Tag Archives: Rachael

009.010

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“And there goes group indigo.”

“A shame,” Zoe said with a shake of her head. “They looked like they were doing so well.”

“When the tail swiped the… elf into the tree, I think the other two lost their nerves.”

“Indeed. Dragonkin are not to be taken lightly. Their scales can take a beating that even the finest suit of armor would have trouble holding up against. The students got a little overconfident when they managed to push it back. But if they would have stuck to their attacks rather than turning to flee, they might have forced it into a retreat. Especially the water mage, he should have used water rather than ice. Dragonkin don’t like their scales getting wet.”

“Right,” Hank said with a quick nod of his head.

Zoe doubted he really understood. At least, in general. Her previous statement had been simple enough. But the idea that it would be better to fight many of the things out in the forest rather than run probably didn’t mesh with his general worldview. Or that of most mundane people for that matter.

If they saw something scary, their first instinct would be to run. Even if they were running from something that was obviously faster than them.

Hank did manage to act like he knew what he was talking about. The narrations he gave were mostly play-by-plays, repeating what he was seeing on screen. It gave him the illusion that he was talking about something important, even though everyone could see what he was saying on their own screens.

He let Zoe handle explaining most magical aspects of the fights, of course, and asked intelligent questions when something was particularly odd to him.

“Still, getting slammed into the tree like that had to have hurt.”

“Probably,” Zoe admitted. “But the medical team is already on site and none of the three students were hurt too badly. They’ll be able to patch up any injuries in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s true. I think I’ve seen high school wrestling matches with worse injuries,” he said with a chuckle.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she believed that, but maybe he was trying to play down the violence for the viewers.

Even though more violence would probably mean more viewers. Humans were… attracted to that sort of thing for some reason.

“For those of you who are just joining us or otherwise missed out,” Hank said, sitting up straight as the cameras switched to them now that there was a lull in the action, “you can catch the replays and highlights on the website listed at the bottom of your screens. A quick recap of where each school stands.

“With the indigo group’s summary defeat, five students have been removed from the event. Isomer Holy Academy is down to a single student, currently in group violet. As is Mount Hope, their single student also in group violet. The Nod Complex is down to two students. Brakket and Faultline Academies are the only ones still at full steam.

“Now, two groups have reached the center of the event. Violet is closing in quick, delayed a short while by their encounter with…”

He stumbled, trailing off with a glance towards Zoe.

“Let’s just call her Lucy.”

“With Lucy. Don’t touch that channel. We’ll be back with more excitement from the magical world after a brief message from our sponsors.”

— — —

“Ugh. Blech.”

“Yes, we get it,” Emily said, looking over at the nun with a shake of her head. “You had tentacles in your mouth. You’ve been whining about it for the last five minutes. It’s gross. Can you just stop making those noises?”

“You don’t even know,” Anise snapped. “You only had a few tentacles around your waist. I was completely wrapped up.” She tugged at her shirt, still slimy from being wrapped up in Lucy’s tentacles. “That thing was probably venomous.”

“Poisonous,” Eva said, glancing back over her shoulder with a wide grin. “Venomous is when they bite you. Poisonous is when you bite them. And you were definitely doing the biting.”

Anise groaned.

“But don’t worry. Though she can be toxic, it is an optional sort of thing. With her orders not to actually hurt people, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Why me? Neither of you got wrapped up so much.”

“I got my wand knocked out of my hand and all she’s got are fire spells,” Emily said with a finger pointing towards Eva. “Obviously you are the most dangerous of the three of us.”

Eva twisted her face into a scowl. Anise did just the opposite, brightening up for the first time since having her mouth stuffed full of tentacles.

She was just about ready to turn around and remind the two of them that, even with Lucy barely fighting back, they would both have been carried out of the arena if it wasn’t for her. However, she felt her breath catch in her throat as she walked up a short ridge.

There was no forest ahead of her. No trees and hardly any brush. There was grass, but it had been clipped short. The clearing was far larger than the area Eva had coopted for her ritual. At least twice as large. Possibly more.

Of course, a clearing wasn’t all that shocking. The Infinite Courtyard had a number of clearings dotted around. None as maintained as this, but they probably weren’t used for events very often.

No, it was what occupied the majority of the clearing that had Eva’s jaw dropping.

“You all see the giant pyramid in the middle of the forest, right? It isn’t some illusion.”

“It’s the Pyramid of the Sun,” Emily said, voice soft. “The plateaus on the sides… the stairs running up the middle. Ancient mages would conduct rituals at the very top. But why is it here?”

“I doubt it is the original,” Anise said with a scoff.

Could have fooled me, Eva thought. The brickwork looked haggard and rough, weathered by time and… well, weather. Green vines grew up alongside the stairway, though the stairs themselves were clear of any plant life.

Anise had to be right. Eva didn’t know what the Pyramid of the Sun was, but if it was a real building actually used by ancient mages, it was probably some protected structure like the pyramids in Egypt. For cultural heritage if nothing else. Redford had probably built this version specifically for the event.

Narrowing her eyes at movement on the staircase, Eva’s lips curled into a frown.

