Tag Archives: Redford

010.032

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After ensuring that she was indeed alone within her domain—she hadn’t found any enigmas, humans, or demons wandering around, nor had she sensed the presence of any—Eva returned to the common room to further inspect the column sticking through the roof.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a column. All four sides angled inwards ever so slightly up until high above the roof where the angle bent sharply towards a central point. She had searched every inch that she could see and found nothing. No markings or inscriptions of any kind. Whoever had built it hadn’t even had the decency to slap on a sticky note telling why they built it.

Eva certainly hadn’t built it. Sometimes her domain did odd things related to creating structures or items that Eva felt she needed—such as a potion kit when Genoa had been injured—but this was a bit beyond anything her subconscious would muster up. Unless it was supposed to have been something meant to help her move about with no legs, but if so, it obviously hadn’t worked.

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

Under other circumstances, she might have left it behind and pursued a way to get out of Hell, or to at least get a message out to Devon. He would surely summon her. But the strange obelisk wouldn’t have just appeared in her domain for absolutely no reason.

Rubbing her hand, or the blood making up her hand, over the surface, Eva found it completely smooth. The liquid couldn’t find any holes or seams. Each corner was just as solid as the rest of the structure.

Eva did realize a slight problem with her hands as she moved her hand over the obelisk. While she could tell that the obsidian was as smooth as glass, she couldn’t feel it. She saw it. Just like she saw all sources of blood. Her fingers didn’t have nerves. The obelisk could be scalding to the touch and she wouldn’t know. Arachne’s hands suffered from a similar problem, as they were a hard carapace exoskeleton, but there had still been some tactile sense feeding back to her mind.

There might be a solution buried somewhere in her blood books, but it wasn’t such a big deal that she had to drop everything and work on it right this very second. Just a minor annoyance.

Backing away from it, Eva turned and walked out of the alternate women’s ward. The sandy ground was annoying when grains got caught within the blood making up her feet. Too much and she would lose control of the blood as it became more contaminated. Hardening the soles of her feet solved that problem for the moment, but she could fix it with a little construction work around her domain.

First, however, she had a different project in mind.

Standing clear of the women’s ward building and the obelisk sticking out from the center, Eva concentrated on tearing down everything. Her entire domain needed to return to its base state from coast to coast.

Thankfully, her domain bent a knee to her will. The entire alternate women’s ward cracked and shuddered. Bits and pieces chipped off, falling to the ground where they broke apart further. In seconds, the building was indistinguishable from the sand of the island.

All that was left was Eva, a little tree without any leaves, and the towering obelisk.

Of those three, only two were supposed to be around. Eva still wasn’t sure what purpose the tree served, but it had been there on her very first visit. Staring at it, she couldn’t alter it in any way no matter how much she concentrated. It stayed its same brown twiggy sapling without sprouting leaves or crumbling to sand. Some day, she would ask Arachne or Catherine about it. Maybe they had trees in the center of their domains. Maybe they had built their domains over the top of the trees and had completely forgotten that they existed in the centuries since then. Maybe they had nothing at all and it was something unique in Eva’s domain.

For the time being, however, Eva turned her attention over to the obelisk. Bare now that it didn’t have the women’s ward surrounding it, Eva could see it without obstruction. Which only made it seem larger than before. Like the tree, it remained static no matter how much she concentrated. The women’s ward had crumbled to sand at a mere thought. This thing didn’t seem to notice how hard she was thinking at it.

Neither did it light up, change color, turn from the glossy obsidian to a rough granite, or anything else she tried to do with it.

Which really meant only one thing. It wasn’t a part of her domain. It was something foreign.

Something left over from Life’s assault? A beacon? Except Life had been using the enigmas as beacons. Living creatures fit much better with its theme than cold structures, even if the enigmas didn’t count as living ‘enough’ for the sake of her blood magic.

So Void then? Why would it plop down a big obelisk in the middle of her domain. In the middle of her women’s ward, no less. The island wasn’t large, but there was plenty of space outside the walls of the alternate women’s ward. Void could have put it somewhere else without forcing her to relocate her building.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled as she walked back up to the obelisk. For a moment, she considered digging under the sand just to see how deep it went. A better idea came to her. Reaching out again, she brushed her hand over the obelisk. This time, she allowed her hand to partially uncouple from her body. A skeletal finger’s worth of blood dribbled down the smooth slope of the obelisk. Just before the dribble hit the sand, she formed a crystal shell around most of it, protecting it from the sand.

And it burrowed. Deep. Deeper. So far down that Eva eventually lost control as it went out of her range somewhere around two stories deep. Still, there was more to it beneath that. Maybe only an inch. Maybe a mile. She couldn’t tell.

The obelisk grew larger and larger the deeper it went. The angle of the four sides wasn’t that noticeable, but even a single degree could mean thousands of miles if the distance was far enough.

She started to consider just how deep it could possibly be before realizing that she hadn’t the slightest idea how Hell actually functioned. Maybe the obelisk went on literally forever. Maybe if she dug far enough, she would fall into nothingness for eternity. Something similar to the pit in Ylva’s domain.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change the fact that part of the obelisk was above the surface.

Pressing a hand to it again, Eva started to channel some of her magic into it as if it were a rune array or ritual circle of any type. Mostly on a whim. If it failed to produce any notable results, there really wasn’t much else to do with an inert pillar of stone. However, turning her attentions towards returning to Earth wasn’t really appealing so long as there was any sort of distraction. Hence her whim.

Honestly, she didn’t know where to begin in escaping from Hell. There had to be a way out from the Hell side. It couldn’t be a commonly known way out or even a remotely obvious way out. Earth would have been overrun with demons long ago if any old demon could find it.

Eva didn’t consider herself any old demon. Technically, unless something unintended had occurred during the corruption of Life, she was still a sliver human. And that just might be what she needed to get out. Otherwise, there were things to try. When she teleported, she knew that she at least partially left the mortal realm and dipped her toes into Hell. If she could enter the waters and think of a place filled with meat passageways, she just might be able to break into the tunnel from the Hell side.

Of course, she was just as likely to wind up facing some horrible cleaver-wielding demon constantly on the lookout for fresh meat.

That was all for if this obelisk didn’t do anything. At the moment, with her hand pressed against it, she could feel her magic flowing into it. There was a place for it to go. Something inside it accepted her magic.

But it wasn’t actually doing anything. No lights brightening it up, no mystic portals opening up to spit out demons or enigmas, nor any portals opening up to any other plane of existence.

With a frown, Eva pulled her hand away. The obsidian was just as smooth as it had been before. No hand-shaped mark. As another thought crossed her mind, Eva pulled all the blood of her hand back into her body. With nothing more than bare skin, she reached out.

Once again, she tried pressing magic into the obelisk. This time, she really opened the floodgates. If it needed bare skin contact, she had that covered. If it just needed more magic to fill its massive size, the torrential deluge of magic she was releasing should fill it to the brim. It was like trying to overpower thirty of her most explosive fireballs at once while teleporting. Every scrap of magic filling her veins that was not keeping her legs cohesive flooded into the obelisk.

This time, she got a reaction.

A faint glow. A red light right at the very tip. Barely notable. In fact, the only reason she did notice it was because of the pitch black sky in the background.

But red was a good color. Had it been violet, she might have stopped the instant she noticed. Red, Eva associated with demons. Which meant that it was probably not something Life had left behind to restart the rending of the borders between planes. She didn’t know what it was for.

Perhaps it was a gift. She had done fairly well in averting the apocalypse, in her opinion. It might not have gone exactly as Void had planned, but Void hadn’t seemed too upset during her brief death at the hunter’s hands.

She held it as long as she could. But the dim light never got any brighter. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she tore her hand away. The sweat dripping from her forehead flung through the air as she collapsed down onto the sandy beach.

For a moment there, she almost forgot to keep her blood circulating. Which represented a certain weakness in her new heart—aside from the obvious need to replace it eventually with another bloodstone, perhaps one from her void metal dagger if she could find it. It might take time, but she should heal. She was demonic enough. Her heart would come back sometime. Until then, she absolutely needed to make circulating her blood such a habit, such a regular act of her subconscious that she could circulate it properly while she was asleep or otherwise unconscious.

Something to work on.

Once she was certain that her body wasn’t going to unexpectedly shut down, Eva looked long and hard at the once again dim obelisk. Even straining herself to the breaking point didn’t do enough. There was something, but not enough.

Which made her wonder if two people would do any better. Or four; there were four sides, after all. Unfortunately, as she had been lamenting earlier, she didn’t know three demons in Hell. At least not three she wanted to meet with.

But this was her domain. Why should she need other people? It could conjure up buildings and people-like simulacra like Eva could conjure up fireballs. The entire place was more or less under her control.

Eva took a moment to reform her legs—they had gone a little jelly-like when she had collapsed—before standing and once again pressing her arm against the obelisk. This time, she only let a trickle of magic pass through her arm.

Most of her concentration went into her domain. The magic of the world that surrounded her. She focused hard, imagining a massive hand squeezing it all down into the obelisk, pressing and draining every droplet of magical energy from the ambient air against the pillar.

With the force of her domain behind her, Eva watched the top of the obelisk. The red light increased in intensity. It doubled over, steadily brightening. But it didn’t stop there. It kept doubling its brightness, reaching a point where Eva had to look away to avoid her eyes burning out.

The current of magic charged the air, making the hairs on Eva’s arms stand on end. At the same time, a pressure built up. Opening and closing her jaw made her ears pop like she had been driving up a steep hill.

As she poured more magic into the obelisk, she could feel the receptacle she had noticed earlier filling up. The reservoir, though deep, was not infinite. It had a ways to go. She increased the efforts of her domain to fill it while keeping herself from straining.

