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010.027

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Devon strode into the Brakket Academy main lobby area with two demons in tow. Once upon a time, doing something so brazen would have gotten him killed without a doubt. Who in their right mind would ever allow a demon summoner and demons into a school?

How times had changed.

His weren’t even the only demons he had spotted around the school. He had spotted a capra demon disguised as a student turning one of the many enigmas into minced meat just outside the entrance to the school. A few nearby human guards hadn’t even batted an eye as Devon passed by. Apparently, so long as he wasn’t a tentacled monster, he was perfectly welcome. Either that or Eva had told them that he would be coming.

The guards hadn’t batted an eye at the capra demon either, so they must have been at least somewhat attuned to the idea of demons running around. Though their faces might have looked a little green when they glanced towards the ground up remains of the enigma. Devon didn’t know what kind of weak stomached guards this school was hiring, but he had thought that they would be able to manage a little viscera.

They would never have survived at Devon’s old school.

Literally.

Tenebris Artes would have eaten them up and spat them out as nothing more than bones. The students—who, around Brakket, were all hiding indoors save for one or two that had worked up the courage to help fight enigmas—as well. In fact, Tenebris Artes had closed down after only a year of him attending.

Something that had absolutely nothing to do with Devon whatsoever.

Times changed. Society became more comfortable for the inhabitants with every passing year. More comfort meant less daily hardships to whip the kids into shape. They would go on to join proper society and hopefully get whipped into shape. But the ever increasing comfort would just mean that one day—maybe not this generation, maybe not even the next, but one day, the pampered children would be the real world.

Then who would be around to save the day?

Fate always had a trial or two up her sleeve. When would the trial become too much for the ignorant masses. There wouldn’t always be a curmudgeonous old demonologist around to save the day.

In fact, he wouldn’t have been around to save the day were it not for that blasted research subject of his. Maybe next time Fate would just leave him alone.

Ah well. Saving the world one last time wasn’t so bad. At least this time he hadn’t been attacked by anything other than enigmas. Those could be summarily dealt with by his demons with him hardly lifting a finger. The waxy ruax handled almost every one. He only had to blast one with infernal flames once, and that was only because the ruax had been distracted by a good six or seven of the beasts.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure exactly where to go. Glass windows separated a secretary’s desk and the main offices from the rest of the open lobby. The hallway went left and right with only room numbers listed in each direction. Straight ahead, the large glass windows opened up into that disaster waiting to happen of an expanded space ward.

No sign for the school’s infirmary.

“Come with me,” he said, more for the benefit of the carnivean than the ruax. One was under his direct control. The other only should be.

Leaving behind the lobby, he headed towards the offices. There had to be someone there and someone there had to know the way to the infirmary.

He walked right up to the vacant secretary’s desk and peered over at an all too tiny building map hanging up behind it. It took him five minutes of searching before he realized that he was standing right next to the infirmary. The room had two doors, one in the hallway just around the corner and one in the office itself.

Naturally, Devon headed to the nearer door.

He slid it open to find a gaggle of people running every which way. Adults ran around between the makeshift beds. In their arms, they carried trays filled with a haphazard arrangement of potions, surgical implements, common medicine products, and clean cloth bandages. Both adults and children filled the floorspace of nearly the entire room, lying on blankets and pads. Most of the beds’ occupants were injured in some manner or other. A band of bandages wrapped around one man’s eye and head, one woman was missing an arm, someone else looked like he had a bite taken out of his leg. A few people were working on that last one, performing some sort of surgery.

In other words, a typical medical facility during an emergency. Nothing notable to see.

He took one step into the room only to find his path blocked by a young girl with an eye patch and a red eye. A few scars tugged at her lips as she started speaking.

“Are you injured?”

Devon leaned slightly closer to the woman. Nurse Post, her name tag said with a little heart in place of the ‘o’. The blood smeared over it and much of her white outfit did not help play up the kind and welcoming school nurse that she had been trying to go for.

Red eyes were not a common human trait, though they did happen on occasion. Usually a faint red accompanied by albinism. Her hair wasn’t the normal white, but she must have dyed it. He couldn’t detect any sign of her being a demon.

Her eyes flicked to the two demons behind him. Neither of which she reacted to in the slightest before turning her gaze back to Devon.

“Sir?”

“No,” Devon said, leaning back. “I’m looking–”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, sir. If you aren’t here to help and are not injured, you’ll only be in the way. If you’re looking for a patient, the office across the hall has a list of everyone who was brought in as of an hour ago,” she said, gesturing directly behind Devon.

Devon’s lip curled into a scowl. He stepped straight to the other side of the woman and continued walking, leaving her momentarily confused.

“Sir,” she said once she realized that he had got behind her. “You’re wasting valuable time that we could be using to save these people.”

“Yes, and I’m trying to save the entire world,” he grumbled, reaching the center of the room. It must have been magically expanded as well. He had walked far more than what it would have taken to go around to the opposite door.

More people were staring at him now. Lots of doctors or nurses that should be doing their job. He didn’t think he was all that special looking. His beard may be unkempt and his trench coat a little dusty, but his arm was safely hidden away in the sleeve.

Then again, most people in the room were not accompanied by two obviously inhuman demons. Maybe their stares were more directed towards the tentacle-headed thing and the animated wax statue that were following behind him.

“I didn’t ask you to follow me around,” he said in a low tone of voice. “Go about whatever it is you think is right.” Before she could protest further, he raised his voice to be heard above all the moaning and whining of the injured around him. “Which one of you is Genoa?”

Devon stared around the room, waiting and expecting someone to at least raise their hands if not come all the way up to him.

Nobody did.

“Sir–”

“Wait.”

The nurse tried to say something, but a second voice interrupted. Devon turned to find some woman walking up to him with frazzled hair, several bandaged wounds on every bit of bare skin, and an entirely missing arm. He stared at it for a moment before looking back to the woman’s face.

“You’re Genoa?”

“What? No… You can’t have– Never mind,” she said with a shake of her head. “It isn’t important right now, Devon.”

Ah, he thought. Apparently I know her.

“What is important is that Eva is out at the ritual circle–”

“Yeah, I know. It’s part of the plan to fix everything.”

“There’s a plan?” The woman let out a long sigh. She placed her one hand to her chest, though Devon couldn’t actually see the hand. Enough bandages covered it to make it look like a mummy’s mitten. “Oh thank goodness. But what do you need Genoa for?”

“Eva recommended her as a ritual construction specialist. Though,” Devon raised his voice slightly, “I’ll accept any able-bodied mage capable of large-scale earth manipulation.”

He looked around at all the bandaged people lying in beds or bleeding out or whatever injured people were wont to do with a slowly deepening scowl on his face. What was with these people? Not a single one looked like they could hold a wand let alone cast a few spells. What kind of mages got injured fighting these enigmas, let alone allowed the injures to send them to the medimagi. At least the woman in front of him was on her feet, if not clenching her wand between her teeth to fight back.

Though that kid in the corner looked to be just about the right age for experimentation. If he was dying, nobody would miss–

“Devon!” the woman hissed at him, bringing his attention back to the woman. “You are despicable.”

“I get that on occasion,” Devon grunted. “Where can I find an earth mage?”

“Genoa is out trying to clear away enigmas. She should have her cellphone with her. Hand me your phone and I’ll–” She cut herself off as she realized that she was holding out the stump of her arm. With a half-muttered curse, she swapped to her other hand only to realize her bandage predicament.

“Why don’t you tell me the number and I’ll make the call instead,” he said, pulling out his phone.

— — —

Eva lowered her arms as she stared up at the sky. Not at the eyeball, which was still looking down at the Earth and still crying those magmatic meteors that were probably filled with enigmas. She stared at the design for a new treatment circle. One for the demonic enigma and the chunk of brain.

It wasn’t that large. Certainly not as big as the circle that had been used to summon the two avatars. Perhaps as big as a large room. Even that size was only by necessity. The brain avatar was much too large for anything smaller.

The ritual was based on Devon’s work—and she definitely wondered how he would react to finding out that Void used his research—it should be just enough to get what she needed done. At least, that was what Void had said while the designs were being burned into her mind. Satisfied that everything in the design above her head had been copied into the real world correctly, Eva moved on to the next step.

Forming a long tube of blood, she jammed one end into the brain and one into the formerly furry arm of the enigma. This time, she did not stand in between the two subjects of the ritual. A second tube of crystallized blood led out from the other side of the brain, ready to drain into a large vase once the ritual got under way.

The succubus had been watching patiently and staring at the ritual circle that Eva had constructed. Only when she switched to the tubing did Catherine walk up to her.

“You’re doing it again?”

“Not quite,” Eva said as she turned back to Catherine. “Apparently, we overdid it earlier. Shoving the entirety of Void’s Avatar into this thing was not only unnecessary, but overly harmful to the Powers’ ecosystem of… power.”

“So diluting it then?”

“That’s a good way to put it.” Eva glared down at the demonic enigma. “We put some of that in and take some of the avatar out.” And some of Arachne as well. After taking a few steps back, Eva motioned for Catherine to do the same.

Srey had hardly moved from his initial position near the avatar until Eva physically dragged him away. Eva wasn’t sure what was up with him. Had he actually struck up some sort of friendship with Vektul and was in shock over what happened?

She supposed it didn’t really matter. So long as he didn’t screw with anything important, he could sit around in his vacuous state for all Eva cared.

“Alright. This shouldn’t take long,” Eva said as she pressed her magic into the hovering ritual circle of blood.

The effect started immediately. A faint glow emanated from the lines. The demonic enigma remained unconscious, but started writhing as blood started flowing through the tube. Or whatever filled enigmas’ veins. It didn’t work well with Eva’s blood magic and Devon had mentioned something about it only being superficially similar.

Clasping her hands behind her back, Eva started stalking around the circle. The avatar was as inert as it had been since she had finished the initial ritual. She needed to keep an eye on it. With her at least marginally reversing the process of corrupting it, it might become a little more active. But that wouldn’t be for at least a short amount of time.

No, Eva barely glanced at the large mass of the avatar as she walked past. She stopped in front of the little jar that she had set up to collect the excess essence that the ritual was now removing. The previous ritual hadn’t had the disposal tank despite all of Eva’s treatments requiring it. She was somewhat surprised that the avatar hadn’t exploded after realizing that she had forgotten that little detail. Devon had always warned her to not let him forget about it or she might explode.

Then again, that was Devon. He had probably just been grumping about it for the sake of having something to grumble about.

Everything looked like it was working properly. Black particles of dust and smoke trickled out of the tube and into the crystalline pot. The smoke, looking just like the smoke that made up Void’s avatar, didn’t settle into the bottom of the pot, choosing to swirl around in dark clouds.

Which had Eva wondering if she shouldn’t have put a proper top on it. Nothing was spilling out yet, so she wouldn’t do anything that might potentially interfere with the ritual until something actually went wrong.

“Now,” Eva said, “while this finishes, we need to prepare to send this hunk of flesh back to its master.”

“Another ritual?”

“Actually no.”

“No?” Catherine blinked, genuinely surprised. “You’re not going to toss it up there,” she said, pointing towards the portals overhead.

“My arms are a little stretchy at the moment.” As demonstration, she enlarged her hand until the fingers could wrap around her entire waist. “However, I think those portals are a bit higher than I could reach.”

“I’m sure we could work out some magical propulsion to launch it up there.”

“As amusing as a brain rocket ship would be, there’s already a plan in place. Something that should seal the deal and ensure that Life cannot recover. At least not anytime soon.”

“And is sealing the deal also going to seal the portals overhead?”

“Nope! Devon has actually been working on that. Though he’s supposed to be waiting for me to get rid of this avatar. If I finish, you might need to go tell him that he can start should he not clue in. I directed him to the infirmary.”

“Devon? I didn’t bring the ritual up with him after he dismissed it. You told him more? I thought he wanted no part of any of this,” she paused, frowning towards Eva for a moment. “Or perhaps I figured that he would tie you down in the solitary confinement building if he heard you were actually working on the ritual.”

“I’m sure he would have. Had he known.” Eva shot her a quick grin before double-checking on the status of the ritual. As she ensured that the swirling clouds of black smoke within the pot were not spilling out, she continued speaking. “Devon saw what was going on and developed a solution. All within the last few hours.” Or so Void had said before releasing Eva so that she could use her beacon to get back to Earth.

It took Catherine a few moments to respond. Her eyebrows knitted into a scowl as she thought. “Without knowing anything about what was going on?”

“Nothing more than what you told him and what he observed from the prison.”

Which only sent Catherine’s scowl deeper into fury. Eva had to wonder whether Catherine could have done the same. Probably. In the same amount of time? Maybe. Judging by her furrowed brow, she was rapidly trying to put together her own solution to sealing the portals overhead.

Eva left the jar for a moment, moving back around to the opposite side. The demonic enigma was actually shriveling up. Its skin looked more like that of a raisin than a proper living being. Not even old people on their deathbeds looked quite so bad.

Was it because of all the organs she had stuffed inside without care or order? Or was it because it was an enigma and, while it wouldn’t die, it had far slower regeneration than demons did. How much blood had Arachne lost during Eva’s treatments? She must have regenerated at a rapid rate to keep from dying and being sucked into a Hell portal.

At the same time, she could still see blood traveling through the tube and into the avatar. Until it ran completely dry, Eva would try not to worry too much. Besides, the ritual was actually nearly finished. The demonic enigma still had a decent amount of blood left. It should be enough for another few minutes.

“Do you need me here?”

“I would prefer some help here. If something goes wrong, I’d like second opinions,” Eva said, turning towards Catherine. She paused as her line of sight passed by Srey who was facing Eva’s direction with his head bowed. Not really in respect. He kept rubbing his forehead like he had a headache. “I don’t think Srey would be up to helping much.”

