hiding the bloodstone as she might have thought.”

Devon rolled his eyes. Of course she screwed up. Eva thought she was a lot of things that she wasn’t. She’d gotten some unwarranted confidence since starting school. Likely as a result of having Arachne constantly around.

“So little Eva has killed people then?”

“No one who didn’t deserve it,” Devon said. It wasn’t even a lie, at least as far as he knew. He wasn’t the girl’s minder.

In retrospect, that was a mistake. He should have taken a far more heavy-handed approach in her upbringing. Too late for that now.

Jean just barked out a laugh. “Good. Good.”

Devon had to raise an eyebrow at that response.

“What. You think I’m squeamish about killing people?” She laughed again as she placed a hand on her hip. “You don’t get to retire as a mage-knight without breaking a few eggs. So long as she isn’t indiscriminate. She is a bit young though. I imagine a diabolist had something to do with that.”

“Demonologist. And I didn’t do anything. Pulled her off the streets when she was six. Taught her a little about channeling magic and working with it. Then she found and stole half my library. She took it from there.”

“She learned everything from a book? I find that hard to believe.”

Her foot was still in the door. It somewhat surprised Devon that she hadn’t pulled out yet. Eva must have hit her hard with her blood wards to get her screaming. Impressive though it was, that didn’t stop her from being annoying.

“I may have taught her more. Is there a point to this aside from inane chatter?”

“Oh, I’m here solely for the inane chatter. Need to get to know the old man who hangs around with my daughter.”

“I don’t hang out with anyone. I couldn’t give less of a damn about your daughter if I tried.” Unless… No. Too old. Far too involved with Eva as well. “Eva’s wellbeing is my only concern.”

Jean’s smile turned downwards before her face settled in a neutral expression. “And your relationship with Eva is?”

“Test subject. Go bother her about it. I have work to get back to.”

“I intend to.” Jean removed her foot from the doorway. “Tomorrow, I’ll stop by for ano–”

Devon slammed the door in her face. Tomorrow, I’ll add a pit of spikes in front of the door.

Today, he thought as he turned back to his desk and retrieved the tome. The new version of the transference ritual circle was nearly complete. It should drastically cut down time to completion. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work on Eva. Not safely, at least. She would have to continue using the old version of the circle.

Subjects were another issue.

Arachne wouldn’t do. That much was clear. It was an excellent donor subject at the start. It agreed to the experiment almost immediately. Likely something that would remain unique to it due to its specific desires. Unfortunately, it grew attached. Disgustingly so.

Devon didn’t expect a similar event to affect non-Arachne demons, but keeping both subjects separate outside of the actual treatment event couldn’t hurt.

A nonsentient could work. A cerberus could be interesting. They wouldn’t have any of the same issues that Arachne had. The real problem arose in the need for domination. Devon doubted he would be able to convince a nonsentient demon to remain still while he jabbed them full of needles. If the demon fought the domination, it could break loose at an inopportune time.

Another problem with using bestial demons rested with the new circle itself. Devon had no hard evidence, but he suspected there would be drastic changes related to the donor demon in the recipient.

Eva displayed minor secondary demonic characteristics–sharpened teeth, elongated tongue, and altered eyes–but no major mutation into anything Arachne specific. She never developed anything coming close to Arachne’s exoskeleton or unique biology. Even with her transplanted hands and legs, they had yet to display any indication that they would spread to cover her body.

The new circle was different. There remained a very real possibility that a human would gain heads, a tail, and fur if a cerberus were used as a donor. Possibly lethally in that case. What effect the heads would have was unpredictable without further information.

No. A willing, sentient, and humanoid demon would be best. Devon had a few ideas, but he would need to interview the demons. Willingness was almost necessary. If the demon bailed half-way through…

Devon scratched a few notes on a blank page. It would require a brand new circle to be drawn up, but a new demon every treatment might even further decrease the time to completion–with unpredictable mutations.

Multiple experiments occurring at once would be best. Placing all of his eggs in one basket with Eva had been a failure.

That was another issue. Demons could be summoned up. The human half of the experiment had to be looked for. Physically.

What a pain.

Surely it wouldn’t be that bad. Some orphan kids must be ready to jump at the opportunity to be locked into a prison for a few years if they’re guaranteed meals.

Perhaps he would go on a vacation come summer.

But first, Devon thought as he turned towards a preservation jar. The contents had been recovered from that professor’s house. It was a risk, but it was free. No wording loopholes to keep track of.

Eva could work Arachne’s fingers with no issue despite their extra joints. This shouldn’t be an issue.

It was nerve-wracking nonetheless.

— — —

Zoe collected the final stack of essays from her desk. She was ready to bunker down for a long weekend of grading. Bunkering down was somewhat more literal this time compared to other weekends. Ylva had erected wards that she couldn’t begin to identify around her new apartment.

Not that a lack of knowledge prevented her from trying. In fact, Zoe wanted to get home and rush through the essays in order to get back to studying the wards. She wouldn’t, of course. That wouldn’t be fair to her students. But the thought had crossed her mind more than once.

Near as Zoe could tell, the wards did not use any of the six thaumaturgical elements. They operated purely on Ylva’s will. Almost as if she had turned the room into a part of herself. Though Zoe hadn’t had an opportunity to study Ylva’s domain, she suspected that place would appear much the same.

It was somewhat concerning. The only assurance she had that the area would go back to normal was Ylva’s assurance that she would take down the wards when the threat had been dealt with. As… nice as Ylva had been, Zoe couldn’t understand her motivations.

“Your students request an audience.”

Zoe started, barely managing to keep the essays from falling to the floor. Ylva stood in front of the transparent door to the classroom. Whatever Eva had said to convince her to wear a tee-shirt and regular pants couldn’t be appreciated enough. It had been disturbing to look at a child barely wearing anything.

Inside the classroom, two students stood right in front of the door. Had they knocked? Zoe was so absorbed in her thoughts, she hadn’t noticed anything.

“Mr. Anderson. Mr. Weston,” Zoe said as she opened the door. She put on a polite smile and gestured into her office. “Please, come in.”

The two students nodded and walked in. Both smiled at Ylva, though Max Weston’s smile was slightly strained. Jordan actually gave her a slight bow.

Even in her tiny form, Ylva managed to unnerve most students. Part of that was likely due to her sickly appearance. Her deathly features were less pronounced while small, but there were still little things that disturbed the subconscious. She didn’t breathe. She didn’t blink. She didn’t speak while the students were around.

Her presence, or perhaps that of her mother, had students treating Eva different. Differenter. Their story had Eva only knowing Ylva through Zoe, yet rumors had already started going around that Eva was a crossbreed daughter of a giant royal. Or a dragon priestess. Or any number of other theories.

None of the ones Zoe had heard were at all accurate.

“So,” Zoe said, “you caught me just as I was leaving. What can I do for you?”

Jordan gave a sad smile and said, “I hope we aren’t being a bother. We were wondering about Professor Lurcher’s condition.”

“Professor Lurcher is doing well. I had contact with the head doctor at the hospital. He required several skin grafts, but should be fine with the elves’ help. There might be some scarring.”

He might be wearing a wig as well.

“Is there a general time frame for when he will return?”

“He will be out of the hospital in four to six weeks, though he’ll need to return periodically for check-ups. He won’t be returning to teach for another few months. I believe he’ll be back after the new year starts. Mr. Bookman will be filling in for his class until then.”

“I see,” Jordan said with a nod. “Will he be available for counseling during his recovery?”

“I can’t say for sure. I’ll ask him the next time I get a chance. If you need counseling, I’d be happy to fill in for now.”

“That’s alright. It isn’t anything that can’t wait. I’m glad Professor Lurcher will be alright.”

Me too.

“Was that everything you needed?”

He shared a glance with Max. They both shrugged and started to leave the office. “Think so. We’ll see you in class next week.”

Stop.

Zoe jumped. The papers tucked under her arm scattered into the air.

Neither Jordan nor Max reacted much better. Max actually tumbled to the ground and pulled his wand out. Jordan went completely still. A faint glisten of sweat formed over his skin as he turned back to face Ylva.

She moved up and put her face mere inches from his. Her gaze bore into him.

Zoe stood frozen in indecision. There was no chance she could fight off Ylva, but she had to do something. She opened her mouth to try to calm Ylva.

Ylva spoke first.

“Who are you?”

“Jordan Anderson.” The response came swiftly and without hesitation.

Ylva continued to stare for several seconds before she turned away. That earned a small sigh from Jordan.

“You may leave.”

“Thanks,” Jordan mumbled. He stayed just long enough to help pick Max off the floor before both of them fled.

Zoe shut the door behind them. She whirled to face Ylva. “What was that?” she asked far more harshly than she intended.

“He bowed. Twitches in his fingers. Suppressed fear and nervousness.”

“That’s it? He bowed?” Zoe sighed and shook her head. “There are rumors that you–the big you–belongs to some kind of royalty.”

“No. The other boy had a proper response to such rumors. Polite but uncertain. A few glances in Our direction.” Ylva shook her tiny head. “Jordan Anderson avoided looking at Ourself even once beyond his initial bow. He was scared.”

“That isn’t a good enough reason to shout at someone.”

“That is why We released him.”

Zoe blinked as she tilted her head. That seemed reasonable. “Except now he will be even more frightened the next time you see him.”

“We do not believe he attacked you. Should he prove otherwise, We will intervene.”

Biting her lip, Zoe said, “you can’t kill children, Ylva.”

Zoe shut her eyes and mentally prepared for the ‘you dare order US around’ that was certainly coming.

Nothing came after several silent moments.

Zoe opened her eyes to find Ylva staring up at her with a tilted head.

“You wish to spare his life, even if he was the one to nearly kill you and your companion?”

“I do.” Zoe answered without hesitation.

Ylva looked away, off into the classroom. She held her gaze steady for nearly a minute before looking back at Zoe. “We tire of this place. Let us return.”

“Alright,” Zoe said. “Let me collect–” She cut herself off as she looked down to the floor. All the papers were stacked in a single, neat pile. She reached down and picked it up. Leafing through, she found all the papers to be facing the right way.

I want that ability, Zoe thought to herself as she walked Ylva out of the building.

A cold, biting wind tore through the light jacket Zoe wore over her suit. Too cold for the end of September. She stopped and shuddered under the sunless sky. Five straight days of terrible weather and she had a feeling of who was to blame.

“Is it going to be overcast for the entire duration of your stay?”

Ylva stopped walking without even seeming to notice her platinum hair whipping around her in the freezing wind. She looked back with her cool, gray eyes.

“We are unable to control the revelation of Our skeletal form. Eva believes it would cause undue alarm among the students. We have expended great effort in concealing Ourself.”

“That is true. However, we could be in this situation for weeks. People will be suspicious–” not to mention depressed, “–if no sun shines at all. Would it be possible to remain at school past nightfall while keeping you away from windows?”

Ylva gave a slow nod before she turned and started walking once again.

Some part of Zoe had to remind herself that Ylva wasn’t actually a child. Watching her walk almost made her want to run up and hold Ylva’s hand. She looked innocent, especially from the back. Almost huggable.

Then, Zoe watched her walk. All the wrongness came out. Ylva walked with such certainty one would never find in a real eight year old. As if every step she made was a divine mandate. Wind curled around her–scared to get in her way.

Avoiding wind was perfectly possible for Zoe. But for an eight year old? Absolutely unnatural.

Another gust of wind sent further shivers down Zoe’s spine. She pulled out her dagger and cut the wind in two.

A class one aerothurge did not deal with the wind when they didn’t want to.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.011

<– Back | Index | Next –>

How disgusting.

Elves. Loathsome beasts. They always found a way to disgust. Wallowing in their own filth as they served their human masters. Slaves without chains.

Every elf read the works of Tolkien as they grew up. Since their fall, they dressed themselves up after the elves of Middle-earth. Mannered themselves as wise and nature oriented.

An attempt at endearing themselves to humans.

Catherine couldn’t help but think it was mildly successful. The humans seemed to trust them enough.

Disgusting and loathsome.

Pandering their once great race to the whims of mortals.

Not that they had much choice. ‘Once great’ was a very literal term.

They were a dying species and they knew it.

All newborn elves were mortal. They might enjoy some longevity from their ancestors, but nothing significant. Every immortal elf that died from combat was an irreplaceable loss to their race.

Elves lost the magic that made them unique. The magic that made them better than mortals. Forced instead to learn the magic of the mundane to have any power at all.

Without their unique magic, the only thing left of their race and culture was their knowledge of unnatural plants and cultivation techniques. They kept the secrets to themselves while offering remedies to humans.

They clung to any scrap of relevance they could get, even if it meant associating themselves with those beneath them.

Of course, they could no longer consider themselves above mortals.