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

Eva found herself flying backwards, leaving her legs behind. It took her a moment as she flew through the air to realize what happened. A quick thought just before she hit a bank of sand drew some of her legs back to her body, but a good portion of the blood had already sunk into the sand around the obelisk.

Veins of red ran down the sides of the obelisk, branching and splitting as they moved downwards, becoming individually thinner but densely coating the sides. It became so dense that Eva couldn’t tell that there was any of the obsidian left from ten feet off the sand and below. And it didn’t stop there. It continued downwards below the sand, presumably until it hit some sort of base. Even if Eva could sense that far down, she wouldn’t have been able to see the lines. They weren’t blood. All she could see was a faint glow squeezing between the grains of sand in a short radius around the obelisk.

Eva stared, rebuilding her legs—much shorter now than they were before—as she waited for it to do something. Though, for all she knew, it might take a good few hours before the red reached the bottom. If it ever did.

It had thrown her away like a used washcloth while still drinking of the magic of her domain. She could feel the flow, though only tangentially. Eva didn’t think that she would run out of magic anytime soon. Her domain was a part of her, yet not. Her subconscious and conscious both contributed to how it worked. The amount of magic it would take to build and destroy nearly anything at will, including semi-sapient constructs of people, had to be extreme. Given that she had never heard of a demon running out of magic in their domain, it had to be excessive.

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

But all of Hell was essentially a part of Void. That had been the whole point behind Life’s plans in drawing Hell to the mortal realm. It was a way to get at Void. So unless this obelisk was meant to exhaust the magical ability of a Power, she doubted she had to worry about much.

In fact, seeing that it would probably take some time, Eva conjured up a chair. The sands around her rose up, molding into smooth leather as she sat down. The soft cushions of one of the Rickenbacker lobby chairs cradled her, taking away the need to keep legs of blood formed. Comfortable, she sat back and waited.

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

“An attack,” Dean Anderson said. “An attack on what we stand for. What we are doing here.” He gazed out, peering over the assembled cameras and reporters. Mostly mundane, but there were a number of obvious mages standing around the crowd. “Make no mistake,” he continued in his most authoritative voice, “there are those who do not agree with the decisions of Brakket Academy, Nod Complex, Faultline, Isomer, and Mount Hope to disclose information about the magical community to the world at large.”

Zoe found herself frowning. If her memory served, and she had no reason to doubt it at the moment, Anderson had sprung the idea on the other schools. Faultline, at the very least, had been upset. Mount Hope and the Nod Complex had far more subdued reactions to his announcement during the initial feast between the schools. They very well might have known beforehand.

Yet framing the incident as an attack against all of them made the other schools far more likely to stand with Brakket Academy against criticism and adversity. Which was more of a public relations move on his part than a real call to action. There was no real enemy. Not in the manner he was implying.

Zoe refrained from interrupting. He had obviously put a some thought into what to say. She would wait and see if anything was morally objectionable beyond lying about the potential apocalyptic situation they had been in. Frankly, telling the layperson about an averted apocalypse would probably be worse than lying about nonexistent terrorists. So, with a sigh, she pushed the imaginary dull pain in her missing arm away and focused on his speech.

“Fools,” he said, making Zoe glad she was sitting behind him along with most of the rest of the various schools’ staff members. A bit of spittle might have escaped his mouth as he spoke. “Releasing dangerous creatures into the city? Creating that ghastly illusion in our skies to frighten off good and wholesome people? What do you hope to accomplish by harming children and innocents?”

He slammed his fists down on the podium, sending a loud crack through the assembled microphones. Zoe could actually believe that he was honestly angry.

“It is too late to go back to the way things were. It has been too late for a long time.” Anderson held up a cellphone, raising it high over the microphone-covered podium. “You, who attacked us, may be unfamiliar with mundane technology given your desire to cling to the old ways. Nearly every mundane human carries one of these. They are getting smaller, faster, and smarter.” He flipped it over, pointing towards the camera. “They record everything, uploading pictures and videos to data servers where the images become nigh impossible to remove. It is a wonder, an absolute shock that knowledge of magic was only as widespread as it was before our tournament.”

He dropped his hands to his sides, putting on an expression of remorse. “And yet you would sabotage this attempt at peaceful revelation. I can only hope that whatever trust has been broken between our societies because of this incident can be repaired.”

Silence befell the briefing area as Anderson dipped his head in a solemn nod of respect. It took a few moments for the silence to be broken.

One of the reporters stood, holding up a hand. He didn’t wait to be called upon before blurting out a question. “Do you know who is behind the attacks on the school?”

“Specifically? No. As a group, they’re terrorists, nothing more. We have people attempting to uncover their identities.”

“Hank Hanson,” Hank said as he stood up with an award-winning smile.

Among all the reporters in the audience, very few had actually been present for the ‘attack’ with the exception of Hank. The only real evidence of that was the matted gauze pad on his face from where he had gotten a bit too close to an enigma in his overzealous attempt to get an up-close story. Frankly, he was lucky to have survived. One of the various demons had apparently saved him.

And yet, he was still smiling. Perhaps more impressively, he hadn’t run off screaming.

“You say that you have people looking into their identities. Is it common for schools to take care of constabulary duties?”

“The magical society is not as large as our mundane counterparts. We don’t have anything like a standing army or police force. The Royal Guild of Mage-Knights,” he said with a vague wave of his hand towards where Redford sat not far from Zoe, “are trained bounty hunters who we are working closely with us to bring these terrorists to justice.”

Redford’s hands rubbed over the top of his cane as he stared out with a deep scowl on his face. Zoe had told Anderson the truth, but she had no idea what he had told Redford. Were the members of the Guild looking for terrorists that didn’t actually exist?

“One more question,” Hank said before another reporter could stand up. “Have you…”

He trailed off. Zoe couldn’t figure out why until she noticed the ashen faces of the rest of the crowd of reporters. Most were staring at some point over Anderson’s head. Anderson realized that something was wrong as well and turned to look along with most of the staff.

On the horizon of the city, a faint red glow had encompassed the rooftops. The center point, the area that glowed the brightest, was straight towards where the obelisk was.

Panic quickly set in. Of course it had. They were in a meeting discussing the actions of terrorists. Whether or not those terrorists actually existed didn’t matter. The reporters didn’t know the truth. And that horizon looked an awful lot like another attack.

A thunderclap coming from Redford’s cane as he slammed it down onto the ground silenced the slowly mounting noise. In the same motion, he created a dome overhead. “Do not panic,” he shouted out. “We will keep everyone safe.”

Anderson looked to the staff, to all of the remaining professors, but especially the security guards. “Ensure the students don’t come to harm,” he said loud enough for the reporters to hear.

Zoe shared a look with Wayne. Just a brief look. They wouldn’t be heading to the dormitory buildings. A silent agreement passed between them. Wayne teleported away first.

“It’s always one thing after another,” Anderson mumbled just before Zoe disappeared.

She reappeared on the far end of the street from the obelisk—no sense teleporting into the middle of a hundred enigmas or demons if it was some sort of invasion. Wayne apparently had the same idea. He wasn’t standing far from Zoe.

His eyes twitched back and forth in the tell-tale signs of mental acceleration, so she didn’t bother saying anything for the moment. Instead, she surveyed the situation.

The obelisk was covered in veins of red lines, all lit up like a Christmas tree. A very ominous and slightly evil Christmas tree.

But that was it. No monsters running about attacking people. The dark area of sand around the obelisk wasn’t spreading. Or, if it was, it was spreading so slowly that Zoe couldn’t tell. The few mage-knights who Anderson hired to watch over it were backing away slowly, but none of them were being eaten alive or disintegrated by some wave of magical energy.

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

Still… perhaps it was time to evacuate Brakket City. Anderson might not like it. Then again, he didn’t like much of anything. It could be temporary. Catherine had been concerned over the obelisk for about a day until her search for more came up with nothing substantial. It was entirely possible that these obelisks were merely benign remnants from the ritual.

Better to be safe than sorry.

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009.023

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“Lucy?” Eva called out as she crept into the dormitory room assigned to the demon in question. Unlike the student demons—who were all housed in the Rickenbacker—Lucy’s assigned room was over in the Gillet. Eva honestly didn’t think that she had ever been inside. It was eerie. She was so used to everything being where it was in the Rickenbacker that walking inside its identical twin sent shivers down her spine.

Everything was mirrored. Instead of turning left at the top of the stairs, she had to turn right. The dorm rooms were on the wrong side of the hallway. The doors even opened to the wrong side.

Eva really just wanted to pop in, say sorry, then pop out.

But Lucy was hiding. Or rather, she had pressed herself flat and was hiding between the drawers underneath one of the beds.

“Lucy, I can see you. And sense you, for that matter.” Eva started tapping her foot.

By the third tap, Lucy had started squirming out from under the bed. She didn’t push out a drawer to do so. Tentacles emerged through the thin slits between the wood of the frame and the actual drawer. It was somewhat disturbing to watch at first, when not much of Lucy was actually through. Even knowing how her body looked through her blood sight, Eva didn’t know how she maneuvered around all four sides of the rectangular drawer without either tangling herself up or getting part of her caught on the other side. Somehow, she made it. A moment after piling herself up on the floor, she spread out to a proper humanoid form.

“Here to tear me apart again?”

“I’m not going to tear you apart. And it’s your own fault for not letting go.”

“You could have just pelted me with fireballs.”

“I tried fireballs.”

“I was supposed to let go after thirty direct hits from students’ attacks. You only made it to twenty-two.”

“Did chopping off each tentacle not count as a direct attack? Because I probably chopped off more than that.”