She finished turning to Catherine and put on a wide grin. “You’ll just have to restrain your curiosity as to what Devon came up with. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll show you. Unless, of course, he thinks that this is all your mess since you were the one to show him the ritual.”

Catherine, straightening her back and looking down on Eva with half-lidded eyes, put on an evil smile. “I am not above throwing you under the bus, so to speak.”

“Do as you will,” Eva said, walking back to the jar. When the ritual finished, she wanted to watch and ensure that nothing went wrong on that front. “I don’t think Devon will get too upset with me. Not unless he decides that his experiment has transformed too much from his original plans.” As she said so, she glanced down at her hands. They weren’t so different from Arachne’s limbs. In fact, they were probably better. No outside demonic influence to mess with Devon’s plans. Just blood magic.

Demonic blood magic rather than bloodstone-based, but it functioned nearly the same as far as Eva could tell.

Magic draining from the circle pulled her attention back to the jar. The ritual was winding down. Only a little left. The avatar still hadn’t moved, so she didn’t even need to worry about that.

She watched the jar until the very last trickles of avatar essence dripped out from her blood tube. The moment the dripping finished and the ritual shut off, a Hell portal opened beneath the jar. The entire thing, essence and all, disappeared within.

A small sigh escaped her lips. Hopefully that was enough.

“What was that?”

“Oh nothing. More importantly, time to get rid of this thing.”

As she walked up to the avatar, she coated the demonic enigma with blood, ensuring that it couldn’t move in the slightest. She didn’t detonate the shriveled husk just yet. It might still have uses. If only for Lynn’s research. She just crystallized the blood around it.

“Alright,” Eva said, turning her hands into long blades twice the length of her arms. “So long as everything goes well, make sure that Devon starts his ritual.”

“What about you?”

Eva turned her head over her shoulder to grin at Catherine as she built up magic inside her for a teleport. “Well, I’ll stop by if I can.”

Without any further delay, she plunged her arms into the avatar.

“Was that supposed to do something?” Catherine asked after a moment of absolutely nothing happening.

“Just… hold on a second. This thing is gigantic. I’ve never teleported with something so big. Usually only another person-sized thing.” As she spoke, she felt her magic hit the threshold. Without any chance to resolve the moment of awkwardness, Eva and the avatar vanished into the infernal teleportation.

Just as usual, the tunnel of flesh and screams surrounded Eva, squeezing her and the avatar ever closer to the prison gate.

But this time, Eva did something a little different.

She let go. She pulled her hands back to her sides, separating her from the avatar. With a slight kick of her foot, she sent the egg-shaped blob of meat off into the walls of flesh. It tumbled, falling into pieces from the force of their speed until it finally vanished beneath and into the walls.

Unfortunately, Newton’s laws apparently worked within the semi-alternate dimension of the teleport tunnel. Eva spread the blood of her limbs out into wide parasols in an attempt to slow her steady glide in the opposite direction. It must have worked a little, but not enough. She barely got to watch the avatar be torn to shreds before she crashed into the opposite wall.

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008.001

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“How is she?”

Nurse Post blinked as she looked up from a clipboard in her hands. A number of graphs and charts covered the topmost paper.

Even if Eva had been standing at a proper angle to clearly see the papers, she doubted that she would understand most of it. A squiggly line here. A flat one there. Tons of words that were shorthand for something. One really had to be in the medical profession to understand any of it.

Which was why she had asked.

Rubbing her temple, Nurse Post shook her head with a sigh. “No change. Martina is still unconscious. We’re going to transfer her to a separate facility next week, one with better facilities to take care of her body and hopefully better facilities to wake her up.”

“I see,” Eva said, putting a thumb to her chin in thought.

A full month after the demon hunters attacked and Martina was still in a comatose state. Every day that passed was another day that Eva considered carrying out Catherine’s favor. And every day, it was slowly getting easier to stomach the idea. It was looking more and more like Martina was already dead. Her body just didn’t know it yet.

It was somewhat odd. Eva hadn’t blinked an eye when she had killed a group of criminals down in Florida. She hadn’t lost sleep over it or even thought about it much after the fact. They were far from the first people she had killed as well.

But Martina… she knew Martina. Eva couldn’t say that she liked her. At the same time, she didn’t really hate her. Worse, killing her while she was unconscious just felt wrong in general. She should at least get a fair fight for her chance to continue living.

Unless, as Eva suspected, she was already dead.

“Any reason you’re not moving her sooner? Or at some point last month?”

“Moving her has to be delicately handled. I and some other doctors who I have spoken with are concerned about shocks to her body. It’s taken a while to arrange smooth transportation.”

“You can’t have Zoe teleport her or something?”

“Don’t know what effects teleporting might have on her,” Nurse Post said with a shrug.

Eva nodded. That made perfect sense to her. She would be the first to admit that Zoe’s teleportation wasn’t suited to demons. Given the sulfur scent left behind on the rare occasions when Martina teleported, she likely used the same method that Eva did. Something that was not kind to regular mortals, even if her familiar contract with Catherine kept her safe from the worst effects.

“In your professional opinion, how would you rate her chances of recovering with the help of this other hospital?”

Nurse Post frowned. Uncrossing her legs, she pushed away from her desk and walked to the side room where Martina was sleeping. She crossed her arms as she leaned against the door frame and peeked in through the window, not opening the door.

Eva followed her up. Being aware that most people who didn’t interact with her on a daily basis found her presence to be at least somewhat off-putting, she kept a short distance. Though, she had noticed that Nurse Post had never shown any real aversion to Eva.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe there is much hope. Not after a full month. Had she woken up even for a few moments at any point, I would have said that there was a chance. As it is?” She shook her head.

“That’s… unfortunate. No potions or magical treatment that might help?”

“Not that I know of. Everything that I thought might work has either been tried or been dismissed as potentially causing a worsening in her situation. The specialists we’re taking her to might know more—I’ll freely say that this is a bit out of my area of expertise. I’m a school nurse, not a brain surgeon. Most of what I’ve tried has been based off the consultation of other professionals.”

Eva sighed and backed away from the room, but paused as she peeked in the window of the room next to it.

There was a bed in the room, but no one in it. That wasn’t to say that the room was unoccupied. A pile of tentacles sat in one corner of the room, slowly twisting and turning the tendrils in the air.

“How is Lucy doing these days?”

Nurse Post moved over to stand just at Eva’s side.

“Again,” she said, “Lucy is a bit outside of what I studied in school. She seems energetic.” The nurse paused as she glanced into the room. “Well, not right now. When she does that seaweed drifting in water act, I think that is her sleeping.”

“And is that a raw steak I see in there?” Eva said, pointing towards a plate on the bedside table. A small plate held a chunk of blood-red meat.

“She hasn’t eaten anything that I’ve put in there for her. I first tried cooked meat, vegetables, fruits, and the like. She still hasn’t eaten as far as I can tell. Despite not eating, she is slowly growing in size.”

“Not as fast as I had expected,” Eva said softly. Arachne could heal an entire limb in a week or two. She had figured that Lucy would be back up and running in a similar amount of time.

When she thought about it more, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Lucy had lost a good portion of her entire body mass. And, if she went by the Arachne metric, Lucy had lost several hundred more limbs than Arachne ever lost at once. Each limb was much thinner than Arachne’s arm, but much longer.

Not to mention, she had lost them to a magical circle constructed by demon hunters. If anyone had a way to stunt demonic healing, it would be hunters. If the room hadn’t been mostly destroyed, she could have asked Devon about the circles. Unfortunately, the time for that had long been lost.

“I wouldn’t worry about feeding her. I don’t have much hunger these days. My eating is almost purely driven by memories and the taste. Arachne hasn’t ever eaten much in my presence either.”

“Doesn’t make much sense. I don’t know how demons can function without fuel. To say nothing of how you can heal on your own.”

“Magic,” Eva said with a shrug.

With a weak chuckle, Nurse Post went back to her desk and retook her seat. “I should have known.”

“So no forming into a person at all? Or even enough to talk?”

“Not that I’ve seen. I do admit that I haven’t spent all that much time inside Lucy’s room.” Nurse Post shifted, crossing one leg over the other. “There is something a little unnerving about Lucy. I try to remain professional, but…”

Eva waved a hand as the nurse trailed off, suppressing a shudder at the same time. “Oh, don’t worry. I feel the same.”

Not so much about Lucy herself. Tentacles could be creepy, but Eva felt relatively used to them. A good number of demons had tentacles. After seeing her domain, Eva had second thoughts about the whole ordeal. Lucy’s domain was disturbing. There was simply no other word for it. Every time she thought about it, she got slight shivers.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I’ve got to run. I’ll check in again. Maybe just before Martina leaves.”

“I’m sure she would appreciate that.”

With a parting wave, Eva stepped out of the room.

Right into Arachne’s waiting arms.

“No blood on your hands?”

Eva shook her head. “Not this time.”

“The succubus will be irritated.”

“Let her be. Even if Martina can’t recover, I won’t be doing anything here. Not under the Nurse’s nose. It will be at least a week.”

Arachne curled her fingers in the air as they walked down the hallways of Brakket Academy. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll keep her away from you if she grows violent.”

Eva reached over and took hold of one of Arachne’s hands. She leaned just a little closer. “Thanks,” she said softly.

As the summer went on, Brakket Academy was slowly coming back to life. A surprising number of students were actually returning. Mostly in the top two years of school—they were probably thinking that they could tough out one more year. However, there had been a marginal decline in student population among the earlier years. Apparently the new first years numbered less than fifteen. Not a particularly good number.

Eva was hoping that the older students were right about nothing too dangerous going on this year.

Maybe next year would be better so long as this year went well. It would be a good thing if nothing happened.

Apart from Arachne’s mission. Eva still hadn’t talked with her about that little issue.

She really didn’t want to. Things were peaceful at the moment and Eva didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

“It’s nice,” she said as a student passed by them in the hallway. He gave them their room, but otherwise didn’t so much as blink at Arachne. Eva might have expected that of someone from the diablery class, but she didn’t recognize this particular student.

“It’s nice,” she repeated. “Here we are, walking side by side in broad daylight. No one even cares.”

“And after all the pains I went through to hide around here the first year and a half,” Arachne grumbled. She left her mouth in a half-open grimace.

“Oh don’t be like that. If we would have walked around like this my first year, everyone would have freaked out.”

“Then why now?”

“Well, first, general people probably don’t know what you are. We have a zoo out there,” Eva said as she gave a vague gesture off towards the Infinite Courtyard. “It’s full of strange creatures. But that alone wouldn’t be enough to prevent panic.

“The fact is that enough crazy things have gone on around Brakket that you walking around just isn’t that strange anymore. Especially when you’re walking around without being too menacing. And you’re walking with me. Most people are at least vaguely aware of me because… well…” Eva waved a hand around. “Given that you look like me and people haven’t known me to be dangerous, they assume that you aren’t either. Despite what you look like.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Depends. Is being scary to most mortals a compliment?”

Arachne tilted her chin up, preening. “I suppose it is.”

“You have to admit, this is much better than hiding under my shirt in your spider form.”

“There is more room out here,” she allowed slowly, stretching out an arm as she arched her back. “There are a few advantages to being more discrete.”

Eva pushed open the doors leading out of Brakket Academy, stepping out into the warm summer sunshine. The air was still for the most part, but every once in a while, a light breeze came by and ruined the warm temperature.

There wasn’t a trace of the battle left behind. Every brick glowed underneath the cloudless sky as if they had been individually waxed. What once had been an empty plaza between the dormitory buildings now held a large fountain. Benches encircled the fountain along with several beds of flowers. It was almost more like a grassless park than a plaza now.

To go along with the new park, both dormitory buildings had received a fresh paint job. Eva had attended Brakket Academy for two full years and she had no idea whether or not there were school colors. If there were, she hadn’t a clue what they were. However, the dormitory buildings were decked out almost like bees. They had a dark gray base with golden highlights around windows and doors.

The main school building hadn’t been painted over. Most of it was red brick, but it had been pressure washed. The windows had all been cleaned. It might be scheduled for a paint job, but Eva hadn’t bothered asking anyone.

One thing was certain, whatever the new dean had planned for this year, he wanted to make an impression.

Eva had heard rumors about some sort of contest or tournament, but she hadn’t paid much attention. They were merely rumors. And that was assuming that Eva even wanted to participate in it.

Probably not. She had enough on her plate with Arachne’s mission.

Letting go of Arachne’s hand, Eva skipped forwards a few steps. “Juliana!” she said as she waved an arm through the air.

A certain blond-haired woman was wheeling a wheelchair down the sidewalk towards Brakket Academy.

“And Genoa,” Eva added with a nod towards the woman actually sitting in the wheelchair.

She was looking well. Eva couldn’t see her legs with her eyes as Genoa had her lower half hidden by a quilted blanket, but they had definitely atrophied at least a small amount. Her arms might not be quite the tree trunks that Eva remembered and her cheeks might be a hair towards the gaunt side, but given that she had been sitting or bedridden for months, that was to be expected. Her eyes still held tight to the vibrant life that Eva had seen in them during some of her spars with Arachne.

Those eyes passed over Eva to stare at the spider-demon.

“Juliana told me what you said.”

Arachne stepped forward, moving up to Eva’s side. “I’d like to apologize.”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Genoa said, rubbing her chest just beneath her breast. “You did what you thought might get you out of there. I just have one thing to ask. When I get back on my feet, we’re going to fight again. No one else for distractions. No holds barred.”

“To the death?”

One corner of Genoa’s lips curled upwards. “I don’t intend to lose.”