A testament to the fate of those who lost their Power.

A shudder ran up Catherine’s spine. Void terrified her. On one hand, He gave out everything a demon could ever desire. Their domains. Shaped by every whim and fancy to strike the owning demon. Taken a step too far.

Nothing to hope for. Nothing to yearn for. Everything a demon wanted offered up without challenge or effort. Everything except an escape.

Demons could freely move to other domains. Few ever did. Subjecting oneself to the whims of others within their own domains tended to wind up poorly.

Then there was Void’s namesake.

Void.

A demon’s death condemned a demon to the exact opposite. Rather than everything, there was nothing. Absolute nothingness. No stimuli save for the dalliances of one’s own mind. A mind that may not be entirely intact depending on how the demon met her demise.

Catherine had only died once. Slain in the humans’ sixteenth century after enthralling a small village. Everything had been going so well before…

Another tremor tore through Catherine.

She still didn’t know if she escaped the Void through conscious action on her part or if she had been let go.

Not an experience she was eager to repeat in either case.

Despite the cruelty He inflicted upon demons, Catherine would fight fang and claw for Him should He require. All demons would. Losing their patron Power would subject their race to near extinction.

Like the elves.

Catherine tried to keep the sneer of disgust off her face as the milky-eyed elf looked over the charred human.

His silver circlet glinted as he moved around the table. The flowing white dress he wore drifted in some imaginary breeze. Every motion he made was filled with more grace than a contortionist during sex.

Nothing like the fearsome warriors and conquerers Catherine had personally seen several millennia in the past.

“This one is far worse than the last one,” the elf’s flowery voice said as he turned his eyes to Catherine.

She clenched her teeth together. “Can you fix him?” Catherine ground out.

“Fear not, young one–”

Catherine did not consider herself violent. There were far more satisfying things to do with mortals than pulling them apart. That didn’t stop her from occasionally getting the urge to do just that. Especially when the elf gave her that patronizing smile.

She had to shut her eyes to retain control.

“It will take time, but his burns will mend with our aid.”

“Great. Brakket Academy will pay for whatever.”

Catherine tried to turn and leave before she did something she would regret. A polite clearing of the elf’s throat stopped her.

“If I might ask,” his flowery voice said, “what caused these burns?”

“He tried to fight a fire demon with fire. His own flames were turned back on him.”

“A demon?” Not a hint of surprise appeared on his face. There were probably detectable traces left all over Wayne’s body.

Catherine doubted the elf picked up anything about her. Her disguise was perfect.

“A demon,” Catherine confirmed. “It has been killed.”

The elf raised one of his perfectly styled eyebrows in a silent question.

Catherine wasn’t about to oblige. “If there is nothing else,” she trailed off as if expecting to be dismissed, but turned and walked out without waiting.

Politeness was wasted on such worthless creatures. Martina should have summoned a barqu or even a minion of Corrupter to fix Wayne.

Or just kill him. Catherine hadn’t found him to be that great of an alchemist. Surely he wouldn’t be difficult to replace.

But she was a familiar. She would abide by her master’s decision.

The organ notes of Toccata and Fugue echoed down the hospital hallway.

Speaking of the annoying woman, Catherine thought with a smile as she pulled out her cellphone.

For a moment, Catherine just stared at the device in her hand. She entertained the thought of ignoring the call simply to annoy Martina. That would only make her more annoying later. Still, that didn’t stop Catherine from waiting for the final note to play before she answered the call.

It was a good song, after all.

“About time.” Martina already sounded annoyed.

Good.

Catherine let out an audible sigh before she said, “did you want something?”

“Wayne’s status.”

“Still looking like cooked bacon.”

There was a pause and faint growling on the other end of the call. Catherine smiled as she imagined Martina’s face twisting into an ugly scowl. She was too easy.

“Can the elves help him?”

“I think that they think that they probably can.”

Another growl. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what I meant. I’m no elf. Why would I know what they’re capable of?”

“Is Wayne still with you?”

“I left him with the elves. He looks like bacon but he doesn’t smell very fragrant. Being in his presence was making me nauseous. Lucky for him, the hospital’s natural stench of sterility overpowers everything.”

“Fine. We need to find a temporary alchemist and theorist as well as prepare some sort of statement. Get back here immediately.”

The connection terminated with a faint click.

“Gladly,” Catherine honestly said, though she had lied about one thing. She could stand Wayne. It was the milky-eyed elves making her nauseous.

Just looking at them turned something in the pit of her stomach.

— — —

“They’re glowing,” Jordan said.

“Not that much. Hardly more than normal.”

Irene disagreed. Eyes weren’t supposed to glow. Any amount of glow was automatically more than normal. In Eva’s case, it was looking like a lot more than normal.

Jordan sported a wide grin as he pressed his face right up against Eva’s. The intensity with which he stared at her eyes was almost as frightening as Eva herself. Even Eva took a step away from him with a worried look on her face.

His antics weren’t winning him any favors with Shelby. Irene’s twin took on a cross look when he moved back up next to Eva. It wasn’t until she linked her arm with his and pulled Jordan away that he finally gave some space to the glowing-eyed girl.

Part of her wondered if they were dating yet. Shelby hadn’t said anything, but that didn’t mean anything; unlike most popular depictions of twins, Shelby and Irene did not share absolutely everything with one another.

They certainly lacked the stereotypical means of telepathic communication. If they had a telepathic connection, Irene would be asking her sister what exactly the girl was thinking when she smiled and put her hand on Eva’s claw thing.

Irene sighed as she glanced at the only other participant in their little meeting. At least I’m not the only one keeping my distance.

Max was hanging back at her side. His kind smile had turned into a frown the moment Eva took her gloves off. Irene thought he was going to make a run for it when Eva pulled the leather band off of her eyes.

Irene had the decency to keep her expression neutral. She knew something was wrong with the girl and had always maintained a polite atmosphere around her. At the very least, Irene possessed the mental acuity not to offend the girl who now walked around with what amounted to knives on her fingers.

And eyes she had stolen from a demon.

They probably had all kinds of inhuman abilities.

Irene had a sinking feeling in her stomach as Eva glanced up. Their eyes met for an instant before Eva gave her a small smile.

Oh no. She can read minds.

Every nasty thought she’d ever had for Eva surfaced. She tried to blank her mind and return Eva’s smile at the same time.

It didn’t help.

The smile on Eva’s face slipped.

She knew.

Irene froze. Her eyes flicked down to Eva’s claws and then to her legs. Even if she wanted to run, she wouldn’t be able to get away.

And then what. She still lived next door. Shelby lived there too. She couldn’t–wouldn’t leave behind her sister.

“I’m sorry,” Irene blurted out. “I just need time. To process.”

“You could say that again,” mumbled Max.

“Irene,” Shelby said softly. “She’s the same Eva we’ve know–”

“I know. I know. It’s just, well, creepy. It’s how she’s seen all this time with her eyes shut. She doesn’t even need to open her eyes to know what’s going on around.” Irene glanced at the wall. “She can probably see through walls. That’s how she knew about the bull even when we couldn’t see it.”

Eva raised one shiny black finger into the air, pointing at her eyes. “Actually,” she said, “I only got these eyes last night.”

“I just, I don’t know.” Irene could feel her panic settling in. The situation was just too out there. She missed Shelby moving to her side until her twin pulled her into a hug. “I-I need a book. I need to know–to explain everything to myself.

“You just pull a demon’s eyes out and pop them into your sockets and it just works?” A small whisper of horror snapped in the back of her mind as she realized something. “And your hands are the same, aren’t they? Your pet spider is a demon too.”

Eva’s wince told Irene that her guess was correct. Magical creature from Africa my ass. “We’ve been living next to a demon.” Irene couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice.

“Is that true?” Shelby asked.

“I didn’t want to mention. My hands and eyes are pushing the limits. I could potentially get demon hunters after me with them. Widespread knowledge of Arachne would definitely give hunters cause to turn their gaze in my direction.”

“Well, I don’t know about hunters, but that seems pretty cool. Is she like a–”

“Cool? Cool? You don’t get to dismiss a demon living next to us as cool. It is a demon. They’re–”

“They’re what?” Eva interrupted. “Evil? Going to kill us all? Please. I’m perfectly willing to loan you a book to educate yourself with, but use your head a little.

“She is a demon and I apparently cannot keep a secret if my life depended on it. Which it might,” Eva added with a sigh.

“Arachne has lived next door to you since I got here. She was on the airplane. How many times has she gone on a murderous rampage?” Eva paused and tilted her head as if thinking to herself, making sure her count was correct. “None. If anything, she’s saved people. We were the ones who drove the necromancers out of town. Not the Elysium Order.

“I’m well aware that I’m creepy. Especially now with,” she raised and clacked her fingers together.

“I quickly alienated everyone at my old school. I was the creepy one who sat in the back and drew strange symbols all over her papers. By the time I realized the niceties of social interaction, it was too late. I’d already alienated myself from everyone. Only two of my fellow students ever spoke to me and that was borderline bullying.”

Eva took a deep breath as she glanced around the group. “Arachne was my friend. My first and only friend for the longest time. She wasn’t around as often–she wasn’t contracted to me then like she is now–but we always managed to be together on Halloween. Sometimes we’d have a party or even an occasional trick-or-treat.

“I’m rambling, but what I’m trying to say is this: she isn’t a murderous monster who is going to go around killing everyone.”

Eva let out a long sigh.

“Probably.”

Irene had almost been feeling bad. That feeling vanished in one word. “Probably?”

“A joke. Nothing more,” Eva said with her creepy hands raised. It was supposed to look placating, but it ended up more threatening. “If you really want a book, I do have one. It has no directions for summoning or anything, merely a neutral look at demons. Though you should keep it hidden anyway.”

“I don’t know. I just…” Irene shot her sister a glare as Shelby mouthed something to Eva. She’d probably be getting another lecture later.

A brief moment of silence reigned over the group until Jordan cleared his throat.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “how did you see?”

“That’s a secret.”

Jordan’s face fell. The look of absolute dejection on his face immediately turned Eva’s features softer.

The manipulative jerk.

Not that Irene was going to complain. She wanted–no, needed to know.

“Technically it isn’t a magic that proper mages should know, so I’ll skimp the details. Basically I constantly spread a dust in the air around me. Very tiny particles and not even that much, but I could sense them. Therefore I could sense whatever they landed on and get a picture of my environment.”

“I see,” Jordan said with a nod. “Improper magic?” He made a light humming noise.

A familiar humming noise.

Irene could see the gears turning in his head, searching through all the knowledge he had pilfered from his family library for any spell that resembled Eva’s description. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember anything. The shadow thing he did was bad enough. Irene did not want him becoming anything like Eva.

“Both Zoe Baxter and Wayne Lurcher knew about it, so you could say it was cleared,” Eva said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“But,” Max said a little louder than he normally spoke. He shuffled his feet nervously as all eyes, including Eva’s, turned to him. “But do your new eyes do anything special?” The first sly grin appeared on his face since the start of their conversation. He put both hands on his hips and puffed out his chest. “Can they see through things?”

Irene let out a small groan as he wiggled his hips.

“No, Max,” Eva said with a very visible roll of her eyes, “I can’t see your dick.”

He immediately started sputtering, prompting raucous laughter from Shelby. Why the boy went through all the effort for the lewd joke and then got embarrassed when Eva called him out, Irene doubted she’d ever understand.

“As far as I can tell so far,” Eva continued, “these eyes aren’t much different from human eyes. A little sharper under certain circumstances and a little blurrier under others. Colors are off a little as well. Blacks are, well, blacker. Whites are slightly grayer. The colors in between suffer at varying degrees. Nothing that affects everyday living.”

Eva shook her head. “I can’t stay for much longer. Shalise, Juliana’s father and Juliana are still back at my other house and I don’t really want them exploring too much while I’m not there.”

“Other house?” Jordan asked.

“There was an incident last night–the reason we’re not in class right now. I’m sure you’ll hear about it. But I was entertaining Juliana’s father at a place I own in town. They decided it would be safer to spend the night there.”

“Safer? Is there anything we need to do?”

“Probably not. I’d avoid going into town. If you see anything suspicious like,” Eva let out a very forced cough, “strange creatures, then notify either myself, Zoe Baxter, Wayne Lurcher, Zagan, Martina Turner, or Catherine.”

“Strange creatures?”

Eva let out a sigh. “Two things attacked Zoe last night. My mentor is trying to find out where they came from or why. She’s mostly fine, don’t worry. Arachne, Wayne Lurcher, and I killed them, so don’t worry about rampant creatures. Wayne was injured. I think we will be having a substitute in his class for a while.”

Max’s momentary smile vanished from his face. “First zombies then ‘strange creatures?’ What is it with this place?”