Lucy shrank in on herself—literally—before shaking her head. “I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to get torn apart.”

Eva sighed as she placed a hand on Lucy’s shoulder. Something Lucy initially flinched away from until she realized that Eva wasn’t going to hurt her. “Look, I’m sorry about all that. I might have gotten a little hot-headed. How about this, would you like to go to a feast? You missed the big after-event dinner last time. I bet you could even sit up at the professors’ table with all the other important people! It will be fun! New experiences!”

“I do like new experiences. And fun. As long as it isn’t the hurting kind of experience.”

“Great!” Eva slapped Lucy on the back. “I’ll see you there.”

Time to go visit Anderson and ensure he knew to leave out an extra seat.

— — —

As Eva sat in the middle of the event closing feast, she couldn’t help but wonder if Anderson’s smile could get any wider. The results hadn’t even been announced yet. Brakket was obviously going to win. They wound up with seven crystals. It would have been eight, but one crystal had been taken out of the boundaries of Brakket’s camp right at the last second.

No crystals outside the border of the camps counted for any team in the end, so Brakket was in first place. Second place would be going to Isomer with five crystals. Nod Complex and Faultline had two each, and Mount Hope was left with one. And that was thanks only to Irene being unable to carry that one. All other crystals has been ‘in transit’ and therefore uncounted.

So with Brakket in the clear lead, it wasn’t hard to understand just what Anderson was so happy about. Still, in Eva’s opinion, he could at least have had the decorum to look a little subdued before the results were officially announced. At this point, she would find it hilarious if Redford and his judges had some other criteria for who would be winning first place.

“He’s still there,” Juliana whispered, setting down a fork.

She leaned in so close that Eva actually scooted away. Even still, her voice didn’t quite carry to Eva’s ears despite them sitting right next to each other. Luckily, what little did reach Eva’s ears, combined with her burgeoning lip-reading skills, was enough that she could understand.

In response, Eva didn’t offer anything but a slight hum. Juliana couldn’t lip read. More, she didn’t want to say anything just in case one of the many air mages around was using magic to carry what little air Juliana disturbed to their ears. She doubted anyone was doing so, but she couldn’t be sure.

“I can feel him. And his magic.” Juliana said, apparently not picking up on the reason for Eva’s lack of response. Though Eva couldn’t really blame her. This feast the day after the event and her kidnapping was the first opportunity for them to be together without her parents in the immediate area.

Of course, her parents were still at the feast—Zoe had invited them up to the front of the stage. They weren’t sitting with Juliana though, and apparently that was good enough for her.

“He hasn’t said a single word since teaching me how to use his magic.” She ran her fingers through her hair, tugging slightly as she went. “What if he is upset? Am I not entertaining enough? What–”

“You’re getting a little loud,” Eva said, her own voice still a whisper but not nearly so quiet as Juliana had first been. “Besides, you worry too much. Obviously he hasn’t…” Pausing, Eva considered her words.

Shalise looked in their direction, obviously having noticed that they were speaking. She raised a curious eyebrow to which Eva just smiled. Eva had told her what had happened in the privacy of their dormitory room, so she wouldn’t have a problem bringing her into the conversation—she was the expert of the three of them on having a demon inside her, after all. However, that would just increase the volume of their words. Better to just table it for the moment.

“He hasn’t tried to escape, so nothing to worry about.”

“Easy for you to say,” Juliana said in a much more normal tone of voice, slouching her shoulders as she shoved around her food, mixing the mashed potatoes with the mashed lychee.

Before Eva could say anything else, a certain vampire plopped down in the vacant seat directly opposite Eva. Saija, to his side, narrowed her eyes as she looked over to him.

But the vampire didn’t even notice. His smug face had eyes for nobody but Eva.

“Who are you again?”

His smile slipped into a lip-curling scowl. “Your humor is lacking.”

“Oh, except it wasn’t a joke. I honestly can’t remember your name. Do you know it?” Eva asked, glancing towards Juliana. At the shake of her head, Eva turned towards her opposite side where Shalise also shook her head. Turning back to the vampire, Eva frowned. “There you have it. Nobody knows who you are.”

It took a great deal of effort to suppress her smile as the vampire ground his teeth together. “I’m–”

“Before that,” Eva said, holding up a hand, “Juliana, do you mind if I try something?”

“Ah… that depends. There are a lot of things you might want to try that I do not particularly want to be involved in. Or that my mother would like me involved in, for that matter.”

“Oh don’t worry,” Eva said with a wide grin, “nothing scary. Just a thought experiment. Let’s say that somebody can jump but we really don’t want them to…” She trailed off and waited.

It took a moment. Not a long moment. Soon enough, Juliana had a similar grin on her face. “I think I can do that,” she said. And then she started mumbling, more to herself than to Eva. “Though we should change it to communicate. That way writing it down or sign language wouldn’t work. I should probably make sure there aren’t any dead man’s switches, though I might have to think that one over for a bit on exactly how to word it.”

“Take your time, I doubt it needs to be done tonight.”

The vampire’s impatience at being ignored peaked. He put a fist down on the table hard enough to clatter the plates and cutlery. A few people glanced over, but no more than what was usual for Eva kept looking for very long. “What are you two talking about?” he said.

“Like I said,” Eva said, turning back to the vampire with an even wider grin. It was almost as big as Anderson’s. “Just a thought experiment. Don’t worry if you’re having a hard time keeping up. I wouldn’t expect a rot-addled brain to comprehend.”

His dead eyes narrowed to thin slits.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at, but try anything against me and you’ll regret it.”

Eva snapped her face back to a serious expression. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Especially not while entertaining the thought that Juliana could use Zagan to get rid of her vampire problem. “Right. I wouldn’t dare so long as you’re holding any secrets over me.”

“And don’t you forget it.”

“So, what did you come over here for?”

The vampire—who still had yet to introduce himself properly—straightened his back as he stared over at Eva. “The third event will be beginning after the New Year’s holidays. The two of us will be able to participate once again. I was thinking we might have another little wager.”

“About my blood again?”

“What else?” he said with a smug shrug.

Eva frowned. Even if Juliana could correct his ability to open his mouth about things she didn’t want said—without him knowing at that—it would still be best to keep him believing that he could say something. If only to prevent him from trying to and potentially finding a way around whatever Juliana was going to do.

Really, it would be so much simpler if the Elysium Order did their job. Though Eva supposed she was partially to blame for that. And then they might also catch wind of Serena, which she didn’t want to happen. Not all vampires are terrible. Just all of them that weren’t named Serena.

Supposedly Wayne’s sister was also a vampire, or so Serena had said, but Eva had never met her. For all she knew, Serena was an absolute anomaly and Wayne’s sister would be insufferable as well. Then again, thinking about it for a few minutes, Serena was fairly insufferable in her own way. It was just that Eva had gotten used to it.

“Why don’t we raise the stakes?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“If Nod Complex comes out on top of Brakket, I’ll supply you with a weekly vial of my blood for a year. Fifty-two vials, in other words.”

“I see no issue with that.”

“If Brakket wins…” Eva tapped her chin in thought. “An equal amount of your blood.”

She had no real concrete plans, but she was a blood mage! If she couldn’t find anything worth doing with it, she probably needed to rethink her choices in magic specialization. The vampire hadn’t done anything really worth killing him over, but she was sure there would be several other annoyances she could come up with.

If worse came to worst and Juliana couldn’t get rid of their problem, she could always try out the sense-sharing spell. Despite her poor experience in using it on Sawyer, two days of spying on him could easily reveal whatever backup plans he had.

“My blood? Why would you want my blood? You don’t drink blood, do you?”

Shalise made a face, looking almost like she was going to be sick.

Eva ignored it. “I don’t drink blood,” she said with a shrug. “However, I’m not averse to making money. I’m sure vampire blood can be used in all sorts of potions and magical reagents.”

“Selling my blood?” He scoffed, shaking his head. With a prideful flourish, he stood from the table. “It won’t matter. If you think I haven’t learned your tricks. And this time, you won’t be allied with the…” His lips curled again as he trailed off, shooting a glance at the Isomer table. “Elysium Order,” he eventually finished, sounding more like he was swearing than actually talking. “But I can agree to your bet. Fifty-two vials. Plus no less than ten direct feedings.”

Did he have to be so creepy about it? It was hard enough to keep her smile from faltering. Shalise had her eyes closed and her nose scrunched up. Even Juliana had shoved her meal away from her as she stared at the vampire.

On the other hand, Saija’s glower at having the vampire sitting next to her reached its peak. “Great. Now that you’re done, do you mind?” She wafted her hand in front of her nose. “Ugh. Dead people. Reeks like raw fish. Or worse. You shouldn’t be allowed around everybody’s meals. It’s not like you can eat it anyway.”

“No one asked you, demon,” he snarled.

“Your breath isn’t doing you any favors either,” she said, turning her head with her nose wrinkled. “Even if you’re dead, you could still have a mint every now and again, right?”

Eva cleared her throat before more snide remarks could be thrown. Not that she really minded, but the nuns had started to stare. “You should probably head back to your school’s table. I’d rather have as little known fraternization as possible between us.”

He gave a slight snort but turned and walked off towards the Nod Complex’s seating.

“Creep,” Juliana mumbled under her breath, to which Shalise gave a few vigorous nods.

“Yeah. I wish Devon would get on with my next treatment already. Apparently my most recent treatment made me unpalatable towards one other vampire. Maybe another would work on this guy.”

Juliana’s back stiffened. “Other vampire? The one from our room?”

“Yeah. She’s been around somewhere. I saw her just after the hunters attacked. Not since though, I wonder where she’s been,” Eva mumbled to herself. “But don’t worry, she’s back to her normal self. No lunging at you and trying to eat you. Too much, anyway.”

