Tag Archives: Randal

009.011

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Eva didn’t sit around to chat with Randal. A more in-depth questioning on what abilities his bound demon gave him could wait until after they had won this thing.

She had a bad feeling. Nothing with any real reason behind it, just a chill up her spine.

Blinking to the base of the pyramid, Eva hesitated for a second. The stairwell was still a smooth earthen slide. Rather than wait and see if Emily would reverse the staircase, she jumped.

The bottom segment of the pyramid was the largest. She couldn’t jump it all in a single bound. She could, however, dig her hands and feet into the wall. After making a sufficient platform for leverage, she jumped the rest of the way up.

And landed right between Anise and Emily again.

Compared to how she had seen them a mere minute ago, roughly calm but worried about Randal and the Faultline student, they both looked at Eva with some trepidation.

Eva opened her mouth to speak.

Anise beat her to it. She clasped the sides of her head with a loud groan. “I should have attacked you. Or your friend. Now there’s two of you and I still haven’t seen anyone from my school. Ah, I wish Chris were here. She wouldn’t have hesitated to attack you.”

Unless she attacked me right at the start and I knocked her out then, Eva didn’t bother saying. Instead she said, “We’re not going to attack you or anything. You two come up with us and who knows, maybe your schoolmates will show up and you can attack us. Or we activate some trap before winning and get knocked out, leaving you two to take over.”

“I am perfectly content with that plan,” Emily said after a moment of silence. “I mean, I don’t want to speak bad about my school… but I’m probably the only one left. They… we aren’t…”

Eva glared. She wasn’t angry. But she was on a time limit.

“That’s great. We can all have a heart to heart and be friends later. I left Rachael up there with the dryad and I’ve got a bad feeling. Let’s go.”

She took a step, preparing to jump up the stairs to the top, but paused and turned.

“Though if you could turn the stairs back to normal, I’m sure Randal would appreciate it.”

Randal was still within her blood sight range. He was struggling. A lot. He was trying to brace himself against where the stairs would be and the decorative slope between the stairwell and the main pyramid walls. Every now and again, he slid down.

Eva didn’t wait to see if Emily would comply. She half expected Rachael to be watching from the top, yet there was no silhouette against the moonlight sky. They might try attacking Randal, but he could probably handle it if they did. Especially if his magic canceling orbs worked on Elysium Order magic.

She hopped and hopped and hopped until the topmost plateau came in range of her blood sight.

A swear escaped her lips that would undoubtedly be censored over the airwaves.

Eva hopped to the top of the pyramid. Before her feet even touched the ground, she blinked and reappeared next to the vine-wrapped pillar.

A swipe of her fingers had several vines snapping, freeing Rachael. She slumped forwards. Only the tension of the vines had been holding her upright. Her hand pressed up against two bleeding holes in her shoulder.

“He was just waiting for you to leave,” she said, voice soft and lethargic.

Eva didn’t need to ask who ‘he’ was. The vampire had taken more blood than Eva would be comfortable with. Rachael should be fine. Potions could have her fixed up without trouble. Her neck was only lightly bleeding, so her life shouldn’t be in danger as long as she didn’t make the wound worse. Which made sense. The vampire wouldn’t want to kill anyone just as much as Eva didn’t want to.

Probably.

Rachael’s wand was missing as well. Stolen or perhaps flung off the pyramid along with the Faultline wand. Eva had spares from the other members of Faultline. Unfortunately, they were worthless unless Rachael was actually up to the task of wielding one.

“I knew I should have thrown that dryad off the pyramid.”

Rachael let out a few low chuckles. “There are slots for the marbles,” she said, pointing towards the center of the pyramid. “It opened up into an elevator. They went inside. You might be able to catch them before they win this.”

“I hope so,” Eva said as she looked to where Rachael had pointed.

Sure enough, there was a shallow indentation right in the center that looked like it would be the perfect size for the marbles they had received to determine their teams.

But they must have gone pretty deep into the temple. Eva could see the dryad having slipped by her blood sense, but the vampire stuck out like a sore thumb. She hadn’t sensed either of them on her ascent back up the pyramid.

Eva’s first instinct was to run to the elevator, drop her marble in, and give immediate chase.

But then it would be her versus the dryad and the vampire. Alone. Exactly the situation she had been trying to avoid by dragging along the trainee nun this whole time.

Eva blinked to the edge of the stairs.

At least Randal and the others weren’t fighting. And they were hurrying up the stairs. But, only being halfway to the third landing, they were going far slower than Eva needed. Despite having started all the way at the base, Randal had passed by the two girls.

Cupping her hands to her mouth, Eva shouted down at them. “Move it people!”

Both Anise and Emily looked up at her with identical expressions on their faces.

They stared up at her with open mouths, panting as they used her shout as an excuse to stop moving.

It isn’t that far, Eva thought with a groan. Sure, the temple was probably twice the size of the absurdly large ritual circle. But they only had to go half the length of it. Uphill. Rather, upstairs. Which was probably worse if she thought about it for a moment.

But they didn’t have to be so slow about it.

That simply wouldn’t do.

Eva blinked straight down to Anise. Ignoring her yelp, Eva gave her a light shove. Just enough to knock her off-balance. Once off-balance, Eva scooped her up into her arms and started jumping back up the pyramid. Her hops up were shorter than they could be while on her own, but still much faster than Anise climbing unassisted.

“Don’t drop–”

At the top, Eva ignored Anise’s complaints and unceremoniously dropped her on the ground. She ran back to the stairs…

And considered leaving Emily behind once again. Randal was hightailing it up the pyramid and would be at the top soon enough. Even if they left her behind, Emily could still come down the elevator. Probably. Assuming it wasn’t limited in its uses.

If the first to use it was the only one who could, then Eva had already lost. She had to believe that the game wasn’t over yet.

The simple fact of the matter was that Emily didn’t offer all that much to the team. Randal was from her school and therefore a trusted ally. Not to mention his demon bond that gave him more power than the average thaumaturgical mage. Anise had an Elysium Order eye implanted in her chest. Her magic was the ultimate anti-undead. Almost to the point where Eva was concerned she might kill the vampire on accident.

It wasn’t super concerning. If the vampire died, Eva wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. And if somebody killed the vampire who wasn’t her, then all the better.

Emily was just a regular thaumaturge. Not even an experienced one. She was about the same age as Eva, even if she seemed to have a decent handle on both earth magic and fire magic.

However, she wasn’t from the Nod Complex. For the moment, that was good enough for Eva.

Eva blinked again.

“Wait! Don’t–”

Eva knocked her to the side just as she had with Anise, scooped her up, and started hopping up once again.

Randal made it up to the top before Eva did. Not by much. If she hadn’t hesitated in retrieving Emily, she might have made it back first. Or at least at the same time.

“No ride for me?” Randal asked with a mild chuckle. He started to move towards Rachael.

Eva pinched the hem of his shirt without setting down the somewhat squirmy Emily. She dragged him over to the center where Anise was already waiting. As with Anise, Eva dropped Emily on the ground and ignored her groan.

Fishing her marble out of her pocket—which was thankfully still intact despite the holes in her clothes—Eva dropped it into the indentation.

Which promptly opened up and swallowed the marble.

Eva waited. She was expecting the entire platform to move. Or at least the part between the pillars. There was a faint seam where she though the floor might drop out from the rest.

But it wasn’t moving.

“Rachael?” she said, turning. “How long did it take?”

“Only a second or two, but they both put their marbles in.”

Eva looked around her group. “Well? You heard her, what are you waiting for? I hope none of you lost them.”

Anise and Emily both pulled theirs out without complaint and dropped them into the hole. Randal pulled his out and held it in his hand.

He didn’t bend down and put it in the hole. His eyes narrowed as he watched the other two drop their marbles.

“Why are we taking these two with us?”

“Randal,” Eva said, keeping her voice cool. “Put your marble in the hole. If the elevator ride is long enough, maybe I’ll tell you. Nod Complex students are already down there. We don’t have time to sit around up here fighting.”

He hesitated for another moment before tilting his head. “Alright,” he said with a half-sigh.