“Don’t forget Eva’s bull,” Shelby said with a half-forced grin.

“Hey. It wasn’t my bull. I had nothing to do with that incident.”

Max just shook his head. “Are all magical schools like this?”

“Good question. Look up the answer or ask around. I’d be interested in knowing the answer when I get back.”

“When is that going to be?”

“Tonight if I have anything to say about it.” Eva shook her head. She walked to the study room door mumbling under her breath. “People having free reign of my prison while I’m not around is a recipe for disaster. I just hope everyone is in the same number of pieces they were in when I left.”

She stopped with one hand on the handle and spun, pointing a single finger in the other hand directly towards Irene.

Her heart skipped a beat before Eva smiled. “I’ll grab that book for you. And,” she swept her finger towards the rest of the group, “try to keep this a secret. If you must talk to someone other than me, please go to Wayne Lurcher or Zoe Baxter. Use discretion and no rash decisions. Please.”

With one last, almost pleading look, Eva left the room.

“Prison?” Jordan said.

Max glanced at him. “Same number of pieces?”

“I told you she was creepy.”

— — —

“That didn’t turn out near as well as I’d hoped. An utter failure, in fact. Despite their fearsome reputation, that display was lacking.”

“I thought we were supposed to make friends.”

Her father turned his overwide grin down on Des. “You are to make friends. I have other plans.”

Des frowned. That wasn’t what he told her before school started.

“Now don’t sulk. Come, give Daddy a hand.”

With only the most superficial of sighs–Des did like helping her father work–she stepped up to the slab. She couldn’t help but feel a tingle inside as their latest acquisition wriggled beneath the bindings.

Streaks of water ran down his temples and pooled in the bowl beneath his skull. Tears of Despair. They’d fetch a good price. Des sealed off the bowl–contaminating it would lower the potency.

The man’s watery eyes looked into her own, pleading for release.

Des was happy to oblige.

The snapping of gloves onto her hands was always a satisfying sound. She started her incision at the shoulder and brought it down to the base of the sternum. A second cut from the opposite shoulder drew past the sternum to the man’s navel.

“So,” her father said as he helped pin back the flaps of skin, “how is school going?”

“It’s like the old school, daddy. Hugo helps scare away the worst of them.” Des had to raise her voice to be heard over the whir of the bone saw digging into the man’s ribcage. “Using magic hurts too.”

“Hurts? What do you mean, hurts? You’re not supposed to feel pain.”

“I don’t know how else to say it. I get out of class and want to do nothing but sit in a corner without moving.”

“Rejection? No. I tested thoroughly. Are you eating enough? You must eat twice as much, or more, than you used to.”

“I’m having two helpings at every meal,” Des said with insistence. She really had. Even when it hurt. Even when everyone pointed and whispered behind her back. Getting a larger stomach might help with the first problem. Nothing would help the second problem.

Thinking about school brought up ill memories. Des shook her head and sighed. “I’m glad you got school canceled for the rest of the week.”

“That,” he said with an even wider smile, “was an accident. As I said, disappointing. I thought the short one had a good head on its shoulders. Then neither of them follows orders. Pathetic. What do people see in them?”

Des shook her head as she carefully removed the man’s stomach. Even without the proper ability to smell, spilling its contents always ended up with an annoying cleanup.

“Can’t I stay here with you, daddy? I don’t want to go back.”

“Ah-ah,” he said as he ticked one gloved finger back and forth. “At the very least, Hugo would be more useful if he learned magic. I’ll see about tweaking your caloric intake to something more manageable.”

“But daddy, I’m sure Hugo could manage–”

“Oh, take out the heart too.”

Des glanced down at the faintly beating heart in her hands. She estimated less than a minute, roughly thirty to thirty-five beats remained. Holding on until the last beat was one of her favorite parts. But removing it?

She tossed a confirming glance at her father.

“We won’t need it. I’ve got a different heart to try out.”

“A different heart?” Twenty. Nineteen

“Oh yes. I’m not sure if it will work, but no harm in trying.” As he glanced at their subject, his grin curled upwards until it started threatening to cut off the top of his head. “Well, except for you of course. I don’t expect you to be worried about that much longer.”

Des doubted the man was still conscious. Seven. Six. They hadn’t given him anything to keep him awake until the last minute.

A shame really.

Two. One. Zero. Des let out a satisfied sigh as the flesh went still. Perfect.

“Why not use the heart in its own body? That’s better, right daddy?”

“Usually. This is a special case. An experiment, if you will.” He turned off to one side and shouted, “Hugo!”

The glassy-eyed boy wheeled in a sheet covered gurney.

“Killing them just makes everything disappear. But your future friend gave me an idea. Several actually, but this one idea is required for the others. You see, parts of them don’t disappear if they were detached before death.”

He whisked off the sheet and tossed it over Hugo’s head.

Three arms, a leg from the knee down, and several things Des couldn’t even guess at all lay on the table. Claws, tentacles, and even eyes. None of them looked remotely human.

“It was tricky and quite enjoyable trying to figure out exactly how much I could get away with before the things died.”

He took one arm off the slab and placed it over their current subject’s arm. “We’ll attach analogous limbs where they go, removing the existing meat. The rest,” he took a hook-like thing–Des couldn’t even decide what it might have been originally used for–and started placing it around the body. “Well, we’ll handle them on a case by case basis.”

Des took the knee-length leg. There was no indication whether it was a left or a right leg. Looking at it closely, it might have even been a hand. “We won’t be able to make these very fast.”

“We’ll get faster with practice. Once this one is finished, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help. Then the next ones we build will help build more which will help build more. And so on! Besides, trying new things is fun! And,” he reached up and pinched both of Des’ cheeks. She could feel the sticky blood he left behind. “It is good bonding time.”

Des would have blushed if she could. She was about to comment back, but her father already had the man’s arm off. How he managed that fast, Des had no idea. She’d have to work double time to even keep somewhat near him.

“Huh,” he said. He brought a bent stitching needle right in front of his wide grin. “I think we need the heavy-duty needles.”

— — —

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Nel tore the tentacle out of the air in front of her and flung it across the chamber. It landed with a slop against the floor. She slammed her hands into the marble altar.

None of her tension left with that brief bout of rage.

She was so tired. Nel collapsed on the altar, putting her head against the cold marble. Just a short rest.

The peace was intoxicating. Relaxing every day with Lady Ylva. Being well-fed and well-rested. Nothing trying to kill her–probably.

Nel might be a slave, but it was a comfortable life. She doubted Lady Ylva would disallow short trips outside of her domain. She hadn’t bothered asking; it wasn’t like she could leave while the Elysium Order might still be looking for her. Maybe in a year, she’d risk it.

All the peace and quiet made her forget the demands of being an augur.

It wasn’t like she let her abilities wane. Nel kept up tabs on all the people who might potentially become a threat to her. Eva, Arachne, Devon, and Zoe first and foremost. She wouldn’t call it spying, at least not to their faces, but it definitely kept her from atrophying.

No. Simple scrying wasn’t the problem. Finding a target with no information about them or their whereabouts was not only stressful, but near impossible.

And the stupid tentacle monster’s limbs did not help.

Nel had told Eva multiple times, ‘I can only track back the last fifteen minutes of their lives.’ Tracing through someone’s steps further than fifteen minutes got exponentially harder with every passing minute. It was technically possible, but very difficult. The strain from attempting to look further back was the biggest source of her exhaustion.

She’d only been an augur for a year and a handful of months. A task like this would have been handed to one of the higher augurs in the order. The more experienced.

When working for the Elysium Order, any potential fetter would be shipped immediately to the augur. Even at the cost of nuns. Haste was important and they knew it.

What does Eva do? She comes in five hours after the thing died and has the gall to ask Nel who was the one to order the thing around.

Nel would have punched the little abomination in her face had she not been worried that Eva would kick her down the pit with her new legs.

Then there was Lady Ylva. She had a brazen personality at the best of times.

Finding out that two demons had ignored her ring set her off on a rampage.

Nel vowed then and there to never be the cause of ire for the woman. Only a single chain kept the throne in the center chamber from falling into the pit. She had yet to return from the room of sands and water.

There was no doubt in Nel’s mind that the demon would want to know who ordered the attack on Zoe. Nel hoped to have the information by the time Lady Ylva returned.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Nel could search through every building in Brakket within an hour. It wasn’t that large of a town. But the enemy didn’t need to be in town. They could be in Cuba for all Nel knew. When hunting for the Elysium Order, there was always some intel that led to even a vague location. Some starting place to focus her efforts.

This was so far out of her expertise.

But she would try.

Nel lifted her head from the marble slab and slid the frankincense right under her nose. She took a deep breath and started searching.

She couldn’t be useless. She couldn’t afford to be useless. Lady Ylva would realize her mistake in taking Nel in and kick her out to the nuns.

Or worse.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


003.002

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she deliberately held back.

It was still faster than normal.

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

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

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

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

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

But she didn’t.

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

Eva frowned as the spider-woman slowly approached.

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

Arachne wasn’t upset or angry.

She was worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was just a slow nod from Arachne in return.

“What’s on your mind lately?”

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

Eva smiled and waited patiently.

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

“What plans?”

“I–Our contract ends soon.”

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

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

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

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

That was deserving of at least a little punishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not ready for that yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least until Eva felt a tug.

Her head snapped back.

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

Eva took off before Arachne could protest.

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing about him set Zoe at ease.

“Zoe Baxter?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor Finnell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hugo Smith?”

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

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

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

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

“I do not mind.”

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

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

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

That must have been what Doctor Finnell was talking about.

“I understand,” he said.

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

“No, ma’am.”

“No wonders about magic or classes or teachers?”

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

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

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

“To assist with minor chores around the house.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe simply shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short figure appeared in the doorway alongside her father.

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

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

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

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

His face never dropped the large grin.

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

— — —

“Got a plan in mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max quirked an eyebrow. “Secrets?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty pounds?”

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

“Think? You’re not sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready?”

She gave a single nod in response.

“Very well. Prepare yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

A thin bolt of lightning shot out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Way ahead of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No secret weapon from you?”

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

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

“Count on it,” Eva said with a grin.

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

Shalise started to call out a warning.

It was too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you have to hit him so hard?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what was that all about?”

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

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

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

“He’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.011

<– Back | Index | Next –>

No Eva, no Shalise, no Juliana.

Irene didn’t like it.

None of the teachers told her or Shelby anything. Whatever caused their absence only happened two days ago and yet all three were missing from class. From the tiny amount that they were told, Juliana wasn’t even there when their room was trashed.

Again.

Maybe her mother finally pulled her out of school for good. Irene hadn’t given up hope that her own mother would decide the school was too dangerous for her. It was too dangerous.

Whatever happened was always right next door.

Two break-ins and two fights before the first year was through. Nothing led Irene to believe that this fight had been any less deadly than Juliana’s encounter with the flesh golems. More so if any of them actually were injured, as the rumor-mill believed.

Room three-thirteen was cursed.

And room three-fifteen shared a cursed wall.

Irene didn’t know what to do if this pattern kept up. What if whoever attacked them next got the wrong room number. Or they got the wrong window. What then?

A white robe nun patrolled around the room, catching Irene’s attentions. Their numbers had dropped since January. The one in the cafeteria was the only one she’d seen all day.

Would they be able to protect her?

Not likely. They hadn’t saved Juliana in November and they didn’t even show up the other day.

Irene gave a drawn out sigh as she played with her haggis. The food looked revolting but the other option for the day was hot dogs. Something was just off about hot dogs.

Shelby didn’t even pick up a meal. She sat next to Jordan as they talked about their combat class. Or exercise class, as the case was.

Twins who ate similar foods and had similar habits tended to look similar, even if they were fraternal twins. They still had the same parents, after all. Yet Irene couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy at the slightly slimmed Shelby.

Unlike Eva, Shelby didn’t offer a word of complaint when Professor Kines switched them over to an exercise program. She didn’t stress over grades and essays either. Her twin didn’t even seem bothered by all the goings on in Rickenbacker three-thirteen.

Irene often wondered what it might be like to simply not care about anything.

Stifling those thoughts turned into a constant chore for Irene. One little slip and she’d be back to how she was before. She did not need Jordan pulling some crazy stunt to pull her out of her slump again.

“You going to eat that?”

Irene glanced up to Max. His plate had been scraped clean. She shrugged and slid her haggis over to him. “Knock yourself out.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.”

Rolling her eyes, Irene said, “it’s an expression.”

“Just a joke,” he said with a nudge to her side.

Irene bristled at that. She turned away as her face heated up. Anger at herself for not realizing it was a joke, not something silly like embarrassment or shyness around the boy.