“You sure know how to make people feel better,” Juliana said with a sigh.

“I do try,” Eva said with a smile. She was going to say more, but Anderson chose that moment to get up on center stage.

As with the previous event, he introduced Wallace Redford. Redford stood from his seat—he wasn’t next to the quetzalcoatl this time. In fact, Eva couldn’t see the quetzalcoatl anywhere around. Maybe her presence had been a one-off thing. Redford announced the results exactly as Eva had expected. Brakket first, Isomer second, Faultline and Nod Complex tied for third, and Mount Hope fifth.

Throughout it all, Eva barely paid attention. The results were a mere formality at this point. Though she did give Irene a thumbs up when Brakket was announced as first. Had it not been for her, Brakket and Mount Hope would have tied for second underneath Isomer.

And, frankly, Irene deserved a little praise. Getting carried around by Saija all night didn’t look like the funnest thing that could have happened.

Irene didn’t look all that happy at the minor praise. Though she smiled, she quickly ducked her head and stared down at her plate, avoiding eye-contact with everyone else for a few minutes until she thought nobody was looking.

To be fair, nobody was looking. Eva only observed her through her blood sight. However, her thoughts were interrupted before she could consider Irene more.

“The next event will be held the second week of January. As with the other events, you will be unaware of what is required to succeed until immediately before the event. Enjoy your holidays, though do not neglect your training. It just might mean the difference between success and defeat.”

“Thank you Wallace,” Anderson said, stepping back into his spot as Redford headed back towards his seat. “Now, before we all disperse for the evening, I do have a few… announcements to make. I do not wish to imply that Brakket Academy may be unsafe; however, there was an incident recently that I feel it is necessary to make everyone aware of.”

At Eva’s side, Juliana shifted, she moved her hands down to her lap and mimicked Irene in avoiding people’s gaze.

“There was an attempt at kidnapping a Brakket Academy student over the weekend. Mage-knight Genoa Rivas, Eva Spencer, and the demon Arachne managed to recover the student unharmed shortly after the incident; however, the kidnapper managed to escape. Until the situation can be resolved and the perpetrator captured, students are not to wander Brakket City unaccompanied. Anywhere beyond the dormitory buildings is considered off-limits for the time being. If you need to shop for clothing, supplies, or anything else, please ask one of the professors you see up on stage,” he said with a wave of his hand back to the assembled teachers and headmasters.

Lucy, Eva noted, waved right back with a bright smile on her face. Eva wasn’t certain if she was supposed to have been included in that grouping, but maybe someone would ask her. That might be amusing to watch.

“Finally, if you see a woman with bright red hair down to her shoulders and an eye patch over her right eye, please keep your distance and contact help immediately. She may be wearing metallic armor.” He lifted his wand into the air and drew out a series of flaming numbers. They hung in the air just above his head. “I highly encourage everyone to add this number to their speed-dials. There will always be someone manning the phone ready to dispatch assistance.”

He clapped his hands together. The numbers kept hovering over his head, but his morose expression shifted back to a bright smile. “However, we expect to have the situation well in hand. Be aware, be safe, but try not to worry too much. There are a few more lighthearted announcements to make before I let you all go.

“We’ll be hosting a special event on the twenty-eighth. Optional to attend, but if you wish to intermingle with your fellow schools outside a school or contest setting, this will be the event for you. There will be a number of games and prizes–”

Eva’s attention waned. Her interest in holiday events for the various schools rated somewhere between being stuck in Sawyer’s head for a weekend and being strapped to Sawyer’s operating table. If everyone else wanted to have some fun party, that was perfectly fine with her. She had other things to think about.

Catherine for one. The succubus was going to stop by Brakket later on to inspect the ritual circle. Eva still had yet to describe its purpose to Catherine—she wanted to see if the purpose was evident in the design. If Catherine said that the circle was designed to split apart the Earth and send both halves cascading into the Sun, then she might be speaking with Vektul about some miscommunication regarding the ritual.

If she did divine just what the ritual was for, Eva was really hoping she wouldn’t have too many concerns over it.

Of course, that was assuming it got finished anytime soon. With Juliana’s parents both going into a completely overprotective mode, she might not be able to help out much. Eva had considered asking her to use Zagan’s power to instantly complete it, but considering a second time, she really didn’t want any magic-induced errors to appear. The circle was almost finished. With her non-Juliana help, it wouldn’t take forever. Then they could go over the entire thing by hand, double checking it all.

Might still be a good idea to recruit someone else as well. And then she still needed the actual people to help power the circle. A combination of demons and humans. Juliana probably wouldn’t work anymore with her having been bound to Zagan. She could check in with Vektul, but better to be safe than sorry.

But that was still a little further off than even the completion of the circle.

The other big issue was the hunter. Despite Anderson’s claims of having the situation well in hand. Frankly, she just didn’t believe that he would do much of anything. He might believe it, but not Eva. In her opinion, Genoa was far more likely to do something.

Which might have been what Anderson was counting on.

Still, the possibility of him actually doing something didn’t mean that Eva would sit idle. The hunter was after her, after all. And she had just the idea in mind. She would wander around on the streets and get herself captured.

Her thoughts broke as the dinnerware before her began clattering. It was a small thing. The clattering didn’t last more than a few seconds. The only reason it was audible at all was because the entire room fell into a brief silence. Eva scarcely felt it herself.

“An earthquake?” Anderson said from up on the stage, confusion marring his features. He waited a moment as if listening for anything else. But nothing came. “Huh. Well, probably nothing to worry about. Brakket Academy isn’t just brick and mortar. It’s magic. It won’t fall to something as mundane as an earthquake. As I was saying, celebrations!”

Again, Eva tuned him out as she glanced to her side. Shalise had her arms wrapped around her and trembled. “You alright,” Eva asked, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“There were enough earthquakes in Hell,” she whispered.

Ah, right. Eva rubbed her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Like Anderson said, it was probably nothing. Some slight ripple from a far-off quake. And even if it is less benign, we’re all here this time,” she said, gesturing to the whole table.

Still… Earthquakes were rare in Montana. Not unheard of, but not exactly common either. And Eva wasn’t the type to believe in coincidence. It was probably that hunter. Since her sky beam had been destroyed, she was probably trying something else. This time from below.

Eva definitely needed to deal with her.

>>Author’s Note 009<<

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009.012

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Eva flopped over on her bed.

“Ah, I’m tired,” she mumbled to nobody in particular.

Nobody else was around. Juliana and Shalise had gone over to Genoa’s house to watch the event. Irene, Jordan, and Shelby were all there as well, along with Saija, Srey, and Vektul. A gathering that might have had Eva worried for their safety from demon hunters had she not been so tired. Especially because she was relatively certain that Genoa had participated in the event as an antagonist to one of the groups.

Carlos was supposedly a decent fighter, if Genoa was to be believed. They had three demons, Jordan, and Juliana as well. If anything had come up, they could probably handle it all on their own.

All in all, the event could have gone much worse. Even aside from how it ended. She had honestly been worried that another sky-cracking laser beam would obliterate half of the contestants. Given the vampire’s presence, the Elysium Order might have attacked all on their own. That combined with Eva and Lucy’s presence, it had been an ideal time to attack for just about anyone.

Well, partially. There were a lot of high-profile mages running about Brakket Academy at the moment. Redford, for one. And the event had been televised. A demon hunter might not care, but the Elysium Order did have something of a reputation to uphold.

Her school hadn’t won, but neither had the vampire’s. As it was, he was probably going to corner her sometime and try to bet on something else. Perhaps his school winning the second event or something similar.

Eva didn’t really care. She couldn’t participate in it. That gave her all kinds of free time. With Juliana’s help, they might be able to finish up the ritual circle before she actually had to worry about it being discovered.

Maybe. It was still a daunting task. They weren’t going to do anything tonight, obviously. Maybe not the day after either, as there was supposed to be another feast celebrating the end of the first event and its victors.

Then, she didn’t know when the second event would take place. It might be the following weekend, it might be in the middle of December. Hopefully the latter.

Even once the ritual circle was finished, she would still need to actually find the people to help participate. The demon side of things should be easy enough. She already had half of them helping out either with the creation of the circle or the security of it. A few more could probably be convinced just by saying that they were summoning Void.

The humans weren’t going to be half as easy to find. Juliana would. She was already involved anyway. Shalise as well, probably. Maybe. Maybe leaving her out of it would be for the best. Her mother wouldn’t approve, to say the least.

Though, Genoa probably wouldn’t either. But it was a bit too late in Juliana’s case.

Maybe Irene would come. If she brought Shelby along with her, that would be good. Beyond that, Eva was somewhat at a loss. Vektul had said humans. Eva wasn’t sure that people with demons bound to them counted as human enough, so that ruled out a good number of people who Eva thought might otherwise not have a problem summoning a Power to Earth.

A tapping at the window of her dorm room interrupted Eva’s thoughts.

And yet, being flopped over face down on her bed was nice and comfortable. Did she really want to get up and open the window?

No, not really.

Three more taps rattled the glass before Eva finally lifted her head enough to see who dared to disturb her slumber.

Ah, but the blinds are in the way, Eva thought as she dropped her face back onto the bed.

She wasn’t that tired. Sure, she had used a lot of magic. Especially blinking and fireballs. But that wasn’t too taxing. Maybe she was tired from all the running and jumping around. There had been a lot of that as well.

Or maybe it was the interactions with other people. Other people were always exhausting. Especially ones she had never met before. And nuns.

