Tag Archives: Saija

010.024

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Zoe stared at the spot where the portal had been. She had been too slow. Nothing of Hell remained behind, just the smooth marble-like stone that made up the majority of the ritual circle. Not even blood remained within the portal’s boundaries. Everything that was Eva was gone.

A second portal had opened to swallow her legs—or what was left of them—though Zoe hadn’t paid that portal so much attention. She had been focused solely on Eva’s wide red eyes.

She had been too slow.

Zoe knelt, hand on the ground as if to ensure that the stone truly was solid. Somewhere behind her the hunter let out a series of maniacal cackles.

“Thought she could ignore my enchanted weapons, did she?” the hunter said between laughs. “If she comes back again, I’ll send her right back to Hell where that bitch belongs!”

Slowly, Zoe stood and turned to face the hunter.

“Or better yet, I’ll kill every last one of you bastards. Everyone with the capacity to summon that demon.

The woman started to laugh again. She didn’t quite finish. A series of tendrils wrapped around the hunter’s bloated arm, squeezing it. When the arm didn’t immediately burst into bloody pulp, Lucy swung her tentacles up and around, carrying the hunter through the air until she slammed down on the ground head first. Considering Zoe had seen Lucy tear apart Sawyer’s demon-human hybrids and had heard of her peeling an enigma apart like an orange, she couldn’t help but gape at the lack of damage on the hunter’s bloated arm.

Upside down with her head half buried in the stone, the hunter pressed her arm to the ground. Half a moment later, it came out from under Lucy’s main mass and carried her at an angle towards the forest. The tentacles still wrapped around the hunter snapped like rubber bands from the force. Without being connected to Lucy, the tentacles that didn’t fly off into the distance fell to the ground around the hunter, limp and languid.

The arm wasn’t even bruised. Because of its haphazard colorization, it was difficult to tell for certain, but there were no distinct markings around where Lucy had grabbed on and the rest of the arm.

“Any ideas?”

Zoe jumped slightly, having missed Catherine’s approach. When she did not immediately answer—mostly because she didn’t have an answer—Catherine gave her a wan smile.

“Don’t bother fretting about Eva,” Catherine said as if she were telling a joke. “That portal means Void has accepted her as a demon. She’ll be back eventually. It might be a decade or two, but any demon will return. In the meantime, I doubt you could say the same should that hunter get her hands on you.”

“Can we even kill that thing?” Zoe said. A certain weight rested on her shoulders as she stared at the monster before her. The hunter had finished tossing Lucy and was now digging her head out of the stone. It took a bit more effort than Zoe would have expected of someone with an arm like she had, but eventually, she popped her head out. “You saw what Lucy tried to do. She got away without a scratch.”

“Could be worse. We could have to deal with the nun at the same time. I,” Catherine paused to lick her lips, “had a few words with her. She won’t be interfering.”

Tumorous growths covered half the hunter’s face. She had no hair on that side of her head. Yet even her human side looked completely unharmed as the hunter scanned the area for the nearest target, settling for Saija.

Who noticed, gave a slight yelp, and immediately turned tail to fly away.

“Besides, does it matter?” Catherine said. “We have to stop her. I have no intentions of returning to Hell just yet. And if you need more motivation than my own pleasures, she apparently means to kill most of the people around the school if only to prevent Eva from coming back. ‘Everyone with the capacity to summon Eva.'”

Zoe pulled out her cellphone, intending to call in everyone she knew. Genoa, Wayne, Nel and Ylva, even Devon if he bothered to check his messages. But the hunter, even though she was focused on Saija, noticed the very instant she wrapped her fingers around the cold plastic. The massive eye in her shoulder swiveled to stare at Zoe.

She didn’t hesitate for a moment. A thaumaturgical lightning bolt crackled over her head as she dove for the ground. The hunter didn’t stop there. Another three bolts struck the ground in Zoe’s wake as she rolled along the stone.

A fourth bolt never came. Saija had swung back around and was pelting the hunter with her own fairly weak balls of fire. The hunter had stopped to shield her face with her oversized hand.