“We’re not the first ones here.”

Two figures were sprinting up the staircase as fast as their legs could carry them. Though the moon lit up the area, it wasn’t enough to tell who they were. Their hats were a decent giveaway for which school, however.

“Faultline,” Emily hissed—almost snarled.

Eva had to take her eyes off the temple to glance at her face.

Her teeth ground together, bared in full. Her eyes burned… she wasn’t a demon or a nun, but they were almost glowing as they caught the moonlight.

Glancing over at Anise, Eva nodded her head towards Emily with raised eyebrows. All she got was a shrug from the other girl.

“There are others scaling the pyramid,” Anise said as her eyes went back to the temple.

Eva spun around.

The trainee-nun was right. Another two were running up the stairs. Their silhouettes lacked the pointed caps that the Faultline crew had. She honestly couldn’t identify them. One might be a girl. It could be Rachael. It could be the other pair that had Mount Hope students. Or it could be the other group of three with one member missing for some reason.

It could even be two separate groups that got rid of their partners and had met up.

“Let’s go help them,” Emily said, already starting towards the temple.

“You don’t even know who they are.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, breaking into a run. “They’re not Faultline.”

Again, Eva glanced at Anise. Again she got a shrug in return.

“I guess we better go after her.”

“We are enemies, you know.”

Eva smiled. Not a wide grin, just a polite one. “After all we’ve been through together? How can you say something so cruel. I even rescued you from that evil tentacle monster.”

“That tentacle monster was only there because of you,” Anise said with a scowl. “She said your name, she walked up to you, you two talked. If you had been in a different group, I would never have…” she trailed off, bringing a hand up to her mouth before shaking her head.

“Not necessarily. That could have been her assigned area. Then you would have been antagonizing her without me there to keep her from doing anything worse.”

“That’s… not just…” She shook her head. “Emily is already at the base of the pyramid.”

Eva spun around and moved a single step forwards before hesitating. “I’m trusting you to watch our backs,” she said. “Especially for any vampires. Keep your guard up.”

With that, she blinked forwards three times, crossing the distance to Emily in almost an instant.

And just about got a fireball to her face for her troubles.

Emily spun around the moment Eva appeared, lashing out with flames from the tip of her wand.

Eva slid to the side. She didn’t retaliate. The blast of fire—a good twice as hot as the flames Eva had used on Lucy, at least—blew past the side of her head. Stepping backwards, Eva held up her hands.

Emily followed through on a second attack in a single motion of her wand before finally realizing who she was attacking.

She paused with her wand raised in the air, tip glowing.

“Truce still?”

“I wasn’t the one who almost broke it.”

Her wand arm dropped to her side as she grasped her chest. The tip of her wand was still bright red.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Just startled.” She paused, glancing over Eva’s shoulder. “Anise back there?”

“She’s a bit slower than I am. I told her to watch our backs.” Eva pointed her out to Emily just to prove that she hadn’t broken the truce already.

And really, she wasn’t that slow. Unable to blink, yes. But her sprint carried her at a brisk pace. She was actually almost to them.

But Eva turned and took the steep steps three at a time, leaping up more than stepping as she left Emily behind.

She had a feeling that there would be a fight at the top. Two Faultline boys and two other people, probably not even from the same school. If she had been wrong and one of them was the vampire, she needed to be there and ensure he lost.

Anise and Emily would both have to catch up. Neither had Arachne’s legs.

She passed the first plateau. It really wasn’t that large. More of a landing than a plateau. From the staircase leading down to the staircase continuing up, there was only a few feet of level space. So she continued on without breaking stride.

Neither of her companions were doing quite as well. By the time Eva made it to the second plateau, they had only gone halfway up the first. Their speed dropped drastically. Climbing stairs was never easy and these ones were steep to the point of insanity. Just standing on the edge had Eva feeling like she was about to go tumbling off.

Whoever built the place hadn’t even put guard rails in.

Eva hopped up to the third plateau in three jumps. From there, she was close enough to see everyone at the top through her blood sight. The two Faultline boys were in a fight with Rachael and… the dryad. She was pretty sure. If she hadn’t gotten a look at the dryad back when everyone had been assigned their teams, she would probably be a whole lot more confused.

She took the fourth set of stairs, being only half the height of the rest, in a single bound.

And landed right in the path of a lightning bolt.

Eva shuddered as the electricity ran through her body and out her feet. Steam rose from her shoulders in faint wisps. Her knees hit the stone top of the temple before she could stop herself.

A quick blink had her back on her feet in an instant.

That was probably the first time she had been hit with real lightning. She had been on the receiving end of Elysium Order lightning once or twice, but, although it looked like lightning, Eva didn’t think it really counted. Of course, even air mages didn’t put out a real lightning bolt’s worth of power in their strikes.

The bolt she had been hit with was probably somewhere around the output of a taser. A lower powered one at that. Getting hit with the bolt hadn’t given her a very good view of it. However, she was relatively certain that Zoe’s regular lightning bolt was a few magnitudes higher by default. That was just the impression she got from being in the area while Zoe casted.

Of course, the Faultline student who had cast the bolt could probably increase his output as well.