The second he placed his marble down, the entire platform jolted. Another second and they were moving downwards.

“Good luck,” Rachael shouted just before their heads dipped below the surface of the temple.

Reaching into her pocket, Eva pulled out one of the wands and tossed it at Rachael. “Just in case,” she called out as two stone doors closed over her head.

Randal had his eyes on Eva as soon as the last vestiges of light were pinched by the doors. They snapped shut with a thunderous crash. Beyond that, Eva couldn’t hear much of anything. The elevator was near silent. Maybe a slight grinding of stone against stone if she really strained her ears, but that could just as easily be her imagination.

Not that she needed to hear anything. Randal’s stare was loud enough on its own to make up for the lack of noise around.

She couldn’t actually see his eyes. No new lights lit up inside the slowly lowering chamber.

Well, none save for two bright white lights flaring up where Anise’s eyes should be. They didn’t provide nearly enough illumination to brighten up the entire elevator however.

So Eva decided to help out. She ignited both of her claws, brightening her flames until she could see not only her companions but the moving walls as well. The platform was fairly spacious. Eva couldn’t stretch out her arms without hitting someone else, but she wasn’t up in their faces either. Even still, she took a step closer to the center.

Being able to see the walls moving up while in the elevator unnerved her for some reason.

Interestingly, she couldn’t see any cameras around. The drones had been circling around outside the temple, but none had followed them into the elevator shaft.

“So spill. Why are we not taking their wands. Or kicking them off the top of the pyramid?”

“First,” Eva pointed towards Anise, “she doesn’t need a wand for her most dangerous magic.”

Anise took a step back as Randal turned to glare at her. Though she still had at least two steps to go before hitting the wall, Eva couldn’t help but wince. What if her curly hair snagged on the rough stone walls as they rushed past?

“Second, we’re going down into this temple with who knows what waiting for us. At the very least, there is a dryad and a vampire.”

“You don’t think we can take them?”

“I think I could take them with my eyes closed. While the vampire isn’t necessarily the most powerful representative of his species and the dryad might be a little underwhelming, I still would rather not find out they’ve been hiding all their tricks right at the last moment.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Randal said, eying the other two girls. “What’s the third reason?”

“What makes you think there is a third reason?”

He turned back, looking at her as if he were offended she had thought so little of him.

Eva sighed.

“Alright. I really don’t want the Nod Complex to win. Like, at all. We have a better chance at stopping them with four of us.”

Turning her attention to Emily, she smiled a nice, closed mouth smile. “I don’t know what your deal with Faultline was, but all three of their people lost their wands. Thanks to yours truly. They can’t win anymore. I expect equal help in keeping the Nod Complex from winning.”

Before Emily could agree or disagree, Eva turned to Anise. “And you’re part of the Elysium Order. Say what you want about demons, but you hunt undead. Think of what an embarrassment it would be if a vampire were to win.”

A jolt almost threw all of them to the ground as the elevator slammed into the ground. It hadn’t slowed down in the slightest before stopping cold. Eva actually had to extinguish her hands in a hurry lest she accidentally burn Randal by bumping into him. When no further jolts came, she moved a step away and reignited her hands.

One of the four walls wasn’t a wall anymore. A doorway had opened up in place of the wall leading out into a long corridor. A camera was mounted on a track along one of the walls, staring right at them.

Eva almost glowered at it. Instead, she grinned and gave it a little wave. Despite their disadvantage in getting down the elevator second, she might as well be a little confident.

As for how far they had gone down, Eva couldn’t say. Rachael’s circulatory system had gone out of range a short while ago. They had traveled for a time since then. For all Eva knew, they could be halfway up the pyramid, level with the ground around it, or even deep underground.

Just beneath the camera was a small tray. Three violet marbles and one yellow were ready for collection.

Eva picked up one of the violet ones, the one furthest from the elevator which should be hers, as did the other girls. Randal picked up his yellow marble.

Based on how they were keys to get down into the pyramid, they were probably used elsewhere inside as well. Maybe keys for doors. Maybe winning the whole thing. Whatever the case, Eva wasn’t about to throw it away.

“Alright. Time is running out.”

With one final glance towards her companions, Eva took off running.

She did not handicap her speed to keep as a group. So long as there was nothing but a single hallway, there was no need. No one would get lost and the vampire should be up ahead.

Though, she was the group’s light source at the moment. The others might be able to get their own light going, but so long as she had her hands aflame, she might as well help out. Eva trailed a finger along the wall opposite from the camera—which was racing along with her—and left fire sticking to the wall in a long line.

So long as she had her spell right, it should burn for several minutes with a decent brightness. Even ten-year-old light bulbs would be better, but the small trail of flames was better still than nothing at all. As long as it stayed lit. It wasn’t something she had done before, but she was fairly confident in her ability.

She was moving fast through the corridor. Her flames only left a thin trail of fire behind her that failed to light up the entire hallway. Ahead of her was dark enough that she nearly crashed into a wall. The hallway looped around, turning straight back the way she had come with a slight incline up a ramp.

Eva only hesitated in continuing for a brief moment before charging forwards. She continued her trail of fire, though she absently noted that the camera decided not to follow her onwards. It went backwards at the turn, perhaps giving the others some screen time.

The inclined passageway wasn’t half as long as the one from the elevator to the turn.

It opened up without a door into a wide and well-lit room. Wide might have been an understatement. As far as Eva could tell, the entire pyramid was hollow. There was a single column in the very center of a gigantic space where the elevator must have been. Cameras lined it up and down, some able to move around on large robotic arms. More cameras hung off the sloped walls of the pyramid, though she couldn’t see any real light sources.

Or do the walls count as a ceiling?

Eva shook her head.

It didn’t matter.

What did matter was the absolute forest that had grown inside. It couldn’t be a natural forest. The flowers and vines and even a few trees had broken away the stone flooring to grow. Maybe Redford had done it, but Eva’s money was on the dryad.

There was a slight decline leading down into the forest bowl that had Eva wondering just how badly space had been twisted inside the temple. It was probably meant to give a view of the area before one actually had to tread down there.

The opposite end of the room looked like a large golden shrine. Two pillars of gold covered in ornate carvings of blocky-looking people surrounded a mural of a sun. She actually had to move a little to see it properly as the large elevator column was in the dead center.

And the vampire stood in front of the mural, pacing back and forth.

Eva tried not to sigh in relief. People who paced back and forth with a scowl on their face generally weren’t about to win a contest. She still had time to get to him.

Better yet, he hadn’t looked back yet. He wasn’t aware of her presence. If his sense of smell was even mildly good, it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long, but Eva held the advantage for the moment.

Perhaps the dryad hadn’t grown the forest. Redford might have planted it all to slow people down and obstruct the pyramid floor. Or the dryad had done it to slow down anyone who might be following the Nod Complex. If they needed to reach the opposite end of the room, either case made perfect sense.

But where was the dryad? Shouldn’t she be up with the vampire? Had he decided that he didn’t need her help and attacked his own teammate?

Before Eva could move even a single step more, her theory was crushed.

Along with the poor dryad.

A massive serpent flew out of the denser section of the forest close to the golden shrine. The shine on its silver scales actually forced Eva to momentarily raise a hand to protect her eyes. Wings made of pure gold carried it through the air.

And a screaming dryad was caught between two blunt antler-like horns coming off its head.

It reared up high in the air before flinging the dryad off.

A gaggle of trees caught her, though still with enough force to make Eva wince. She wasn’t quite sure what it took to kill a dryad—termites maybe—but that had to have been painful no matter what.

At the noise, the vampire gave a callous glance over his shoulder, paying attention for a mere instant before returning his focus to the golden mural.

Eva took a step forwards.

The moment she did, the serpent snapped its head to look at her.

Her eyes locked with the serpent’s massive eyes. She couldn’t tell exactly how large they were, but given the size of the dryad against its horns, each one might as well be as big as Eva was. One was a deep purple with a golden pupil. The other, a dark green with a black pupil. It almost looked as if there was a hexagon inside the green eye. Just lines connecting the edges of the iris.