“Mom!” Juliana smacked the back of Genoa’s head. Lightly, but hard enough to wipe the smile off the older woman’s face. “Just accept her apology and move on. Dad would kill you if you got hurt again.”

“Oh please,” Genoa said with a chuckle. “This little hole in my chest is hardly the worst I’ve had. That giant scar across my stomach and chest? I was almost chopped clean in half once. As long as Arachne’s limbs aren’t cursed, I’ll recover.”

“Unless you die!”

“Such little faith you have in your mother,” Genoa said, shaking her head and sparing no exaggeration in doing so. “I’ll be fine. You just watch.”

“I’ll be too busy covering my eyes…” Juliana trailed off as she put her palm to her forehead.

Eva just looked between the two of them, partially in disbelief. Neither one appeared to be taking Genoa’s desire to fight seriously. Glancing towards Arachne, Eva found the spider-demon to be just as confused as she was.

Head tilted to one side, Arachne had her mouth turned downwards in a confused frown. Much of her expression was difficult to tell precisely—a good portion of her face was made up of hard chitin with only the area around her mouth having plates that could slide over each other to form expressions. Eva knew her well enough to feel her confusion.

Catching Arachne’s eye, Eva gave a twitch of her head. Just a hair of a shake.

But enough to get the message across.

Whatever ended up happening, Arachne wasn’t allowed to kill Genoa without exceptionally good reason.

“I’m sure it will be entertaining, no matter what,” Eva eventually said, keeping her tone of voice flat. There was no need to agitate matters by arguing against their little duel.

So long as it went similar to their earlier spars—no real winners—Eva couldn’t care less.

Juliana snapped her eyes up, meeting Eva’s. Her eyes took on a thoughtful look for just a moment before nodding her head.

“It would be entertaining. A spectacular spectacle. We could sell tickets.” She paused just long enough to glare at Arachne and her mother, though Genoa couldn’t see while sitting in the wheelchair. “As long as you two don’t try to kill each other.” She punctuated each word with a tap of her finger on Genoa’s head.

With a great sigh, Juliana slumped her shoulders. “Anyway,” she said, drawing out the word as far as it would go. Looking back to Eva, she said, “What are you two doing out here? Out for a walk? That’s what we’re doing. A little breath of fresh air away from the men of the house.”

“Just came back from the infirmary. Visiting the long-term residents.”

“Ah. Any changes?”

Eva shook her head. “None. Martina is…” Trailing off, Eva leaned to one side, looking past Juliana and her mother.

A man was walking up the road towards Brakket Academy—straight towards Eva and the others. Eva had noticed him through her blood sight, but hadn’t thought much of it until she actually caught a glimpse of him over the top of Juliana’s head.

Walking with a slight limp, the man used a cane. It tapped into the ground with every other step. His hair came to a tight widow’s peak, from there it swept back over his head. Not like it was combed back, but more like he had just run his fingers through his hair a few times after hopping out of the shower.

His face was somewhat flat and wide, giving him a boxy appearance. Lips pressed into a thin, wide line, he didn’t react in the slightest as Eva met his eyes.

Something that had Eva instantly on guard.

Pulling out her dagger, Eva uncorked two vials of Arachne’s blood—and isn’t it nice to have Arachne’s blood again—and readied herself for fighting.

Both Arachne and Juliana noticed Eva’s actions. The former tensing her muscles, preparing to spring into combat the very moment that Eva moved. For Juliana, silvery metal flowed up around her neck and down her arms. One arm kept going, stretching out into a short sword.

Genoa didn’t miss the tension either. She reached under her blanket and withdrew a thin golden wand. It wasn’t the focus that Eva had seen her use in the past—that had been rings—but she wasn’t wearing more than a wedding ring at the moment.

Despite two orbs of blood hovering around in front of Eva, the man didn’t slow his off-beat stride.

Which only made Eva more nervous. People who acted strong typically were.

Unless they were suicidal. Eva hadn’t met too many in that second category.

Turning her wheelchair around on her own, Genoa actually set her wand down.

“Wally?” she said as the man approached.

“Genoa. Good to see you out and around.” He looked over her shoulder, looking over Eva and Arachne. “I’m not so sure about the company you keep.”

“They’re–”

“I know who they are. Their appearances were described to me when Mr. Anderson called. I have to say, his proposal to enter children into a contest meant for class three mages on the verge of graduating is intriguing yet equally disturbing. I was unaware that you were a part of it.”

“I’m not.” Genoa glanced up and over her shoulder. “I’m just here to keep an eye on my daughter. She finds herself in an uncanny amount of trouble around here.”

Flicking his eyes from Genoa to Arachne, he gave a slow nod of his head. “Indeed.”

Eva still hadn’t put away her blood or her dagger. Just because Genoa seemed to be friendly with him didn’t mean that he wasn’t looking for an opportunity to attack. In fact, it was all the more likely. Genoa had to know some dangerous people.

Genoa seemed to sense the tension at least. She took in a sharp breath before speaking. “Oh, this is Wallace Redford, current director of the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights.” She turned back to face the guild leader. “You said that Governor Anderson called you in?”

“Quite so.” Wallace took a step forward, looking Arachne up and down before shifting his focus to Eva. “He’s asked me to oversee his little experiment. I can’t say that I am enthused with the prospect. Turning children into monsters?” He turned to Genoa. “I’m surprised to find you supporting this. I’m further surprised to find no bounties filed against anyone involved in this mess.”

Eva cleared her throat before Genoa could speak. “I’m not a monster. And I don’t know what Anderson has planned, but he never touched me. I’ve barely said five words to the man.”

He blinked, drawing the lines of his face down as his mouth twisted into a frown. “I think… that I had better have a word with Mr. Anderson.”

“I think we should come with you,” Genoa said, voice hard. “If he is making children into monsters…” She trailed off with a glance towards her daughter.

“Wheelchair bound or not, I shall vehemently oppose.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.021

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“Well that… that… that just rains on my parade!”

Clement pulled the binoculars away from his face to glance towards his partner. Gertrude was leaning half over the edge of the roof with the visor from his armor pressed against her eyes. Her mouth was twisted into a pout.

With a gentle hand, Clement pulled her back. She wouldn’t die from the fall. They were on top of some sort of dancing club for the students to waste time in, it was only a few stories high. The idea that she would even be injured was laughable. Still, he didn’t want to jump down after her. Neither did he care to wait around with their guest until she climbed back up.

Once sure that she wasn’t a stiff breeze away from falling, Clement brought his binoculars back up.

It wasn’t the best view. The roof of the club was a bit lower than the floor of their apartment. He could still see most of the room. Better yet, he could see the demons through the walls. Just faint outlines, enough to track them. A similar enchantment was on his visor, though of slightly higher quality.

Though there wasn’t much to see anymore with the naked eye. Before he had put his binoculars down to deal with Gertrude, the demon that they had captured had already been in the process of being carried out of the room. The only thing he could still see was their original target, the hel. She stood, gazing around the room with eyes as dead as a soulless corpse.

At first glance, she was a beautiful woman. Long hair, regal features, smooth skin. She had everything needed for a classical sort of beauty. But that all disappeared the longer he looked. The iced over lips, skin too smooth, dark veins barely visible underneath her skin, and her lifeless eyes. All of it added together to give the hel an unnerving quality.

Clement jumped back, jerking away from his binoculars.

She had stepped towards the window. In doing so, she had put most of her body into the early morning sunlight.

Watching her skin vanish as if a bucket of paint thinner had been dumped over a sheet of freshly painted glass was the worst. Clement had seen skeletons before. They didn’t bother him. But this hel… there was intelligence behind those empty sockets that just shouldn’t be.

With a shake of his head, he pressed the binoculars back to his eyes. This time, he angled towards a movement at a street-level door. Faint outlines were near the door.

The girl, the one who had been first on the scene and had broken the seals on the door, walked out of a side entrance. Her bright red eyes glanced around, but didn’t spot anything suspicious. With a wave of her hand, she gestured to her companion.

Some person wearing a poor imitation of his armor followed her out. Between the two of them, they had a bundle of blankets.

It didn’t take many guesses to figure out what was squirming around inside. It took even less guesses when a few tentacles slipped out into the air.

Clement reached back. His armored hand curled around the hilt of his sword.

“Shall we intercept?”

Gertrude hummed. Then she hawed. She hummed some more while running her fingers through her red hair.

With a frown, Clement released his sword. If she was pretending to think about it, the answer was no. Gertrude often came to quick, near instant decisions. Her current actions were just for her own amusement.

“Nope,” she said after a few more indecisive scratches of her head. “We could end the tentacle monster easily enough. Possibly the girl as well. We just don’t know enough about her at the moment to say for certain. Somehow, she learned of the tentacle demon’s presence and ruined everything. How?”

Clement did not respond. He had no insights to offer. Gertrude was the magic specialist. He couldn’t create even a small spark if his life depended on it. Luckily, with the armor that she had made for him, his life never depended on his magical abilities.

Merely his swordsmanship.

“Besides,” Gertrude said with a nod towards the apartment window, “the hel is still watching. Fun as it might be, we’ll get her attention and possibly attract every other demon in the area. I don’t think the girl is any kind of big shot, but there is a reason we tried to trap the Hel instead of fighting.”

“We could–” Clement cut himself off with a frown. The hel was powerful, true. Not so powerful that a well placed swing of an enchanted sword couldn’t lop her head right off. With both him and Gertrude, he doubted that she would have much of a chance.

If other demons joined in, even if only as distractions to him and Gertrude, that slight chance grew immensely. It was why they had gone with the trap plan in the first place.

And that was assuming that the devil stayed content to merely watch.

There was a tingle going up Clement’s spine. Some small shiver as if he were being watched. Glancing around, he couldn’t see anything that might be the source.

The hel and everyone else at the apartment building were too far away. It couldn’t be them. There was a reason that he was using binoculars. Of course, someone there might have enhanced vision. Peeking through his binoculars again, he couldn’t find anyone looking in his direction.

Every time he thought of the devil, he felt the hairs on his neck rise up.

It was that devil. It had to be. The only question was whether or not the devil was actually causing the sensation. It was entirely possible that everything was all in his head.

Gertrude never felt anything. He had asked. She was certain that whatever magic she was doing was enough to keep them off the devil’s radar. It worked for the rest of the demons. No one really noticed them while wandering around. So far, he hadn’t seen any sign that the devil actually was watching them. As far as he knew, it was working.

Glancing around, Clement still couldn’t shake that feeling of being watched.

Gertrude paid no mind to his unease. She spun around with a bright smile on her face before resting against the raised lip of the building’s roof. “Anyway, all is not lost. We’ll just have to modify our plan for the other one. It wouldn’t be good to face them all at once. Besides, with him around, we can try trapping the hel again.”

Clement turned to face their guest. He couldn’t see anything. Morail were annoying like that. There was no doubt that the demon was trapped within the shackles on the roof. They had been hastily constructed, but they were no less effective. Even better, they were suppressing his demonic aura. None of the other demons should be able to sense him.

Of course, that hadn’t helped with the girl. As Gertrude had said, she had found out somehow. She hadn’t been concerned going into the apartment complex. Clement could guess that there was some range limitation on whatever ability she had. If not, then this morail would already be known to them.

Since they weren’t under attack, no one knew.

“They’ll be wary if we try the same trick again, Gertrude.”

“Ha! They’ll be wary no matter what we do. Still, just need to draw them out to where we’ll have the advantage. Otherwise…” Gertrude trailed off, rubbing a finger over the ring on her hand. “Well, we might just have to straight up fight them. No tricks or traps. But that’s for later.”

“And where will we try again? Not the original location?”

Gertrude’s smile grew ever so slightly. “Pack him up,” she said with a nod towards the apparently empty set of shackles. “Tight. Compact. I doubt he’ll need limbs. Then meet me at that little gas station on the edge of town, right near the highway.”

With that said, she pushed back with the tips of her toes, falling over the edge of the roof backwards.

Clement didn’t bother with checking over the edge. She would be fine.

Instead, he gripped his sword, hefting if off its mount and readying it in front of him.

And he paused. Gertrude wanted his limbs off, but the rest of the demon should probably be intact. Somewhat of a difficult prospect while his target was invisible.

She had taken his visor as well.

With a frown, he brought the binoculars up to his eyes. It was dizzying to look at something so close, but he could see a thick outline around the demon through the lenses.

It would be hard to aim. One of his hands had to keep the binoculars pressed to his face.

Oh well, he thought as he started his advance, it might be a bit messier than otherwise.

— — —

Eva and Juliana set Lucy down on a bed in one of the Brakket Academy infirmary rooms. They hadn’t known what else to do with her. At least not before talking with Martina Turner.

Nurse Post stood to the side, watching with a frown on her face. “You know,” she said, “I remember a time when it would be seen as odd to walk into the infirmary with a bundle of tentacles. I don’t even know where to begin with treatment.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, you probably won’t have to treat her. She’ll heal on her own over time.”

Nurse Post made a face. It was a bit hard to see behind her surgical mask and gauze covering one eye. The blood behind the coverings didn’t lie. Her lips were twisted into a grimace and her nose had wrinkled.

Eva wasn’t sure why she felt the need to don a surgical mask. Maybe she thought that she would be operating on Lucy.

Upon seeing her when first entering the nurse’s office, Eva actually had to do a double-take. Both Nurse Post and the woman who had likely kidnapped Lucy had eye patches. It was such an unusual trait that Eva’s eye had been drawn to it first while her mind jumped to conclusions.

Stupid conclusions. Nurse Post had much darker hair. The woman’s was red. Their facial structure was different. Nurse Post lacked that somewhat disturbing smile as well.

“She?” the nurse asked, face still wrinkled in a mixture of confusion and discomfort.