Seizing the opportunity, Zoe swiped her thumb across the screen, unlocking the phone. She had only just tapped the text messenger app when the hunter fired off another lightning bolt. The hunter wound up with a few scorch marks on the side of her face, but her lightning bolt struck true.

Zoe cried out as her phone went flying from her hands, clattering across the ritual circle while leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Her fingernails had either turned to blackened char or had completely exploded off her fingers. She honestly couldn’t tell which while cradling her hand against her chest. Bright red branching scars were already forming up to her elbow. Thankfully, her elbow had been touching the ground. Had it not, the electricity might have run through her entire body to get out.

Proper air mages carefully directed their lightning strikes even after the bolt hit. Magic could suppress the electricity just as easily as it created it. Drilling that into the minds of students was enforced so heavily that it typically became an ingrained habit.

Obviously, the hunter had skipped those lessons.

The hunter turned her attention back to Saija, shooting her out of the sky with a single spear of ice conjured from the tip of her rapier—the latest sword she had summoned. The icicle tore straight through Saija’s leathery wing. A second and third icicle punched too many holes in the succubus’ wings.

Saija crashed down in a heap.

“Succubi aren’t fighters,” Catherine said, completely unnecessarily. “Neither is Srey.”

The only other demon that hadn’t been either killed or knocked away stood even farther away than Zoe and Catherine. Srey had barely moved when the hunter had first appeared. If he really couldn’t fight, Zoe supposed it was better that way. Otherwise he would simply get in the way. Or get killed needlessly. Zoe might have suggested that he run to find help.

Without Eva, Sebastian, Neuro, and Lucy around, the hunter would undoubtedly notice his running.

Apparently taking a cue from Zoe, Srey pulled out his own phone while the hunter was distracted with Saija. Like Zoe, the hunter didn’t stay distracted for long.

She turned, launching three bolts of lightning from her shoulder and a barrage of icicles from her rapier. Srey didn’t stand a chance. He managed to dodge the first bolt and a few icicles, but one clipped his leg. He fell to the ground under everything else that the hunter threw at him.

No portal opened up, but Srey didn’t move.

“We need help,” Zoe said, standing even as she clutched her scarred hand to her chest.

“I’d use my cell, but I rather like my fingernails where they are,” Catherine said with a certain callousness that did not fit the situation.

Of course, if Catherine died, she would come back. She wasn’t in mortal peril, just in peril over losing access to the mortal realm. Temporarily. Fear meant nothing to her. Not in the same sense that Zoe felt.

In more ways than one.

It wasn’t just her life that Zoe worried about losing—though that was a big part of it—but the thought of what might happen if the hunter did kill everyone here. The hunter would likely move on to Genoa and ambush her in a moment of trouble or rest. With Genoa out of the way, who knew where the hunter would stop. Mage-knights might try to stop her. Other demons might as well. But would they be able to?

Zoe didn’t intend to leave it up to them. In her left hand—her off hand—she curled her fingers tightly around her dagger.

“If you see an opportunity to escape, or even some cover to pull out your phone, send a message to everyone we know.”

With that, Zoe took a deep breath and sprung into action.

— — —

Devon sat with narrowed eyes, feeling more like a traffic director than a researcher of things beyond the average humans’ comprehension. At no point in his life could he have imagined how monotonous fending off an attack might be. An attack from a Power, no less. He had his feet propped up on a table with a heavy leather tome on his lap.

A glowing violet light made its way across a map on the table.

“To the left,” he shouted out. The waxy ruax moved to obey his order.

One of Eva’s enigmas—or something close enough to it—climbed over the prison wall and came face to face with the wax demon. Already standing in place, the ruax made eye contact.

Devon could only imagine the headache the thing felt. Or rather, he could imagine it if he bothered to empathize with the creatures. He didn’t find suffering all that productive and chose to ignore the wailing screeches as the thing curled up on itself. Finding a solution to this mess was a far better use of his time.