The gaze lasted only a few short seconds, but Eva found herself gasping for breath at the end of it. She shivered. A chill ran up her spine. She felt a strange sensation as if she and everything about her had been on display like the pages of an open book.

But the silver-scaled serpent did not charge at her. It flicked its long tail straight towards the vampire.

Despite his back being turned, he managed to jump out of the way. It did force him back down into the forest and away from the mural.

Trees came to life as the serpent chased after him. Thick branches reared back and struck the serpent.

Doing little damage as far as Eva could tell. The opposite end of the pyramid was too far for her blood sight, so it might be getting a few bruises beneath those glittering scales. Eva wouldn’t be too surprised if it was entirely unharmed.

By the time Eva was ready to try moving again, all three of her companions showed up in the opening. All three stood and stared with their mouths wide open.

Eva hoped that she hadn’t been quite so slack-jawed. There were cameras watching.

“Know what it is?”

Anise jolted at the sudden address. She quickly shook her head. “I’ve never seen something like that before.”

“Well, it doesn’t look undead. Probably shouldn’t be surprised,” Eva said as she glanced towards the other two.

Neither gave her anything more than a shake of their heads identical to Anise’s.

“Right, well, I have a feeling that those plants are going to be attacking us as soon as we head down there. I don’t know about you, but if those trees are meant to fight that thing,” she said, pointing a long finger, “I don’t really want them attacking me.”

“We could burn our way across,” Randal said.

Anise crossed her arms with a slight huff. “Unless you have really fast acting fire, we’ll just have burning trees attacking us.”

Eva opened her mouth, held up a finger, cocked her head to one side, and snapped her mouth shut. She nodded slightly in agreement before perking up as an idea struck.

“How about this. We set Basila down and have her clear us a path, barreling over all the trees in our path,” Eva said with a wide grin.

“Basila?”

Eva extinguished the flames around one hand and held it up, showing off the stone-like snake coiled around her wrist.

All three of them stared at her with blank looks.

With both the vampire and the dryad either fighting or fleeing from the giant serpent, who—Eva assumed—would go after whoever was closest to the golden shrine, she felt like she had a few moments to breathe. And, so long as she had a moment, she might as well put on a little show for the cameras.

Genoa, assuming she was watching, might get a little amusement out of it anyway.

“Basila!” Eva said, voice slightly raised. She scratched the little snake beneath the chin to wake it up. “These foolish mortals are mocking your brilliance.”

Its tiny little jaw opened up into the cutest little yawn before its steely eyes turned to stare at her.

Eva quickly pulled the little basilisk off her wrist, setting it on the ground. As she did so, she tore a potion flask from her hip, uncapped it, and upended it over the snake.

She had already ‘fed’ it some blood earlier. Blood she could control. If worse came to worse, she could help direct it to where she needed to go.

As soon as the potion touched its black scales, it started growing.

Eva didn’t bother waiting for it to reach full size.

“Go, my pretty,” Eva said, nudging it along with the blood. “Go and trample this forest. Find the vampire and contain him.”

With one last look towards Eva, it slithered off into the forest, still growing larger and larger.

Now the others were looking at Basila with impressed looks on their faces. Or… maybe that was fear. Anise’s lower lip was trembling and her hands were shaking.

“Th-that’s a basilisk.”

“Yep! Let’s go. Use Basila as a shield. Fight off the vampire if you can. Distract him. Whatever. The dryad is a secondary priority. I’m heading for the shrine.”

Eva blinked away.

Basila, rapidly approaching hallway size, charged through the forest without a care in the world. Vines never got a grasp on her, seeds bounced off her scales without her even noticing, and the trees were shattered at the trunk as she rammed into them. A few of the trees whacked into her with a disturbing amount of force before she could destroy them, but they had nothing like nun lightning. Her natural regeneration—or unnatural, given the ritual Eva had performed on her—helped to counteract the damage a great deal.

Eva didn’t actually need to hide behind Basila. So she didn’t. She just kept blinking straight across, leaving the others behind.

She did ensure Basila stayed well within her range, however, just in case the snake decided to coil up around one of her teammates. It did take a nudge every now and again to keep her moving in the right direction.

By the time Eva crossed enough distance to see the vampire, he had obviously noticed her as well. He angled his sprint away from the giant serpent to put them on a collision course.

Eva curled her fingers, conjuring explosive balls of flame between each one.

She tossed them out well ahead of when the vampire would have made it to her, conjuring up a second set the moment they were out of her fingers.

The vampire shifted course to avoid the series of explosions. He ran straight past Eva.

As he did so, he took the serpent with him.

Eva paused for just a moment, inspecting it with her sense of blood.

Though it was roughly a snake, it had a drastically different circulatory system when compared with Basila.

Basila was a golem. Originally, she hadn’t had a circulatory system. After the ritual, she got a single tube of blood running from nose to tail. There were no real veins or capillaries.

The serpent had all that and more. She could see organs. A heart, stomach, lungs, tongue, eyes, and anything else one might expect to see in a living creature. That didn’t really tell Eva much aside from the fact that whatever it was, it was real.

And, so long as it was focused on the vampire, Eva had an opportunity to inspect the mural.

Two more blinks through the fake forest had her at a small set of stairs leading up to the shrine.

They were as gold as the pillars and wall.

Eva jumped straight to the top, frowning slightly as her feet dug large gouges into the floor. They were sharp and gold was soft, but this whole thing couldn’t be real gold.

Not that it mattered, though if it were a prize for victory, that would slightly sweeten the deal.

At the very front of the mural was a small pedestal stretching up to her waist with the top shaped into a shallow cup. The perfect size for a marble.

Of course, dropping her marble in the slot did nothing. If it was that simple, the vampire would have won already. The marble didn’t even stay in the slot, it rolled out despite the depression where the marble should have stayed.

From afar, she had only been able to see the sun. Which was truly massive. Up close, Eva had to crane her neck just to see the top of it. Down closer to the pedestal yet still high above it were two circular moldings protruding from the wall.

Eva shuddered as she looked at them.

One was a set of concentric rings. The other had less rings, but also had lines in the shape of a hexagon.

The serpent’s eyes.

Eva turned back to the forest with grit teeth. Were they supposed to kill the serpent and take its eyes? Put them somewhere around the platform. That seemed a bit violent for live television.

Besides, there wasn’t anywhere to put them even if she did have them. Maybe if the protrusions were deep carvings instead.

Turning back to the arena, Eva quickly surveyed the area. If the trees were gone, everything would be much easier. She could clearly see the trail that Basila was carving through the forest. Even more devastating than a hallway-sized snake plowing through everything were black orbs eating and consuming all the plant life around the area.

Which, if they were made up of magic, made sense.

Eva couldn’t see the dryad anywhere around. Given how well she blended in with the trees—both visually and through her nearly impossible to see blood—Eva doubted she would be able to spot her without her being obvious about it.

The vampire still had the serpent after him. He dashed between the trees, using them as cover and platforms to spring from.

Which had Eva narrowing her eyes.

She was up at the gold shrine. Why hadn’t it switched to her?

Had he stolen something from up here? Had he provoked it?

Despite the white lightning that occasionally fired off in the vampire’s direction and missed, none of her teammates had hit, or even attacked, the serpent. Though maybe someone had while her back had been turned, but she doubted it.

Flying through the air, the vampire reached out. His hand dug into one of the thick branches as if he had Eva’s claws. Doing so stopped him short of a bolt of lightning, but allowed the serpent to close distance.

Something he had apparently planned on.

The tree swung its branch backwards, flinging the vampire on a collision course with the serpent. Both of his hands spread out, intent on gripping onto the serpent.

Or maybe clawing into it.

Not willing to let itself be attacked, the serpent spun around. Its tail whipped into him, sending him flying across the room straight towards the golden shrine.

And, consequently, straight towards Eva.

He twisted in the middle of the air, angling to properly attack her.

Eva ignited every part of her body that wasn’t covered in clothes. Flames dripped from her hands like globs of burning tar, spreading across the platform. They wouldn’t last long, but she only needed them to last long enough to ward off the vampire.

His eyes went wide as Eva’s smile widened.