“Oh. Right.” Eva rested a hand on the bed near Lucy. “Meet Lucy. The security guard,” she added when Nurse Post failed to show any recognition. “This is what she looks like when not doing her poor impression of a human.”

Narrowing her eye ever so slightly, Nurse Post said, “that should surprise me. Somehow, it doesn’t.” She sighed as she shook her head. “She and the other specialist went missing. Shall I prepare to receive another wad of tentacles?”

“Oh no. Daru looks like a human for real. Lucy is something of a special case.” Eva paused for just a moment before continuing in a more somber tone of voice. “Also, we haven’t found him yet. I don’t even know if he is still… around.”

Something of a depressing silence fell over the group, only to be broken by Lucy knocking a tissue box off a table next to the bed.

Eva turned to find Lucy squirming a whole lot more than she had been just a moment ago.

Figuring that there was no harm in asking, Eva said, “I don’t suppose you know where Daru is?”

The thrashing tentacles stilled. Eva took that for a negative, but that was mostly a guess.

As Eva watched, Lucy started trying something. Her few remaining tentacles were winding around each other. Lips, or something vaguely resembling them, started to form as the tentacles tightened together. Unfortunately, as she tried to form a throat and some lungs, the lips started to come unwound.

Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t form enough of a face to speak while still having lungs to draw in air needed to create the sound of words.

So much of her body was missing that she couldn’t even put together half of a head to speak. It was amazing that she was still alive at all. Decentralized nervous and circulatory systems were awe inducing.

Eva grimaced at the sight. Absently, she noted Juliana glancing off to the side while trying to not look like she was disturbed. Nurse Post placed a hand over her masked mouth after gasping.

“Alright stop,” Eva said, placing her hands over Lucy. “You’re not helping. If you could write, that might work better.”

The tentacles ceased their formations of various organs, instead just flopping out onto the bed. Eva, once again, took that as a no.

“Just focus on getting better.” Turning back to Nurse Post, Eva said, “you should know that she was taken by demon hunters. They might not be so excited that she got away.”

“So you bring her to a school?”

Eva shrugged. “Summer time. School is out. Most students aren’t even back for the summer seminars yet. If they come back at all. Besides, I can feel Zagan nearby. I doubt that they’ll come here. Still, something to be aware of.”

“And if they do come back?”

“Hide. Let them take Lucy. She won’t die even if they kill her. You will.”

There was a bit of squirming from Lucy at Eva’s suggestion, but Eva paid it no mind. A thought entered her mind about whether or not her statement was true.

“I think, anyway,” Eva said. “The red eyes throw me off, are you a demon or are you not?”

Eva couldn’t sense anything from her. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Zagan was nearby. Probably just down the hall in Martina Turner’s office. With him so close, Eva could barely feel Lucy and they were just about touching. Inexperienced in her ability to detect demons, it was entirely possible that one she hadn’t known about would slip through.

“I’m not a demon.”

“Then leave her to the hunters.”

If she caught wind of the hunters coming after Lucy again, Eva would jump in without hesitation. Asking the same of a school nurse was not really something that she could do. She was counting on the fact that Zagan was fairly intimidating when he wanted to be.

“Now,” Eva said, “I don’t supposed you know if Martina Turner is around?”

“Last I heard, she was in her office.”

With Zagan, Eva thought with a nod of her head. “Right.” She glanced back towards Juliana. “Coming along?”

“I–Yeah.”

As they headed out into the hallway, Juliana let out a long sigh.

“Figures,” she said, “I’m back and in less than half a day, big things are going on.”

“I imagine your little vacation wasn’t quite so eventful,” Eva said with a chuckle.

“Not really. Aside from Zagan showing up, about the only interesting thing was watching this town on the news.”

“About the sky?”

Juliana glanced around the empty hallway. “I know it isn’t some agricultural thing,” she said in a low voice. “What is it?”

Eva shrugged. Juliana had been there when Zagan had explained about the situation with Hell. Of course, her mother had a hole in her chest at the time, but Eva was fairly certain that she had heard enough to get the gist of it. As such, she didn’t feel a need to explain all that.

“Don’t know for sure. The idea that Wayne, Zoe, Devon, and Ylva came up with is that it is some form of attack on Void. It and the enigmas–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “The creatures that your dad came to inspect are the enigmas. I can’t remember if they had their name when you were here last. The idea is that they’re designed to weaken the barriers between the mortal realm and Void. Whether the sky is the cause or a side effect is still up for debate.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“I try not to worry about it.”

“That seems…. irresponsible.”

“It’s sort of like knowing that a meteor is careening towards the Earth. What am I really supposed to do about it? Devon and Zagan don’t seem particularly worried. Devon is a coward as well. If he isn’t running around like a chicken without a head, I don’t know why I would.

“I prefer to focus my energies on things that I can actually affect. Sawyer, for instance. These demon hunters for another.”

Juliana made a small humming noise. Not really one of agreement or derision, just of acknowledgment.

Inside the main office area, Eva paused with a frown on her face.

Catherine’s desk was empty.

She could sense her somewhere. That probably meant that the demon hunters didn’t have her. But she wasn’t nearby. At least, she wasn’t inside Martina Turner’s office. Zagan was. Now that Eva was closer, she could sense someone else inside as well. A demon that Eva found familiar, but couldn’t quite place. It was probably her imagination. She hadn’t run into very many demons since her latest treatment anyway.

With no one around to wave her into the dean’s office, Eva pushed open the door without hesitation.

“–can’t allow them to–”

Martina’s voice cut off as soon as the door opened. She turned away from Governor Anderson to glare at the interruption. As soon as she saw who it was, her face twisted. As if she couldn’t decide whether to soften her features or to glare harder.

For his part, Anderson merely turned to regard Eva with a raised eyebrow.

Zagan was leaning against the wall just to the side of the door. His golden eyes were already staring at Eva as she entered, obviously expecting her. He hadn’t needed to turn his head.

One of his hands was fiddling with the cufflinks on his other wrist. His hands dropped to his sides as he spotted who was behind Eva. His lips split to reveal teeth that a dentist would be hard pressed to find a flaw in.

But Eva paid him no mind. Zagan was a known demon. A devil and a scary one at that, but one that Eva could at least somewhat predict.

Her eyes were drawn over Martina’s shoulder.

The other demon that she had felt was standing there, staring at her.

Eva immediately realized her mistake.

She had seen this demon before.

“Prax?” Juliana said from behind Eva. “What are you doing here?”

The cambion huffed, crossing his beefy arms in front of his bare chest while glancing off to the side.

“What indeed,” Eva murmured with an aside glance towards Zagan.

The devil shrugged his shoulders. “I heard he got loose from his fleshy prison and wanted into the mortal realm. For a time, I considered torture and execution. Now I’ve decided to have him serve out his insult to me by taking over so many of my duties. Marvelous idea, yeah?”

“I only saw him just a few hours ago. He asked to get out of Hell then.”

Just how quickly had Prax been summoned up by Martina? She could understand if Zoe had let slip that Prax was out, but wanting to get out of Hell was another matter entirely. Eva could understand him being able to hear conversations while he wasn’t immediately present. Zoe could do the same through enhancing her hearing beyond human limits.

Even her enhancements didn’t reach Hell.

“Have you been spying on me?” Eva asked.

“Of course I have.”

Eva blinked, not expecting the blunt response.

“I told you before, I have a vested interest in you. A few simple enchantments on your person and…” he trailed off with another shrug and a nod towards Prax.

For just a moment, Eva had half a mind to protest. To demand the removal of whatever enchantments he had applied to her.

Those protests died off when she caught sight of his eyes.

He wasn’t glaring or anything, but Eva couldn’t help the shiver running up her spine.

Ignoring her discomfort, Zagan turned back to his original object of interest. “Juliana,” he said as he reached out a hand to ruffle her hair. “Welcome back.”

She just sat there and allowed him to mess up her blond hair. “Thanks.”

Her voice came out as a whisper as Zagan withdrew his hand.

Eva yearned to ask. Juliana’s earlier request to not talk about Zagan held her tongue. For now.

With a slight shake of her head, Eva turned to face Martina Turner.

“I rescued Lucy.”

“So I’ve heard,” she said, eyes flicking towards Zagan. “No sign of Daru?”

“None. Ylva is convinced that it was a trap for her. I’m inclined to agree.” Eva raised an eyebrow in Zagan’s direction. “Perhaps Daru is intended to be a trap for someone else?”

“A trap for me?” Zagan said with a chuckle. “I’d like to see that. Perhaps I’ll walk into it just to see what happens.”

“Well, I can’t imagine people fighting you in a fair fight. Even if you went as easy on them as you went on Sister Cross.”

“Dammit.” Martina slammed a fist on her desk. “I thought you were keeping these hunters off my back,” she said in a half shout.

“I told you that it wouldn’t last forever,” Anderson said, keeping his voice carefully controlled.

Picking up a large glass off the desk, she downed the dark brown contents in a single swig. A long and harsh sigh escaped her lips as she set the glass back on the desk. “Should have been longer than a handful of months. I expected a year at least. We’re not ready for hunters.”

Eva cleared her throat. Just a light cough before speaking. “You summoned Prax, right? I feel a few others too.”

“Replacements,” Martina said through grit teeth. “With Brakket’s security force decimated, I had to get more in a hurry.”

“There are three of them including Prax?”

“A second morail and a hellhound under his command.”

Eva nodded. The hellhound wouldn’t be sentient, but it made sense that she could sense it. Still, Martina had Catherine, Lucy, Daru, this new morail, a hellhound, and Zagan all contracted to her. The most she had seen Devon summon was three, and that had just been half a year ago or so. Before that, his highest was two at once.

She could only imagine what Devon would say about Martina. Her imagination filled in several uses of the words idiot, menace, and suicidal.

But, it wasn’t her problem. If Martina wanted to surround herself with demons, that was her choice.

Eva just hoped that she had a bag of popcorn nearby when Zagan decided that he didn’t want to take orders anymore.

“Anyway, I think Ylva is wanting to hunt down these hunters. I’m going to help her. Any resources that you could spare would be appreciated, I’m sure.”

Martina went silent for a moment. Her finger ran around the edge of her now empty glass. “Take Prax and Catherine. Zagan will stay at my side. Cereth and the hellhound will remain patrolling around Brakket Academy.”

Eva expected Zagan to stay with Martina. Unless she was far more altruistic than Eva knew her to be, Martina wouldn’t want her strongest asset away from her. Though he could probably kill the hunters in one shot, it would leave her far too vulnerable. The other morail, Cereth, would likely be a backup. Or, he would be sent in to die first while Zagan watched and laughed.

Maybe it was a good thing that Zagan wouldn’t be at her side.

Standing up, Martina placed the palms of her hands against the top of her desk, leaning over. “Get these bastards out of my town.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.008

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The demon’s gaping maw snapped shut mere inches in front of Irene’s face. Inches only because something gripped her arm and pulled.

Irene didn’t stop inches from the demon. The force on her arm kept her going. She flew backward, rolling into a table that had been pushed to the edge of the room.

Pain in her shoulder and upper arm forced her to cry out as she came to a stop. Even through her shirt, Irene could see an unpleasant lump. Her arm wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

Gripping her dislocated shoulder with her other arm, Irene grit her teeth and turned her attention to the scene unfolding before her.

Chaos.

The other students were scrambling around. Some of the older students had their wands out, firing off bolts of electricity or balls of fire at the demon. Others moved to the door, clawing at it in an attempt to escape.

There were still five minutes before the official end of class. Catherine had not unlocked the door yet.

A cynical part of Irene’s mind commented on how much of a fire hazard that was. Catherine could probably unlock it quickly. Unfortunately, she was a little tied up at the moment.

Standing in her fully transformed demonic form, Catherine fought against the demon. She didn’t seem to be doing all that well.

Irene would have thought that an oversized rottweiler would have been easy prey for the succubus.

Catherine had one arm caught in a bundle of tentacles. Her other arm was placed firmly on the demon’s head, trying to keep the tentacles from pulling her arm into its mouth. Her face was twisted into a grimace of frustration.

Behind the demon, the students attacking were not having much effect. Fire washed over the demon’s dark fur without so much as singing. Lightning fared better. Oozing scorch marks appeared around the single spot where lightning had struck.

Since that first bolt connected, the demon had taken to intercepting lightning with some of its spare tentacles. It was somewhat odd to watch it bat away streaks of electricity as if they were physical objects. One tentacle slapped away a bolt, sending it crashing into a desk.

It violated everything Irene knew about electricity–which wasn’t all that much, admittedly.

At least one of the water mages had the good sense to focus on extinguishing the flames that sprung up from the redirected lightning.

With a groan, Irene moved to a sitting position. Even little movements of her arm sent waves of pain flooding through her body.

Still, this was her mistake. She had to at least help fix it.

Pulling her wand from the holster at her side, Irene pointed it towards the summoning circle.

Starting just in front of Catherine’s feet, the ground of the summoning circle started to churn.

It was difficult, concentrating as she was. The pain in her shoulder wasn’t helping matters. Between that, the relatively long distance, and the fact that she was acting on tiled floor–some kind of stone, she wasn’t exactly sure what type–Irene was barely having an effect at all.

She was trying to make pits to latch onto the thing’s legs. It shouldn’t be that difficult. Sure, her final exam the previous year had been manipulating dirt–fairly loose dirt at that, but it was the same basic principle.

Her pits were less hole and more some kind of stone slurry. It was, however, doing something.

Despite Catherine having one arm stuck in place by the tentacles, she was putting up quite the fight.

Anytime the tentacles let up for a moment, to deflect lightning for instance, Catherine capitalized on the moment of weakness. She turned the hand keeping the demon from eating her other hand into a vicious claw aimed straight at the eyes.