Despite them spending evenings studying while everyone else was at exercise class, Irene didn’t think she got along with Max very well.

He was too much like Shelby. Perhaps more dedicated in his studies, but otherwise carefree.

A heavy thud outside rattled the glass of the large cafeteria window.

Irene stood with a gasp. Shelby and the boys weren’t far behind her.

“That’s Eva’s bull.”

None of them responded except to gape at the massive animal. Just like the other time she saw it, it stared into the window. Its head slowly drifted back and forth over the students. The massive wings folded up to a fraction of their size as it just stood there.

The rest of the formerly eating students simply stared out the windows. Forks and spoons hung frozen in their hands. Silence settled around the cafeteria.

Until someone screamed.

Panic and chaos overtook the room. Those closest to the window climbed over each other to get away. Max and Shelby both took off towards the exit. Irene started to follow.

Jordan stayed rooted to the spot.

Irene nibbled on her lip. “Jordan,” she said, grabbing his shoulder, “we need to get out of here.”

“Why?” He glanced back at her. With just the slightest hint of a grin, he turned back to the window. “It is just standing there.”

A crack echoed through the room, louder than all the panicked students put together. Lightning crashed into the window.

Everything froze. All the students left in the room stopped and stared. The nun stood alone in the center of the room, her arm outstretched towards the window. The glass absorbed the lightning.

For a moment.

Shattering glass flew in every direction.

Irene grabbed Jordan and threw both of them down under the table. A second lightning bolt flew through the broken window just before she disappeared from view. She landed on top, her knee crushed into his stomach which elicited a sudden gasp of air from the dark-haired boy.

The most horrible screech Irene ever heard bellowed through the cafeteria. Irene clasped her hands over her ears, losing the support that kept her from falling into Jordan’s chest. He followed suit. She tried to block out the noise. It wasn’t helping. The sound pierced through the cracks in her fingers.

The entire ground shook. Tables and benches vibrated. From beneath the table, Irene could see the cinder block wall collapse inwards as the beast charged in.

As it charged across the room, the nun dodged and rolled off to one side. She came to a stop next to Irene’s table. The bull crashed into the counters leading into the kitchen.

It turned, slowly, as the nun launched another lightning bolt. Its head was too high to see, but it stopped turning when its legs faced the nun. When its legs faced them.

“Jordan,” Irene said, pulling his hands away from his ears. “We have to move. We have to move now.”

His head snapped up to the bull. It already started its charge.

Arms gripped around Irene’s backside and pulled her down. She heard something not unlike the sound of a pillow hitting her. Her vision went dark for an instant before everything came back.

Everything came back wrong. She was wrapped in Jordan’s arms beneath a table. It wasn’t their table. They were further from the cafeteria exit, almost at the opposite wall. The bull trampled over their oh so recently vacated table with the nun only dodging by the skin of her teeth.

“Just standing there, huh?”

“Maybe if the Elysium Sister hadn’t been so eager to throw lightning over the tops of students’ heads,” Jordan said as he shoved Irene off of him. He gripped his wand tightly in his hand. Irene hadn’t even seen him draw it.

Speaking of other students. Irene glanced around the room. Most of the students seemed to have made it to the exit. There were a number of others who dived under the tables.

Two cowered in a corner of the room, hugging each other tightly.

The bull had oriented itself towards them in its battle with the nun.

“Those two,” Irene said as she patted his chest then pointed. “They’re about to get–”

He didn’t wait. The body beneath her turned black and white. His own shadow reached up and pulled him under the floor.

Irene looked up to see him emerge from the student’s shadow against the wall. His hands, one with his wand in it still, clasped around both their shoulders. Two screaming students turned black and white before their own shadows consumed them.

The bull rammed into the corner only a second after. Fractures snaked up the blocks. Chunks of the wall and even some ceiling fell down on the bull’s back.

“I hope they didn’t recognize me.”

Irene jumped. Her head knocked against the table before she rounded on Jordan. He had a goofy grin on his face. “I don’t think it matters,” Irene said as she rubbed her head. “Stop enjoying this and do something.”

He glanced back to where the nun tossed very ineffectual lightning bolts at the creature. They didn’t seem to do much except infuriate the beast. After it charged through another set of unoccupied tables, the nun changed tactics.

White fire burst from her fingertips. It shot out like a flame thrower, dousing the bull.

Screeching filled the air once again. Irene and Jordan both tried to block the sound out with their hands.

From the pained look on his face, he wasn’t any more successful than she was.

The flaming bull charged once again. The nun dodged and turned to face where the bull went.

It wasn’t there.

The moment the nun dodged, the bull flapped its massive wings. It stopped–or even went backwards–without another step being taken.

The nun spun around to face her target just as the bull swung its head. Its single, straight horn pierced her chest. Red liquid splattered across the room directly behind the nun as the horn emerged from the other side.

Students remaining in the room screamed. Irene screamed. Jordan did not.

The bull tossed its head to one side and the nun with it. She flew off the horn and slammed into a cinder block wall. The nun stuck against the wall before gravity remembered its duties. She slid down off of it and collapsed on her face. A trail of blood marked her path.

Flames on the bull’s back withered and died as the nun disappeared from Irene’s view.

Irene turned, grasping for Jordan. She wanted nothing more than to tell him to get her out of the room that instant.

He wasn’t next to her.

He knelt next to the nun with his back to the bull like some kind of idiot.

The bull was already charging after him.

It skidded to a stop as shadows peeled themselves off the floor and the walls and anywhere there was a shadow. A wall of darkness formed around Jordan and the nun, blocking them from view.

The bull stared for just a minute. Its head slowly moved over the room until it came to a rest on Irene.

Her heart caught in her throat as she scrambled backwards. All the bars under the table were in the way.

A tremor went through the room as it lumbered towards Irene. Its head disappeared above the edge of the table, but it continued its slow stomp towards her.

Its crumpled horn swung down, hitting the bench in front of her and sent it flying across the room.

The head of the great bull dipped below the table.

Irene pressed as hard as she could against the bars of the table. She held up her hands in front of her the way one would try to placate an angry person. “I don’t have any weapons, I’m not going to hurt you,” she tried to say. She wasn’t sure how it came out. The salty taste of tears filled her mouth as she opened her mouth.

The bull stopped approaching. Its head tilted to one side so a single black eye could take her in. That brought the blood soaked horn far closer than Irene wanted. Her ideal distance would have been somewhere around the opposite side of the Earth.

But still, it stopped.

Relief flooded through Irene. It stared, but it didn’t trample or stab or eat or otherwise try to kill her. She tried not to smile. Animals didn’t like smiling, right? Smiles were considered aggression. She’d read it in a book once.

Instead, Irene slowly reached out. Her hand inched towards the beast’s long face. She stopped her hand just in front of its nose.

Another thing she read in a book. Let the animal get a good sniff.

The bull nudged forwards. Its nose bumped into Irene’s extended hand with a soft tap against her palm. The coarse hair bristled beneath her fingertips.

She let out a short burst of a laugh despite herself. The bull had just killed someone yet here she was, petting it. Irene’s life took a surreal turn somewhere in the last five minutes.

The bull let out a loud and hot snort.

Irene recoiled, pressing back against the table again. The steam was like Jordan’s parent’s sauna. Except for the smell. A coughing fit overtook Irene. It was like someone shoved eggs up its nostrils and left them to rot.

It wouldn’t be impossible either. She could probably fit her entire arm up the bull’s nose. Its head had to be almost her size.

With what Irene was sure was a laugh, the bull pulled its head out from under the table. Its bloody horn swung within half an inch of her face as it did so.

Just as it cleared her table and took a few massive steps backwards, three teachers charged into the cafeteria. One she didn’t recognize, Professor Kines, and the disheveled dean.

Professor Kines immediately raised his wand, obviously intending some kind of attack.

“No,” someone shouted.

It was her. Irene shouted.

Hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, Irene clambered out from under the table and held her arms up. “Don’t attack it.”

Dean Turner gripped Professor Kines’ wand hand and held her hand in front of the other professor.

The bull’s head swung back to look at her.

Irene pinched her eyes shut. If it was about to kill her, she didn’t want to see. Just go. Just go. Please don’t attack them. Please don’t attack me.

She felt the ground rumble as the beast moved away. It slowly marched towards the opening it made.

Irene peeked her eyes open. Everyone’s eyes were trained on it.

The moment it was fully outside, its wings flapped and it vanished in the sky.

“What was that about Irene?”

Irene turned back to find Professor Kines and Dean Turner standing inches away. The other professor moved to kneel near Jordan.

“No need to shout, Franklin.” The dean gave a kindly smile to Irene. “Miss Coggins, if you might elucidate?”

“I didn’t want you to get hurt.” Opening her mouth reminded her that she had been crying. Irene quickly wiped down her face with her sleeve. “The Elysium Sister hit it with at least a hundred bolts of lightning and set it on fire. That all just made it angry.”

Professor Kines shuffled nervously in his spot. He gave a short glance back to where Jordan and the other professor were picking themselves up off the floor.

“I see.” He glanced up to the dean, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“What was it doing here?”

Irene looked at the woman. How was she supposed to know that.

“I’ll explain,” Jordan said as he walked back. The other professor followed just behind. Both of their clothes were stained red.

“Very well, Mr. Anderson.” Dean Turner nodded for him to continue.

“The bull landed just outside the windows. It just sat there for a few minutes, looking in. The nun fired lightning at the window, shattering it, and another bolt hit the bull. That is when it charged in and started attacking her.”

“She’s dead, Martina.” The other professor gave a half gesture back to the nun.

“I see. Franklin, get the other children to Nurse Post. Chelsea, you’re covered in blood. Get cleaned up and find another member of the Elysium Sisters.”

The two instructors nodded and split off to carry out their assigned tasks.

“Are either of you two injured?”

“No ma’am.”

“I touched it,” Irene blurted out.

“Pardon?”

“I mean. I’m not hurt.” Irene shook her head. “I touched its face.”

“You shouldn’t touch wild animals, Miss Coggins.”

“I know,” Irene stared down at her feet. She felt heat in her cheeks. “I was scared, it was right in front of me. I don’t think I was thinking clearly.”

“Understandable.” The dean nodded. “Can both of you make it down to Nurse Post’s office? Mr. Anderson is covered in blood that isn’t his own and Miss Coggins, you’ve touched a possibly disease ridden animal. It wouldn’t hurt to get yourselves checked out.”

Jordan said, “of course, Ms. Turner.”

Irene just nodded her head.

A slick yet slightly sticky hand gripped Irene’s own. She tried to pull out of Jordan’s grip, but he held tight. Soon enough he was dragging a barely resisting Irene down the halls.

“It felt weird,” Irene said aloud. She glanced down at the fingertips that weren’t encased in Jordan’s bloody hands.

Trying to remember what it felt like taxed Irene’s mind. It was coarse; not quite what she expected in that regard. The real mind numbing part of touching the beast was how the hard hairs wriggled beneath her fingers. Like they were alive, feeling her just as much as she felt it.

Then she remembered its breath. Irene stumbled as a small involuntary shudder came over her.

Jordan stooped over and caught her before she could fall down completely. Maybe the shudder had been larger than she thought.

“Alright, up you go.” He lifted her arm over his shoulder and supported half her weight.

“I think can walk on my own, thank you,” Irene said.

“And I think you’re in shock. It isn’t everyday you see someone killed.”

Irene stumbled again as he said that. She hadn’t even been thinking about the nun. That poor nun, even if it was her fault.

“Come on Irene. We’re almost there and then you can lie down for a while.”

Irene nodded. “Lying down might be nice.”

— — —

Consciousness took hold of Nel. It crept up with bits and pieces of the room fading into her perception one thing at a time. Like the trickle of a coffee pot.

Nel suppressed shaking her head. So many years passed since she last had coffee that she couldn’t even remember the taste. Or drinking it. Had she ever tried coffee? It was a weird analogy to think of in either case.

Keeping her eyes closed, Nel slowly drew in a breath of air. Ah, that must be why I thought of coffee. While the memory of its taste had faded over time, its scent almost overwhelmed her.

None of the sisters drank coffee. Anything that could cause even the slightest alterations in thought patterns was banned. That was one of the reasons augurs were such pariahs. Frankincense burning was seen as violating that tenet.

So Nel took a long, drawn out breath. She reveled in the stench of coffee. It was a good sign. It meant she hadn’t awoken in the hands of her would be murderers.

Whatever she lay on was not the most comfortable bed she’d ever woken up on. It was far from the worst. The odd slant made her think it was more of a couch or a bench than a bed. Nel had to stop her body from trying to correct itself.

She wanted to keep pretending to be unconscious as long as she could.

Without opening her eyes, Nel glimpsed the room she was in.