Even if he could hop around without getting hurt, he couldn’t fly. Physics still carried him straight to her waiting arms.

Her burning arms.

Eva’s fist connected with his stomach. Flames from her arm launched forwards when her arm found itself unable to continue, coating the vampire’s shirt in the sticky flames.

He jumped away before Eva could follow up. His shirt flew off his body as he grasped one of the pillars, keeping high and out of Eva’s immediate range.

“Will you desist,” he snapped at her, not really asking a question.

Eva didn’t bother answering. The vampire was already leaping towards her.

More, the serpent was on a collision course with the mural. The mural she just happened to be standing in front of.

Eva jumped, letting the vampire take the blow. She landed just between its horns, grabbing onto one as she extinguished her flames.

Amazingly enough, she didn’t go flying into the wall when the serpent hit it.

In fact, the serpent didn’t hit it at all.

The vampire caught the serpent, one hand on each of the person-sized fangs. Normally, such a thing would have had Eva staring. Even for a vampire, that was an impressive display of strength. The serpent was at least twice the size of a hallway-sized Basila. Probably bigger.

But Eva’s eyes were glued to the mural.

Before, it had been a solid sheet of gold. Slight lines formed the pattern of the sun, but they were engravings rather than any other sort of material.

As the vampire held the serpent, the mural lit up. The lines that had previously been mere indentations in the gold began radiating light. The two eye shaped constructs lit up purple and green, identical to the serpent’s eyes.

Everything clicked.

The vampire threw his arms to the side, sending the flying serpent off towards one of the walls. Eva had to grab on tight as it lifted high in the chamber to avoid crashing.

Twisting her neck to see behind her, Eva found the mural back to its default state. No lights and no colors.

Eva looked down. Spotting Basila near instantly, she blinked.

“Anise,” Eva said, dodging the nun’s glowing battle-axe, “I need you to get to the vampire and just hound him. Make him absolutely unable to do anything.”

“Wha–”

“No time to argue. Basila will help keep the plants off your back. Just find him and lock him down.” Eva used the blood within Basila to send her off in the direction of the vampire. He was fast. Far too fast for her to expect Basila to get a hit in, let alone coil around him.

But that was what Anise was for.

“Follow Basila, she’ll lead you to the vampire.”

Anise hesitated for another moment, opening her mouth.

A single glare from Eva had her moving after the basilisk.

“Randal,” Eva said, turning to face him. “Get to the big golden shrine and get your marble ready. You can’t put it in until the shrine is active.”

At least, that was what Eva was assuming. It seemed logical, but she hadn’t really been in a position to try while the shrine had been active.

“Sounds easy. You just taking a nap while we’re doing all the hard work?”

Eva looked up to the serpent as it drifted about overhead, looking for something to attack.

“I’ve got a snake to wrangle.”

“Fair enough. I suppose I’ll leave you to it.”

Eva turned, about to blink away as Randal ran off. Emily gripped her hand, stopping her cold.

“What about me?”

“Help Randal, I suppose,” Eva said after a moment of silence. Really, she wasn’t quite sure what Emily was going to do that Randal couldn’t, but at least it gave her something to do.

She nodded, offering a smile before running off.

Left alone, Eva gave herself a moment to concentrate. Blinking onto a moving target, especially one higher up, was near impossible. Not without losing a leg or worse. However, she could blink to a point in front of it and hope she could grab onto its horns.

Horns? Eva thought with a frown. Snakes didn’t have horns. Not even basilisks. Neither did they have wings. Maybe it was actually a Chinese dragon, though why it was in the middle of a pyramid was anyone’s guess.

Not that it mattered at the moment.

Eva blinked.

Staring at a creature with a mouth twice her size coming straight at her as she fell had Eva wondering if it was such a good idea after all.

She landed hard on its forehead, bouncing slightly and letting out a groan even as she tried to get a grip on its antler-like horns. Even with Arachne’s claws, there wasn’t much more than a light scrape on whatever they were made out of.

“Great job Eva,” she mumbled to herself, face down on the platinum scales with her arms wrapped around one horn. “Now what?”

Now she had to wrangle it.

Easier said than done.

Using the horn for support, Eva slowly made it to her feet.

White flashes of lightning and fire lit up a section of the forest. Anise must have been doing her job properly. She was slightly out of range of Eva’s blood sight—as was Basila—but Eva couldn’t see the vampire anywhere. Emily and Randal had both made it up to the shrine and were doing nothing more than standing around.

The perfect time.

Eva gripped the horn. With all of her body weight behind it, she yanked it to the side.

The dragon’s gaze crossed the shrine, but only long enough to cause a faint glow. Something that had probably happened numerous times and yet had been too subtle to notice.

Eva’s grip nearly came loose as the dragon shook its head. She grit her teeth and wrapped her legs around the horn for extra grip until it stopped bucking.

When it did, it faced away from the shrine.

Which wasn’t bad.

If it kept going straight, she could loop it around the elevator pillar. If she could even its flight out afterwards, that would give it a much straighter path and, more importantly, a longer path than the simple turn of its head. Its gaze would be on the shrine for longer.

Eva carefully leaned back and forth, never putting too much force in her attempts to steer the dragon for fear of it suddenly bucking again. She kept it going straight until it had passed the pillar.

Only then did she shove against its right horn.

Almost immediately, she let go of the right horn and barreled into the left, leveling it out.

The shrine lit up in a brilliant gold. In front of it, Randal started to reach his arm towards the pedestal.

“Randal!” Eva shouted.

A moment too late.

Vines snapped out of the dryad’s wrist and wrapped around Randal’s arm. She yanked his arm back even as she ran forwards with her own green marble in hand.

He spun, stumbling twice before gathering his wits about him and casting one of his orbs at the vines.

Eva tried to slam her body against the dragon’s horn again to break contact.

But it was too late.

A hand slammed a violet marble down into the slot, just before the dryad could reach the pedestal.

The golden mural exploded into a rainbow of colors, forcing Eva to shield her eyes.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.010

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“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.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.019

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Irene sat in her seat, shifting back and forth.

Her first day back in diablery class had her feeling intensely nervous. She had been the one to cause the brief intermission in their lessons.

Surprisingly enough, the rest of the class wasn’t staring at her in one way or another. She had expected a glare or two at least. She did almost cause them injury–from their perspective. Or worse.

Perhaps those that were the type to glare had already been kicked out of class.

Those that were left tended to all sit on their own. Few spoke with one-another. In fact, only two were whispering amongst themselves. Susie Bobo and Rachael Davis. Everyone else was either writing in notebooks, reading, or staring towards the front of the classroom.

It wasn’t hard to guess what they were staring at. Catherine was back to her demonic form–sans clothes and all.

Irene was trying to ignore her as much as possible. Catherine, Irene had decided, was pure trouble.

At least Eva was present this time. She was far more sensible than Catherine.

“Mind if I sit here?”

Irene glanced up. She only managed to suppress a groan through biting her tongue.

Randal.

She wasn’t sure how to feel about the white-haired boy. On one hand, he was obviously an idiot. What with wanting to ‘spruce up’ a summoning circle. On the other hand, he had saved her from Drew.

Anyone who didn’t like Drew had to be a good person, right?

The question was a matter of whether or not he could overcome his idiocy and learn from his mistakes.

“Sure,” Irene said. Might as well give him a chance.

At the first sign of him causing unnecessary danger with his antics, Irene would be speaking with Eva.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?”

Randal took his seat and pulled out a book. “Still have a good three minutes,” he said, flashing a smile. “Plenty of time to get some emergency studying in before tomorrow’s test.”

Irene shook her head. How irresponsible. Leaning forward, she tried to catch a glimpse of what subject he had a test in by the cover of the book. None of her professors had mentioned any tests, but Randal was a full two years ahead of her. What subjects would an older diablery student be taking?

Printed in a floral manuscript on the cover of the tome were the words Enchanting and Warding, the Entwined Arts.

“You’re taking enchanting and warding?”

“Just warding, though I took enchanting intro last year. Interested?”