Two of the demon’s four eyes were already lying on the floor in small puddles of violet blood.

Her tail wasn’t idle either.

Irene had initially thought that Catherine’s spaded tail was for balance or even decoration. The leathery spade at the tip certainly did not look sharp enough to rend limbs.

Yet that was exactly what it was doing.

The tail darted around almost faster than Irene could follow as if it had a mind of its own. A single cut couldn’t take out an entire tentacle. Each swipe amounted to little more than a shallow cut. The speed is what gave her tail its lethality. A flurry of cuts easily dismembered a snake-like tentacle.

The demon’s tentacles continually tried to interfere. They darted hither and thither, attempting to wrap around and contain Catherine’s tail.

For a brief moment, the demon tried to turn its head back towards the students that were slinging spells.

Catherine reared her own head back before plunging it down into the demon’s head. Her platinum hair went flying around her in a wild mane.

Both of her slightly curved horns came back dripping with violet blood.

With Catherine keeping the demon in one place, it started sinking into the softened ground.

Though nothing changed in her concentration, all four of the demon’s legs disappeared beneath the ground with a loud slurping noise. Its fat belly rested against the tiles, sinking only slightly.

Blinking at the sudden change in the tiles, Irene noted Randal standing nearby. He kept his wand trained on the demon.

No, trained on the ground beneath the demon.

At least someone caught on to what Irene was doing.

Fed up with putting out the small fires around the room, the water mage with burn marks covering her skin started conjuring a large body of water. She managed to rope one of the more panicky students into the task as well.

Before long, a bathtub-sized pool of water hovered over Catherine and the dog-like demon.

Kicking the dog in the face, Catherine swiped her sharp claws and tail straight through the last few tentacles holding on to her arm. She jumped out of the way just as the bathtub of water enveloped the demon.

While the two water mages worked to freeze their water solid, the air mage that had been throwing the largest lightning bolts set to charging up a truly frightening amount of lightning at the tip of his wand.

Steam burst from the watery orb as the most lightning Irene had ever seen outside of a natural storm pierced straight through the demon.

All of the floundering snake-like tentacles seized up. Bubbles of air came from the demon’s mouth as violet blood stained the water.

A moment later and the water froze over. The demon sat within, stilling as the ice froze on the inside as well.

With the demon looking much like an oversized curio jar, the rest of the students started to calm down.

For a moment, there was pure silence.

Well, except for the two remaining students still trying to break down the door.

“You two,” Catherine called out to the students by the door, “do not need to return next class.”

Neither of the two acknowledged her. The locks on the door clicked open as soon as Catherine finished speaking. They both fled from the room without a glance back, shouts and cries fading as they ran down the hall. The noises were cut off as the door swung shut again.

When they were stopped by someone else and asked what was wrong, Irene very much hoped that they would remember the contract that they signed. The consequences of forgetting wouldn’t be pleasant.

Irene had already learned from her actions. Losing her head and fleeing aimlessly was how she ended up nearly dead at the hands of a partial demon just a few months ago. She certainly wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

Brushing back her currently white-blond hair between her horns, Catherine turned in an instant from battle maiden to sultry charmer. The violet blood dripping from her horns and fingers left streaks in her hair. Irene wasn’t quite in the right state of mind to decide whether the blood added to the charm or upped her intimidation factor.

“The rest of you performed adequately. Though Irene,” Catherine said, turning, “should something go obviously wrong again, next time don’t get closer to the circle. I believe that ordeal would have been ended much sooner had my arm not been caught while getting you away.”

Irene grit her teeth. Less because of the admonishment–which she probably deserved–and more because of the increasingly painful ache in her arm. Still, she nodded an acknowledgment at the succubus.

Lightly tapping on the large ball of ice, Catherine frowned. “Now what do we do about–”

“That isn’t an imp,” someone blurted out.

“How very observant of you,” Catherine said as she rolled her eyes. “Yes, this is not an imp.”

Randal took a step forward. “I told her that the circle was inadequate,” he said with a self-righteous tone in his voice.

Catherine shot him a glare. He wilted, taking a step backwards.

“The circle,” Catherine said, “was flawless. Or at least no flaws that would have mattered.”

Irene tried to straighten up at the slight praise and at Randal being shot down, but the pain in her arm ruined that little action. Instead, she looked on as she kept her arm as still as possible.

“I could feel the shackles,” Catherine said. “They might not have kept me in, but they would have given me more pause than they gave our ugly friend here.” She patted the giant ice cube. “And the circle was keyed properly for imps. Nothing else should have been able to come through.”

“Then what is that?” said one of the older students with an exceptionally unnecessary gesture towards the ice.

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

The entire classroom was struck dumb by that single proclamation. A few looked at one another with incredulity.

Irene frowned at the ice ball. Demons had such a variety in appearances and there were so many different ones that she had no clue where to start in identifying the creature.

Humans, for the most part, all had two arms, two legs, a head, and a body connecting it all together. Most humans had hair on their head, two eyes, a nose, a mouth. There were variances in coloring, hair style, muscle mass, and gender dimorphism, but overall, one could look at a photograph and pick out the humans with ease.

Demons weren’t so homogeneous. Arachne had eight eyes, eight legs, and the body of a spider. Catherine had horns, a tail, and wings like a bat. Lucy the security guard had shown up at the previous class and demonstrated her natural form which looked more like a plate of soggy spaghetti than a living thing.

And they all changed. They could turn into something more human-like. Though in Lucy’s case, Irene was having a hard time seeing her as anything but shaped spaghetti noodles since their last class; Lucy’s uncanny appearance just felt so much more pronounced.

There were a few shared traits according to the book. For instance, demons often had red eyes. Not in one hundred percent of cases. If she had a thousand demons in a hat and picked one at random, Irene would put all of her money on it having red eyes.

Irene blinked as she realized another shared trait. One that the book said had no known deviance.

“That thing isn’t a demon.”

“Very astute,” Catherine said as she turned to Irene. “Much more so than whoever said that it wasn’t an imp. What gave it away?”

“Its blood. The book said that demons all had black blood without exception. Purple is not black.”

“Yes, the first and most obvious thing. Well, while it is injured at least. For me, it was that it has no presence. Demons can sense each other to a degree, you see. This thing doesn’t ping my radar in the slightest. Though it does make me somewhat queasy.”

“So what is it?” someone asked.

For a moment, Irene wondered if she shouldn’t be trying to learn her classmates’ names. On one hand, this class felt like the sort of thing anonymity might be good for. On the other, it was kind of rude not to.

“Something that a few experts will have to come look at. For now, we need to ensure it doesn’t get loose. The shackles stopped it for a moment, something I find fairly interesting. I’ll find and drag Eva over here to have her set up some real shackles.”

“You can’t do it yourself?”

“I could.” She glanced up to the clock. “But class is over,” she said with a shrug. “Not really my responsibility now. Though I guess I should do something.” She hummed lightly for a moment before sighing. “Before I find Eva, I’ll pull our illustrious security guards over to keep an eye on it. In the meantime, if whatever water mages we have here could keep the ice from melting, that might be a good idea.”

Catherine stepped away from the ball of ice as one girl stepped up to it with her wand drawn.

The succubus started towards the door.

For a moment, Irene was sure that she had been forgotten. Catherine tossed on a bathrobe before she walked straight up to the door. As she placed her hand on the handle, she started turning back to her human form, ridding herself of her horns and tail as part of the process.

She stopped just short of turning the handle with a glance over her shoulder.

“I suppose you need to be taken to a nurse?”

Irene nodded eagerly. She tried to get to her feet on her own and wound up bumping her shoulder against the leg of a desk. Clamping down on the cry of pain that wanted to escape, Irene grit her teeth.

She didn’t want to give the rest of the class any more reason to think less of her.

A gentle hand gripped Irene’s shoulder–the one that wasn’t dislocated–and helped her to her feet.

Keeping her hand in place, Catherine looked out over the six remaining students in their class. “Anyone else need an escort to the nurse?”

She didn’t even wait for a response before directing Irene to the door.

“In that case, water mages stick around until someone from security shows up. Everyone else do whatever.”

Getting to the infirmary wasn’t much trouble. After stumbling once and bumping her arm against that desk, Irene was extremely grateful that Catherine had come back for her. Having some support helped a lot.

Along the way, they passed by one of the security guards–the elf.

For having been injured enough to require critical attention, he wasn’t looking too bad. Two full months had passed, plenty of time to recover.

Still, his lustrous hair hadn’t quite grown back all the way.

“Daenir,” Catherine snapped.

The elf started at her harsh voice. He blinked once before realizing who was addressing him. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’ve told you before not to call me that.” Catherine didn’t even attempt to disguise her irritation.

“Of course. Sorry ma’am.”

“Call up one of the specialists and get them to room A-43. If they haven’t dropped everything and arrived in five minutes, Zagan will have words. And get out of my sight,” she added almost as an afterthought.

He complied with her first request immediately, pulling out a small cellphone and making the call.

Catherine started walking again before he could leave. She kept Irene in a firm grip as they moved away.

“Excellent,” Catherine said with a grin. “I was worried I would have to hunt one of them down. That’s one task complete. Now to finish up with you and then find Eva.” Mumbling under her breath, she said, “stupid girl needs a cellphone.”

Irene kept silent, though she agreed on that. Jordan and Catherine both had one, so it wasn’t like demons were allergic to the things.

The infirmary was only a quick walk from where they left the security guard. Some students, Irene knew, visited the place every month or so with various injuries. Irene was quite glad that she had avoided childish hallway fights. She didn’t find the idea of catching a lightning bolt in the back very pleasing, even one that tickled no more than a nine-volt battery.

She had only been to the infirmary twice. Once with an injured wrist, thanks to that idiot Drew, and again thanks to her own idiocy in running aimlessly while the Academy was swarming with fake demons.

The second time she had been brought in unconscious.

So when she walked in and the nurse on duty, Nurse Post, turned to her with a knowing smile, Irene was slightly surprised.

“Irene Coggins,” Nurse Post said, “what seems to be the trouble?”

“Her arm,” Catherine said before Irene could open her mouth. “She slipped down a set of stairs.”

“And you brought her in yourself? Why Catherine, you had better watch yourself. It sends the wrong impression. One might think you cared about someone other than yourself.”

“You could say that I’ve taken a special interest in this one.”

Nurse Post blinked. A somewhat odd look with one of her eyes hidden behind a cross-taped gauze patch. Her face blanked for a moment as her single red eye wandered to Irene, looking her up and down.

“But,” Catherine said, “I’ve got things to do. Fix her up.”

She let go of Irene, pushing her into the seat as she moved away. She took one step away.

And paused.

Catherine’s hand reached out, gripping Irene’s good shoulder like a vice. She bent down and leaned in close to Irene.

Too close.

Her lips brushed against Irene’s ear as she spoke.

“Don’t let what happened scare you away. I’ll see you next class.”

Irene blinked and Catherine was gone. The door clicked shut leaving only two occupants in the room.

“Well, that was interesting.”

Irene turned to the nurse with an eyebrow raised.

“But never mind for now. Your arm is dislocated,” she said, eye wandering to the disturbing bulge in Irene’s shoulder. “A simple dislocation. I would say that most of your tissues and nerves are still in place, just shifted. We can pop it back into place without much trouble. It will hurt for a moment with some lingering ache, but should be fine otherwise. Would you like some painkillers?”

Irene didn’t hesitate in her answer. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”

Nurse Post chuckled to herself as she turned to a potion cabinet. “Drink it down quick,” she said as she handed a vial to Irene. “You’ll have general numbness for about an hour. Overkill? Maybe. But we need to move fast before you swell up too much. That creates all kinds of complications.”

The potion tasted a lot like rubber. Flavorless chewing gum in a liquid form. Not very pleasant. Luckily, the numbing dampened Irene’s sense of taste almost immediately. The rest of her body soon followed.

As the potion took effect, Nurse Post laid out a large mat on the floor. She guided Irene over to it and had her lay down on top.

“That potion had a slight muscle relaxant, but I’d still like you to keep as relaxed as possible. I’m going to turn your arm nice and slowly,” she said, taking Irene’s hand into her own.

Placing her other hand at Irene’s elbow to keep it from moving, she started moving Irene’s hand away from her chest.

Every now and again, the muscles in Irene’s shoulder would have a small spasm.

“Sorry,” Irene said after the third time. “I’m trying not to.”

Nurse Post just smiled. “Oh don’t worry, it is expected. Now, we are getting to the point where your shoulder will slide back into position. There might be a light snapping–”

Irene winced, more out of shock than pain, as her arm snapped back to where it was supposed to be. She tried to move it almost immediately.

Nurse Post gripped her arm and held it steady. “Let’s get you a sling before you start moving around. You should keep it on until the inflammation dies down.”

While the nurse moved to find a sling, Irene propped herself up.

“What was all that about Catherine caring?”

“Oh, not much. Dean Turner hired her on last year. She’s attended all the staff meetings and maintains the reception desk. Yet she’s never really interacted with any other staff. It has become something of a running joke among us that the public face of Brakket is so against socializing.

“Of course, that was before I learned a few things that shed some light on the situation,” she said as she pulled a pale blue sling from a drawer. “But that’s neither here nor there. Arm out, carefully if you would.”

She attached the sling around Irene’s arm and neck. “I’d like to keep you here for about the hour it will take for your potion to expire. Your deadened senses could be problematic. You might leave you hand on a burner and not notice. Apart from that, we should make sure your swelling starts subsiding. I can offer you a bed or a desk for homework.”

“No, that’s fine. I have an essay to finish for Professor Carr anyway. Though I need my bag.” Irene pulled out her cellphone intending to call Shelby and have her grab it.

But that would mean explaining how she had become injured in the first place. That was impossible. Catherine had used the excuse about stairs, but even that was embarrassing enough on its own.