Four pillars stood around the top of the pyramid, one in each corner. Rachael and the Dryad had taken cover behind the ones opposite from the stairway. The two Faultline students were behind the closer pillars. Eva’s blink after being hit had carried her right next to Rachael, partially using the pillar as cover.

Both sides were flinging magic at each other as fast as they could, essentially at random. Mostly air attacks from one of the Faultline students and mostly fire—of the explosive variety—from the other. Both occasionally switched it up, but not enough for Eva to think they were anything but an air mage and a fire mage.

On her side of the fight, Rachael had a fairly constant wave of flames surrounding the air mage’s pillar. The only reason he hadn’t burned up was because the fire mage kept dampening the flames between his attacks.

The dryad was… doing something. Plants had sprouted straight out of the stone around her pillar and vines wrapped around it. A couple of the flower pods spat seeds around, but Eva wasn’t sure how effective she was actually being.

Having her brief moment to look at the fight, Eva realized that she really shouldn’t have landed between the two Faultline students. Her momentary pause had caused her to get hit. Either she should have attacked immediately upon landing or retreated behind the wall of flames. The air mage couldn’t even see her through the wall of flames.

Eva let out a low growl, igniting her hands as she blinked straight back to the other side.

Her foot stuck one of the Faultline boys in the side, knocking him out from behind cover and knocking the wind out of him at the same time. He wasn’t the one who had struck her, but he seemed the more dangerous of the two. Much like Eva, he was a fire mage. And, much like Eva, he had decided that explosives were the way to go.

Chunks of the pillar providing cover for the dryad were lying around the top of the temple. Enough so that Eva was worried it might collapse. The vines were probably the only reason it hadn’t.

They didn’t seem to like the flames much though.

Really, Eva should just let the dryad get taken out. She was part of the Nod Complex and ultimately allied with the vampire. However, she was currently allied with Rachael. Turning her into an enemy would make it three versus two at the moment. While Eva felt like she could take all three of them at once, she couldn’t be certain.

Best to take out Faultline first and then deal with the dryad on her own. Her seeds didn’t look dangerous, so she shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the dryad would be more of a threat if they were fighting in the forest.

By the time the Faultline students would be incapacitated, Anise and Emily should have made it up the stairs as well. They could help out against the dryad.

So long as they were still allies.

A flower sprouted in front of Eva, just in time to intercept a lightning bolt from the Faultline air mage. Lavender petals exploded everywhere, creating almost a smokescreen between the two pillars.

Eva hesitated in delivering another kick to the flame mage’s chest. Accidentally killing him would probably actually be bad. Really bad. Especially with cameras watching.

Instead, she plucked up his wand and flung it as hard as she could. It disappeared from her sight off the edge of the pyramid. He might have a second, but the way his eyes widened and his arm trailed after it, Eva doubted it.

She might actually feel a little bad about it if she found out it was a family heirloom or something, but for the moment, Eva had other thoughts on her mind.

Namely, her temporary allies.

If her two companions made it to the top and saw Rachael, they might actually side with the dryad. A two versus three scenario in their favor. A preemptive attack to prevent Eva and Rachael from ganging up on them.

Eva still believed that she could take the three of them, but the Elysium Order magic would be far more dangerous than anything a thaumaturge could throw out. Hopefully she would tone down her lightning bolts below the level that hit Arachne, but Eva really had no idea how all that worked.

Of course, if another group showed up, everything would become much more complicated.

The cloud of petals slowly drifted down to the ground. The air mage tried flinging a few spells towards Eva. She had no cover over on his side of the temple, but she really didn’t need any.

She dodged the first lightning bolt, having seen where he was aiming while the petals were still up with her blood sight.

A second and third bolt followed much faster than Eva would have expected. The second hit her in the shoulder. She didn’t get a chance to dodge the third. Lightning caused too many jitters and the mage was casting too fast.

It struck her square in her stomach.

Taken down to a knee, Eva just smiled at the air mage.

She had no need to take another bolt.

The fight was over.

While he had been distracted with Eva, the flowers, and his fallen companion, Rachael had gone around the edge of the temple to come up behind him.

The tip of her glowing wand was pressed to his throat.

“Drop your wand,” she said.

He glared. Mostly at Eva. She could see the fight in his eyes and the tense muscles in his arms.

Gritting her teeth while keeping her smile as genuine as possible, Eva got to her feet.

“I hit you three times,” he hissed, throwing his wand to the floor.

Eva looked down, running a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. It was true, she had a hole in the chest, shoulder, and stomach of her shirt. Black scorch marks surrounded each hole. However, the first had barely hurt her, only bringing her to a pause because she hadn’t been expecting it. The second and third… well, Elysium Order lightning was still much worse despite the extra power he had put behind them.

A few more might have been enough to drop her for a time—or a good shot to her head—but he hadn’t managed that thanks to the flower from the dryad and Rachael’s flank.

“Yeah,” Eva said with a shrug, choosing to downplay exactly how harmful his bolts were. She stepped up to him, picking his wand up off the floor. “Kind of tickled,” she said, almost about to chuck the wand off the roof with the other.