Irene shifted. “I was interested in them. Now I’m reconsidering just how respectable they are if someone like you is taking them.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“You strike me as the sort of person who is lazy to the extreme and who insists on doing things their own way. Someone who would succeed in more free-form artistic subjects.”

Harrumphing, he said, “I’ll have you know, warding requires plenty of artistry and imagination. If you just follow the book, any two-bit ward breaker can unravel your wards in seconds. Out in the real world, nothing is more respectable than a good warder. Except, perhaps, a ward breaker.”

“Ward breakers are respected?” That didn’t sound right. Criminals breaking into places they shouldn’t had to be on the opposite end of the respect spectrum. But then, anyone in diablery class had to have their perspectives skewed.

Irene had a brief thought about whether or not that applied to herself as well.

“Of course,” Randal said, oblivious to her thoughts. “Someone dies and their family can’t get into their home, or room, or safe. Who gets called? Ward breakers. Can’t sell a house with half the property warded off, can you? Or think about the villainous hideouts, ancient crypts, and other such areas that regular mage-knights can’t break into easily. They’ll hire on a breaker to get them in.

“But don’t take my word for it. Sign up for warding next year. It’s a blast. And the professor is completely insane.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good quality for a professor to have,” Irene said with a frown.

Randal shrugged. “Oh, she’s good at her job. Don’t doubt that. Just don’t be surprised when you walk into class and find her standing on the ceiling. Or wind up going through class backwards.”

Irene blinked. “How does–”

“Alright,” Eva said, interrupting their conversation. “I heard you all had an interesting class last time.”

You could say that again.

“Unfortunately, I was off being attacked by an insane nun of the Elysium Order. But don’t worry, I, and a few experts, had a chance to examine the thing. I thought I’d give you a little update on the creature that we’re calling an enigma.”

Irene blinked. Again. Elysium Order? What?

“You can’t just say that and expect us to ignore it,” someone said, echoing Irene’s thoughts.

Eva had the audacity to look confused. Clarity lit up in her eyes after a moment of thought. “Oh, sorry. It was a tautology, I know. What member of the Elysium Order isn’t insane?

“Anyway, that creature is something that has been infesting Hell as of late. They are not demons and, in fact, share more in common with zombies than actual living creature. They don’t have a virus that will infect you upon contact with their blood, but they’re almost impossible to kill permanently. Their organs will keep working even after their apparent death and they’ll slowly regenerate. Freezing it solid was probably the best choice, so good job to whoever thought of that.”

Irene had to agree there. While she was sure that Catherine could have done something more than get held up by its tentacles, locking it in a block of ice tidied everything up without much mess.

A dislocated shoulder was comparatively easy to explain away to the nurse and anyone she could have passed by in the halls. Being covered in blood was not.

Catherine set her phone down for the first time since she walked into the room. Looking out over the classroom, her eyes narrowed.

Until her gaze crossed Irene. Then, she smiled.

Irene shuddered.

“From now on,” the succubus said, “anytime we do any summoning in class, you must use what your books call tier three shackles. Those should hold the ‘enigmas’ without issue. At least long enough for us to deal with it.”

Eva clapped her hands together. “Now, since your summoning was interrupted last time, I’d feel bad if the rest of you didn’t get to at least make an attempt.”

Irene groaned. Eva was supposed to be the sensible one. The one who says that they still need more studying before any more attempts.

The class really needed proper supervision.

— — —

Martina Turner sat at her desk. The reports coming in were all positive. Not a one had her feeling down.

Average student attendance was up. Either the professors were being more interesting than normal or there was less reason to skip class.

Some of it might be related to the fact that zero teachers were on leave for any reason. No illnesses or worse. Less substitutes meant the students were less likely to skip. The regular teachers held more authority in that they could easily see who was absent and give them penalties.

No one wanted to flunk out of what was commonly seen as one of the worst magic academies on the continent. If they couldn’t succeed here, they couldn’t succeed anywhere.

The only substitute who managed to retain her students was Catherine. That was something of an interesting data point, though not wholly unexpected. Succubi simply had that certain allure that drew people to them.

Perhaps it would be a wise idea to order Catherine to sit in on classes randomly. Students would attend more in hopes of being in her presence.

Had to keep the numbers up, after all.

Especially with all the troubles plaguing the academy in the last two years.

There hadn’t been an incident in almost four months.

A record, Martina thought with a sarcastic tone.

Despite that long stretch of relative peace, word had definitely spread. Especially regarding the zombie incident under Dean Halsey’s tenure and the more recent demon-hybrid attack.

Established families, even those that couldn’t afford it, were looking at other academies to send their children to. Safer academies.

Pathetic.

The magical side of the world was a dangerous side of the world. Maybe that wasn’t true, and it was just that mages were more aware of the dangers that existed, but there was no reason to coddle children. Best expose them to it while in a relatively safe environment. Smash any preconceived notions about their safety as a mage early on.

Based on her security team’s handling of the hybrid incident, Martina felt confident in saying that Brakket Magical Academy was safe.

Relatively.

There were a handful of families that were not afraid. At least, not more afraid than they were interested. Her strategically leaked information about the diablery class was drawing in a few new student applications for next year, even a few prospective transfers for the later years.

Martina set her reports down on her desk and leaned back in her chair. She took out a bottle from the bottom drawer of her desk. Pouring herself a small glass of Hellfire, she pondered just what to do about school attendance.

They didn’t need money. The school governors had ensured that much. As such, families with a good amount of disposable money were not required.

But they did need fresh young bodies.

The parties interested because of the diablery were not enough to outweigh those leaving. Just enough to mitigate the damage, somewhat.

They still needed more.

Those extra bodies would have to come from first generation mages inducted as freshmen.

Martina scrawled a note down to ensure that the professors were well aware of their targets before the next round of student-hunting.

Not a hard task. Many first generation mages slipped through the cracks every year, condemned to go through their lives ignorant of the fact that they could be one of those rumored magic users.

Of course, having first generation mages wasn’t a bad thing. They would come into the magical world with open minds.

And would be far less prejudiced than their more magical-lineage-inclined counterparts.

No parents to tell them what magics were good and what were bad. No stories passed down to ‘warn’ them of certain types of magical creatures.

In other words, first generation mages would be far easier to induct into diabolical methods of magic.

Of course, it was dangerous. Not so much because of the demons, but because of fellow humans. Too noisy, and they would attract the attentions of demon hunters.

Eventually, such a thing wouldn’t be a concern. They would become powerful enough to defend themselves. A handful of students, all able to order multiple demons into battle, would wipe the floor with most assailing forces.

Unfortunately, that would be far off, relatively speaking. There were–Martina glanced down at one of the reports–a mere eight students remaining in the current class. None of them had formed any kind of proper contract yet.

For the time being, Martina would have to rely on herself, Catherine, the security force, and Zagan. And Zagan was far from reliable.

After his antics involving the missing students, Martina was almost doubling the priority of finding a way to dismiss him without winding up killed herself.

Aside from them, Eva had a small contingent of demons following her. A force that she might be inclined to use to help out the academy in the face of danger. But, like Zagan, Martina did not find the young diabolist reliable in the slightest.

Martina started as her door opened with a click.

Catherine hadn’t said a word.

Slacking again?

Martina shook her head, shaking off both the unexpected arrival and the missing Catherine.

Obviously she was off tending to her class, thereby allowing Anderson to walk in unannounced.

There goes my good mood for the day.

Anderson never brought good news.

“Something I can do for you, Mr. Anderson?”

He took a moment to dally about the entrance of her room. Removing his coat and hat, placing them on the rack, and then straightening out his suit gave him plenty of time to change up what he wanted to say based on who was in the room. He had a markedly different personality whenever Zagan was present.

It also meant that he was planning on staying for some time.

With a barely concealed groan, Martina reached down into her desk and withdrew a second glass. She tipped it in his direction, a silent question.

He, thankfully, shook his head. “No thank you, Martina. I’m here on business. Afterwards, I must depart for a meeting with the other governors.”

“Suit yourself,” she said as she replaced the glass. The less Hellfire liquor she had to waste on others, the better. “This business?”