“On second thought, I am fairly tired. Perhaps I’ll just take a nap.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.028

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Juliana awoke with a start, eyes stinging as a few droplets of sweat fell.

Another nightmare, she thought, lifting her head from where it rested on her mother’s bed. At least this one had something more than just her mother dying in various horrifying ways. It had been a reminder about something she had forgotten.

Something she couldn’t allow to remain forgotten.

“This is not a long-term care ward.”

The light in the infirmary was set as low as it could possibly go without actually being off. Still plenty bright to see, but it did give contrast to the bright light shining through a crack in Nurse Post’s office door.

“With your wife stabilized, I’m going to have to ask you to move her. We can handle the finer details, but we still need your approval.”

Juliana glanced down at her mother and got the impression of peace. Her sleeping face appeared at rest, compared to the contortion of pain she was in back in Hell. A remarkable state considering her sternum had shattered, several ribs were broken, and several internal organs and blood vessels were raw and fresh.

A machine was hooked up to her chest, acting entirely as her heart. That particular organ would need to be regrown entirely.

And yet, her face was calm as if she were resting on a sunny beach.

Painkillers worked wonders.

“I understand,” Carlos’ voice drifted through the office door. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“Of course. Happy I could help. Now, if you’ll just take a seat, we can go over a few things.”

Juliana tuned them out. It sounded like they would be busy for a while and she didn’t want to disturb them. After scrawling a quick note on a tablet on the bedside table, Juliana left Brakket Academy’s main infirmary.

And promptly ran into a small entourage. Her breath hitched as she watched the members go by. Dean Turner led the group, followed closely by a man in a long dark coat. At his side was a primary source of Juliana’s consternation.

Zagan.

The devil moved with the group yet he felt distant from it all. The man in the dark coat was speaking to him, but if Zagan was listening, he gave no indication. He did not, however, miss Juliana standing stock still. Flashing his white teeth, Zagan gave a casual wave in her direction.

Which only brought everyone’s attention down on her.

Dean Turner was the first to angle towards Juliana. Zagan followed without hesitation, forcing the man in the coat and a fourth member–the secretary, if Juliana remembered right–to head over as well.

“Miss Rivas,” Dean Turner said in greeting. “Is your mother..?”

“Stabilized and resting. My dad is discussing what hospital to move her to for longer-term observation and treatment.”

“That is good to hear.”

Juliana nodded, leaving her head aimed at their feet after her nod; Zagan was looking at her as if expecting her to ask something of him and Juliana had no idea what. He had already made it clear that asking for additional assistance was grounds for termination. She was still a student and he was presumably still under contract, so he probably wasn’t expecting a comment about that.

Unless he wasn’t expecting her to ask for something. Looking up to meet his golden eyes, a response formed in Juliana’s mind. “Thank you,” she said, “for getting us out of there.”

His eyes widened a tiny fraction, giving Juliana the impression that he had been expecting something else entirely. Which was probably a good thing. He had said, upon being summoned, that the only reason she wasn’t dead was because of the novelty of a situation he had never experienced before.

So surprises were one of his weaknesses. She’d have to go and think up a bunch if she wanted to be in good standing with the devil who so casually dispatched the demon her mother, Arachne, Eva, and herself had all failed to inflict meaningful damage upon.

After his brief surprise passed, he gave a slight bow in return, saying nothing.

Both the secretary at his side and the man in the coat gave him something of an evil glare.

“If there’s nothing else,” Juliana said, “I was just on my way to my dorm room…”

“Oh, don’t let us hold you,” Dean Turner said. “You should be with your mother, family, and friends in times like these.”

Juliana nodded and slipped around them, ignoring the quiet remarks at her back. She wasn’t much interested in conversation with any of them.

Power-walking back to her dorm room, Juliana sang out a string of curses under her breath. All of them were directed at herself. Five days. Five whole days passed and she had let herself forget one of the most important things.

She was in an all out run by the time she reached the third floor.

Throwing the door open and flying into the room, Juliana skidded to a stop in front of her desk. It took mere seconds of rifling through her drawers to find the object of her current ire.

A small glass eye, fit for a doll.

Gripping the loathsome object in her hand, Juliana threw it with all her might.

It shattered against the floor, sending pieces every which way.

Not willing to take a single chance, Juliana pulled out the dustpan and brush from underneath the sink and set to work. Everywhere had to be checked. Under her bed, under her desk, Eva and Shalise’s beds and desks. Her meticulous sweep of the room reached everywhere even a speck of glass could have gone.

It wasn’t a short job. A full broom might have made it go faster, or at least easier on her back, but Juliana was somewhat glad she had to make do with the mini broom. It was just another sort of penance for screwing everything up.

With the pan full of glass dust, Juliana dumped it all into a plastic bag. She then embedded the bag into her armor, forming the metal around it to keep every last bit sealed off.

Now she just needed to find a fire mage capable of creating enough heat to melt glass. Professor Lurcher should do. He would probably be happy to get rid of a potentially dangerous object.

Back creaking as she stood, Juliana turned and promptly froze. Again. Second time in as many hours.

Ylva ducked into the room. Not quite fitting with her height, she had to keep slouched over. With a frown marring her sharp features and speaking volumes of her displeasure with the height situation, a pillar of fog enveloped the giant.

From the fog emerged a tiny version of Ylva that came roughly up to Juliana’s chest. Tiny-Ylva took one glance around the room, looking significantly more satisfied, before she focused on Juliana.

“Y-Ylva?” Juliana tried not to stutter, but having the demon just show up had all sorts of thoughts running through her mind. Especially given recent experiences with demons whom she thought were friendly. “What are you doing here?”

“We had little chance to speak after your ordeal and wished to ensure your wellbeing.”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Juliana shook her head, slumping back and finding purchase on the edge of her bed. “No, I’m not okay. I’m angry. I’m upset. Every time I shut my eyes, I see my mother lying on the ground, dying in various ways. Sometimes someone is standing over her, blood dripping from their hands. Willie, Arachne, Zagan, even Eva and you.

“But most of the time, it’s me over her body.”

Ylva stood still for a moment in thought. With a slight frown touching the edges of her lips, she strolled forwards. Eva’s bed sank slightly as Ylva hopped on top. Too short to reach the ground, her legs swung in the air.

“Blaming yourself will lead to misery. Willie should be the subject of your anger. He set up the situation and forced the others into it. Perhaps Zagan as well, for dropping you into Hell to begin with. Though We cannot agree with his methods, his discovery may have been well worth your sacrifice.”

Juliana shuddered, remembering his words to Eva back in Willie’s domain. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about that.”

“Perhaps nothing can be done. Time will tell.”

Frowning, Juliana nodded. Though it was evident that her attentions were well meant, it didn’t quite provide the comfort Ylva’s tone implied it should. None of her words did.

After sitting in silence for a long moment, Juliana looked tiny-Ylva in the eyes. “Can I trust you?”

“Have we given you cause to distrust Us?”

“No,” Juliana said after a moment of consideration, “but neither had Willie when he decided killing everyone was a good idea.”

Tiny-Ylva closed her eyes and crossed her tiny arms over her tiny chest, her tiny head nodded once. “Then We shall strive to not repeat his mistakes.”

Juliana supposed that was the best she would get. It wasn’t like Ylva couldn’t kill her just by reaching out a hand and touching her.

Lifting her ring finger into the air, she asked a single question. “What is this?”

“Our gift to you for services rendered.”

“Do I belong to you?”

“In a sense. Demons are selfish beings and possess ways of claiming property. Rest assured that We do not consider you as such. You are free to remove the ring and, should you so choose, never lay eyes upon Ourself again.”

For a moment, Juliana looked at the ring and considered removing the light devouring band. She ended up dropping her hand back to her lap with a shake of her head. Ylva hadn’t given a reason to distrust her. Not only that, but she had also helped Zoe, Eva, and her mother to find Shalise and herself.

Although…

“Why did you not come yourself? Willie was scared of you.”

Ylva closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “We consider Ourself a ruler. Prior to our interactions with Eva, We have not had chance to exercise Our majesty. Delegation is key for one in power and We believed that your mother, Eva, and Arachne were sufficient for the task of reclaiming you.”

Juliana started to open her mouth to say how wrong that was, but Ylva was not finished.

“In addition, We lacked knowledge of Great King Zagan’s motivations. He would not have missed the ring on your finger. We considered his actions an attack on Our person. Extended absences from Our domain could see its connection to reality severed without a fight.”

“He still dropped us into Hell, you don’t consider it an attack anymore?”

“Perhaps. As We spoke of earlier, the knowledge he gained may afford him amnesty, such is the importance of the information. Even should it have resulted in your sacrifice.”

Juliana pulled her eyes off of Ylva, looking down at her hands. Of course, she thought, what measure does a mere mortal hold next to ‘Great King Zagan’ and Hell? Oddly enough, she didn’t think in a sarcastic tone.

“We say as much not to disparage or detract from your personal importance. We merely wish to impress the gravity of the situation.”

“I know,” Juliana said with a nod. That didn’t make her feel better. Though…

Juliana looked up, determination filling her eyes. “To confirm, you can’t heal my mom?”

“Our abilities take lives, not repair them. Were she mortally injured, We might hold Death at bay for a time. Eva has already performed that task most admirably.”

That was what she had expected to hear, so Juliana gave a short nod. “Then, perhaps you might be willing to assist me in a little side project that I’ve decided to take up.”

Ylva tilted her head to one side.

“I know it might not matter with the Hell thing, but there are books I’ve decided to collect. Or their pages, specifically. Anything related to talkina or Willie.”

— — —

“Do you understand why I am angry with you?”

“I hurt your mortal friend’s mother.”

“Wrong.” Eva stared at Arachne, waiting for any response. Eight red eyes stared back without wavering.

When she realized no response was coming, Eva shook her head. “You cheated. You liked fighting Genoa. Genoa liked fighting you. I’m sure she would have been happy to die in a real battle with you. But you cheated. Worse, you used me. You made her think that you were going to kill me. And she jumped in to save me, getting hurt in the process.”

Eva shook her head. “I thought you were going to kill me. Or attack me, at the very least.”

“I wasn’t going–”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to do. When you turned your head in my direction, my heart just about jumped out of my chest. And then you started charging at me.”

Eva pressed a sharp claw against Arachne’s chest. “What if Genoa hadn’t jumped in the way? Would you have stopped? Kept going? Maybe you would have barreled over me like a rag on the floor.”

“That was not my intention. I was merely exploiting a flaw in humans to allow us to escape from the demon per his rules of engagement.”

The finger poking into Arachne’s chest remained there for a moment as Eva stared into Arachne’s eyes. Eventually, she let her arm drop with a sigh. “The worst part is that I don’t know if you can even be held responsible for your actions.”

That got a slight head-tilt from Arachne, causing her hair tendrils to slide off to one side.

“While we were all fighting,” Eva explained, “I got very wrapped up in the illusion. To the point where I was practically crying over one of things that passed as a minion. After they were all dead, it still took a few minutes before I snapped out of it. I don’t know if the same was true for Genoa or not, but you had a lot of minions still alive.”

Arachne opened her mouth. Only a sliver. Just enough to see the sharp tips of her teeth between the strips of carapace that passed for her lips. She closed her mouth without saying a word.

“Even beyond that, I hear voices down here. Or a voice, at least.”

“Void.”

Eva nodded. “You know what He tells me?” At Arachne’s slight shake of her head, Eva continued. “Promises of power, destined for greatness. Garbage like that. Shalise,” Eva pointed her thumb somewhere over her shoulder, “said that she gets ‘complained about.’ I have yet to ask Juliana, but while rambling at Genoa’s side, she mumbled out something about a voice helping her. What do you get told, Arachne?”

Arachne’s stiff lips opened in a sort of grimace. Her interlocking teeth grit together. “Complained about. That fits His words for me well enough. Typically, they’re single words. Pathetic. Imbecile. Fool. Disgrace. So on and so forth.”

“No whispers to attack the rest of us?”

Eva had to back slightly away. Arachne started shaking her head back and forth with gusto. “No, nothing like that. They’re always directed at me.”

“Well,” Eva said after a moment. “I suppose that’s good. That still leaves us with the problem of what happened to Genoa. I don’t know if you were affected by whatever affected me, I don’t know if you know whether or not you were affected. And I’m not going to try to figure it out. I’m going to assume you were, and I do not wish to hear anything more about it.

“Since I know you well enough to know that you would never even consider this, I’ll just tell you. Apologize to Genoa–”

This time, Arachne’s mouth opened wide. Some noise started to come out before Eva held up her hand.

“I’m not finished. Apologize to Genoa and Juliana–”

“She stole your book. Got us into this mess in the first place.”

Eva’s frown deepened. “Maybe true, maybe not. Zagan needed to pick someone and it probably would have been them anyway just because of their relation to us. Besides, I did the same thing. Remember me setting an imp on Master before he decided to sit me down and actually teach me a little about diablery?”

A small smile flittered across Eva’s face at the memories. A wistful sigh escaped her lips. “Good times. Of course, I had begged him several times to teach me things and he refused until I stole his book and set the imp on him, so there might be some difference there.”

“You’re not upset that she lied to you?”

“Somewhat, but I think Juliana is punishing herself more than I ever could.” Eva cracked her knuckles, though her exoskeleton lacked the typical sound. “I might have to impress upon her some proper demon handling knowledge in the future.”

Eva shook her head. “You’re getting me off topic. Apologize. To both of them. Maybe Carlos too. Get on your hands and knees and sincerely apologize. You heard what Zagan said. We don’t need Genoa coming after you for revenge.”