As dull as it was directing the ruax around, it could be worse. A flood of the things had cascaded over the walls of the prison some time ago. Eva’s wards had managed to explode a good number of them before the explosions stopped. The number of enigmas had likely drained her wards’ blood supply. They had bought him enough time to get the ruax out of solitary confinement for defense, so he supposed he should try to remember to thank her for that later on.

With the bulk having been taken out, he had plenty of time to go through his books.

Luckily, he had a vague idea on where to start looking. That damn succubus, who just so happened to be missing from the prison at the moment, had brought him designs for a ritual not that long ago. One he had dismissed as being foolish, idiotic, risky, impossible to accomplish, potentially apocalyptic, deadly, and, above all else, foolish. The succubus had dropped the subject and not brought it up again.

What a fool he was.

A demon like Catherine wouldn’t design a highly detailed ritual and then just drop it. All that work and research that would have gone into it, thrown away? Devon wouldn’t have dropped it. Why would he ever expect anything else to do the same?

He stared at the page of his tome, not quite reading the words. He was too busy trying to remember every scrap of information down to the tiniest detail that Catherine had brought to him. The circle had obviously been designed in two parts. Essentially two separate rituals contained within the same location, all mixed up together. The thought of succeeding at something like that without causing an unplanned chaotic demolition of the ritual circle was mind boggling. It had been one of the primary reasons he had scoffed at the idea.

The second reason was staring right at him. With a slight shudder, Devon kept his eyes firmly on the pages. Whatever was above him did not like him. He could feel that much.

Again, the map started glowing. Something else had actually made it inside the prison walls. Damn Eva and her damn prisoners. It was probably that prisoner they had that was drawing them all here. They sensed one of their own and decided to investigate.

What a pain.

“Between the cell blocks and whatever is left of the women’s ward,” he shouted out to the ruax. “And you,” he said, glancing towards the carnivean, “go find that woman. We’re going to need help in a few minutes. There are a number on their way.”

For once, the carnivean didn’t talk back, argue, or otherwise protest against his orders. The thin slits in its red eyes flicked towards the cell block holding their captured enigmas and that woman from the Elysium Order. With a nod of its head, it started running off, leaving the book it had been looking through behind.

Devon reached forwards and grabbed the book as his two demons took care of their duties. The ruax was still dominated. He hadn’t even tried letting it off its leash. Dominating a demon gave a small connection between the dominator and the dominee. Through that connection, Devon felt nothing but hatred directed at him. He didn’t care in the slightest about being hated. Emotions of others rarely affected him. But it was hatred to the point where there could be no cooperation between them regardless of the situation.

With that in mind, the carnivean was far more agreeable. He had mostly left it alone to help with research and occasionally called on it to fend off the monsters should the situation require.

Though, looking at the page in the book that it had been reading, Devon didn’t know why he bothered having the carnivean research. Analytic topology of locally euclidean metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds? What a fool! It was enough to make him chuckle despite the situation. In that respect, Devon actually wished for the company of Catherine. At least the succubus would have been able to tell the difference between infinite conformal symmetry in two-dimensional vector space splicing and the obvious critical exponents in cross-planar spectrum tear.

Ugh. Some people, he thought, mild humor dying as a sense of severe disdain grew towards the retreating carnivean. It looked like it would be up to him and him alone to save the day. Frankly, he had considered taking a vacation in Guam or somewhere else sufficiently far away. He wouldn’t have bothered trying to seal the gap if it weren’t for the fact that such a planar tear had the very real capacity to rip reality in two if it were left alone for too long.

Ah well. Imagining all life as he knew it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in his body exploding at the speed of light was a fairly good motivator to fix everything.

If he was remembering the papers Catherine had showed him properly, the first of the two rituals had been intended to open up a planar tear. The second as well. The first obviously had succeeded, as it had been directly tied to Hell. Whatever that was above him, it wasn’t Hell. His current theory was that the second ritual hadn’t terminated as expected. Likely due to a malformed ritual circle. A ritual that size was bound to have errors.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to recreate the entire ritual. Just the portion of it that would close the planar tear. Something that would be far simpler if she had left her notes and research anywhere he could find. He had already scoured the women’s ward from floor to ceiling—or its rubble, anyway. A good half of the first several enigmas that had assailed the prison complex had tried passing through it. Their exploding corpses damaged much of the structure. Unfortunately, Catherine hadn’t left anything useful behind that he had been able to find.