He didn’t appear outwardly angry with her. That was good at least. Ever since he had shown up talking about two missing students, they hadn’t been on the best of terms.

Or rather, Martina was fairly certain that she only managed to keep her job through being the one holding Zagan’s contract.

“Unpleasant,” he said.

Of course it is, Martina thought.

“The Elysium Order has suspended operations in North America.”

Martina winced. “The entire continent? I was unaware that we had such a large impact on them.”

“One of our other ‘test runs’ down south may have had a brief run in with them as well. But this has two direct implications, neither pleasant and both affecting Brakket.

“First and most obvious, the pressure on everything they hunt will be off.”

“And that includes necromancers. Including the one that attacked the academy twice.” Martina reached out to her glass and took a long drink. “Why did they have to announce it? This is only going to make their job harder when they restart their crusade. Vampires will be out of control. Liches too. Even ones that aren’t here already will be looking to move to where the Elysium Order is not.”

“As of this time, the Elysium Order has submitted several bounties to the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. Time will tell how effective the guild is in keeping undead under control.

“More importantly, they explicitly cited demonic interference as their reason for suspending operations.”

Martina froze mid drink.

That was… bad.

Downing the rest of her Hellfire in a single gulp, Martina slammed the glass on the desk, shattering it. She swept the shards off of her desk, ignoring the small cuts she got on her hand.

“Any two-bit hunter will easily be able to glance at recent Elysium deployments and make guesses at what they are talking about.”

“Indeed,” he said. “Keep your head down. Act like everything is normal. Gather students as usual and continue with the program. The others have agreed, given Zagan’s revelation, the program must continue. A handful of hunters aren’t going to save us from an apocalypse.”

Martina grit her teeth.

Anderson had stood up, but she was only scarcely paying attention.

The stooges of the board of governors now thought diablery lessons were a good idea? Just a few months ago, they were considering terminating the project.

Saving the world? Is that what they expect of me? Even ten thousand diabolists wouldn’t be capable of stopping an uncountable number of demons. And she had eight? Assuming no more dropped out, that is.

Well, it will certainly get me in the history books, Martina thought. If there’s anyone left to write them, that is.

Martina shook her head. Problems for later. For now, she had more immediate problems.

Hunters.

As if sensing her thoughts, Anderson glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ve put in motion a handful of projects that should keep the hunters off your back for a time. Hunters will find pockets of demons suddenly popping up all around the country. But don’t count on it occupying them for long. Sooner or later, someone will look into Brakket.” He plucked his bowler from the rack and placed it on his head, adjusting it side to side, slightly. “Be prepared.”

Martina scoffed as he walked out the door. “Be prepared,” she mocked.

Easy to say.

But what to do?

Pulling her spare glass from her desk, Martina started to pour herself a new glass. Halfway through, she stopped.

She drank straight from the bottle until it was half empty.

“I think I need more security personnel.”

— — —

Laughter.

Maniacal laughter.

It was about all she had heard in the recent weeks. Enough to drive her insane.

“It’s a gift,” her father shouted. Fingers stained purple, her father held up what she would guess was a heart. She had seen plenty of hearts in her life. Most came from humans, but she had dissected animals under the strict guidance of her father numerous times before moving on to humans.

The blob of meat held in her father’s hand was far too smooth and spherical to be a proper heart. The only imperfections that she could see from the neighboring table were the arteries and veins that jutted from the orb.

“A genuine boon from a Power,” her father continued, grin stretching from ear to ear.

Des wanted to ask just what he was talking about, but her father had yet to see fit to remove the stitchings binding her mouth closed. Left only to watch and speculate, Des spent most of her time waiting for the next outburst of a discovery to help fill in what exactly he was so excited about.

She didn’t have to wait for long. If there was one thing her father loved, it was talking while working.

“Look,” he shoved the heart straight over her face.

Up close, Des could see the pulsating flesh as the heart beat in his hand. As experienced as she was, she didn’t feel the need to count the heartbeats. It should have already stilled based on how long her father had held it in his hands.

Yet it wasn’t even slowing.

“The magic does not merely animate the whole, as is the case with zombies, skeletons, and such. It animates everything. And I can not stop it.

He spun back around to face the body lying on the other table, laughing as he turned.

“Watch the panel, honey.”

Des strained her neck. A panel of lights sat at the head of the table. Her father had designed it to connect to a subject’s brain through wires and monitor activity. In this case, however, the creature’s brain was no longer attached to the creature’s body. It sat on a small shelf, wires running into it.

The rows of blinking lights weren’t too surprising. The human body maintained some level of activity for a handful of minutes after death. There were more lights blinking than normal for a human brain five minutes postmortem, but that didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a human brain. They had no benchmark for creatures like this.

As she was watching the blinking lights, her father grabbed a scalpel, spun it between his fingers a few times, and jammed it straight into the severed heart.

Des’ eyes widened of their own accord. A spike of red lights lit up the entire panel.

“Not only is the creature still alive–even demons die upon removing their hearts and brains–but it still feels pain. It is still connected.” He waved his hands around the heart, as if double checking that there weren’t any strands of flesh connecting the organ to the brain.

Satisfied with whatever he found, he turned again to face Des.

“And then it starts healing itself. Slowly, perhaps not as fast as the healing ability most demons possess, but steadily.”

Her father’s eyes caught a glint of the operating theater’s lights, giving them a sinister look. Her father’s too-wide grin widened further as he looked down at her bare, stitch-covered chest.

Des’ heart sank as she watched him lift up his scalpel.

“Time for another installation, honey.”

She had the strangest feeling that her heart wouldn’t be hers for much longer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.008

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.”

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006.007

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Eva kicked back in her chair, flipping a page in her blood magic book. It wasn’t an extremely comfortable seat, being a simple wooden seat she had dragged over. There wasn’t any padding on it and its back was far too low.

Padding didn’t matter much. Her legs were stiff carapace and her butt had been reinforced–for lack of a better word–around where her legs met her skin. It was far from the worst chair she had ever sat in. The most uncomfortable aspect was the hole that was still in her side.

Eva had filled it completely full of blood and hardened parts to give some structure, but it didn’t come close to proper skin. Reading, at least, took her mind off the pain.

And pain had been a big deal. It hadn’t hurt quite so much in the hour following her fight. Something that Eva chalked up to adrenaline. And then there was the pain in her wrist and legs and everywhere else. She was sore. Everywhere.

Considering all of that, a more comfortable chair might have done some good. But she could push all of that away. Blood mages were no strangers to pain.

Really, the worst thing was the lighting. Ylva’s prison wasn’t a dank dungeon filled with moss and dripping water. It was, however, a far cry from a proper reading room.

Arachne forewent a chair entirely. She simply sat on the stone floor and rested against the back wall. Never once in their hour of sitting had she taken a single one of her eight red eyes off of their prisoner. In fact, she had hardly moved at all. Her stillness was almost uncanny.

Still, she was out of her room and at Eva’s side. A nice change from how it had been the last few months.

That was something she could thank Sister Cross for.

In a very silent sort of way.

Pausing in her book, Eva took a moment to look over the sleeping prisoner.

During the brief hour that Eva had taken to focus on herself and her own injuries, Sister Cross had done something prior to passing out.

Her flesh was still torn off in long strips, but the remaining skin was slowly crawling over the spots where it had been torn. Somewhat reminiscent of how Eva healed herself with blood magic, though on a much larger scale.

But it was slow. Molasses slow. It had been almost another hour since she got back from tending to herself and Sister Cross’ newly created skin was only a few hairs up her arm. At the rate she was going, it probably wouldn’t be fixed for a few weeks at best.

When Shalise had half her hand eaten by a zombie, it had taken a healer from the Elysium Order to mend it. So Eva wasn’t too surprised to find Sister Cross healing herself. The speed did surprise her.

Shalise had never gone into much detail about her own experience having her body mended. Eva had always imagined it had been some nun waving her hands with some white light for a few minutes.

Now she was starting to reconsider that. Shalise had a lot less to mend, true, but this was agonizingly slow.