“She–”

“I don’t know if she will forgive you. I wouldn’t, in her position. She has every right to be angry. You’ve broken the trust she put in you.” As Arachne opened her mouth to protest, Eva spoke over her. “And don’t say she didn’t trust you. She fought mostly friendly spars with you. You said yourself that you two fought as a team against the monsters that attacked Brakket. And, most obvious of all, she let you near her daughter.

“So go, apologize. Maybe regain some trust, maybe to just keep her from killing you in a moment of weakness out of spite.”

Eva locked her gaze onto Arachne. She kept from blinking, focusing all of her attention on the demon in front of her.

Arachne stared back.

As the seconds turned to minutes, Arachne’s gaze started to waver. Eventually, she tipped her head to glance at the floor.

“Alright.”

It was almost too quiet to hear by normal means. Within her domain, Eva quickly found she could hear and see anything that happened.

“Good.

“We’ve talked about trust before; several times over the years, but I’m specifically thinking of the last time we were in Hell together. When you tricked me into exchanging hands.” Eva waved one of those hands around for a little extra emphasis. “This time, this one time, I will choose to wallow in ignorance. I will choose to believe that harming me never crossed your mind. That the talkina was controlling your actions, at least to an extent. All so we can maintain some trust between us.”

With a smile slowly forming on her face, Eva reached up and gave Arachne’s shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“You’ve been my friend for a long time, Arachne. Ever since that night you killed those bastards. Even if you saw me as nothing other than a pathetic mortal for a few years after that, I liked you. I want to keep liking you. So don’t, please don’t do anything to betray my trust.”

Arachne glanced up, sharp eyes boring into Eva. “I won’t.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

Giving Arachne one final squeeze of her shoulder, Eva turned away. Walking around the large couch in the room, she moved up to the window and looked out.

So long as she kept her eyes off the sky, everything looked just like the women’s ward courtyard. The sandstone walls and path, the dirt and weed covered ground, a few long dead rose bushes beneath the windows, it was all there.

Inside was even less distinguishable from the real world. The couch even had some dried patches of Zoe’s blood from when her home was attacked. With the ceiling overhead, the pitch black, starless void of a sky wasn’t visible.

Shalise lay on a clear patch of dirt with her hands clasped over her stomach, looking serene as she gazed up at the emptiness.

Opening the door from the fake-women’s ward, Eva walked out.

Arachne followed a few feet behind until she reached the doorway. There she stopped.

Upon reaching Shalise, Eva lay down on the ground next to her. For a few moments, no one said anything. Eva simply stared up at the sky alongside her friend and roommate.

The all-encompassing void was just so empty. There was nothing to look at. At the same time, it felt like it could reach down and swallow her whole. Not exactly a pleasant sensation.

As the silence dragged on, the shrinking feeling passed. Boredom replaced it soon enough. There was nothing to look at. At least a regular sky had stars or clouds. The sky in her domain was like staring at a wall. A very uninteresting wall.

And Shalise had been out here staring for at least an hour now. Then again, she had someone in her head to talk with. Something Eva both lacked and was quite glad she lacked. Though that lack did not help with the growing sense of boredom.

So Eva broke the silence first.

“Doing alright?”

In her peripheral vision, Eva watched as Shalise tilted her head to look at Eva. “I suppose,” she said. “Prax has stopped making a fuss for the most part. I told him that I would go back to the prison and figure out a way to get him back in his cell. He might have been lying to me when he said it in the prison, but seeing the world through my eyes for a few decades can’t be worse than staring at a hellhound every day.”

Eva gave a short, almost forced laugh. “I can see that being a pain. But it might be for the best if we tried anyway.”

“Still no plan?”

“Not a clue. Arachne doesn’t think that summoning Prax will work because you aren’t Prax. At the same time, you carry Prax so Ylva can’t let him pass through her domain into the real world. Not without going to the Keeper’s prison herself, that is.”

Stretching her arm into the air above them, Shalise started to fill it out with muscles. Her arm rapidly went back to normal before the tips of her fingers started being affected.

“That’s kind of disturbing,” Eva said.

“You have Arachne’s hands and legs.”

“Point,” Eva said as she lifted her own arm up into the air alongside Shalise’s arm. Despite moving it around in the dirt, not a speck of dust stuck to it. Thank you strange Domain magic, she thought.

They both let their arms fall at the same time. Shalise released a small sigh as hers hit the ground.

“It’s probably for the best. At least down here I don’t have to see the look on Sister Cross’ face when she finds out.”

Eva snorted. “At least you only have to worry about a look. She’ll try to kill me when she finds out about Prax, and again when she realizes you went to Hell, and yet again when she finds out you’re still here.”

That got a short laugh out of Shalise, though it died off with another sigh.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Eva said. “Or maybe it won’t even matter much in the future.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just something Zagan said.”

Shalise let out a short huff.

“When he dropped the two of you into Hell, I don’t think you went straight to that prison. From what you told me, there was about a week’s worth of time that just went missing. I don’t know what he did with you two or your souls–and I am very glad you have them back–but he used them to figure out something disturbing.”

“More disturbing than losing our souls in the first place?”

“Maybe. Though, as disturbing as it is, it might mean a way home for you.

“Zagan said that someone or something is trying to bring Void–the Power that essentially runs Hell–and all of this,” Eva swept her hand across the sky, “into the mortal plane.”

>>Author’s Note 004<<

<– Back | Index | Next –>


004.027

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe pinched the bridge of her nose.

Wayne had to return soon with news.

Between Devon muttering to himself and the constant whining of the demon infesting Shalise’s body, Zoe was about ready to hog-tie the two of them and gag their mouths. Especially Shalise. Or Prax. Whoever it was. Keeping Shalise’s body available was a must.

The worst case scenario would be that entity deciding to return to that giant castle before Eva showed up.

Zoe wasn’t entirely certain that she could blame it if it decided to leave. At least the castle likely had seats to rest on. The tiny island they were currently standing on lacked such niceties. Her options boiled down to standing on the beach and getting sand in her shoes or sitting on the beach and getting sand everywhere else.

Not that Prax seemed to mind. It had–thankfully–accepted Zoe’s suit jacket, giving Shalise’s body some privacy. But he had otherwise just sat down next to the small tree in the center of the island.

“This domain,” Prax said, interrupting Zoe’s train of thought, “is pathetic.”

Zoe sighed. She knew she should interact with him, if only to keep him here. Couldn’t it be Devon’s turn?

A quick glance at the demonologist revealed him to be inspecting a handful of sand. Quite intensely, in fact. As if it were a handful of gold.

Frowning, Zoe looked down at her feet. Many things about Hell interested Zoe. Enough so that she was, frankly, overwhelmed. There were so many places to start. Especially around the water and the transportation method between domains. Overall, the feel of the place was very similar to Ylva’s domain. Which made sense given that hers was literally Hell on Earth.

With all the many things that interested her, the sand was not one of them. As far as Zoe could tell, it wasn’t significantly different from any other sand she had seen in her life. Perhaps Devon’s demonologist experiences lent some insight into the matter that she lacked.

When everyone was back home, safe and sound, Zoe was considering returning for a research expedition. No further than Eva or Ylva’s domain, of course. Though Eva’s–Zoe glared at Devon–treatments were upsetting, Eva’s domain provided a relatively safe location to poke around that wasn’t connected to Earth.

Blinking, Zoe realized that Devon was not about to humor the demon inhabiting Shalise’s body.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Prax. This place is plenty interesting to me,” Zoe said, looking out over the endless sea of black liquid.

“Of course it is to you, mortal,” it said as if the word were an insult. “But can you honestly say that this tree,” it slammed Shalise’s elbow back against the trunk, “is more glorious than my castle?”

Wincing at the strike, Zoe simply shook her head. “It has a certain humbleness to it.”

“Wrong. It has the stench of a demon who knows nothing. A demon who cannot control their own domain. Even a hellhound can turn its domain into a land of crags and molten rock.”

“Perhaps she likes the minimalistic atmosphere of the beach.”

“Unlikely,” Devon cut in. “Eva’s been here once before and then only for an hour or two. In her report to me, she didn’t mention anything about even attempting to alter its appearance.”

“Only once before? What–” Prax cut off. A moment later, Shalise’s eyes widened to their fullest. “A human? With a domain?”

Zoe smiled. Not at his words, per say. No, she smiled at the small sign that Shalise was still in there somewhere. And apparently communicating with Prax.

It did such things every now and again. Knowing their names for instance. At first, Zoe had worried that Prax simply had all of Shalise’s memories. Things like being surprised by whatever had cut him off implied otherwise.

“I will believe it when I see it,” it said, crossing Shalise’s arms. After a brief moment, Prax’s expression twisted into a scowl. “And you are expecting this human to be able to help our situation?”

“It’s worth a shot,” Zoe said. “You said your domain was acting up because of your bonding with Shalise. What harm could there be in letting Eva try in her domain?”

“If only you knew. Though I suppose there might be some merit in making an attempt. At the very least, this human is inexperienced in the ways of Hell and therefore far less likely to enslave me, toy with me, or otherwise ruin the rest of my existence.”

“Is that much of concern?” Zoe frowned. “Arachne and Eva don’t have any qualms about being in Ylva’s domain. Catherine got in and out with only a light interrogation.” Not to mention all the rest of the ‘plain old boring mortals.’ Zoe had been inside plenty of times and even invited Ylva to live at her apartment for a time. Nothing happened to any of them.

Nothing except the rings, Zoe thought, moving one hand to cover the ring she had taken to wearing every day.

“You mentioned two of those names earlier. I believe the context was something about walking into a talkina’s domain?” Prax actually shuddered. “Clearly they lack the sensibilities of proper demons. You’ll probably never see them again.”

“Eh,” Devon grunted. “Our resident hel has taken a liking to the girl, Eva as well, if I’m not mistaken. If they’re not back soon, I’d bet money that she will find a way to resolve it herself.”

“And how long is that going to take?” Prax said, tapping a finger against Shalise’s elbow. “I could make further attempts on my own and possibly solve it before anything happens here.”

“At the very least,” Zoe said, “we should wait for Wayne to get back with news from Ylva and Nel.”

And hopefully that will be soon.

This whole operation could have been planned better. They knew that Genoa’s group was having issues. If she hadn’t just run off, blind to all except her daughter’s safety, then they might not be in this mess.

But there was no set time-frame for Wayne returning. And Prax’s impatience was clearly growing with every passing minute.

“Finally,” Shalise’s oddly accented voice said.

Zoe blinked. It took her a moment to realize what Prax meant.

That moment ended when Eva landed in the sand nearby, sending a few grains up into the air from the impact.

A heavy thud behind Zoe almost knocked her to the ground. She turned just in time to be pelted by falling sand. Zoe flicked her dagger, catching most of the debris on a hastily erected shield.

The cause of the shower of sand was a full-sized Arachne. In her arms…

“Oh no,” Zoe said.

Arachne shrunk down to her humanoid form, laying Genoa against the ground as she did so.

Eva brushed past Zoe and elbowed Arachne out of the way, sliding on her knees the last few feet before stopping at Genoa. The black dagger teleported from the hilt against her back to her hand. Without an ounce of hesitation, she pressed the dagger down into an arm-sized hole in Genoa’s chest.

Zoe took a step forward. “Eva–”

A light thump at Zoe’s side cut her off.

Juliana lay face down in the sand, groaning lightly. Using a single hand, Juliana pushed herself up. Upon seeing Eva and her mother, Juliana rushed over without taking a second to brush herself off, half limping as she ran. She shoved Arachne to the side in order to kneel down opposite from Eva.

The demon’s growls went unnoticed by either girl.

“Mommy,” Juliana said as tears streaked down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

“She’s still alive,” Eva said, her face scrunched up in concentration. “I can keep her blood moving and keep her from bleeding out, but her heart and lungs… I need potions. At the very least.”

Almost as if by instinct, Eva reached down to grab a small satchel at her side. It was a small brown potion satchel that Zoe had seen on Eva’s person relatively often during her first year. She couldn’t quite place when Eva had stopped carrying it, but she knew one thing for certain.

That satchel had not been there before she started speaking.

If Eva noticed the same, she did not comment. Instead, Eva rummaged through it before selecting three vials. A light-blue general remedy potion, a yellow blood stimulant, and a dark purple that Zoe didn’t recognize.

Zoe’s eyes widened as Eva uncorked the light-blue potion.

“Stop.” She almost slipped in the sand in her haste to stop the vial from reaching Genoa’s lips. As soon as she took hold of Eva’s arm, Zoe said, “you just said that she is having heart problems. You could kill her with that.”

“Considering the fact that I am essentially her heart at the moment, I don’t see how it could make things much worse.”

“Just…”

Up close, Genoa looked a lot worse than she did from afar. Her wound was mostly clean–likely thanks to Eva actively controlling her blood–but the sheer size of the hole in her chest was staggering. Clean as it was, Zoe could see the sandy beach on the other side. Her breathing came out as shallow, strained wheezes.

“Just keep her alive,” Zoe said. “Wayne will be here soon. Let him pick the potions.”

He had better be here soon. Even with Eva managing her blood, Genoa didn’t look like she could hold on much longer.

As if reading her mind, Eva glanced up at Zoe. “Don’t worry about her breathing. Anywhere it touches air, I’m spreading out the blood into very fine strands. It should be getting more than enough oxygen to keep her alive and well. Her shallow breaths are more out of psychological habit than need.”

“Still worrying,” Zoe said through pursed lips.

Eva nodded. “I’d much prefer her healed sooner rather than later. I read the book I got that tidbit of knowledge from way back when I first started blood magic. Hopefully I’m not misinterpreting it or anything.”

Zoe’s lips pursed firmer as she gave a curt nod. “I hope so too.”