But all was not lost. Devon reached out to his sketch pad and drew a thin line around the seal of sorrows. A line that should force the magic to interact with any planar tears. Theoretically, someone could be doing an experiment on the moon with his waist half in a tear. When his circle activated, it would snap shut. Poor guy won’t know what hit him.

He paused his sketching for a moment as he glanced at the map. The mass of glowing dots outside the prison was winking out one by one. In some cases, several by several. It actually had him taking his feet off the desk to sit upright. His thumb rubbed against one of his ring foci as he watched whatever it was carve a path through the enigmas to the prison.

Sending both of his demons away might have been a mistake. Through the connection with the ruax, he called it to his side. But it would be a short time before it got near.

He stood and filled the air with infernal flames as the thing approached the wall.

An enigma made it up to the top first, tentacles thrashing in the air. It didn’t make it over. A bloody hand the size of the entire enigma grasped it by the tentacles and dragged it back down on the other side. From there, Devon couldn’t see what happened to it.

He could hear it cry out much like the ones the ruax had given aneurysms to. The cries cut short with a spray of violet blood up and over the wall like some kind of geyser.

The hand of blood reappeared once again, grasping the top of the wall. A tiny humanoid figure attached to it used it like a grappling hook to vault over the top.

Eva landed in the clearing near the former basketball court. The bloody hand attached to her arm shrunk down to the size and length of a normal human hand, though it remained liquid and bloody from her elbow down.

As she sprinted towards him, Devon considered attacking. There was something off about Eva. Something unnatural. More than usual. Her arms—and legs, now that he looked lower than her skirt—were coated in blood. But that wasn’t too surprising for her. She had always enjoyed blood magic. It was something else. Her red eyes were just too red. Too intense. Her long hair flowed in the wind.

Hair that she wasn’t supposed to have. Eva had hair barely an inch long. That was all that had grown back since she got it burned off. And now that he was actually looking at it, it looked oily.

Or bloody.

Before he could actually come to a decision on whether or not to attack, she stopped on the other side of the table.

He let his flames die out. She wasn’t attacking him and both the ruax and the carnivean were almost back to him. If she wanted to pretend like she had hair with blood, who was he to stop her.

Though her eyes still made him shift where he stood.

“Devon,” she said, those red eyes stared at him for a moment before flicking down to the table. “Is this going to close the portals?”

“They’re not portals. It’s a planar–” Devon clenched his mouth shut, grinding his teeth together as her eyes looked back to him. “Yes,” he eventually ground out. “But it isn’t ready just yet.”

“Good. Get it ready. Then find Genoa. She should be in the Brakket Academy infirmary. I don’t know how big this is going to be, but she’ll help you get it set up instantly. But do not start it before receiving my signal.

Devon faltered, falling back into his chair. The aberration he had created had the audacity to look sheepish with a hand tucked behind her head.

“Sorry,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean that. I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean it all ‘kneel before me foolish mortal.’ I just–”

“What happened to you?” Devon said, narrowing his eyes.

“Not entirely sure. Died, or came close enough to it. Beyond that…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. “But still, don’t activate this until I say so.” She tapped the sketch with a bloody finger. Devon just about yelled at her, but when she dropped her hands to her sides, not a single droplet of blood stained the paper.

“And why should I listen to you? If we leave this open–”

“I know, end of the world. The thing is, it might be the end of the world if we close it too early.” She pointed a finger straight overhead.

Against his better judgment, he followed it up to the massive eye overhead. The eye that had turned black and red and was crying out tears of corruption onto the Earth. He tore his eyes away before he could stare for any longer.