It was for that reason that Eva had put a hold on her Locate And Slash Or Murder Sawyer With Blood Magic plan and pulled out a book on beneficial blood rituals. She still intended to drop Sister Cross into her domain at her earliest convenience, but dropping her on Shalise looking like she had just been through a meat grinder seemed in poor taste.

Aside from that, Eva still had a hole in her side. A painful, anti-magic hole. Neither she nor Arachne quite knew what to do about it. She had already found a few flesh mending rituals–Sister Cross could wait in pain a little longer, just as punishment for attacking Eva–but even if they could power through the lightning’s magic eating aftereffects, the rituals did not mend or regrow bone.

Frankly, Eva was quite certain that blood magic wasn’t exactly designed for bones.

Still, no harm in double checking. Well, no harm aside from what Sister Cross was feeling.

So no harm at all.

“Nel mentioned a guest.”

Eva refrained from jumping only because she had kept a mild awareness on her blood sight. Ylva had approached from behind in absolute silence and only spoke once she closed the distance to a few feet.

Closing her book, Eva stood and gave her full attention to Ylva. Eva doubted the hel would call her a friend, but she did believe that they were on thoroughly cordial terms. Still, Eva had dragged in a prisoner and used a cell without permission; no sense in taking the chance at causing further offense.

That said guest riled Ylva’s pet up just made it more important not to be brazen or offensive.

“Ylva,” Eva said with a slight nod. Gesturing towards the occupied cell, she said, “Sister Cross. Shalise’s mother.”

Stepping in front of the cell, Ylva peered inside. “The one sharing her body with a cambion,” she stated, more to herself than anything. “We see the resemblance.”

“I apologize for bringing her into your domain without asking. You were gone and I lacked the facilities to store a hostile teleporter.”

“See that it does not happen again,” Ylva said without taking her eyes off the contents of the cell.

Eva merely nodded. The words weren’t said in a harsh tone or with anger and it was a perfectly understandable request. She wouldn’t want to come home only to find an enemy sitting around her room.

“You inflicted these injuries?”

“In a manner of speaking. It was more of a teleport oversight followed by her being within my wards and not keyed in.”

Looking away from Sister Cross, Ylva asked, “We were under the impression that your blood wards were deadly.”

“She’s an Elysium Order nun. They’ve got really strong shields. It lasted long enough for me to shut off my wards.”

“Elysium Order?” Ylva turned back to the cell. “Her attire is lacking for such a station.”

A set of robes appeared within the cell, looking very similar to the red and black attire that both Nel and Alicia wore. They draped themselves over the edge of the bed.

“You have quite a collection of nuns,” Eva said, not entirely sure of Ylva’s intentions. “While I don’t exactly care if you collect this one, I don’t think she would be very happy to join up.”

“Ali did not believe she would serve Us in the beginning, yet serves Us she does.”

Eva bit her lip. “Are you… certain about that?”

Ylva glanced over with one eyebrow raised. “Your meaning?”

“I mean she appears to serve you now, but…” Eva trailed off, not entirely sure how to broach the subject. After Nel had mentioned her concerns, Eva had spent a while thinking on the subject. This wasn’t how she had planned to bring it up, but it was a convenient segue.

She gave a quick glance to Arachne only to receive a shrug in return. A lot of good you are, Eva mentally sighed.

After casting her blood sight and regular sight around to check for any hint of the former nun in question and finding no trace of her, Eva took a deep breath. “She seems unstable, to a degree. I just want to make sure she isn’t going to betray you–” or me, “–in the future.”

“We will not tolerate betrayal.”

“No,” Eva said. “Of course not.”

Eva let the topic drop. Even if Alicia tried to kill Ylva, it was doubtful that she would succeed in doing any harm. In fact, it really wasn’t any of her business. Alicia was Ylva’s servant and therefore, Ylva’s problem. She could handle it herself.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I was planning on dropping her into my domain with Shalise after she had healed a bit. Unless you had a better idea?”

Ylva shook her head side to side. Slightly. The movement was subtle enough that Eva almost missed it. Taking her eyes off of the cell, she turned to fully face Eva. “No. We find no issue with that plan.”

“Good,” Eva said, half-surprised that Ylva hadn’t objected on the grounds of adding another servant to her collection. “I’ll keep an eye on her as much as possible until then. You don’t think there will be any issues keeping her here, do you?”

“So long as she isn’t removed from the cell, she will not be able to affect anything outside of the cell. We suggest you keep her contained.”

Eva frowned slightly, but nodded. That might put a damper on her plan to heal Sister Cross with a blood ritual. Oh well, Eva thought, not feeling vindictive in the slightest, she’ll just be in pain for a little longer.

Zoe walked into the prison before Eva could verbally respond to Ylva’s suggestion. Her normally impeccable hair had been tossed up in disarray, like it had been an extraordinarily windy day.

She walked up to them, footsteps about as heavy as her breathing. She leaned up against the wall with a small sigh. “Great,” she said to her captive audience, “I need another shower.”

“You smell pleasant.”

Zoe’s eyes flicked over to Ylva with a questioning glance. “I… um…”

“Like a campfire,” Eva offered after taking a deep breath for herself. “A very pine-woody campfire.”

“Ah,” Zoe said, confusion disappearing with a nod. “We got your little accident under control.”

“Mine? I didn’t even use fire magic.” Eva thumbed at the cell. “And I didn’t ask to be attacked either.”

“Be that as it may, you could have at least sent off a message to us earlier.” With an exasperation-filled sigh, Zoe glanced over into the cell. Immediately, she winced. “She looks… Is she going to be alright?”

“Fine enough,” Eva said. “She’s actually mending her skin on her own. Maybe I’ll toss in a few potions if she is on her best behavior.”

“Really?” Zoe said, pressing closer to the cell for a better look. After a moment of inspection and apparently not finding what she was looking for, Zoe frowned. “Are you sure?”

“It is excruciatingly slow, but yes.”

Zoe hummed for a moment before pulling away. “Alright,” she said slowly as she turned to face Eva. “Now, what exactly happened and what are we going to do about her?”

Sighing, Eva wondered if she shouldn’t just call in everyone for a quick meeting. It would save a lot on the repetition.

Unfortunately for Eva, Ylva turned her attention towards Eva as well. Resigned, she started explaining everything from the start.

It was all Eva could do to keep in her irritation when Wayne wandered in fifteen minutes later asking what had happened.

— — —

Irene’s arm trembled as she sketched out a wide circle on the floor. The chalk in her hands left a trail of excess dust from the unsteady pressure, much of which smeared under her sweaty palms. Droplets of sweat fell from her brow, landing on her chalk and further marring her circle.

“You call that a circle? Looks more like an egg.”

Pausing for a moment, Irene looked at her drawing. It looked great. She had used string attached to her chalk and the center point. Unless the school had some computerized circle drawing laser machine, it was as perfect of a circle as anyone would be getting.

In fact, glancing over some of the other groups’ summoning circles, Irene was sure that hers was by far the best even taking into account the sweat droplets and other minor errors.

Gritting her teeth, Irene shot a glare at her partner, Randal Hemwick.

He sat on top of one of the tables that had been shoved aside, lightly swinging his dangling feet as he frowned at her drawing. Apart from constant criticisms, he hadn’t offered the slightest bit of help. And his criticisms were more complaints than anything useful.

Though him not helping was mostly her fault.

“I don’t want to summon a demon with something that shoddy,” he said, brushing a hand through his light gray hair. “Couldn’t you add some flourish to some of the designs? If your circle works at all, any demons we summon would be offended at your poor craftsmanship. And you’re so slow. Look,” he pointed, “those two groups are already done.”

Following his finger, Irene frowned. Had they looked at the book more than once? Despite her not having the actual summoning part of the circle memorized, she could see plentiful errors in the shackles. And those, as she firmly believed, were by far the most important part if people wanted to stay alive.

“Go draw your own if you hate it so much,” Irene said, grumbling more to herself than for her ‘partner’ to hear.

He heard anyway. “Aww, Irene. I would, but then who would summon your demon for you?”

Irene winced before falling silent. That had been their agreement. She would draw the entire summoning array and he would do the summoning.