Eva tilted her head up with a deep frown on her face as the tapping on the window grew louder. Something about that didn’t feel right. She had never had much trouble interacting with people. Other people often had trouble interacting with her unless she dragged them along at her pace, but not the other way around.

If it wasn’t that…

I’m not depressed, am I?

That would be silly. She had accomplished her objective in preventing the vampire from winning. There was nothing to be depressed about.

The tapping rattled the windows enough that it threatened to break the glass.

Eva finally rolled out of bed, stumbling to her feet as she moved over to the window.

“Alright already,” she mumbled.

Pulling up the blinds, she threw the latch and hefted the window up.

A massive spider skittered into the room, barely making it before Eva slammed the window shut again.

“The door works perfectly fine, you know.”

The spider didn’t respond. She couldn’t as she didn’t have a mouth. Not yet, anyway. Her body was expanding back into its humanoid form.

Instead of waiting and watching her, Eva just flopped back down on her bed and buried her face into her pillow.

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

“Yeah, can’t wait to see that vampire’s face,” Eva mumbled.

Arachne stood still for a moment longer, standing over the side of the bed. When she finally decided to move, she just sat on the edge.

Eva let out a little squawk as Arachne fell backwards, laying her head and the stiff tendrils that passed for her hair on Eva’s back. They poked into her for a minute or two before Arachne finally made herself comfortable in resting against Eva.

All the while, Eva just lay there, not minding the sudden contact. Neither spoke, choosing instead to sit in a companionable silence.

“Thanks,” Eva said, absolutely ruining the mood yet still feeling a need to say so. She tried to move as little as possible so as to keep from disturbing the resting spider, though she did lift her head up enough that she wasn’t speaking into her pillow.

“For what? I didn’t do anything.”

“Knowing you were out there following me, ready to jump in at the first sign of anything truly dangerous was enough. I might have been a whole lot more paranoid had you not been there.”

“I wasn’t able to get into the pyramid itself without possibly being spotted on the cameras.”

“Yeah, I figured. But I also figured that not many others would be able to get inside without being seen. I was a lot more worried about demon hunters and the like, not any of the other contestants.”

Arachne didn’t say anything in response. She really didn’t need to.

Having her there was enough for Eva.

Eva dropped her head back into her pillow and shut her eyes.

— — —

“Remember, join in next time for more magical excitement at Brakket Academy.”

Zoe managed to maintain her smile until the little red recording light blinked off. As soon as it did, she couldn’t help herself. A suppressed yawn finally broke free, stretching her jaw as far as it would go for a few seconds.

“Ah, excuse me,” she said as the yawn died off. “Wasn’t expecting that to go quite so long.”

When the schedule had called for her to comment on several highlights after the event had finished, she had expected a half hour of discussion. There had been no final time listed, but three hours seemed a tad excessive. It had gotten to the point where she had been running out of unique things to say for every little display of magic.

Normally, she would have assumed there to be a time limit simply because the station had other programs they needed to get to. They had obviously cleared their schedule. In fact, Zoe wouldn’t be surprised if the station switched to a few analysts—probably unqualified and mundane analysts—who would discuss and replay the event all through the night. Perhaps even into the next week.

There would be backlash, excitement, fear, uproar, wonder, and all manner of people coming out of the woodworks to either praise or condemn everything magical. Mundane people who couldn’t stand the idea that magic existed had been protesting for years and nothing had really come of it. Of course, there had never been such open and obvious proof. Just whispers and conspiracy theories.

But worrying about such things was, quite frankly, not Zoe’s job. She knew that both Wallace and Anderson had public relations people at the ready. Anderson, possibly Wallace as well, had been planning something like this for a while.

The only thing Zoe was truly concerned about at the moment was protesters showing up around Brakket.

Or worse, rioters.

And demon hunters, though enough had died in the area recently to hopefully ward off any more from showing up. Vampire hunters not associated with the Elysium Order might appear, but they were so few and far between that Zoe couldn’t bring herself to be too concerned. Most people who didn’t like vampires joined up with the Elysium Order.

Zoe would be speaking with Anderson in the morning about hiring some new security guards around the place anyway.

“Don’t worry,” Hank said, standing up to stretch his back. “I was thinking we would only spend an hour talking about it. But the viewers just weren’t dropping off, so…” he trailed off with a shrug.

“Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the event.”

“I’m sure they did. Social media is already going nuts over it all. Sorry about your school though.”

“We may not have won, but I think we made a decent showing of it all.” Zoe stood, resisted the urge to mimic Hank’s stretching, and held out her hand. “Thanks for keeping me on track. I have a tendency to go off on tangents on occasion.”

“Not a problem. I look forward to co-commenting on the next event.” He reached out and took hold of Zoe’s hand. He paused for a moment. “I wonder if it might be possible to sit in on a class or two before the next event. With everything going on, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

“That… could be possible. I’ll have to speak with Anderson, but I don’t foresee much of an issue.” Especially if I frame it in such a way that it sounds like Brakket gets something out of it. “I’ll mention it to him in the morning.”

“Excellent.”

“I don’t know how much it will help. These students study for years before performing magic like this.”

“True. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

Zoe couldn’t really disagree with that. She just nodded her head instead. “I’ll send you a date and time as soon as I speak with Anderson. However, if you’ll excuse me for now, there are a few people I should meet with before the night officially ends.”

“Of course. I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Turning, Zoe stepped off the wooden platform and started walking towards the main school building. Four steps later, she had a better idea. Zoe reached into her pocket and took hold of her wand. A slight buildup of magic had her sent through the blinding white of Between, teleported across the city.

She immediately collapsed into Wayne’s couch.

And started groaning.

The television was on. Worse, she was on. Some station was playing a clip from earlier in the evening.

“Is that what I looked like?”

“What’s wrong? You look fine.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes at Wayne.

He just raised his eyebrows as he took a sip from a cup of coffee.

“The station wanted to do my makeup, something about certain colors standing out better on camera.”

Wayne set his coffee down on the table before leaning back in his armchair. He tilted his head back, facing the ceiling of his home as he closed his eyes. “They did a good job, not that I know anything about makeup,” he grumbled.

“I feel like I could dig my finger three inches into my face before I actually touched skin.” She sighed. The sigh trailed off into a self-depreciating laugh. “So how was it? Terrible?”

“Not as bad as I expected.”

“Knowing you, you expected the world to end halfway through. ‘Not as bad’ could still be a complete disaster.”

“The slow motion shots were nice.”

“They were,” Zoe said. “I wonder if we could get the original footage from them. It might come in handy for class.”

Wayne let out a loud scoff that had Zoe narrowing her eyes again.

“Everyone in the world is going to be jumping at the opportunity to get magic on camera. I’m sure you could find someone willing to set their slow motion cameras up while you cast spells at them for hours on end. They would probably pay you as well.”

“Maybe. But I think I would still like the footage from tonight. The original footage, not just what they’re going to show on repeat for the next several weeks.”

“Well, I doubt they’ll be deleting any of it. I’m sure the military is going to pay good money to get their hands on a copy. Probably several militaries.”

“That’s something other people can deal with,” Zoe said, reaffirming her decision to stay out of larger politicking matters. She was a magical theory professor. If there was a danger to her students, she would jump in to defend them without hesitation.

That the United States armed services might want copies of the footage was not an immediate danger to her students. Or, probably, a long-term danger. Though it wouldn’t surprise her if they came up with a magical branch of the military. Or perhaps just wrapped up certain mages into the Army or Navy or wherever they fit best.

More career paths were always a good thing. Fighting in the military wouldn’t be significantly different from most Guild work. It might even be safer. They would have a team, support, and presumably tactical training. Most mage-knights worked alone or in small groups.

Swinging her legs off the edge of the couch, Zoe started off towards the bathroom. “I’m using your shower.”

— — —

Why can’t Brakket just serve pizza. Everyone likes pizza.

Knowing Brakket Academy, their pizza wouldn’t be any more edible than anything else they served. They would put toppings on it that Eva had never heard of. Probably anchovies as well.

It was enough to make Eva shudder from the thought alone.

In front of her, she didn’t have any fish topped pizza. Close, but not quite.

Eva nudged the… squid with the tip of her finger.

The squid nudged back.

Eva carefully slid the bowl a few inches away from her. She didn’t even know where to begin eating the thing. She could presumably just pick it up and bite down. It wasn’t alive, missing its brain, though that didn’t stop it from squirming.

None of the rest of the dish looked all that edible either. The squid sat atop a mountain of vegetables and little red balls that were probably fish eggs. Of course, they could be Lucy eggs for all Eva knew.

Caviar was supposedly some high-class food. The rest probably was as well. Eva just couldn’t see herself enjoying any of it.

She reached for a bread roll. That seemed the safe choice by far. Her teeth glided straight through the soft dough without encountering anything unexpected.

Though she didn’t have too much of a problem with the food served by Brakket Academy normally, Juliana had also pushed her bowl towards the center of the table. Shalise hadn’t. She happily chewed on the end of a squid tentacle.

Looking across the room, Eva noticed Anise looking especially queasy as she stared at the squid. Her fellow nun had no concerns about the meal. She gnawed on the end of a tentacle as she alternated a glare between the vampire and Eva.

Eva put on a polite smile and gave a slight wave of her hand when their eyes met.

The nun held her scowl in place for just a moment before turning it on Anise. She didn’t say anything. She just stared.

Though her gnawing on the tentacle became a little more violent as she gnashed her teeth.

“Welcome back,” Anderson said, moving to the center of the stage where the professors were eating. “I’ll spare you all a large speech and move straight to the judging. Wallace, if you would be so kind?”