It was an office. A heavy wooden desk sat near one wall with two comfortable chairs on the visitor’s side. Stacks of papers covered the desk. To one side looked like a rolling tray of medical supplies. Tweezers, bandages, cutting instruments, ointments, and potions. Some were covered in blood. Nel’s blood, most likely. The couch she lay on rested against one wall of the room with a portable privacy curtain blocking the view to the rest of the room..

Apart from herself, the room was empty.

Nel looked better than she expected. An IV drip had been attached to one of her arms. The other was hidden beneath a blanket. She could feel a cast on it when she tried to wiggle it. There was no pain, but she didn’t feel hopped up on drugs. Maybe her body had simply gotten used to whatever feelings while she was unconscious.

It took willpower to avoid bolting upright. How long have I been unconscious? Nel used her glimpse over and over to try to find a calendar in the room. Nothing. No daily planner, no papers on the desk with dates. Not even a clock.

More than five days couldn’t have passed. Not unless Sister Cross hadn’t reported her missing. Otherwise she’d be back in their custody without a doubt.

Carefully, Nel peeked open a single eye. It wasn’t that she distrusted her glimpse, but she half expected to find Sister Cross glaring over her.

That wasn’t the case. She lay on a couch with a blanket and an IV drip behind a privacy curtain.

A long sigh of relief escaped her lips.

Nel slowly and carefully pulled herself into a sitting position. Very carefully. The last time she checked, her back had glass stuck in it. Yet nothing hurt on her way up. She took a quick glimpse to inspect her backside.

There was a bandage wrapped around her waist, probably one of the deeper cuts. Everything else looked remarkably healed. Her back was smooth save for the small slits–

Her back was visible.

Nel’s breath caught in her throat. She was naked beneath the blanket. Someone had treated her.

Someone had seen her.

Short, rapid breaths obscured Nel’s thoughts. What did I expect them to do? Not try to fix me? Nel tried to calm down. She took another deep breath of the coffee tinged air. It was good. Calming. Nel thought for a moment about going to find the coffee pot and drinking some.

First, Nel threw off her blanket and inspected herself. She had to make sure.

Nothing seemed out of place as Nel patted herself down. The IV drip in the crook of her arm, the bandage around her waist, and her arm cast were the only noticeable changes. A few scars stuck out here and there on her arms and chest, but nothing major.

Nel wrapped her blanket around her and pulled herself to her feet. She carted the pole the IV bag was attached to around the privacy screen. She wasn’t sure what was in it, but interrupting dosages of potions could have side effects. Unpleasant side effects. She left the needle where it was.

The door caught her eye. Or, she assumed it was the door. She couldn’t actually see the door, just the classroom beyond. The only indication that the door was shut was the visible handle, floating in midair.

Nel walked closer, observing the class. The instructor she had run to for help stood at the front, waving around a wand while talking about something. The students payed attention. She had them hanging off every word.

None of the children that Nel had been spying on were in class. Neither were their friends. It must be an older class.

She almost reached for the door handle. Sister Cross would be after her sooner or later. Nel needed to be gone before the evil woman could get a release signed for her blood and another augur to locate her.

Interrupting the class would just make the teacher angry. She might be less inclined to help. Nel glanced down at the blanket that was struggling to cover even half of her. Traumatizing everyone with the sight of her naked body wouldn’t do either.

Nel looked around the office with assistance from her glimpse to cover more area in half the time. Her tunic was nowhere to be seen. The only scrap of clothing Nel could find was a long robe hanging off a hook on a wall. Nel quickly slipped into it.

She returned to the couch and sat. And waited. Her bare foot slapped against the tile floor as she tried to calm her tense muscles. It wasn’t helping. She picked up that foot and crossed it over her other leg. That leg decided to start tapping.

The butterflies filling her stomach didn’t help either. Every little sound from the classroom, muffled though they were, had her jumping in her seat. Sister Cross was sure to be one of those noises.

The kindly chime of the school bell nearly sent Nel into a panic attack. She used her glimpse to see everything in the surrounding area.

No Sister Cross.

Students tossed notebooks into bags and filed out of the classroom. The teacher waited until the last one left. She turned and marched into the office.

Without hesitation, she strutted to the privacy curtain and tossed it to one side.

“You’re awake.”

Nel flinched back. She couldn’t help it. A feeling of guilt washed over her. She shook it off. Nothing that happened was her fault. It wasn’t.

“How long was I out?” Nel asked in a quiet voice.

“You showed up on Saturday afternoon and the last class of Monday just finished. Roughly forty-eight hours. Now,” the instructor’s eyes glared down on her, “explain.”

Nel found herself flinching back under the glare. I’m not the enemy, stop looking at me like that, she thought. “I don’t have time. It is supposed to take five days, but Sister Cross could have declared an emergency or broken rules or any number of things. I need to be gone. You can teleport right?”

There was a slight hesitance behind the teacher’s eyes. “I can. I–”

“Your student, the ab–” Nel cut herself off. What was the girl’s name? She couldn’t remember. “The one with black hair and hands,” Nel wiggled her own fingers. “She has a prison. I know you’ve been there, I’ve seen you there. I need to be taken there.”

The professor took several steps backwards. A glint in the light brought Nel’s eyes down to her hands. She held a dagger, gripped with white knuckles.

Nel cowered backwards into the couch. She pulled her arms up to hide her face. Why did the professor have a knife out? She didn’t want to be stabbed.

“Are you a demon?”

“What?” Nel stared at the woman. Why would she think such a thing. “I’m a human.”

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

Nel blinked at the woman. She could feel the tears welling at the edges of her eyes. “I’m the Charon Chapter augur. I’m as human as they come.”

“The missing augur.”

Missing? “I ran away. Sister Cross is trying to kill me.”

The professor’s eyes narrowed. They searched over Nel’s face, looking for any sign of deceit. “Then why do you need to speak to my student?”

“She can hide me.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.005

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Irene dug her fingers into the moist soil. The small hole grew as she wiggled her fingers. As smooth and soft as the magically modified dirt was, she could feel it grinding underneath her fingernails.

She had to purchase a fingernail brush for this class alone. Her nails were clipped short and she’d long given up painting them. Other students wore gloves to avoid getting dirt on their hands. Irene’s hands instantly turned into balls of sweat the moment gloves touched her.

Her hand snapped back to her chest. Something wiggled underneath the dirt. Just an earth worm, Irene thought to herself. She took a deep breath and glanced around to see if anyone noticed her.

Someone noticed. Of course someone did. It had to be her.

Eva politely smiled her way. It wasn’t cruel. Eva wasn’t gloating or sneering. Just a polite, almost understanding smile.

Irene returned the smile and turned back to her pot. She didn’t need the black-haired girl’s pity. She didn’t understand how Eva could have noticed her jumping back. The girl didn’t even have eyes.

She shuddered as her hand dug back into the dirt. That was a thing she tried hard to ignore. Everyone else seemed to do that just fine. They all sat at their table at lunch and laughed and talked like nothing was wrong.

No one ever talked about her eyes.

The teachers all ignored it. Other students whispered to themselves. Her group never mentioned it.

Jordan didn’t even have a theory on how she saw. He’d only discussed it with her once, the week after Eva came back to school. He knew how he’d try to see if he lost his eyes, but Eva wasn’t using whatever method that was.

Irene glanced up at the table across from her.

Jordan stood next to Shelby with their backs turned. When Shelby glanced towards Jordan, Irene could see a wide smile on her face. She pointed at something in her clay pot as she nudged Jordan’s arm. He chuckled lightly at whatever she was showing off.

Max said something which all three of them laughed at.

The large pot in front of her blurred slightly as she dug through it. She blinked twice and wiped her eyes. If she was crying, something was seriously wrong. She blinked again.

The blur didn’t go away.

Irene sighed. It was an issue she’d been noticing lately. Distances were fine, things up close tended to blur. Books were getting especially difficult to read. It might be time to get a pair of glasses, she thought. At least I’m not crying.

Not that she had anything to cry about.

Sure, her botany partners might never talk to her. She liked it that way. They didn’t share jokes or bother her with useless social nonsense. The closest they got to talking to her was when Kristina badgered her with questions.

Of course Irene was all too happy to answer.

Arm deep into the pot, Irene’s fingers touched something round and soft within. She froze.

“There you are,” she whispered to herself.

Irene inched her fingers around the dirt so as to not startle the little plant. Slowly her fingers encircled the little ball. She squeezed down and lifted up.

Out of the pot, the little ball of fluff squirmed in her hands. It tried to escape back to the safety of the dirt.

Irene would have no such thing. Digging through once was enough.

It was a soft little ball of pure fluff. As it wiggled in her hands, the dirt fell away into the pot. The little ball turned pure white as the dirt failed to hold onto its fur.

With a smile on her face, Irene dropped the kesaran into a jar and snapped the lid on. It burrowed down into the small amount of dirt. All the white fluff vanished beneath the surface, but a small amount could be seen pressed up against the glass.

A cute little thing.

Irene brushed off her hands as much as possible into her pot before stepping over to the sink. As hard as she scrubbed, she could still feel dirt beneath her fingernails.

A crash of glass behind her made Irene jump.

She dived forward. The little ball of fluff was already squirming out of the small mound of dirt. She didn’t want it to escape or hurt itself.

Her fingers closed around it. A sharp pain shot up her wrist as they did so. She looked around, not sure what to do with the baby kesaran.

“Here,” a jar was thrust into her face.

Irene plopped it in without even thinking.

A gloved hand reached out and gripped her hand. She used it to pull herself back to her feet, only to find herself face to face with Eva.

“What’s going on here?” Professor Kines said as he rushed over.

Irene turned to her professor, but another voice answered first.

“I saw the whole thing. Irene caught her kesaran, but set the jar down on the edge of the table.”

Irene spun to find a very smug looking Drew. Her other botany partner swapped places with an almost distraught looking Kristina.

She had done no such thing.

“Irene,” Professor Kines said. She turned back to him wearing a frown. “I warned everyone several times not to leave their jars near the table edge.”

“I did–”

“No excuses,” he turned to face the crowd of students that had all stopped their work at the commotion. “Let that be a lesson to the rest–”

“Professor,” Eva half shouted. “Irene cut herself on the shards of glass. I will take her to the nurse’s office.”

“What? Yes, of course.” He waved his hand off towards the door.

Eva started dragging her away by her hand. She noticed the girl’s firm pressure on her wrist.

“As I was saying, kesaran aren’t like normal plants. They can and will knock over the jars.”

Before they left the greenhouse, Irene saw the professor turn to her two lab partners. “You two,” he said, “sweep up this mess.”

The door shut just as Drew’s protests started.

That was worth a small bit of satisfaction. Drew could go screw himself.

Halfway between the greenhouse and the main school building, Irene tried to shake off Eva’s hand. Her grip was like a vice.

“Eva,” she said, “I can go on my own.”

“You’ve damaged an artery,” the girl said without looking.

“How can you know that?” Irene didn’t even know that. There was just a sharp sting in her wrist.

She brought up her free hand to tap her temple. “You know how they say not to let your eyes blind you? As it turns out, I don’t have to worry about that.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Eva didn’t respond. She kept her warm hand gripped tightly around Irene’s wrist as they entered the main building. From there, it was a short trip to the nurse.

“Oh dear. What have we got here?”

The nurse pulled Irene’s arm out of Eva’s grip.

When she finally saw it, Irene almost passed out. She might have for a moment. It might have been her shutting her eyes for a long time, Irene couldn’t tell. A deep red line ran from the palm of her hand half way up to her elbow.

“She cut herself on some glass in botany.”

“It’s good that you came to me. This might sting a bit.”

Nurse Post–her name tag had a realistic looking heart in place of the ‘o’–started cleaning out the gash. Irene winced back at the foaming potion that the nurse poured in the cut. The nurse massaged the foam into the cut with her hands. The bleeding seemed to stop and the blood cleared away as the foam was rinsed.

If seeing the cut almost made her pass out, seeing the cut without blood in the way almost made her throw up. The muscle and veins all stuck out, plain to see in the white light of the lamp.

Before she could, the nurse forced two potions down Irene’s throat.

Sure enough, a few minutes later and the cut stitched itself shut.

Irene shut her eyes and tried not to think about it as it did its thing.

A pat on her knee woke her from her mental shutdown.

“You’re all done, kiddo.” Nurse Post’s smile pinched her one red eye shut. Her other eye had a gauze pad taped over it.

Irene opened her mouth to ask. “Thanks,” was all that came out.

She stood up. Her arm looked back to normal save for a thin line of fresh skin over the spot that had been cut. “Do I need to fill out any forms or can I just go back to class?”

The nurse chuckled. “School will be ending in twenty minutes. You might as well be done for the day.”