But when he put it like that, it made it sound like she was frightened.

She was. Still, he didn’t need to say it so loud.

Choosing to ignore him, Irene returned to drawing out the lines, curves, circles, and so on. Almost every mark she made on the floor got double-checked in the book.

“No!”

The sudden shout caused Irene to jump. Her chalk went sliding across a small portion of her circle, ruining the last five minutes of work.

Sighing, she looked over to what caused the disturbance.

“If I can walk through your shackles without even trying, an imp will overpower them without breaking a sweat.” Catherine swiped her high-heeled foot through the circle on the ground, ruining perhaps the entire hour’s worth of work. “Do it again or watch another group.”

With that said, the succubus wandered off to evaluate another circle.

That was a relief at least. When Catherine had announced that today they would change the fact that this diablery class contained no diabolists, Irene had worried a lot that she was going to take up her usual routine of not supervising the students. She would feel much better had Eva shown up–Eva seemed to be far more responsible of the two, a scary thought on its own–but an active Catherine was good enough so far.

Picking up a fresh corner of her cleaning cloth, Irene set to work removing all traces of her mistake. It didn’t take long, and redrawing the affected lines as she erased sped up the process by skipping over the need to double-check in the book.

She still did, of course. But not until everything had been redrawn.

Setting down her book, Irene jumped.

Randal had slid off of the desk and was leaning uncomfortably close.

“So,” he hissed in her ear, “what would happen if we drew out a set of shackles and hid it under a mat in front of the door?”

Irene blinked. Shooting him an incredulous look, she said, “how could you not have read the book?”

It was Randal’s turn to blink. He opened his mouth to respond.

Irene talked over him. “Shackles can’t have anything but air between them and the demon. Even covering the circle with a thin sheet of tissue paper will break the shackles.”

“It was–”

“Are you an idiot?”

“What?”

“This isn’t some normal class where the worst you’ll do is burn down a desk before the professor intervenes. These are demons. Deadly dangerous creatures that don’t care about humans except in how much they can exploit us. They’ll kill us without blinking an eye. And you haven’t even read the book?

“In addition you, what, want to play a prank on Catherine? Are you insane?” Closing her eyes, Irene sighed. I wish Eva were here.

Of course, if Eva had shown up, they probably wouldn’t be in this situation. Summoning a demon wasn’t supposed to happen for another month at the earliest.

“I–”

Irene snapped open her eyes, cutting him off with just a glare. She narrowed her eyes at the idiot in front of her. “You know what? Do go make your own circle. Then you can add all the flourishes you want. When you get kicked out for your disrespect and general idiocy, don’t come crying to me.”

For a moment, Irene thought he was going to object. And loudly at that. Maintaining her glare for a few moments put a stop to that.

Randal got to his feet. Hands in his pockets, he marched over to another group. One of the groups that had finished already, but that hadn’t been looked over by Catherine just yet.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Irene turned back to the task of finishing her circle.

She froze as a thought occurred to her. Now alone in her group, there was no one but her to perform the actual summoning.

With a look at the clock, Irene decided that no, they would not be summoning anything today. At least not her. She had a good quarter of the circle remaining still. If she timed it perfectly, she would only just be finishing as the doors unlocked.

Then next time, Eva could put an end to this madness.

Filled with relief and a great deal of pressure removed, Irene set to work. She still wanted to do a good job. Catherine had trusted her enough to offer her a slot in the class, despite her being the youngest person in the room. She could pay that back with a proper set of shackles and the summoning circle.

Even if one of the other groups finished their circle to Catherine’s standards and started summoning, the circles they had been directed to draw were specifically designed to call imps. A hierarchy of common demons found within the text had imps at essentially the lowest place. Non-sentient blobs of slime were apparently more dangerous than imps.

Irene was beyond relieved that Catherine hadn’t directed them to summon up cerberuses or anything.

With the circles being specifically for imps, no verbal request or tricky magic channeling was required. Only the imps’ enticement.

Honestly, what would an imp ever want with a rusted copper coin? Did they collect them? Hoard them off in some vault?

And it apparently did not matter what kind of coin it was. Anything from some ancient Greek coin to a penny. So long as it was a currency, predominantly copper, and tarnished–not necessarily rusted as copper didn’t truly rust, though that was the term the book used. The jar on Catherine’s desk was full of green pennies, so presumably they would work.

“Class,” Catherine spoke just as Irene was making the last few marks on her circle, “I am disappointed.”

She moved up to her desk, taking up a reclining pose against it. “Two hours, you’ve had to work on your summoning circles. Two hours of failure. Your shackles are lacking. Your circles couldn’t summon a demonic gnat.”

Irene quirked an eyebrow. She didn’t know there was such a thing as a demonic gnat.

“You’re here to learn proper diablery practices. You may not have known that initially, but nothing is keeping you here. Children, your contract ensures your silence, not your presence. If diablery does not appeal to you, you’re welcome to never return.

“Of the nine of you, split into four groups, only one managed to complete their circle to my standards.”

Glancing around the other circles, Irene started to get a sinking feeling in her stomach. Irene distinctly recalled Catherine moving between each circle, making disparaging comments at each. The only circle that had been left alone was hers.

Whipping her head to the clock on the wall, Irene almost groaned. She had misjudged her speed. There were still ten minutes left of class. Plenty of time to summon something.

That sinking feeling only grew as Irene turned back to find Catherine staring right at her.

One of the rusted coins spun at the tip of Catherine’s sharp fingernail. With a light flick of her finger, the coin went sailing across the room.

It rolled along the floor before losing momentum and falling flat on its side.

Right in the center of Irene’s summoning circle.

“Go on,” Catherine said. “Channel your magic into the circle. Become the first true diabolist of the class.”

“I, um…” Irene took a step back from her circle.

Oh great, she thought, looking around the room. Everyone was staring at her. Some with curiosity but most had a look of envy. Randal was less staring and more glaring.

Alright, Irene thought, Catherine is right there. It’s just an imp. Zoe killed an imp all by herself last summer without problems. The whole class working together could stop it if it goes out of control.

Taking a deep breath, Irene moved back up to the summoning circle. She knelt down at the edge and shut her eyes–more to block out the sight of the watching students than any part of the ritual. With another deep breath, Irene started pushing her magic into the circle.

She had never used a ritual circle before. Summoning circles operated much the same way, from what she understood from books. There was a strange tingling sensation that was completely absent when she used a regular wand.

When she opened her eyes, Irene almost jumped back away from the circle again. The runes and markings she had drawn on the tiled floor were moving, rotating around the center point she had used to mark her initial circle. None of the symbols in the circle seemed to move at the same pace as the rest of it. Outside runes moved slower while the geometric shapes towards the inside spun around like the blades of a fan.

Irene did note that the shackles weren’t rotating. The shackle lines glowed faintly even in the light of the classroom. Otherwise, they were the same as when she had drawn them.

She actually did jump back when a gaping black maw erupted from the rotating circle. Shark-like teeth chomped around the coin.

A snake-like appendage erupted from beneath the circle. Despite coming through the floor as if through water, the appendage clamped down on the tiles like the hard floor it was.

More tentacles pulled the rest of the body through the floor until the entire thing was above ground.

With all the snake-like tentacles hanging off of its body, it looked something like a cross between Medusa and a large dog. Definitely not what an imp was supposed to look like.

Four red eyes glared around the room, moving from one silent student to the next. Settling on Irene, the dog slammed into the barrier formed by the shackles.

Irene jumped back again, letting out a startled shriek.

Her shackles lost some of their glow, flickering lightly as the demon reared its head into the barrier again.

Irene only vaguely heard the startled shouts coming from the other students. All of her attention was focused on a desperate feeding of more of her magic into the shackles.

Though the glow strengthened for a moment, the shackles flickered again as the demon rhythmically pounded into the wall.

“Help,” Irene said, glancing towards Catherine.

The succubus was wide-eyed with her mouth slightly agape, almost pressing herself away from the circle and into her desk.

Irene didn’t have time to consider the implications.

A resounding sound of glass shattering preceded her shackles going dark.

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