Redford whispered something into the ear of the woman he had been sitting with. The same woman who had been sitting with him at the previous feast. Just as before, her eyes were closed. She didn’t respond, simply smiling, though she did tap the side of her mouth with a finger.

He stood, wiping some sauce from the corners of his mouth with a small napkin. He moved around the table. Every other step, his cane clicked against the floor. Once at the front, he stopped and stared out over the assembled students.

“Fifth place,” he said without preamble or prelude, “goes to Faultline School for the Magically Adept. Though all three students made it to the pyramid, none reached the final chamber.”

Looking over to the mentioned school, Eva found every single student sitting with clenched fists and grit teeth. Even up on stage, their headmaster—or principal, or dean, or whatever he called himself—had his brow furrowed and lips pressed into a deep frown.

“Isomer Holy Academy comes in fourth place. Two members of Isomer failed to reach the pyramid. One made it inside, however, granting them a place over Faultline.”

Eva didn’t bother looking at them. The nun not named Anise now had her fist clenched hard enough to dig her nails into her skin.

And she was staring right at Eva.

Instead, Eva licked her lips. She hadn’t been aware that there would be rankings beyond winner and losers. So far, that hadn’t been a problem. But if the vampire placed second and she third, he would probably raise a fuss about her blood much sooner than otherwise.

Eva held her breath.

“Second and third place were difficult. In the end, third goes to the Nod Complex for the Supernatural. Only two members of their school made it to the pyramid. Though the two who did made it to the final chamber first, they squandered their advantage by preemptively attacking the quetzalcoatl and further failed to claim victory.”

Eva had been about to turn to the vampire with a smug grin when she caught a hint of movement.

Just a slight movement in both her sense of blood and her actual vision.

The yellow-haired woman opened her eyes. Not wide, just a slight sliver.

Enough for Eva to notice one being green and the other being violet with a golden pupil.

Eva blinked and the eyes were shut again. The woman looked perfectly average as she smiled her calm smile.

“Brakket Magical Academy had all three members of their school make it to the top of the pyramid, although only two made it inside. They then figured out what to do and made a plan using members of the other schools to enable themselves a victory… Only to have it snatched out of their grasp by our first place school.

“Only one member of Mount Hope Academy made it to the pyramid, but that was enough to place their marble on the activated pedestal. Congratulations.”

He clapped his hands together a few times, prompting most of the staff to begin clapping as well. The Faultline headmaster notably kept his hands at his sides. As soon as the students joined in, Redford tapped the ground with his cane, sending out a silencing click as it hit the wood.

It must be enchanted, Eva thought. The noise was simply too loud to be natural. It had silenced the students during the first feast as well.

“The second event will take place in two weeks’ time. Mount Hope has received a few hints on what might be required for victory. For everyone else, you may be wondering why you were ranked at all. The answer: You will be required to make a selection. Mount Hope will select first. Faultline last.” Redford paused for a moment, looking out over the students. “That is all,” he said, turning to go back to his seat.

Anderson moved to the center to take his place, clapping his hands together to bring attention over to him.

“Exciting, exciting!” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I hope you all are looking forward to the next event. Enjoy the rest of your feast and the rest of your nights!”

As he slipped back behind the table and retook his seat, Eva stared down at the squid bowl.

“Nope,” she said standing. “I’m done.”

Juliana popped up at the same time. “Me too.”

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, putting a hand on Shalise’s shoulder. “We’re just going back to the dorm room.”

Shalise, having started to shovel down as much food as she could, started to slow down. She swallowed up her current bite before looking at Eva with narrowed eyes. “You’re not disappearing again?”

Eva glanced towards Juliana and shook her head. “Not tonight. Take your time, we won’t be going anywhere.”

“If you’re sure,” she said slowly, looking back to her meal with a smile.

With a small chuckle, Eva waved goodbye to Irene, Shelby, Saija, and Jordan as she passed. She did pause as she came up to Randal.

The half-elf sat with poor posture. Something everyone did, but it was notable on the normally appearance obsessed elf. His fork pushed around a few eggs in his bowl without real direction or meaning. Not out of disgust, but out of depression.

Probably.

She knew that a few of the other students had been giving him a hard time about being too slow or… whatever.

So she patted him on the back. “Cheer up. We’ll get them next time,” she said with a false optimism in her voice.

With the rankings given by Redford, Eva was feeling much better than she had the night before. The vampire couldn’t dispute any claim of who won between them. Neither did she actually care about ‘next time’ or anything after that. She was still hoping that the world would ‘end’ before the third event.

He just gave her a sad smile before going back to toying with his food.

Eva and Juliana almost made it back to the Rickenbacker before Eva noticed someone running up behind them.

She turned, ready to blink or toss a fireball depending on the situation. Despite her paranoia, she smiled.

“Emily, did you need something?”

The girl flinched, stopping several paces away. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You guys deserved to win.”

Eva just shrugged her shoulders. She almost told her that they were better than the Nod Complex, but decided to remain silent instead. Mostly because that should be obvious from their elevator trip where Eva had all but told everyone that she didn’t care what happened so long as the vampire lost.

“The next event involves construction. Magic assisted building.”

“That… sounds really dull. I’m glad I can’t participate in it.” Though she supposed she could tell the rest of her team. It wouldn’t hurt any. And if they kept it quiet from the vampire and beat him again, all the better. “Does the rest of your school know that you told me?”

“I– No, they don’t,” she said with a sigh.

“Then better run along before people get suspicious. Thanks for telling me though, we’ll try not to beat you guys too bad,” Eva said with a grin.

As she ran off again, Juliana turned to Eva. “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know. Maybe I made a friend.” Eva watched her go, thinking back to the event.

She had used both flames and earth with roughly equal proficiency. Something that could be handy in construction. Of course, since she was barred from participating in the second school event, maybe Eva could offer her another opportunity to show off her skills.

“Think she wants to help bring a Power into reality to do battle with another Power and potentially end the world?”

Juliana shook her head with a sigh. “You should work on your sales pitch.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.007

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“Today’s spectacular spectacle will be beginning shortly. The judges are being briefed on exactly how things are going to be going down. So far, neither we nor the contestants are aware of the specifics. However, that does not mean we are not prepared to bring you any action that may take place.”

Stepping away from the camera, the announcer waved his microphone-less hand towards an array of small flying machines. Several of them bobbed in the air at his gesture.

“Twenty drones flown by our team of experts will be out recording everything. Each has multiple cameras, operated independently by professionals. There will be a slight delay before the footage reaches your televisions. That delay is to allow our editors to select the best angles of any particular scene for your viewing enjoyment.”

Standing out of frame just to the side and slightly behind the announcer, Zoe let a small frown cross her face. She had no doubts that the broadcast station would be using the delay to do just as he had said. However, the delay had been imposed by Anderson. Not for any editing purposes, but just in case something went wrong.

They weren’t broadcasting a snuff film, after all.

Both Anderson and Redford had given countless assurances both to the television station and to Zoe that any appearance of danger was just that, an appearance. A device to enhance the event.

Zoe had her doubts.

Eva on her own was potentially a danger to all the other contestants. Even if she wasn’t going to use her blood magic. Her claws made her incredibly dangerous in close quarters, the explosions she seemed to specialize in were a hazard at long range. However, neither was enough to really make her dangerous. Magically—thaumaturgically—Eva wasn’t that special. The older students would definitely have the advantage in that aspect.

The real danger came in Eva’s temperament. Zoe had seen time and time again just how ruthless Eva could be when she wanted to. The fight with the hunter and her descriptions of fighting Sawyer being the two most recent examples that came to mind.

Of course, Zoe didn’t believe that Eva would intentionally harm her opponents. Even if they were fighting. At least, she didn’t want to believe it.

The fact was that Eva had been… cagey in recent weeks. Since school started at the very least. Zoe had barely seen her for the most part. It seemed as if she was always disappearing. Always with Arachne, sometimes one or two of the demons would disappear as well. Juliana was even starting to disappear with her after school most days.

Of course, she had yet to see Arachne today. Considering the spider-demon hadn’t strayed far from Eva since her return, even going so far as to attend most classes with Eva, Zoe had a feeling that something was up. Arachne might already be snooping about within the designated boundaries of the Infinite Courtyard. Or perhaps she was attached to Eva, hidden beneath her clothes.

Whatever the case, Zoe hoped that Arachne wouldn’t be causing any problems with the night’s events.

Zoe hadn’t inquired about the students’ disappearances. The school hadn’t burned down yet, so they probably weren’t up to anything too terrible.

That and the fact that she had been busy with her own problems. While she would like to say that she had fully investigated and found a solution to the problem of Life and Void, she could not. Powers were not well researched. A great number of mages didn’t believe in them in the first place. Just looking into them was essentially inventing a whole new branch of magical science.

Unfortunately, even that research topic had been set on the back burner. A combination of lack of results and other responsibilities had taken over.

Namely, what she was doing at the moment.

“–our website. There, you can select which camera feeds you wish to view, all on your own. Of course, there will still be the delay. Can’t have some people knowing things before others. But unless you’re here in person, you won’t notice the delay in the slightest.”

He stepped backwards, moving a few steps over towards Zoe. As he moved, the guy behind the camera turned it to face the two of them.

“After a brief message from our sponsors, we’ll have an interview with the Magical theory professor here at Brakket Magical Academy. This has been Hank Hanson, don’t change that channel.”

Every time he said the word ‘magical’ was like the first time he had heard the word. It was amazing that he managed to refrain from winking at the camera.

He remained frozen with a smile on his face for a good ten seconds after talking before he finally dropped his arms to his sides. Taking in a deep breath, he let it out as a long sigh.

“Nervous?” Zoe asked with a quirk of her lips.