Irene nodded. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be done for the day. The kesaran would be fine in the jar for a few days, so long as Drew didn’t set it free again. She did have a report to write up about it. No, she could do that at the dorms. Professor Kines would have–

She had to stop herself from jumping back as she walked out of the nurse’s office. Eva stood there, leaning against a window. Irene had forgotten about her.

The black-haired girl almost looked asleep. Her head was tipped down and her arms were hidden under her chest. She looked up as Irene took a step closer. Or turned her head up. She didn’t have any eyes to look.

“Thanks,” Irene said.

That was it. There was nothing more to say. Irene turned and walked down the hallway, away from Eva.

Or she tried to.

Eva had other plans. With a quick hop in those somewhat awkward steps Eva used brought the girl right up to Irene’s side.

“How’s your arm.”

“Better.”

She could run.

Eva couldn’t. The girl had never shared anything about what happened, only her obvious lack of eyes and constant use of gloves told the tale. Something happened to her feet as well, though it was less obvious. She had offhandedly mentioned being unable to run once.

Yet it wasn’t something that Irene would do. She wasn’t cruel and Eva seemed to have done nothing wrong. Shalise returned without any apparent injuries and they got along fine.

She was just… creepy.

Irene kept up her stride, even though slowing would have been more comfortable for the girl. They walked almost to the entrance.

Eva stopped.

Irene continued for three more paces before she stopped too. Did I go too far? Should I have just let her walk alongside me? With a sigh, Irene turned.

The girl had her head tilted to one side. Her hair–that really needed a trim, in Irene’s opinion–hung off the side of her head all the way down to her waist. She took a step forwards. Then another step. With a third and forth step, she moved just past Irene. Her head was tilted all the while.

“Eva?”

“That bull is back.”

Irene glanced out the nearest window. The snow had melted off for a day but returned in full force the first week of February.

Nothing was out the window but snow.

After sighing, Irene rubbed one of her temples. “Are you sure you’re not making it up?” The thought had crossed her mind almost every time Eva ‘saw’ the cow.

Eva frowned, looking back to Irene. “Pretty sure. Sometimes it is hard to tell.”

“Well,” Irene sighed. She didn’t want to get involved. “I’ve got a report to write. You probably do too. I think I’ll just–”

“It’s on the roof this time.”

On the… “Why would a cow be on the roof?”

“Bull. It is definitely a bull.”

“How do you even know?”

“Same answer I gave about your arm.”

That still doesn’t answer anything!

“Wait,” Eva said, “it is moving.”

“Moving where?”

Eva ran, or hobbled, straight to the window. She stumbled part way, but managed to catch herself on the window ledge. “It is right up there, looking down.”

Even pressing her face against the glass, Irene couldn’t see anything. “Eva, shouldn’t we just get Professor Twillie and leave it at that?”

“It’s coming,” was Irene’s only warning.

Snow flew in front of the window as a heavy thud rattled the glass.

A massive bull covered in black fur absorbed the shock of the fall. Its knobby little legs straightened to their full height. Even on four legs, the bull rose over Irene’s head.

Irene fell backwards, landing on her butt. She crab-walked backwards until she was in the middle of the hall.

Eva all but pressed her face against the glass. “It is there, right? I’m not just imagining it? Your heart rate has skyrocketed.”

It was all Irene could do to mumble out an answer. She wasn’t entirely sure what that answer was, but it was an answer.

“What does it look like?”

“I thought you could see,” Irene snapped in a brief moment of sanity.

Eva crossed her arms. “I can’t see very well.” It almost sounded like a pout.

The bull snorted out a steamy breath, fogging the glass up. It turned and spread its massive wings. With a few flaps, it was gone.

Eva’s shoulders drooped, but she walked over to Irene and offered her a hand.

For the second time that day, Irene pulled herself to her feet with Eva’s help. At least this time she didn’t have a massive gash in her arm.

“Well?” Eva had her hands on her hips.

“Well what?”

“What did it look like?”

“It was a bull.”

“Yes.”

“A huge one.”

“I know.”

“It had wings.”

“I could see that much. Tell me something I couldn’t see.”

“I don’t know what else you want. It had a crumpled horn? It was big? It breathed out steam?”

Eva shrugged. “Everything breathes out steam in the winter.”

Irene didn’t have an argument for that. “What do we do?”

“What do you mean?” Eva tilted her head to one side.

“We have to tell someone, right?”

“Of course. You have to tell our friends so they know I’m not crazy.”

Irene flicked her forehead. Eva stumbled back half a step. “I mean a teacher or someone.”

Eva shrugged again. “We already told Bradley Twillie and Zoe Baxter. They said they’d look into it.”

“That was a month and a half ago.”

Eva turned back to the window, sending hair flying behind her. “They never said they were good at looking into things.”

That was true. There were at least three questions she’d asked Professor Baxter about magical theory that the teacher had never gotten back to her on.

“We should remind them at least,” Irene said.

“You do that. School is almost over and I have to get ready for Franklin Kines’ combat class.”

There was a bit of an edge in the way Eva groaned out his name. “You don’t like it?”

“The worst.”

— — —

“There are rules for magic,” Zoe Baxter said.

It was the opening line of one of her fourth year lectures. There are obvious rules and rules that are less obvious.

The most obvious rule–the one students tend to offer first–is that mages cannot use the opposing element to their primary. Fire can’t cast water, earth can’t cast air. Simple and obvious.

Every creature that used thaumaturgy followed this rule. Elves, goblins, dragons and their related kin, and even the species of fae that practiced proper thaumaturgy. Most fae used their own magic but often tried to disguise it as thaumaturgy for whatever nonsensical reasons the infuriating creatures came up with.

Yet one of the books Eva lent her had a creature described within that wielded all four elements.

It was an impossibility.

Thaumaturgy was the only magic capable of manipulating the elements. Even the Elysium Sisters only appeared to use air magics. Their lightning bolts were not true lightning.

The author must be mistaken. The demon must have appeared to use elemental magic when instead it used some form of telekinesis to create the illusion it was manipulating all four elements.

Zoe herself could do a similar trick. As an air mage, she could perform telekinesis on metal or rock and fling the items around.

With a sigh, Zoe dropped the book into her storage pocket in between. Any time she got the urge to test anything she read in the books, she immediately stopped. It was a dangerous mindset to get into.

The stack of ungraded essays on her desk hadn’t shrunk while she was reading. She pulled the top one in front of her and pulled a red pen out of her desk.

She started working on the essay. Her eyes scanned down the tight, neat handwriting of Jordan Anderson. The analysis of learning nonthaumaturgical methods of magical manipulation that he wrote last semester raised several good points on the subject of ‘dark’ magic and how dark was subjective.

He gave the example of using skeletons and flesh golems as a manual labor workforce. Apart from regular work, the dead could go many places the living would be hesitant to enter. People could have donor check boxes on their identification that would allow their bodies to be used in case of death for the betterment of the living. It would allow a morally acceptable use of necromancy in society.

Controversial views, especially for the son of Governor Alex Anderson, but a valid idea nonetheless.

It was always the younger students that surprised Zoe. She had only been teaching for five years–five and a half now–but it was a pattern that held up for all five years. Older students gave textbook answers, the kind of answers that would get them a passing grade without effort.

That magical theory tended to be a highly disliked subject in comparison to the practical magic classes only compounded the students’ apathy.

So Zoe enjoyed reading the essays of students who had yet to learn ways around the system. Bright students such as Jordan were easily the highlight of her grading periods.

Zoe got to the bottom of the essay she held in her hands three times before she realized she hadn’t read a word.

Leaning back in her chair, Zoe arced her back and stretched her arms over her head. This is going to be a long day, she sighed.

She stood from her comfortable chair and crossed the room. The one-way wall showed an empty classroom on the other side. As expected from after school hours. A flick of her dagger and the door clicked locked.

The walls of her office tipped backwards and fell into nothingness as the cool embrace of between took hold around her. An empty side street rushed in to replace the white space of between.

Zoe straightened her butterfly tie and walked down a few steps to a well-worn wooden door. With a gentle push on the brass handle, the door opened without the faintest sound of a squeaky hinge.

The room beyond was warm even in the middle of February. The dark oak bar and tables, backed with red brick and lit by tasteful orange lights, only added to the warm atmosphere. Rows and rows of bottles rested on the shelves behind the bar.

A young man in a white shirt and black vest stopped washing down one of the tables as the bell on the door chimed. He looked surprised for a moment before kindly smiling. Simply seeing his charm filled smile vanished most of Zoe’s tension and worries.

“Zoe,” Tom said, “I haven’t seen you in a while. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just a little unwinding,” Zoe said.

“Ah, I know just the drink for that.”

“A small one, I do have work to get back to.”

He moved behind the counter and pulled off a handful of bottles. “Technically, I’m not open yet. I think I can make a small exception.”

“I appreciate it,” Zoe said as she moved to one of the stools in front of the bar.

She watched as he mixed her drink. Tom even put on a small show by flipping the bottles and the mixer, almost juggling them. He tossed one behind his back and caught it on his elbow while he poured with his other hand. The bottle on his elbow tumbled off, spilling just enough into the tin before he caught it.

All that effort went to just an inch of drink in her iced glass.

“So,” he said as Zoe took a small sip, “what’s got you wound up?”

“Children being children, I suppose.” She couldn’t very well tell him that one of her students seemed to be a budding diabolist. “I just needed a change of scenery for a few minutes before I finish grading some papers.”

He grinned at her. “Well you’re always free to change your scenery here.” Tom stepped back around the bar. “I need to finish wiping down the tables. If you need anything, just say so.”

Zoe downed her drink with deliberate lethargy. It was a good drink, as expected of Tom. Not one she knew the name of. It had a deep amber color and tasted of some fruit she couldn’t place.

As she finished her drink, Zoe looked around the bar. She looked past the tables and the working Tom up to the stage. A beautifully polished grand piano sat in the center, lit by soft red lights.

“Hey Tom, mind if I use your piano?”

The bartender looked between the piano and Zoe before shrugging. “Not at all.”

Zoe walked up the short steps to the piano. Her fingers ran across the surface of the smooth keys as she sat down. She stared at the piano, not sure what she wanted to play.

She started slowly, very high up in the treble. Zoe kept the bass light, letting it mix in naturally. Her right hand descended to the middle of the piano.

More bass added in as the treble drew back into the ambiance. Her left hand hammered the keys. Her feet danced over the pedals, drawing out the notes to just the right length.

It all stopped for an instant. The treble came back with the bass in full force. Her fingers flew up and down the keys in a full run down. High and low and back to high. Her hands blazed across the piano.

Her song drew into a close with her hammering both hands down on the chords several times, holding the final strike.

Only when the piano’s sound stopped completely did Zoe pull her hands off the keys. She wiped a few beads of sweat off of her forehead. A deep breath in and a deep breath out had Zoe feeling much better.

A clapping had her almost jumping out of her chair. It wasn’t just Tom–though he looked as if he had stopped his cleaning to listen. A patron stood near the entrance. His hands moved together as he smiled a wide grin.

Zoe quickly removed herself from the seat of the piano. Her face felt the slightest bit hot as she hopped off the stage. She wasn’t counting on an audience other than Tom.

“May I buy you a drink,” the man said as she drew closer. He had a bright smile on and a gloved hand extended for a shake. “That was most impressive.”

Zoe had intended to simply leave. She did have work to do. Something made her stop just before she walked past him. I’m acting like one of my students, she thought as she took hold of his hand.

“One drink,” Zoe said.

His golden eyes glinted as he smiled and led her to the bar.

Tom already moved behind it and started up his routine of drink making. He set out a tall glass for each of them that started dark at the top but ended up almost white at the bottom. He moved back to finish wiping down the tables without a word.

“So,” Zoe said as she pulled the drink closer. That was far more than she wanted to drink, not that she considered herself a lightweight by any means.

“I apologize,” his white teeth spread into a grin, “where are my manners. I am Rex Zagan.”

“Zoe Baxter.”

“Zoe Baxter,” he said, mulling the name around on his tongue. He took a deep drink from the glass in front of him. “I think I’ve heard that name before. Are you a teacher?”

“Of magical theory.” She stopped just before taking a drink of her own glass. “Do I know you?”

“No, no,” he chuckled. “I’m an acquaintance of Martina’s. Providing all goes according to plan, I’ll be an instructor next year.”

Zoe frowned. She hadn’t heard anything about any of her colleagues planning on retiring or quitting. Had someone messed up badly enough during one of the dean’s little sit ins to get fired? Her worries must have been written on her face.

“I believe I’m being brought in to teach a class that the previous dean did away with. Martina wants to bring back a proper combat class.”

“You’re going to teach the students how to fight?”