After a moment, she thought better of it and simply slid it into her pocket.

Vines sprouted from the ground around his feet. He didn’t resist as they wrapped up around his legs and arms, binding him. Only when he was down on the ground and completely immobile did Rachael take her wand off him.

Eva had been about to ask her if she had seen Randal around when the dryad walked up. It almost startled Eva. She was just so hard to keep track of with blood sight.

The dryad stopped a good two arm spans away, staring with obvious caution, but also with a small smile.

Eva wasn’t sure how to react. Should she throw the dryad off the pyramid now, before Anise and Emily arrived? Wait?

Her plants shouldn’t be dangerous to Eva. At least not the ones she had seen. Even the vines shouldn’t pose any more of a problem than Lucy’s tentacles had. They might trip her up, but blinking would solve that problem easy enough. Or just igniting her legs. The vines wrapped around the pillar hadn’t taken the heat well.

“Thanks,” the dryad said, breaking Eva out of her devious plots on how to deal with the situation. “I thought that pillar was going to collapse on me. And then the fire–” She cut herself off with a shudder. “I don’t take fire well.”

Eva wanted to groan. Everything would be so much easier if the dryad just up and attacked her. Instead she decided to give thanks? And offer up an obvious weakness to go with it?

It was enough to make Eva sigh.

“No problem,” Eva said with another sigh. Rather than do anything else, she turned her head to Rachael. “Randal?”

“Haven’t seen him.”

“He’s got a demon in him. I doubt he would get taken out. Wonder what is taking him so long?”

“We ran into an earth mage. Some crazy strong lady. Pretty sure she let us go in the end, though she looked like she was pretty tired. He might have run into something similar and didn’t get so lucky.”

“My group ran into Lucy,” Eva said. “Speaking of, they’re still climbing the stairs.” Though it was taking them a really long time. Mortals. “I should probably check on them.”

Rachael stepped forward and dropped the volume of her voice. “We’re going to have to take them out at some point.”

“Yours too,” Eva said without glancing over her shoulder.

Rachael shifted her weight, looking off and down to the side. “I think she’s afraid of my fire. She has been very compliant of everything I ask. Makes me feel like the bad guy here.”

I know how you feel, Eva thought with yet another sigh. Raising her voice from her whisper, she turned slightly to address both members of the green group. “Stay up here, I’m going to find my companions. Keep them contained,” she said with a nod towards the Faultline students. “Fight off anyone else. If you can figure out what we’re supposed to do here, great. Though wait for me if you can.”

Without really looking at the plant girl, Eva walked over to the stairs.

And frowned.

The first plateau was fairly far away. It also had flashes of light coming from at least four different sources.

Blinking up the staircase was difficult. Because of the angles, it was almost impossible to see where to blink. There could be uneven terrain or plants growing that would splice her up if she teleported into them.

She was under no such limitations in blinking downwards.

Eva landed between Anise and Emily and promptly ducked to dodge a glowing white battle axe.

“Seems a bit deadly for a friendly competition,” Eva said, grabbing hold of Anise’s hand before she could try to swing again.

Recognition lit up in her already glowing eyes. She shook her head, pulling her hand out of Eva’s loose grip. “Tell that to those monsters.”

Eva moved slightly closer to the waist-high wall of stone at the edge of the plateau that hadn’t been there her first time up. Emily’s handiwork no doubt. A bit of cover for any spells that might come their way. Peeking over the edge, she realized that the stairs weren’t even there. A steep slope had replaced them.

Though he had lost his cap, another of the Faultline boys was flinging shards of ice around. Water appeared out of nowhere, rushing over the earth towards his opponent. All the while, he was doing flips and jumps that a trained gymnast might find troublesome.

Eva couldn’t think of a single other mage she had encountered that moved so much. Genoa came close, but even she was more like a rolling boulder than a circus performer. The demon hunter that Eva had killed moved fast, but lacked showy flips.

Actually, Eva thought, the other hunter might be similar. Eva had only fought with her once before Arachne paralyzed her. And even then, not for very long. But she had been fairly animated.

So he wasn’t the only mage. But a kid?

Then again, it wasn’t hard to see why he was moving so much.

Randal was at the base of the pyramid with him. Large black orbs flew from his fingertips, wilting the grass beneath them as they moved. If they came near any ice or water, it vanished in an instant. Everything thrown at him simply got eaten by the orbs.

Eva wasn’t sure what would happen if one of the orbs actually hit someone, but it probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight for the three camera drones circling over the fight.

“They ran up, flinging spells at each other. I managed to slow them down with a few lightning bolts.”

“And I turned the stairs to a slide.”

“After that, they just decided to fight each other down there.”

“What is that magic he’s using?”

Eva glanced to Anise, half expecting her to respond with some insight gleaned from her hive mind.

Instead, she shrugged and gave Eva an apologetic look.

“Your third eye doesn’t tell you?”

Emily blinked, turning her head. Eva ignored the other girl for the moment.

“I don’t think I can find out without getting closer. I don’t really want to get closer.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said. “It’s demon magic. I can tell you that much. No clue what it’s doing.”