“You have no idea. Twice as many viewers as the moon landing and the number is still climbing, yet about ten thousand times more things that can go wrong. All the drones are still operational. We haven’t needed to dig into our backup supply. I’m amazed that the website hasn’t crashed yet.”

Zoe kept silent. Her thoughts had just been along the same lines. Though she was far less concerned about their infrastructure.

Of course, she should be. At least partially.

The cut from the advertising that Brakket Academy was getting was not insignificant. Almost to the point where this one event would justify the past and future ten years of free scholarships given to every student. Really, if Brakket Academy could strike such deals in the future, they could continue to give out scholarships for a long time to come.

Except for the impression she got from Anderson about the future of Brakket Academy. With the publicity from the event, their days of free scholarships were likely over. Especially if they won a good amount of the events, or possibly the entire contest. Hunting for new students wouldn’t be necessary if they started getting genuine applications.

“Advertisements will be ending in sixty seconds,” Hank said. “Let’s take our seats.”

Together, they moved to a wooden deck that had recently been constructed just inside the Infinite Courtyard. A large square of wood with no walls and no roof, lit by several standing columns of light. Magical lights, of course.

A good segment of the Infinite Courtyard had been lit up with larger versions of the lights just behind the deck, staving off the darkness of the soon to be setting sun while giving a lovely view of the forest. The television company had been somewhat upset that the first event would be occurring at night. At least until Anderson brought in an enchanter to touch up the camera lenses.

They now functioned about as well in the dark of night as they did during a sunny day.

Opposite the lit forest was a bank of cameras and monitors. At the moment, most of the monitors were blank. Two showed two different angles of Zoe and the set she stood on. The rest would be showing feed from the drones once they were out and in the air.

Currently, one had an advertisement of a soft drink playing. Not being a connoisseur of television, Zoe couldn’t be sure if the tagline ‘It’s just like magic!’ was normal or specifically designed for the event.

Hank took a seat on a large couch. More of a bench, really. While it had a back, it was so low that it might as well not be there at all.

At least the padding was decent.

Zoe took a seat on the angled bench opposite Hank, crossing her legs and resting her hands in her lap.

Between the two couches was a small table. A number of refreshments had been laid out along with two full pitchers of water, though Zoe—and presumably Hank—had been asked to avoid partaking of much of it before the event started as the cameras would be focused entirely on them.

“Ready?”

“I suppose. Just try not to ask too many questions that aren’t on the script,” Zoe said with a slight smile.

“No promises.” His chuckle cut off part way as he pressed his hand to his ear.

“And welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy. To those of you just joining us, I’m here with Zoe Baxter, a professor of magical theory here at the academy. She will be joining me in commentary once the event gets underway, lending her knowledge and expertise in the ways of magic to enhance your enjoyment of the event.”

“Thank you Hank.”

“Now, I’m sure that many people have questions. Especially questions regarding just what it is you do here.”

“Brakket Magical Academy is, as the name suggests, a school for magic. Specifically thaumaturgy.”

“And for our viewers, just what is thaumaturgy?”

“The manipulation of what are commonly referred to as the classical elements. Air, earth, fire, and water. There are a number of other options one might pursue with thaumaturgy. However, the events of tonight will most likely only involve elemental thaumaturgy.”

At least as far as the humans go, Zoe thought. She had no idea who had been selected to participate from the Nod Complex. Eva was participating, but she would be using thaumaturgy. The only other non-human who Zoe knew was participating was Randal the half-elf. Which wouldn’t be anything to worry about except for him being one of those with a bound demon.

Then there were the two girls with Elysium Order magic, assuming Eva hadn’t been exaggerating. Though Zoe didn’t know if they had actually been selected as their school’s representatives for the first event.

“Is that dangerous?” Hank asked.

“Learning and using it? Not particularly. Like most everything in the world, it can be used for harm. Just as a hammer can be used for constructing a building or striking someone, magic can be used for good or ill.”

Reaching out to the short coffee table, Zoe picked up a plate after sliding the crumb cakes off onto one of the other plates. She was messing up the visual aesthetics of the set, but hopefully they wouldn’t mind. Something that she couldn’t help but notice were the monitors displaying back what was being recorded. They were carefully following her movements, obviously expecting some sort of show.

“By focusing air into a tight razor and propelling it forward,” she said as she drew her wand, “a cutting edge can be made.”

With a flick of her wrist, the plate split cleanly in two. One side fell down to her lap while the other remained held in her hand. She offered it to Hank who turned it over in his hands for a moment, staring with wide eyes for almost a full minute. He jerked slightly. Zoe caught a slight noise with her enhanced ears, someone over his ear piece was saying something.

“Ah,” Hank said, looking towards the cameras. “I should mention for the benefit of our viewers: there will be no camera tricks or editing special effects. Everything you see at home will be what we see here in person.”

“I apologize,” Zoe said. “My specialty is air magic, yet it isn’t the flashiest of the elements.”

Though she could fire lightning off, she was a little worried about ruining the recording equipment. Perhaps it was for the best. The event was for the students. Overshadowing them with dazzling displays of theatrical lightning would make her remiss in her duties as a teacher. It was their time to shine, not hers.

For that same reason, she wouldn’t be throwing around any fireballs despite her proficiency in that element.

“The students should be able to give a better show once the event begins,” Zoe said.

“I was under the impression that there would be some sparring among the students. Seeing what I just saw, I find myself somewhat worried for their safety.”

“This event is likely to include practical tests of their magical skills against one another, yes. However, most students should be at a point where they can employ a decent range of defensive spells. For the inevitable injuries, we have a fully staffed team of medical personnel ready and waiting. With potions, even severe injuries can be treated away by morning.”

Zoe paused, about to allow Hank to ask his next question. After a moment of hesitation, she interrupted him.

“Before we proceed, I feel it would be irresponsible towards your viewers to leave that statement without further context. While potions can be used to cure many ailments, they will not be effective on individuals without the ability to perform magic. The magic within mages fuels the effect of the potion. Without it, a potion designed to cure will be likely toxic.”

Zoe turned towards the camera, adopting a morose expression while keeping her voice as serious as possible.

“If you or a loved one is suffering from an illness or injury, please do not seek out magical cures. Whoever is selling you the potion is likely to be a swindler out for your money. Perhaps not even real mages, just those looking to profit on a confusing new idea.”

A brief moment of silence passed before Hank gave a deep nod of his head.

“Thank you, Zoe. You may have saved many families from grief and suffering at the hands of con artists.”

Zoe pursed her lips into a flat smile as she turned to him.

“Today, however, we are here for the more exciting aspects of your magical academy. I’ve just received word that the schools’ candidates will soon be ready to begin. We should have time enough to introduce the schools and their students after these messages from our sponsors.”

As before, he froze with a smile on his face for a few seconds before relaxing.

“Sorry to bring the mood down like that,” Zoe said with a wan smile. “I didn’t want people to feel hope where there was none.”

“Our viewer count is high. Absurdly high. I honestly don’t know if any other magical event along these lines would get as many viewers. The first time carries with it a novelty that will fade as time goes on.

“But a couple million people heard the message. It will spread. And, as I said, I’m sure a number of people will be grateful that they didn’t buy vials of snake oil. Or poison.”

“That’s what I was hoping for.”

“Is there a reason it works like that?”

Zoe paused, considering her words.

She had always been primarily a thaumaturgical theorist, only really branching out to diablery in the recent years. Potions were not technically thaumaturgy. Both worked well together, but there was a more important reason potioneering and alchemy were taught at the same time. Potions covered an aspect of magic that thaumaturgy lacked. Namely healing and other more esoteric effects.

It was never a subject that she had delved much into. She could brew adequate potions if the situation required. However, potions had always been Wayne’s domain.

Still, she had an answer for Hank’s question.

“Magic acts as a catalyst. An infusion of energy into the potion to force the components to react together, creating the intended effect. Theoretically, someone without magic could consume a potion and have it work so long as they could keep their body from breaking down and absorbing the potion. For how long, I can’t say. Potions can be stored in a stable state for long amounts of time in most cases. I imagine potions with a shorter shelf life would work better, but I would still advise against it.”

Her words left a silence in their wake. She half expected Hank to ask more questions. Questions of a personal interest to him. However, he remained silent for a full minute before placing his hand to his ear.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, shifting slightly in his seat.

Zoe remained where she was with her hands resting in her lap, counting down the seconds in her head.

The television switched from an advertisement to a live camera out in the plaza between the dormitories, performing a slow sweep of the buildings and fountain. It faded back into their little platform, prompting Hank to begin speaking.

“And welcome back. I’m here with Zoe Baxter, professor of magical theory here at Brakket Magical Academy. The contest of magical showmanship between academies is about to begin. First, why don’t we go over the event as a whole. Zoe?”

“Five schools are participating in this year’s event. It is a fairly standard tournament to pit the schools against one another and give the winner… well, bragging rights mostly. Winning is generally seen as a sign that your school has a high quality learning environment and professors. The event is essentially a practical test in the students’ usage of magic.

“Today, each of the five schools were asked to select three of their ten participants. These three will be unable to participate in the next event. They do not know what either event consists of, so putting all their best students in the first event could be a needless risk or an excellent tactical decision.

“The winners of today’s event will receive foreknowledge regarding the second event in addition to the victory itself, which will count towards being the overall winner of the tournament.”

The televisions displaying the live footage changed, turning into a view from an overhead drone as it slowly sweeped over a group of students. Their gray-blue uniforms instantly identified them to Zoe, even without needing the text that appeared at the bottom of the screen.

“Faultline School for the Magically Adept participated in last year’s tournament. Well known for being a highly disciplined academy, their students took the tournament by storm and won decisively.”