“A lack of a proper course in combat is at least one of the reasons this school is so poorly regarded, yeah?”

“That’s true,” Zoe said. That was why she ran her seminar over the summer. “Though hardly the only reason the school is in poor shape. What are your qualifications?”

“I’m a class one fire mage with heavy background in combat.”

He certainly looked like he had a background in combat. He wore a solid black suit, but there were definitely hefty muscles hiding underneath.

“I spent around ten years on the front lines in a small conflict between some South American warlords. I was… well, conscripted.” He dismissed the line of conversation with a suave wave of his hand. “That’s all ancient history. Suffice to say, I’m alive and many others are not.”

Zoe took a drink as the future professor began what she expected to be his opening lecture.

It covered all the key points of what he hoped to achieve with the class. There were still some details to be worked out, but it seemed he would be running a mostly physical show aside from heavy casting drills until the students’ third year where it would shift to a magic focus. After that it became an elective like so many other classes.

“I believe Professor Kines noticed that problem as well,” Zoe said. She gave a short run down of his mage-knight club. “He’s been having the first few years do more exercise than casting.”

“Ah, good. I was concerned that next year’s second and third year students would both need the first year course. That should help things along.”

“Indeed,” Zoe said. A buzzing in her pocket caused her to stop and glance at her phone.

Was it really that late, she thought as she saw the time. Wayne had sent her a message asking where she was.

“I do have work to be getting back to,” Zoe said.

“Don’t let me keep you,” he said with a bright grin. “It was nice to meet a future coworker. We should meet again like this.”

Zoe stood, returning his smile. “Maybe I’ll stop by and play the piano once in a while.” She turned to a bartender who was looking very much like he wasn’t listening in. “Tom?”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got the school’s moneybags on speed dial.”

Zoe gave him a curt nod and headed outside, leaving a half-finished drink on the bar. With a thought, she was back to her office.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


002.003

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Eva shared a glance with Juliana. Both girls sighed.

Shalise quirked her head to one side as she shoved a spoonful of lasagna and bean pie into her mouth.

Eva couldn’t actually see the meal, but she could smell it. She was very glad she didn’t often get hungry for lunch.

“I’m going,” Jordan said.

“Me too,” Shelby piped up quickly.

Max shook his head. After finishing his food–someone had mentioned his bad habit over the last few months, Eva wasn’t sure who–he said, “I don’t think I’ve got a good enough grasp on magic to even start using it in fighting.”

“No, not for me,” Irene shook her head. “I plan to be an artificer. Not much fighting in my future, I hope.”

“You never know when knowing how to fight will save your life,” Shalise said sagely. “I’m going.”

With a long sigh, Eva said, “I’ll go. If it turns into Zoe Baxter fighting us for two hours, I’m quitting.”

“Same,” Juliana said.

“Good.” Shalise looked over to Irene and Max. “You two sure you don’t want to go?”

“I’ll be using the time to study and practice, I think.”

“If it turns out to be something amazing,” Irene said, “We can start going to it later.”

“If you’re sure.”

The bell rang and everyone stood up.

Everyone except Eva.

Juliana and Shalise both stopped and looked back.

“Go on without me. I don’t think I’m getting much out of alchemy lessons these days.”

“I didn’t mean to take your place,” Shalise said.

“Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t getting much out of them towards the end of last semester either.” Eva gave her a smile. “I’d just feel bad if I left Juliana alone. With you here, I don’t have to feel bad at all.”

“What are you going to do?” Juliana asked.

“Head to the dorms, or maybe my place. Check up on things there.”

“You’re not hunting bulls with wings, are you?”

Eva almost laughed at that. “Run around in the cold for who knows how long? I don’t think so. Like I said last week, I don’t think it is such a big deal.”

“Good.” Shalise smiled. Her smile turned stern. “Don’t make skipping a habit.”

Eva didn’t respond with anything but a smile and a wave.

They took that as the cue to run and catch up with the others.

Eva stayed in her seat for a few minutes, watching as the rest of the students walked by.

More than a few students gave her odd looks. Even a full two months after she’d come back to school, she was still the freshmen freak show. A blind girl who never took off her gloves yet still managed to get around fine–for the most part.

Not that Eva cared. The opinions of her friends mattered to her, but only just. The opinions of random people whose circulatory systems she couldn’t be bothered to memorize? Not even worth thinking about.

As the lunchroom cleared, one of the circulatory systems walked with purpose towards Eva’s table. An adult, one she didn’t know. Or perhaps a very big student.

A nun, Eva decided as she looked closer. All of the nuns had something right in the center of their chests. Something no one else had. It wasn’t very big, maybe the size of a ping-pong ball.

Whatever it was, it had blood flowing through it.

“Shouldn’t you be heading to class?”

“Should be. Not going to,” Eva said. She crossed her arms and leaned against the edge of the table. “Shouldn’t you be hunting necromancers?”

Eva grit her teeth just thinking about it. It was her fault Sawyer got away. She’d been too distracted with his friend. Too unused to her new sight to pay attention to her surroundings.

The metal of the table leg creaked from where she’d had it gripped. Eva took a deep, calming breath before resuming her eyeless glare at the nun.

“The Sister’s business is none of yours.”

“I can say the same to you.” Eva shooed the nun away with her hands.

The nun didn’t move.

“Is there something else you needed?”

“I know what you are.”

“Yes,” Eva sighed. “You and most of your order, if their stares are anything to go by.”

Despite her words, Eva couldn’t help but feel the hairs on her neck rise. She couldn’t move towards the knife on her back without being obvious about it, but a vial of Arachne’s blood could be opened easily under the table.

“Why would you do that to yourself?”

The question caught her off guard. Eva expected her to fight, but she almost sounded concerned. Her glare–if it was a glare, a thing not always easy to tell without eyes–remained steady in either case.

“You’re going to have to be more specific.” Eva cast her awareness around the room, there weren’t any stragglers save for a handful of people in the adjoining kitchen. They were probably too far away. Just in case they weren’t, Eva added, “not too specific. I’d rather not have the whole school know.”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“I’ve done a lot of things to myself that I imagine nuns would take issue with.”

Her straight face turned downwards and a frown spread across it. “Your hands,” she said softly.

“Ah, that.” Eva brought one hand out from under the table and flexed the fingers. The other held onto an opened vial of blood.

The nun took a quarter-step back.

“Some terrible person decided I didn’t need hands anymore. Naturally, I disagreed. When a passing creature offered new hands with no strings attached, I accepted.” More or less anyway. Mostly less. Close enough for the nun in any case.

“There are always strings attached.”

“In this case, there weren’t. Though I imagine there might be some strings when I get around to replacing my eyes.”

“You’re planning on doing it again?”

“And my toes,” Eva said, pointing downwards. The nun wouldn’t be able to see it, not unless she was doing the thing Sister Cross already did. “I plan to use the stringless method for those, however.”

The nun gave Eva a sad look–as far as she could tell. “One day you will look back on your corruption and weep.”

Not likely, Eva thought with a small smile. She was rather looking forward to her blood being as powerful as Arachne’s for blood magic.

Another thought occurred to Eva. “Are you offering assistance? I’ve heard the Elysium’s healers aren’t too bad at their job.”

Eva wasn’t sure if she was supposed to know about healers. The nun’s reaction didn’t turn hostile, however.

The nun shifted nervously. She glanced side to side herself before answering in a whisper. “There are only six in existence at any one time. Petitioning one to heal you would,” she sighed, “be a waste of time.” The nun placed her hand on her chin. “Perhaps if you were to join us…”

“You’d accept someone like me?” If her earlier question had caught Eva off guard, recruiting her threw her for a complete loop.

“You would have to undergo cleansing. Very thorough cleansing. You might not survive.” The nun sighed. “No. You almost assuredly would perish. But that would be more desirable than your current path. If you did manage to survive, a healer would surely see to you.”

Eva almost responded–in the negative of course; even if surviving was assured, she wouldn’t take it–but something made her stop and jump ten feet into the air.

“I’ll not have you stealing one of my students in the middle of the school day,” a voice all but shouted behind Eva’s back. “Leave at once.”

The nun opened her mouth, about to say something. It snapped shut almost immediately. She turned on her heel and stalked straight out of the cafeteria.

Eva cast her sight around as she turned despite already having recognized the voice. She never remembered being startled this easily when she had eyes even though she couldn’t see behind her at any time. Keeping constant awareness with her new method of seeing needed work and practice.

“Miss Eva.”

“Zoe Baxter.”

“You’re the last person I would have thought they would recruit.” Eva could tell that her eyes narrowed the slightest amount. “You’re not thinking of joining them, are you?”

“I don’t know,” Eva said with a ponderous expression. She might as well have a little fun. “They offered to heal my eyes.”

“Eva,” Zoe’s teeth grit before she let out a sigh. “I know things have been hard. I don’t think you would be happy–”

“You don’t want me to remain blind when avenues of recovery are at hand, do you?”

Zoe’s eyes narrowed again. “You don’t intend to join.”

Eva let out a short laugh. She overdid that last line. “Of course not. Not even if she didn’t say I would assuredly die being ‘cleansed,’ whatever that means. I plan to acquire new eyes without a high chance of death.”

“Eva,” Zoe Baxter started in a warning tone. “You’re going to wind up kicked out of school.” Her voice dropped to a hushed whisper. “I’ll be kicked out as well if anyone finds the stack of books I’ve got.”

“Don’t look at me,” Eva said as she held her hands up, “I didn’t force you to take them.”

“I’m reading them because demons,” she hissed almost subvocally, “are deeply related to the well-being of a certain student.”

“Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying reading them. I know at least three of the ones I lent you had nothing to do with anything about me.”

“Academically as a theorist only,” she said standing up to her full height. “It isn’t often a pile of books of that type are available to me.”

You keep telling yourself that, Eva thought with not a small amount of amusement in her mental voice. Not that she enjoyed corrupting her teacher. Really. Eva was just pleased that she hadn’t alerted demon hunters or even kicked her out of school.

“Although, you probably shouldn’t talk about things like that with me.” When Zoe Baxter raised her eyebrows, Eva continued, “Sister Cross stopped by on Christmas. She mentioned that I was still under surveillance.”

“I thought you improved your anti-scrying runes?”

“I thought so too. As far as I can tell, they’re not doing anything unless Sister Cross is lying.”

“I doubt it,” Zoe said as she crossed her arms. “Not with Shalise being so close to you.”

Eva stretched back. She still hadn’t told either Juliana or Shalise about Sister Cross’ daughter. Zoe Baxter was her sole confidant in that matter. She apparently knew Shalise was more than a regular orphan, she just didn’t know who the parent was.

“What are you doing anyway, sluffing classes?”

“What about you? Don’t you have a class right now.”

“I have an open period, you don’t. I know you have class with Way–Mr. Lurcher.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t call that a class so much as a waste of three hours.”

“Miss Eva, alchemy is a fundamental–”

“I would love to do alchemy, but I think I’ll learn more back at my place working on my own brewing than sitting to the side and not touching anything.”

“Mr. Lurcher is still not letting you participate?”

“Nope. I don’t mind though. On weekends I have Arachne read me the alchemy lab book and I go over the things in class. I was considering skipping class and heading straight to my place.”

Zoe Baxter’s mouth tipped into a frown at the mention of Arachne. “You still associate with that creature?”

“Please. She lived in the dorms for six months and never hurt anyone. Saved students, in fact.” Saved Shalise, at least. At Eva’s command.

That counted.

“You’ve mentioned as much before. She killed a nun and damaged school property.”

“We keep having the same argument, over and over again,” Eva sighed. “There were circumstances that night. If she hadn’t acted the way she had, I’d be dead.” Or worse. “Besides, the nuns were trying to kill her back.”

Zoe leaned over slightly, pointing a finger. “She’s a dangerous creature, Eva. The books agree with me on that.”

Eva raised her hands, wiggling the fingers lightly. “I’m a dangerous creature.”

“That isn’t the same and you know it,” she hissed.

A lot closer than you might realize, Eva thought.

“At least tell me you’ve gotten rid of the other one.”

“Same answer as last time.”

Zoe’s teeth ground together. She took a seat next to Eva at the table. “Eva, your pet tarantula is one thing. If it got out of hand, it could do a lot of damage, but it is ultimately containable. For the most part.

“Your other ‘pet’ isn’t the same. If she got out of hand–”

“She won’t,” Eva said firmly. She double checked the area. No one was around to overhear. “Ylva doesn’t want to go around killing everything. She won’t even leave the cell house without asking me.”

“Why not?”

“She views the prison as part of my ‘domain’ and will not encroach on it without my permission. It’s a d–creature thing.”

“But she can leave if she wants to.” Zoe didn’t leave room for question.