“It’s like a black hole,” Emily whispered with a shudder.

“Demon magic,” Anise said with narrowed eyes. “Friend of yours?”

“He goes to my school. Be back in a moment.”

Eva blinked down again, making sure to land where the black orbs were not. She conjured fire marbles and flung them out almost immediately. They were even lower power than the ones she had first used on Lucy, but they were also surprise attacks on an unsuspecting target’s back.

At least, she thought she had been launching a surprise attack. The student flattened himself against the grass, rolling over to one side.

The marbles flew over him. Several were eaten by one of Randal’s orbs while the rest exploded harmlessly off to the sides.

Eva blinked, putting herself facing the pyramid with the student between it and her. Just a movement to keep him on his toes.

She was about to launch another volley of orbs when a crack split the air. White lightning struck him square in the back.

Eva winced.

He collapsed to his knees, moaning in pain.

As much as she could empathize with him, she didn’t hesitate. Personal experience taught her that as painful and debilitating as it was—and deadly if they meant it enough—he could very easily get up and continue fighting if he collected his wits enough. Devon had gotten back to his feet after being hit and Devon was a wuss.

She blinked up to him and pocketed his wand.

After ensuring that Eva had the Faultline student’s wand, Randal pointed a finger towards the pyramid.

Eva blinked to him, gripped his arm, and yanked it skyward.

A black orb flew from his fingertip, hit one of the circling drones, and… passed through without hurting it.

Eva shook her head.

“They’re friends,” she said in a rush. She needed to stop him before he killed someone.

He just stared at her.

Conceding the point, she added, “For the moment. I know we should have talked about this beforehand, but what are you throwing around? You can’t kill people.”

“It destroys magic. Most magic anyway. Wouldn’t hurt a person.”

Eva opened her mouth, paused, snapped it shut, and opened it again. “How were you planning on winning against that guy if you couldn’t hurt him?” Or anyone else for that matter. “You’re lucky he didn’t realize that.”

“It isn’t the only thing I can do. Plus regular thaumaturgy. Besides, I figured you would save the day.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Rachael is already at the top. We should hurry and win this thing.”

“Lead the way.”

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009.008

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva reached into the large leathery bag. By a strange happenstance, she was the first to choose a marble. The first school to leave the ready area had gone to the far left, the second had gone to the far right. Third and fourth went to the left and right leaving Brakket right in the center.

Right in front of the marble bag.

The opening was right at waist height. Despite being able to easily see inside, Eva couldn’t actually see anything. Some darkness spell was keeping everything below the lip of the bag effectively invisible.

Feeling around inside the bag, Eva’s hand swept through hundreds of marbles. Her hand dove deep, burrowing inside the large bag. As it wasn’t on any sort of pedestal, just resting on the ground, Eva would actually have to bend over to reach the bottom. Something she wasn’t willing to do.

But it spoke of how many marbles there were.

Redford had said that there were seven starting locations with a maximum of three people per spot.

So what are all the other marbles for?

For all she knew, this was some kind of test before the test. Not picking one of the colors might disqualify her. Or something else horrible.

Or perhaps it was just an innocent bit of magic. The marbles might color themselves upon being drawn and only so many could be drawn of one color. Something so that the last person to pick would feel like they had just as many choices as the first, even though that was just an illusion.

With nothing else to do, she gripped one of the marbles and pulled it out.

Her hand came out of the darkness with a violet sphere.

She stepped away, allowing her two companions to choose their marbles.

Randal reached inside first. Much like Eva, he looked surprised as he moved his hand around. He didn’t take quite as long to pick, coming away with a yellow marble.

Rachael stepped up after him. She reached in and immediately pulled out a green marble with no surprise or digging around. By the looks of things, she had taken the very first marble her fingers touched.

“Alright,” Eva said as they moved away for the next schools to have their turns. “Guess I’ll see you guys in the center.”

Randal looked to her with a half-smirk. “Don’t get killed.”

“Please, after everything I’ve been through? I’m more worried about accidentally killing one of them.”

“Don’t get cocky either,” Rachael said with a sour expression. “Or kill anyone. It wouldn’t reflect well on us.”

“I’ll try not to,” Eva said, taking one step towards the violet light hovering just behind where the schools had been standing. She paused, looking back to her companions. “I warned you before,” she said in a hushed tone of voice, “but keep an eye on the Nod Complex’s vampire. I don’t know that he’ll be playing nice.”

“So long as fire puts him down nicely, I shouldn’t have a problem.”

“And I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve as well,” Randal said. “Good luck.”

With that, they split up. Eva slipped her own marble into a pocket on her skirt, watching the other schools pick their marbles as she waited.

Somehow, the Isomer students muscled their way past the Mount Hope girls despite being further away. Only one of the Elysium Order nun trainees were participating in this event. The two other boys picked out a blue and a red marble.

The curly-haired nun picked her marble, looked over it, and began scowling as soon as she glanced towards Eva’s colored light.

From their brief interaction, Eva had a vague idea bout the curly-haired nun’s personality. She deferred to the other trainee, acted somewhat nervous about Eva, and—if Eva wasn’t missing her mark—had been more believing about the fact that a vampire was roaming the halls.