The camera panned over each of the three students walking out of the dueling hall. Each wore a large, high-peaked cap on their head. That combined with their sleek uniforms made them look like they were straight from a mundane military academy.

A name appeared along with each person, but Zoe decided not to comment on the individual level unless Hank made a motion to do so. She honestly didn’t know enough about the foreign students to speak on them for any length of time. Not to mention the fact that without names on the screen, it was doubtful that anyone besides their mothers would recognize them. Identical uniforms. Identical hats. Even identical hairstyles.

She could, however, speak generally.

“All ten of their students are in their sixth year of schooling, making them the oldest students able to participate.”

“The older they are, the more unique magic they can learn, right?”

“Indeed. Though only fielding three students at the moment, I expect to see all four elements of magic used between them. They may offer us some excellent uses of less common magic as well. Order shields and perhaps even short-range blinking.”

As she finished speaking, the drone flew off towards another group of students walking out of the dueling hall.

“Isomer Holy Academy,” Zoe said, identifying the pure white uniforms before the name could appear on the screen. “A school primarily operated by members of the Elysium Order, a group dedicated to hunting down undead such as zombies and animated skeletons.”

Hank made a slight choking noise but didn’t actually manage to get any real words out.

So Zoe just went on talking.

“I don’t imagine that they will be facing many challenges along those lines as raising the undead is typically grounds for having a bounty placed on your head. Not to mention that it is a fairly tasteless act.”

“I can imagine,” Hank said, looking a little green around the gills.

Speaking of undead, Zoe thought, pressing her lips together into a thin line as she saw who was leading out the next group of students.

“The Nod Complex for the Supernatural is one of the few magical academies to enroll non-human students, along with Brakket Academy. I should mention for your viewers’ sakes that the other academies are generally not racist against non-humans. Most non-humans have their own unique brand of magic they practice, leading to a lack of applicants. The Nod Complex has spent a great deal of money designing their facility with unique infrastructure required to support beings of other races.”

Hank stared at the screen for a moment before reading something off a smaller display hidden among the refreshments on the table.

“Caithe,” he said slowly. “The one in the middle. I don’t mean to be rude, but is she made of plants or merely wearing them as decoration?”

Zoe leaned forwards slightly, watching the larger camera. As it switched off the vampire and on to the pale-green skinned woman, she nodded her head. “A dryad,” she said. “The white leaves making up her hair are indeed part of her, though I’m not sure about the cattails. They may be purely for decoration.

“The one behind her,” Zoe continued, “is an elf. The pointed ears, narrow eyebrows, and thin chin are telltale signs.”

“And the one in front?”

“Possibly a human,” Zoe lied.

Serena had told her about how romanticized vampires were in modern mundane media. She did not want to set off a million teenagers on a quest through dark alleys in some attempt to become a vampire.

“Not all non-humans have obviously distinguishing characters,” she said after a moment of silence. “The Nod Complex does enroll humans as well as non-humans, so it shouldn’t be surprising.”

“Well,” he said as the camera shifted on to the next group of students, “I think the dryad is surprising enough at the moment.” He said the word unnaturally, though not necessarily in a disrespectful manner. Merely an unfamiliar one.

He definitely had questions. Zoe could see it in his eyes.

But she was already moving on to introduce the next school.

“Mount Hope Academy,” she said as three younger-looking students walked out of the dueling hall. “I believe all three of those students are fourth years. To be selected, they must be quite capable. I look forward to seeing them in action.”

She really didn’t have much more to say about the school or its students. None of the three were familiar to her, even when their names popped up on the screen. The school itself was… average. Though she thought for a few moments, she couldn’t think up a single interesting fact about them.

If she were honest with herself, she wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing them fight. It was highly doubtful that they would perform well. Mount Hope had two fifth years on the team with the rest being sixth years. Perhaps they had decided to send in their worst three students, hoping to gain an advantage in the second event with their best.

None of them looked all that confident either.

At the same time, she almost wished that the camera had lingered on them just a few moments longer before flying over to Brakket’s students.

“Brakket Magical Academy,” she said, trying to ignore Hank’s wide open jaw upon seeing Eva.

Despite repeatedly telling Zoe that she hadn’t wanted to participate, Eva was actually smiling at the camera.

A wide, tooth-filled smile.

Zoe had to resist pressing her hand to her forehead. Eva’s face would be the first student from Brakket that everyone in the world saw. And she was deliberately making herself look unnerving.

An idle part of her mind wondered how Anderson was reacting. Being press-ganged into the tournament was probably why Eva was acting how she was in the first place.

“You said that Brakket Academy accepted non-humans,” Hank said before Zoe could continue introducing the school. “I take it that the girl in the front is not.” His words came slow as if he were trying to pick them with extreme care.

Zoe decided to save him from trying to figure out a proper question.

“Believe it or not, Eva was born a human. Beyond that, it really isn’t my story to tell. Something fairly personal happened to her. If she wishes to divulge it, that will be her choice.”

“I see,” he said, unable to keep the dissatisfaction out of his voice.

“Brakket Academy is fielding the youngest students in this tournament. Two third years, though only one of them is participating in this event.”

Behind Eva, Randal Hemwick and Rachael Davis followed.

Together, with the candidates from the other schools, they lined up before a large wooden stage. The judges were seated atop on one side while the headmasters of each school were seated on the other. Wallace Redford, who had been sitting in the very center, stood and moved to the front podium.

All the cameras focused on him.

He ignored the hovering drones in favor of looking over the students.

“The event will soon begin. Lots will be drawn to determine your starting location,” he said, holding up a large colored marble. “There are seven starting locations with a maximum of three students per location. Each student will pick one marble. You may find yourself among friends from your own school, but you’ll likely find yourself with an opponent.”

He paused for a moment. The cameras switched to a wide shot of all the students.

Zoe watched their expressions. Specifically, Eva’s still-wide smile. She didn’t flinch in the slightest. Of course, if she had Arachne on her, she would have very little need to fear starting with even two opponents.

Her eyes flicked to Eva’s wrist, catching sight of a small snake wrapped around just behind her hand. Something she might have mistaken for a bracelet had she not known that Eva never wore jewelry. The two flasks at her hip were notable as well. If Eva really wasn’t using blood magic, the flasks likely lacked blood.

Zoe could imagine what potions were inside.

“And make no mistake, they will be your opponents. Only one school can be the victor in this event. Will you try to take them out at the start and brave the dangers of the forest on your own? Will you backstab them at a critical time? Or will you fight together, raising your chances of reaching your objective, and have an honorable fight to determine the true victor?”

He said the word with a slight sneer.

Zoe just rolled her eyes. To say that Wallace Redford had an issue regarding honorable fighting would be putting it lightly. Though she wanted to scoff, Zoe couldn’t quite bring herself to demean him that much. Wallace was the leader of the Guild. Before becoming the leader, he had been quite the adept mage-knight. It was entirely possible that something in his past had given him such a cynical view.

Still worth an eye roll, however.

“The starting locations are positioned around a ring. Once you enter, leaving will disqualify you. A ward has been set up along the perimeter that will cause a slight push against you if you try to leave. So do not fear becoming turned around in the forest and accidentally disqualifying yourself.

“Your goal is to reach the center of the arena. Once there, what you should do will become obvious.”

Wallace paused one more time, looking over the group of students.

Satisfied with whatever he was looking at, he drew his wand. Flicking out seven different colored orbs of light from his wand, he finished with a wide wave of his hand.

A large and fairly plain sack materialized before the podium.

The way it appeared with a brief tinge of white light had Zoe narrowing her eyes. Things she pulled from Between had a remarkably similar effect. She hadn’t been aware that he could use the Elysium Order’s magic. The people outside the Order who could were those who had stolen the knowledge. Wayne and herself, for example. While they could teach people, she hadn’t and highly doubted that Wayne had.

“Come,” Wallace said, unaware of Zoe’s thoughts. “Select your marble and stand by the associated light. Once ready, they will lead you to your starting position. As soon as everyone is in place, the lights will flash white three times before moving within the arena boundaries. When they disappear, the event will begin.

“Straying too far from the light or attacking anyone else before the light disappears will result in immediate disqualification.”

As he gave the final instructions, the students all broke their lines and moved up to the sack. One by one, they reached into the bag and pulled out colored marbles.

The television snapped back to herself and Hank, seated on their benches. Zoe, who had been leaning forward to get a better view of the students’ selection, casually stiffened her back to regain her proper posture.

“Exciting times,” Hank said with a broad smile towards the camera.

She could swear that his teeth actually sparkled.

“We’ll be back to go over the chosen teams after a word from our sponsors. Don’t change that channel. The event will be starting next.”

He finished with a finger pointing towards the camera, freezing for a moment until the commercials began.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.003

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not really surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hypothetically, can vampires even learn thaumaturgy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Brakket had never been able to compete before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which had Eva groaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Eva ignored it as Redford began moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, save for the vampire with the Nod Complex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva took a moment to roll her eyes.

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

Silence reigned over the gymnasium.

For about ten seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.001

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“How is she?”

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

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

Which was why she had asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless, as Eva suspected, she was already dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is Lucy doing these days?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magic,” Eva said with a shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure she would appreciate that.”

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

Right into Arachne’s waiting arms.

“No blood on your hands?”

Eva shook her head. “Not this time.”

“The succubus will be irritated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why now?”

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

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

“Is that a compliment?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Juliana told me what you said.”

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

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

“To the death?”

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

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

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

“Unless you die!”

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

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

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

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

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

But enough to get the message across.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. Any changes?”

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

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

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

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

Something that had Eva instantly on guard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wally?” she said as the man approached.

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

“They’re–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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