“That’s why Arachne is there.”

“Can Arachne stop her? Contain or defeat her?”

Eva didn’t answer. She didn’t have one. Arachne would say yes without hesitating, but Eva couldn’t be so sure.

“At the very least, Eva, you need safeguards. I’ve been reading about shackles. You know how to do them, right?” At Eva’s nod, Zoe said, “can you place shackles around the entire building? Or even the entire prison, if that is possible.”

That would be massive. Eva hadn’t measured out the exact dimensions of the prison, but it was larger than the entire campus of Brakket by at least four times–discounting warped space in the courtyard.

“That might be doable,” Eva said, more as a placating gesture than any promise of carrying out the task. Ylva had been quite pleasant in her few meetings with the hel despite Zoe Baxter’s harsh comments about her first meeting. Erecting shackles would likely do away with any goodwill between Eva and Ylva.

“Have you still not heard from Mr. Foster?”

Eva shook her head. “He’ll be back before February ends.”

“I’d rather speak with him sooner.”

“I have no way of contacting him,” Eva lied. Though it wasn’t much of a lie. Summoning Ivonis to track down Devon was possible, but gathering up another fifty animals to sacrifice would be annoying at best. “You’ll just have to wait.”

“You’re sure he’ll be back by then?”

“Unless he’s gone off and gotten himself killed.” If he had, Eva was in trouble.

Juliana might be able to start up one or two of the rituals for Eva, provided Eva told her about the rituals in the first place. If anything went wrong or changes needed to be made as the treatment progressed, neither Juliana, Eva, or Arachne would be able to make alterations.

Zoe Baxter let out a long sigh. She propped her elbows up on the table behind her and shut her eyes. After a moment of rest, she seemed to realize that she wasn’t acting entirely professional. In a quick motion, she stood up, brushed down her suit, and tweaked her red butterfly tie.

At least, Eva assumed it was the butterfly tie. She sometimes wore a white that turned black at the tips, or an orange one with a coat of arms featuring a dragon on it. The red one was by far the most prevalent of the three.

Once finished, Zoe Baxter turned and faced Eva. “Miss Eva. I cannot condone skipping class. Today, you are already late. Arriving now would only disrupt whatever lesson Mr. Lurcher is currently teaching.” She cleared her throat. Completely unnecessarily. She had been talking just fine. “You’ll be serving detention with me this Saturday.”

Eva sighed. She was pretty sure she was the only student to ever get detention at Brakket. At least, apart from the one time she scrubbed lab room floors and counters with Juliana.

“Yes, professor.”

A spike of ice left a trail of cold air as it flew past Eva’s chest.

It didn’t even come close to hitting her before she hopped to one side. After hopping, it missed by a mile.

Another spike launched away from his wand.

Eva raised an order magic shield. Professor Kines taught how to cast a simple shield designed to block projectiles. She wasn’t very confident in it. It didn’t hold a candle to her blood shield.

It didn’t matter. The ice spike tapped against it and fell to the ground. It might have fallen before touching the shield. Some things were difficult to tell with her current vision.

Three fireballs returned against her attacker. One missed, the other two struck a shoulder and his stomach.

He had a fire resistant jacket on. Even if Eva could cast decent fireballs, he wouldn’t have burst into flames. Everyone had magic retardant armor. Expensive, but left over from the old mage-knight club.

Despite her weak fireballs, he staggered backward for several steps until he put a foot out of the ring.

Tony Burnside hadn’t even tried to raise his own shield.

Eva sighed as she dropped her wand hand to her side. “I saw you fight against Zoe Baxter during her seminar. I know you can do better.”

The third year student brushed off his jacket without even glancing at Eva. “I don’t think this is what I signed up for,” he said quietly.

“Oh? And what did you sign up for?”

“I signed up to learn to fight better.”

Eva grit her teeth. Juliana and Shalise paired off as had Jordan and Shelby. They were going to switch out after a short while, but until then Eva wound up with the wimpiest third year student she could imagine.

A fireball shot from her hand at Tony. He wasn’t in the ring. Eva didn’t care.

He grunted and stumbled as it hit him in the side.

“You want to learn? Fine. First lesson, fights don’t end because you don’t want to fight.”

Another two fireballs launched towards the student. The first one managed to strike him in the chest. He actually put up a shield for the second.

“Second lesson, just because your opponent looks frail or helpless, doesn’t mean she is.”

He launched an ice spike after another fireball hit his shield.

Eva didn’t bother dodging. It was a good two inches from her shoulder.

“Third lesson, you learn nothing by standing around and half-assing it.”

In truth, Eva had small apprehensions about fighting. In a real fight, she would increase the amount of blood in the air. Here, she didn’t want to make it too thick and give herself away. It would be easy for a shard of ice to slip through to her without her noticing.

But in class, that didn’t matter. She wore armored clothes the same as everyone else.

In order to see, Eva relied on watching his wand hand and watching when he cast spells. If she lost track of a projectile, she’d put up a shield.

At least, that was her plan. She hadn’t needed to do anything of the sort against Tony Burnside. None of his attacks intended to hurt her. Even the few times she’d intentionally tried to test her shield, he just stopped his attacks.

So Eva tossed fireball after fireball at him. Even a few came from her off-hand. Her new finger ring foci adorned the index finger of her glove as a distraction. Students might have a hard time learning the nuances of alternate foci, but which hand she used didn’t matter to Eva’s unique casting.

Her fireballs splashed against his shield. They were too weak to get through. That didn’t deter her.

Tony Burnside launched token ice spikes any time she let up. For the most part, she ignored them. Most weren’t even properly aimed at her.

“Stop trying to miss me and hit me,” Eva roared.

One almost hit her chest. She only noticed too late. Rather than fail to put up a shield, she batted it away with the back of her hand. They were blunted and weren’t traveling fast enough to do any serious damage. Her claws could take the beating.

“Eva,” a voice called out.

She’d just barely caught one of his icicles that went wide and was about to throw it back at him. Eva paused and turned to the voice.

Franklin Kines ran up to the two students. “What are you doing? You’ve got him out of the ring. You’re out of the ring.”

“He won’t fight me,” Eva said, pointing her wand at Tony.

He pulled up a shield the moment she did.

“You’re out of the ring. You’re not supposed to fight out of the ring.”

“He won’t fight me in the ring.” She held up the ice spike. “These just go flying past me. I haven’t had to use a shield or even dodge.” She crushed the spike in her hand, the two pieces falling to the ground amidst a shower of crushed ice.

“Eva,” Kines said softly, “surely you can understand him not wanting to hurt a younger student.”

“No.” Eva pulled off her helmet and threw it to the side. She tapped her padded vest. “We have these to keep us from getting hurt.”

“Maybe we should shuffle groups,” Franklin Kines said. He clapped his hands to get the attention of everyone who wasn’t already staring at the scene–which was almost no one. “Everyone find a new partner, one who uses a different element, if possible.”

He turned on one of the groups. “Shalise,” he said, “would you please be Eva’s partner?

“This exercise is for getting used to shield spells,” he said a little louder, Eva was pretty sure it was directed to her, “not for fighting.”

Juliana gave Eva a light smile as she walked straight to Tony Burnside.

Eva nodded and picked up her helmet on her way to Shalise.

“You’re not going to fireball me into a corner, are you?”

Eva quirked an eyebrow at Shalise. She’d be able to see it through the clear visor. “Are you going to fight me like I’m a little blind girl who needs to be coddled?”

“No.”

Eva exaggerated out a sigh as she walked into the ring. The floor of the small dueling arena was made of earth, mostly for earth mages. The carved in rings helped a lot with Eva’s sight. She wouldn’t be able to tell painted on rings. “Then I suppose I won’t fireball you into a corner.”

That elicited a smile and a soft giggle from the girl. “It was a little scary, watching you,” she said quietly.

“He wouldn’t have gotten hurt,” Eva dismissed. “Even if his shield failed–a feat against my weak fireballs–we’ve got all this armor.”

“It was more of your face.”

“My face?”

“You looked very angry.”

Did she? Eva didn’t know. She could see her own blood as well as she could see others, but she never paid attention to it. “Maybe if he’d just man up and fight me properly, I wouldn’t have got so mad.”

“I don’t know how much of a fight I’m going to put up.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t get mad at you.”

Shalise flicked her wand.

Eva readied a shield.

Nothing pinged against it. She couldn’t see anything with the flecks of blood around the arena.

“Um…”

Shalise slumped over. “That was my best attack. A puff of air. I don’t think air magic is very suited for combat.”

“Zoe Baxter uses lightning. Have you tried?”

Once again, Shalise flicked her wand.

Unlike before, there was a small crackle in the air. A very small crackle. Without eyes, Eva couldn’t tell if anything left Shalise’s wand. If it even came from Shalise’s wand.

It might have been another student standing near Shalise that Eva heard.

“A spark,” Shalise said, apparently seeing the confusion on Eva’s face. “Irene and Max might have had the right idea. Maybe I’ll try back next year after I practice magic more.”

“What about the shield Professor Kines taught us?”

Shalise casted a spell. Something appeared in front of her, Eva could tell by how some of her blood hit a barrier.

Eva tried casting a small fireball at it. Her shield shattered on impact, though the fireball didn’t make it through. At least that was something.

It didn’t seem that Shalise considered that a victory. “That is that,” she said dejectedly.

“We’re here to practice, right? So let’s practice.” Eva readied her wand again, not that she needed it. “Bring up your shield and when you do, imagine the biggest, strongest wall you can.” She was just repeating Franklin Kines’ words from the start of the lesson. Her blood shields didn’t need any sort of thought behind them.

Shalise did so. Eva tossed another small fireball at her.

The shield shattered again.

They spent ten minutes practicing against Shalise’s shield. One of the fireballs actually splashed against the shield instead of shattering it. Shalise got so excited she lost concentration and the next fireball hit her square in the chest.

It was just a small impact; Eva couldn’t amp up the power much at all. Still they continued.

A loud crash drew the entire room’s attention.

Tony Burnside was lying on his back. His wand rolled a few feet away. He struggled against something.

Eva sent some flecks of blood over to find he was almost entirely encased in earth. The only part that wasn’t was his head.

Juliana stood over him. She had a sword pointed at his neck.

“Juliana Rivas, what are you doing?” Franklin Kines ran over to their ring.

“I want this man removed from class,” she said firmly. “If he isn’t going to take it seriously, it is only going to hurt anyone who has the misfortune of partnering against him.”

“This is not a sparring session,” Professor Kines said. “You’re supposed to practice shields.”

“I can’t practice shields if he won’t even try to hit me.”

Professor Kines whisked his wand out and pointed it at the prone Tony. The earth crumbled off of him.

Tony batted the sword out of his face and stood up. He tore off his helmet and armor. Without a glance at anyone, he marched straight out of the classroom.

“Alright,” Professor Kines shouted. “Class dismissed. Everyone out.” Juliana turned and Kines added, “except for you, Juliana.”

Eva walked over to Juliana’s side, leaving Shalise looking very uncertain in her ring. Jordan and Shelby walked over to her a moment later.

“I don’t believe I asked for your presence, Eva. Return to your dorms.”

“I had the ‘misfortune of partnering against him.’ I’ll say my input to defend my friend.”

Juliana smiled, still facing away from Professor Kines.

“You both will be kicked out of this class if anything like tonight happens again.”

“Us?” Juliana spun to face the professor. “He is the one who wasn’t following your directions.”

“Should he return to class, he will be given one more chance as well.” Franklin Kines pointed a finger at each of the girls. “You two will come to me if you have a problem with another student. You will not take matters into your own hands or you’re gone.

“Am I understood?”

“Sure,” Juliana said. Her sword squirmed back up underneath her clothes. She turned on her heel. A smile spread across her face as she walked away.

Eva shrugged at Kines as she followed after.

“That was fun,” Juliana said. “I could get used to knocking over upperclassmen.”

Shelby snorted. “Yeah, but you’ll probably make enemies that way.”

“You didn’t have to go fight him,” Eva said as they walked through the Infinite Courtyard back to the dorms. She felt guilty about almost getting her friend kicked out of class.

“No. I did. My mother would never have stood for someone slacking off if she taught a class like this.”

“She’s a retired mage-knight, right?” Jordan asked. “Maybe she would teach a class like this. Not that I think Professor Kines is a bad teacher, I just wonder what kind of background he has to be qualified to teach a class like this.”

“Well, she’s in Russia right now.” At Jordan’s questioning glance, Juliana added, “don’t ask. After that, I don’t know. Teaching doesn’t seem her style. It isn’t adventurous enough.”

Last semester wasn’t adventurous enough with all the necromancers and nuns? Eva sighed and followed the others back to the dorms.

Genoa Rivas was a scary woman.

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