Of course, just because this was the nun more believing of Eva’s claims did not make them friends.

She stalked over with a glare yet somehow managed to avoid eye contact.

Eva paid her little mind for the moment. When the event actually started, she would have to be wary. It wouldn’t be surprising if the nun tried to take her out the second the light disappeared.

Instead of talking or taunting, Eva continued to watch as the students split off to their respective colors.

It wasn’t until the Nod Complex students moved up to get their marbles that Eva found herself growing worried.

The violet light still only had herself and the Isomer girl. Though unlikely, it would be just her luck to wind up with both a nun and a vampire. She had already done that dance once with Serena and Nel and it hadn’t been a lot of fun back then. Those two were at least friendly. To Eva.

She actually let out a short sigh when she saw him pull out a red marble. At least she wouldn’t have to doubly watch her back. He would still be around the playing field, but she could maybe get away from the nun before then. Or maybe set the nun on the vampire.

“Is he that dangerous?”

Eva glanced to the nun with a raised eyebrow. “The vampire?”

“You weren’t half as agitated when you saw me walking over.”

“Between him and you, I’d much rather be partnered with you.”

Eva took her eyes off the nun, watching as the vampire meandered over to the other Isomer student. The two boys nodded at each other, not having anything resembling the hostility Eva might have expected from an undead and a ‘Holy’ Academy student. He was probably just a normal kid. The school wasn’t entirely made of Elysium Order recruits after all.

“He’s already attacked me in an attempt to get my blood,” Eva continued.

“And you fought him off?” the nun said with a scoff. A clearly disbelieving scoff.

Did she not think that demons would beat vampires?

Holding out her hand, Eva flicked her wrist. Flames lit up all the way to her elbow.

“Vampires can’t catch you if you’re on fire,” Eva said with a wide grin.

The nun harrumphed and looked away.

Just in time for the two of them to see a third student heading over to the violet light. One of the poor students from Mount Hope. After being shoved aside by Isomer, the rest of the schools took that as a go-ahead to select their marbles first. The Hope students just sat around awkwardly as everyone pushed past them.

The one coming towards Eva looked fairly young. She couldn’t be much older than Eva. Maybe a year at the most. She gave Eva’s hand a wide berth, eying her as she walked up to them. Despite that extra space and the slight look out of the corner of her eye, she smiled at both Eva and the nun.

“Emily,” she said with a happy nod of her head.

Eva extinguished her hand. “Eva.”

Both looked towards the nun. Emily, probably because she was being friendly. Not so much in Eva’s case. She put on her widest smile, fully channeling Sawyer as she looked at the nun with expectant eyes.

“Anise,” the nun said, barely managing not to sneer at either one of them.

Before any further introductions could be made, Redford got back to his feet. He leaned slightly on his cane as he made his way to the front of the stage.

“You’ve all been distributed,” he said, prompting Eva to glance at her schoolmates.

Rachael wound up with the Nod Complex’s dryad. With a face looking like it was made of pale wood, the dryad’s expression was near impossible to read. However, the two were speaking softly to one another. Nothing hostile, as far as Eva could tell.

Eva did take a moment to look over the dryad using her other senses. Though she wouldn’t be openly using blood magic, she could use her sense of blood without care for being found out.

The dryad, she found, did show up. But it was weird. She obviously had something flowing beneath her… bark. It counted as blood, yet it was slow and sticky feeling. It didn’t move around her body in any way that Eva could liken to anything else living that she had seen. She didn’t have blood vessels or organs, as far as Eva could tell. There were patterns, especially in her face where eyes, mouth, and nose all had distinct shapes.

Eva shook her head. Even if the dryad was strange, at least she could sense her presence with blood magic.

Randal, on the other hand, was entirely alone. The only student to have avoided being paired with anyone else. Two colors, violet included, had three people. Everyone else was in pairs.

He didn’t look all that upset about not having anyone with him. Rather, his grin could rival Eva’s.

“You will be directed to your starting positions momentarily,” Redford said. “As a reminder, straying too far from the light will result in disqualification until it disappears. I suggest you pay attention.”

He didn’t say anything more, choosing to return to his seat.

One of the robotic drones flew by, giving a view of the divided students.

Eva gave it a small wave. Maybe her old friends at the veterinarian’s clinic were watching. Though, she doubted they would recognize her. With her short hair, sharp teeth, red eyes, and literal claws, she had changed a great deal since she last saw them.

The light above her head flashed twice before slowly drifting off, heading deeper into the woods.

All three of the students followed after it in silence.

At least, they started in silence. While the nun looked like a conversation was the last thing on her mind—something Eva certainly didn’t have an issue with—Emily started fidgeting almost as soon as they were away from the rest of the groups. Her eyes constantly flicked between the backs of Eva and the nun, as both were walking a step or two ahead.

For a moment, Eva almost let her continue her fretting. If only for wondering how long it would last. The nun wouldn’t notice; her eyes were glued forward. As such, it was up to Eva to break the silence or wait for her to finally speak up.