Devon had walked up at some point during her brief conversation with Eva. He knelt down beside Genoa.

For a moment, Zoe was going to rescind some of the disdain she felt for the man regarding his treatments for Eva. Instead, she only felt her disdain grow as he ignored the wounded mage-knight to inspect the satchel of potions.

She was curious as well, but there was a time and a place for research and this was neither.

Ignoring the despicable man, Zoe maneuvered around to kneel at Juliana’s side.

Placing one arm around her shoulders was the trigger.

The floodgates opened.

Juliana clutched at Zoe’s shirt. Her other arm hung limp at her side. She pressed her face into her chest and started sobbing.

“Shhh.” Zoe gently brushed a few stray blond strands out of the younger girl’s face. “Your mother is going to be fine. She’s survived so much. A little hole in her chest isn’t going to stop her.”

“It’s all my fault.”

“No. You couldn’t have known that Za–”

A sudden cough from Eva stole her attention. Slowly shaking her head, Eva gave a quick nod back over her shoulder.

Zoe blinked.

Standing just behind Devon was the sharp-dressed, golden eyed man she had met in Tom’s bar almost a year ago.

“Couldn’t have known what, Zoe?”

Devon let out a high-pitched yelp. Dropping the potion bag, he disappeared, reappearing on the opposite end of the island.

Behind Zagan, Shalise–no, Prax sat against the tree, remaining utterly still with a look of horror on Shalise’s face. Probably hoping that Zagan wouldn’t even bother glancing in that direction.

How long had he been standing there? Zoe wondered. Eva, Arachne and Genoa, and Juliana had all made noise upon their arrival. But Zagan had just been standing there, creeping behind her.

Zoe pulled Juliana closer as she tightened her grip on her dagger. “Zagan,” Zoe spat.

The devil smiled. “Come now, aren’t we on friendlier terms than that?” He gave an exasperated sigh. “Not a single person calls me Rex.”

If he thought his little play-acting was cute, he was wrong. Zoe had seen elementary school plays with better acting. Though maybe that was intentional, Zoe thought, frowning. “Leave, Zagan, you are not wanted here.”

“On the contrary, young Miss Rivas was the one to summon me here.”

Juliana stilled, though offered no protests.

“And,” he continued, “I will admit that I invited myself to Eva’s domain. However, it was with only the best intentions in mind.”

“I’m sure,” Zoe said. If he picked up on her sarcasm, he didn’t mention it.

“As long as I am repaying one favor, I might as well get them both done within one day. Less work, yeah?”

He started to turn.

Devon blinked again, this time straight over the water. There was a light splash and he was gone. He didn’t resurface.

Probably fleeing to Ylva’s domain. Coward.

But Zagan paid him no mind. He focused instead on Shalise.

Prax stood up and ran. Shalise’s muscled legs hit the sand, sending up nearly as much debris as when Arachne had landed. Being in the center of the island, it didn’t matter which direction Prax chose to run in. The demon didn’t need to think about it for a second.

Prax chose the direction that led away from Zagan.

It didn’t get very far.

Without the slightest motion on Zagan’s part, Prax was facing backwards. It took four steps before it realized that it was now running directly towards Zagan. Unfortunately for Prax, he didn’t realize in time.

Zagan reached out and gripped the edges of Zoe’s suit jacket that Prax wore.

“Praxtihr. You’re out of your cell.”

“What do you care, Zagan? You are not in the Keeper’s employ.”

“That is King Zagan to you, wretch.” He tilted his head to one side before straightening his neck again. “Or Great King Zagan. In fact, go with the latter.”

“You think you are so high and mighty. The only reason you are not a guest of the Keeper is because he could not find a cell that would hold you.” Prax hocked back and spat in Zagan’s face. “But it is just a matter of time. One of us will topple you.”

Holding Prax in the air with a single hand, Zagan wiped away the saliva with his free thumb. He looked down at it, turning his head slightly. As he watched, the liquid vanished.

The single gold eye that Zoe could see from her angle was glowing like a spotlight. Trails of golden smoke leaked from the corner of his eye.

“What is the phrase? Oh yes.” Zagan threw Shalise to the ground. Her head hit the sand. Before it could bounce off, Zagan planted one shiny shoe on her head, grinding her face into the ground. “Don’t impugn my honor. I am the pinnacle of demons. The perfect model of demonic citizenry. Pathetic peasants such as yourself cannot hope to measure up to my magnificent being. There is a reason I am King.”

As soon as Shalise hit the ground, Zoe had started to pry Juliana off of her. Once she got to her feet, a lightning bolt crackled out of her dagger. One of the strongest she had ever fired. The brilliant light illuminated the relatively dark domain to such a degree that she had to shut off her enhanced vision lest she go blind. The normally muted sound of thaumaturgical lightning thundered so great that it threatened to shatter her enhanced eardrums.

For all the power, all the strength, all the magic that she put behind her bolt of lightning, it did nothing.

Zoe watched in a combination of dismay and confusion as her bolt sailed straight past Zagan. The endless sea of black water lit up as the bolt disappeared into infinity.

I missed? Zoe blinked. It wasn’t possible. She was a class one air mage. Redirecting natural lightning to strike what she desired was within her power. A human-sized target ten feet away should have been child’s play.

Shaking her head, Zoe tightened her grip on her dagger. Lightning crackled at the tip, building up to be even more impressive of a bolt than her last one.

She wasn’t going to miss twice.

Of course, even if she hit, she wasn’t sure what it would accomplish. Zoe had watched his fight with Lynn Cross. He shrugged off plenty more than a powerful bolt of lightning during that fight.

Still, she had to do something. That might be Prax in control, but Shalise’s body was paying the price.

“I won’t say it twice,” she ground out. “Get off of her.”

Zagan stood with his back to Zoe. He kept still for a moment before his head moved–only his head. It tilted back just enough to look at Zoe through a single glowing eye.

“And just who is it that thinks they can…”

Trailing off, Zagan’s eyes lost some of their luster. “Her?”

Glancing at his feet, Zagan removed his shoe from the side of Shalise’s head. “Oh. I forgot about her.”

He reached down, gripped the lapels of the suit, and lifted Prax to its feet. Putting barely any effort into it, he brushed some of the sand off the side of Shalise’s face.

“I couldn’t very well ask what you want if you’re dead. So tell me, Shalise Ward, what is it you desire? One single favor is all I shall grant.”

Prax spat in his face again. Or tried to. This time, the spittle sailed harmlessly to one side as if space itself warped around Zagan’s head.

“Ah, of course. You cannot very well tell me as you are. However, I’m sure I can guess what you want.”

He released his hold on the suit. Prax immediately turned and ran. After two steps, Prax stumbled and fell to the beach.

Zoe watched as Shalise’s muscled body deflated. It started at her fingertips and toes, working its way up her body. Despite the jacket covering her arms, it was blatantly obvious the muscles were disappearing. The tight fabric became loose on her body.

She lay there, shaking slightly, just long enough for Zoe to grow worried.

More worried.

There was a soft giggle–a very Shalise giggle–before she pushed herself up to her knees. She patted herself down from her head to her toes, not even caring that she was covered in sand and small cuts along one side of her face from Zagan.

“I’m back,” she said. “Oh, I’m–” Wincing, Shalise put a hand to her forehead. “Ugh, he is still in here.”

“I have neither the inclination nor the time to see Praxtihr back to his cell,” Zagan said, all anger in his tone completely gone. “You can be his jailer for the foreseeable future. But, when you feel like dying, come see me. I will not forget his words. Allowing him to roam free would be a disappointment.”

With a light groan, she turned to Zagan. “Is there any way to make him shut up? He is saying very unkind things about your mother.”

“I have no mother.”

Shalise just nodded. Her nod cut off half-way. “That’s disgusting,” she said, putting on an expression that echoed her words.

“You’re the warden. I’m sure you can find some way to assert power over your prison. Good luck,” he said. Clapping his hands together, he turned to the rest of the group.

Lighting from her dagger dispersed as he glanced over it. Zoe frowned, but didn’t build up another charge. He had fixed Shalise. Though Zoe wasn’t about to forgive him, it was his fault in the first place. And Genoa was still injured thanks to him.

Glancing down at the woman, Zoe had half a mind to ask Zagan to fix her. So long as he was in a helping people mood, anyway. As she looked up towards Zagan, Zoe caught Eva’s eye.

The girl hadn’t even turned around during the whole ordeal behind her, instead focusing on Genoa. It wouldn’t surprise Zoe if she knew exactly what went on. Even aside from her ability to sense blood, this was Eva’s domain.

But Eva just shook her head slowly and solemnly.

Zoe nodded and decided not to ask anything of Zagan.

“I think that is everything on my to-do list for today,” he said. “My little embryonic one, do remember what we discussed. It especially applies to you, but also your little mortal friends. Well, back to…” His smile slid off of his face as he started walking towards the water. “I think I’ll bully Catherine into taking over my job for a few more weeks,” he mumbled just loud enough for Zoe to pick up.

With that, he dove into the water and disappeared.

Zoe sighed, tension disappearing from her shoulders. “Shalise,” she said, “are you alright?”

The brown-haired girl nodded. “I’m okay, just tired. I don’t think Prax slept at all in my body.” She paused for just a moment before a horrified look settled over her face. “They know I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Sleep,” Eva said. “You’re safe here. Unless Zagan comes back in a hissy-fit, that is. But that could happen anywhere. I don’t know how to make beds, but last time I was here, I found sleeping half in the water to be fairly pleasant.”

“You made that potion satchel,” Zoe said.

“Yeah, and I don’t know how I did that either.”

Arachne moved forwards and opened her mouth.

Eva sent her a glare, flaring her eyes bright red.

Arachne’s mouth shut with and audible clack.

“It would be best if you were to remain silent for now, Arachne.” Eva took a deep breath before half glancing over at Shalise. “So just pile up some sand into a pillow and take a nap.”

Shalise nodded, then shook her head. She walked over on unsteady feet. “I’d rather know what happened.”

“As would I,” Zoe said.

“It’s my fault,” Juliana said with a sniffle.

“No. Zagan–”

I stole Eva’s book. Not Zagan.”

Zoe glanced at Eva. The black-haired girl didn’t react. She kept her focus on Genoa.

Me,” Juliana continued. “I summoned that stupid demon. I drew the summoning circle Zagan used to send us to Hell. I played nice with the demon that forced my mom and Arachne to fight. And it is my fault mom’s–” Her voice cracked into a sob. “It didn’t look as bad on-screen. But part of her heart is missing.”

Zoe frowned, deciding to change the focus away from Juliana. That could be dealt with later. “Forced them to fight?” she asked Eva.

“The talkina dropped Genoa, Arachne, and myself into an arena. One of us dies, the others get to leave. Arachne was,” Eva glared again, “overzealous in her attempts at getting the rest of us out. If she had waited ten minutes, Zagan would have burst in to save the day without any of us significantly injured.”

“That’s not true,” Juliana said. “I summoned Zagan too. I only summoned him because mom got hurt. If Arachne hadn’t–I would have just kept sitting on my ass until Willie got bored enough to kill you all himself.”

Zoe pursed her lips, glancing between Juliana, Arachne, and Eva. Her gaze stopped at Genoa. Her mind raced over the sparse description of the events. She could probably ask for more details later, when Eva wasn’t concentrating on Genoa and Juliana wasn’t so hysterical. But her mind accurately summarized the events in three words. What a mess.

And, she thought, irritated, where is Wayne?

A gust of wind sent sand flying around.

Zoe erected a quick shield around their group. She didn’t want Eva to suffer any further distractions.

Wayne landed somewhat roughly on the beach a moment later. As clumsy as he was with his air magic, he still managed to cushion his fall enough to avoid Juliana’s fate of falling on his face. He carried a large case Zoe recognized as a portable potion kit and had a bandoleer of already made potions across his chest. More importantly, he had someone hanging off of his arm.

Laura Post. Brakket Academy’s head nurse. In the hand not wrapped around Wayne’s arm, she carried a large bag with a red cross on the front.

She took one look around the domain. One eye was covered with gauze and medical tape–the same eye patch she had worn since Zoe first met the nurse. Her single red eye did not widen in the slightest. No hint of surprise appeared on her face.

Her eye settled on Eva and Genoa. Without a word to Wayne, she unhooked her arm and half ran over.

Eva immediately started going over everything that was wrong and everything she had done to keep Genoa alive.

Not wanting to be in the professionals’ way, Zoe stood and moved next to Wayne, pulling Juliana along with her.

The blond gave no protests aside from a few sniffles.

“Nel told me what happened with Genoa before I came back,” Wayne said, answering her unasked question. “Figured Post was the best choice.”

Zoe leaned in and spoke quiet enough that Juliana shouldn’t hear. “Is she a demon?”

Wayne glanced at her with an eyebrow up.

“The red eye,” Zoe said. “It didn’t click until now, but it is a common feature among demons.”

“She’s been working at Brakket since you started school. Long before Martina showed up with her freak show.”

“When she looked around, she didn’t look surprised.”

Wayne’s frown deepened. “Are you going to complain if she can save the woman’s life?”

Zoe glanced down at Juliana. Demons had gotten them into a lot of trouble. But Laura hadn’t, to Zoe’s knowledge, ever done a thing aside from help the students. At the moment, she could be the only one who could stabilize Genoa enough to move her somewhere for real medical treatment.

Shaking her head, Zoe answered. “I suppose not.”

“Lurcher,” Laura’s voice called out, “I need some potions here.”

Wayne gave a grunt of acknowledgment as he started walking away.

Zoe sat down on the beach, uncaring of the sand, and wrapped her arms around Juliana. Shalise moved up next to Juliana, though kept a short distance away.

With bated breath, they waited.

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002.005

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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.

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