Three steps later had Eva deciding to take pity. The girl’s heart rate was steady, but the twiddling of her fingers grew ever more intense as they continued walking. Much longer and she might have a panic attack.

“Was there something you needed?” Eva asked with a glance over her shoulder.

“Oh! I, um… There was just… It’s not that–”

“Spit it out already,” Anise snapped. She closed her eyes and shook her head, almost tripping over a fallen branch. “I’m sorry,” she said, opening her eyes again. “Just nervous.”

“Me too.”

Eva wasn’t. Not about them, anyway. The only person she was actually concerned about at the moment was the vampire. And possibly whatever creatures were out in the forest to cause problems. No one had been able to come up with a creature other than a gorgon that might have metallic scales. Someone had suggested a dragon.

The forest wasn’t on fire. Eva had dismissed that claim.

So Eva decided to come up with a list of as many scaled creatures as she could. One might have a sub-breed with metallic scales. Basilisks were at the top of the list of creatures she did not want to meet tonight, but she felt as if they might be too dangerous for a children’s school game.

Then there was the idea that the scale was not a scale at all, rather a piece of something else. She did not yet have an idea as to what.

“We’re not going to betray each other as soon as the event starts, are we?” Emily asked with a slight quiver in her voice.

Eva and the nun glanced at each other. Well, Eva glanced. The nun glared.

“I can agree to a truce,” Eva said, offering an olive branch before the nun could say a word.

“And why should I believe you won’t stab us in the back the moment we let our guards down?”

“Let’s just say that I have a vested interest in ensuring anyone wins with the exception of the Nod Complex.” Which was not even a lie. Eva did want to win, but she was perfectly capable of being pragmatic when needed. “The longer I can keep you alive,” she said with a vague gesture towards the nun, “the rougher time the vampire is going to have.”

“A-alive?” Emily had probably intended to shriek. She failed, instead somehow managing to whisper at the top of her lungs.

“A slip of the tongue. I’m used to harsher combat than whatever Redford has in store for us. Probably. I doubt they would send students into anything truly dangerous.”

“I don’t know about that. People have died in the past. Not a common thing, but it has happened. And Redford really doesn’t strike me as the most sane of event organizers,” Anise mused more to herself than anyone else. She didn’t miss the sharp breath from Emily, however, and quickly amended her statement. “But I’m sure we’ll be fine. They wouldn’t televise bloodsport.”

“Anyway,” Eva said as the violet light above them came to a stop.

They were—thankfully—nowhere near her ritual circle. Given how large the Infinite Courtyard was, even her gigantic ritual site was still just a dot on the map. But it had been a concern on her mind.

She held out a hand towards the others. A stone snake was wrapped around her wrist, but neither girl seemed to pay it much mind. “Truce?”

Emily took hold of her hand almost instantly, giving it a vigorous shake with a relief-filled smile.

After releasing her hand, Eva turned to fully offer it towards the nun.

Anise eyed the black claw. “Shaking hands with the devil,” she said in a low mumble.

“Religious theology has very little to do with real demons,” Eva said. “Trust me on that if nothing else.”

The nun harrumphed, still not reaching for Eva’s hand.

“Redford did say that we might be more successful if we work together. We should at least figure out what we are doing before mur–fighting each other.”

The nun did not miss Eva’s slip. Even so, she thrust out her hand with a sneer. Her grip tightened down as hard as her poor human muscles could go.

Eva didn’t feel a thing.

“I’ll be watching you.”

Two bright flashes above them pulled their attention up to the violet orb. And, consequently, the drone hovering just overhead.

Anise pulled her hand back with a groan. “I hope that camera isn’t recording. I’ll be excommunicated for sure.”

Eva smiled. “Come find me if you are. I know someone who might be willing to… employ ex-nuns.”

The not-yet-ex-nun shot Eva a glare before they all had to start moving. The violet light hovered forward at a languid pace.

Eva felt it immediately. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed before. Redford mentioned a ward to keep them from accidentally wandering out of the event grounds. But to be standing right next to it and entirely miss it was something of a shock to Eva.

It made her all the more thankful that the demon hunters had been either nearly incompetent in ward construction or in too much of a rush in setting them up to have done a decent job. She could have easily wandered into one just as Juliana had if Redford had been the one to set them up.

Shaking off her shock, Eva had to move quickly to follow after the light before it got too far away. Thankfully, it stopped just inside the ward. She didn’t have far to go.

“Cold feet?” Anise said with a sneer.

“Just surprised at the ward. It was… strong. Like I was being crushed for a moment by nothing more than the air.”

Emily frowned, looking back to where they had just come from. “I didn’t notice anything.”

“Same.”

Eva shrugged. “Probably tuned differently for humans and non-humans. I doubt they want whatever monsters they filled this place with to escape.”

“Monsters. Right. You mentioned vampires earlier,” Emily said.

“A vampire. Singular. He’s actually a student.”

Anise curled her lips back into a sneer. Though it wasn’t that steady. Her heart started beating faster. After a moment, she let out a sigh and dropped the tough act just long enough to mumble out a few words. “I wish Chris were here.”

Her voice was just quiet enough that Eva wouldn’t have been able to hear from a step to the side. As it was, she decided to shrug her shoulders without comment. Chris was probably the other nun. So long as Anise could use the white Elysium Order magic, Eva really didn’t care which nun she got. While initially she had considered running off, in retrospect, she was lucky to have been in the same group as one.

It gave her the excuse of a truce to not attack and left open the possibility that Elysium Order magic would prove just slightly too deadly to the vampire.

Emily opened her mouth to comment more.

Another flash from the light overhead stopped her cold.

Three pulses. The light died off, fading to a bright spark before disappearing entirely.

Eva put up her guard immediately, keeping her back to the wardline as she stared at her two ‘companions.’ She was ready to move, attack, or flee depending on the situation.

The nun moved as well. White light burned in her eyes as she locked her gaze with Eva.

However, at the moment, Eva was slightly more concerned with the other girl.

She seemed the Shalise-type of girl. At least, Eva found herself reminded of Shalise. Timid, perhaps not very strong magically, yet earnest and willing to work hard if necessary. Her concerns about monsters, working together, and Eva’s slip about keeping Anise alive were all perfectly valid. Things she could imagine Shalise worrying about.

At the same time, Eva couldn’t imagine Shalise’s heart rate remaining relatively steady. Even while walking through the forest and discussing relatively uncomfortable topics such as ambushing one another, Eva couldn’t recall any change in Emily’s heart rate that couldn’t be attributed to the normal physical exertion of walking through a forest.

The moment the light disappeared, her wand slipped into her hand from somewhere up her sleeve. Her face hardened as she looked through narrowed eyes at both Eva and the nun.

But she didn’t attack.

The hairs on the back of Eva’s neck stood on end.

But neither of them attacked.

After standing perfectly still for upwards of five minutes, Eva broke first. They were wasting time. Good time. The vampire had undoubtedly eliminated his partner and would already be heading towards the goal.

“Well,” she said, dropping her guard almost entirely. She would still be able to blink away if either of them moved towards her. “We’re wasting time.”

“We could glare at each other until the event passed us by,” Emily said slowly.

Eva grinned. Probably not the best thing she could do given her teeth, but she did so anyway. “Right. And I’d like someone who isn’t the Nod Complex to win this thing.” She held out both hands, one to each of her temporary companions. “Truce? For real this time?”

“You mentioned something like that before,” Emily said. “What’s your deal with them?”

“Just a little bet. Well, that and a vehement dislike of their vampire.”

Anise only hesitated for a moment before reaching out to grasp Eva’s hand. “If you aren’t lying, I can definitely agree with that.”

“No lie. After the Nod Complex is removed from the playing field, we can fight all we want.”

“Fine with me,” Anise said. She tried to pull back her hand, but Eva held on.

Eva glanced towards Emily. She lifted her hand up ever so slightly, further offering it to the girl.

“Your hands are creepy.”

“Sharp too. Not the kind of claws you want on an enemy.”

Emily narrowed her eyes at the threat. Eva couldn’t bring herself to care. She already had the anti-vampire person on her side. If Emily continued to waste time, she would just pick up the girl and chuck her back towards the ward line. Leaving counted as disqualification, or so Redford had mentioned. Making someone leave probably worked just as well.

But the girl swapped her wand to her other hand, leaving her left hand free to grab hold of Eva’s claw.

“Excellent,” Eva said.

As she spoke, a drone dropped down, swooping around them in a full circle before flying back up overhead.

Anise tore her hand out of Eva’s grip, barely managing to avoid mangling herself, and buried her face in her hands.

“I am so going to be excommunicated.”

Eva couldn’t help but to chuckle.

For a second.

Releasing Emily’s hand, she made the first steps towards the rest of the arena.

“We’ve some lost time to reclaim. I hope you can keep up.”

With that, Eva took off. She didn’t use her legs to their full potential. Losing sight of either of her companions could wind up with them being ambushed. Or ambushing her. But she fast ran enough to push them to keep up.

“I’m coming for you, vampire,” Eva muttered under her breath.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.005

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“I volunteer.”

Everyone in the room turned to look at Eva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But would Irene be able to keep up with everyone?

She supposed she would have to wait and see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Might?”

He shrugged.

Eva rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a gorgon scale.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, no–”

“I thought not.”

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

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

“Are you alright?”

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

Arachne frowned, opening her mouth.

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

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

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

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

“Wha–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eva.”

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

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

Another bout of silence followed her statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet nobody jumped up to respond in the affirmative.

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

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

Yet, it was kind of fun.

More importantly, Eva didn’t like losing.

— — —

Juliana twisted to her left.

A series of cracks ran up her spine.

She twisted to her right.

More cracks echoed the first set.

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

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

And this ritual circle was designed to summon something.

The terminology was fairly moot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably both.

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

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

“Any problems?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you reading?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha, she thought, like that would ever happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vampire,” Juliana hissed.

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

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

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

Neither made to attack.

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

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

“What do you want?”

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

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

I,” a voice behind Juliana thundered.

Juliana whirled around.

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

Am not a snack.

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