“A chunk of that thing’s brain is sitting around Brakket Academy and I have to shove it back inside its body before we close the portals. To do that,” she said, turning slightly to face the approaching demons and the nun. Her eyes twitched down to the blood-covered glove on the nun’s hand. “I’m going to need my prisoner. I hope you have been taking good care of it.”

Eva rubbed her hands together. Or mimed the action. Where her hands connected, the blood melded together to the point where Devon couldn’t tell one hand from the other. It was just a big ball of blood. A ball that couldn’t possibly have Arachne’s carapace hidden beneath.

“I do need it alive,” she said with a grin.

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010.020

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Eva, hands clasped behind her back, patrolled along the edge of the ritual circle. More specifically, she paced back and forth in front of the demon hunter and the nun. While the nun had her back pressed against the tree, staring up at the eye through the portals with a slack jaw, the hunter was face-down in the dirt with her mouth slightly to one side. Just enough to endlessly spew nonsensical threats at everyone who walked by.

Thankfully, Zoe had stopped by and stilled the air around her head, keeping the sound from escaping. A small part of Eva hoped that the stilled air would mean stale air and eventually toxic air when the oxygen ran out. However, Zoe was far too experienced and too careful to make a mistake like that.

Killing her might be for the best. It wouldn’t be difficult. She could use her wings—which, for the moment, had receded back into the blood coating her body—her feet, her hands, her fire, or her blood. And among all those, there were plenty of subsets. Her hands, for example, could crush her windpipe, tear out her throat, tear out her heart, twist her head around backwards, crush her head, tear open her mouth and jaw, break every bone in her body, and so on and so forth.

Eva had a sinking suspicion that Zoe would be none too pleased with her should she murder a helpless captive. Even if that helpless captive was the worst person Eva had ever met outside of Sawyer.

By Juliana’s testimony, neither of them had interfered with the ritual at all. The hunter had been lying face down pretty much since the moment she showed up. The nun hadn’t taken her eyes off the sky once the portals opened. Something Eva had been telling the others to avoid doing.

“Stop that,” Eva said, clicking her fingers in front of Irene’s face. Some people had to be reminded more often than others.

Irene blinked twice before shaking her head. “Sorry,” she said as she glanced between Eva and Saija. “I was just… what was I doing?”

“Staring. Get on your feet. It’s too easy to look up while lying down on your back. And that goes for the rest of you as well,” Eva said to pretty much everyone who wasn’t Zoe, Genoa, or a demon.

Fluttering her eyes shut, Irene heaved out a great sigh. “Is it fine to lie down if I’m not looking at anything? I don’t think I could get up if I tried. My arms and legs feel like someone has strapped hundred pound weights on them.”

“Maybe just a little nap?” Shalise said with a yawn, rolling over onto her side. Apparently nobody cared in the slightest that they were lying on dirt. It wasn’t even nice and grassy since Eva and Juliana had cleared out most of the vegetation before starting on the circle. In fact, it was still a little muddy from the snow Eva had melted not too long before.

But at least she wasn’t staring at the sky anymore.

“Saija, keep an eye on them. If any of them start staring at the eye, clap your hands in front of their faces.”

“Me?” Saija said, looking up. Her forehead had been touching her knees as she sat on the ground with her arms around her legs. Though better off than the humans, even the demons were looking drained.

“Do you see someone else with your name around? I thought not,” Eva said before Saija could actually start looking. “Actually…”

Turning around to face the makeshift prison, Eva walked over to where Juliana had made a chair for herself. She was the only one of the younger humans who wasn’t dying of lethargy. Though the dirt coating her pant legs, hands, and forehead meant that even she hadn’t been able to escape being forced to kneel to the avatars.

“Did you figure anything out yet?” Juliana asked. Her foot thumped against the ground in a nervous tremor. Something that Eva wouldn’t have normally associated with Juliana.

But Eva chose to ignore it, shaking her head instead and gesturing off towards the ritual circle. “Ten minutes, Catherine said. We’re nearing the hour mark and she’s still pacing around. Has Zagan said anything?”

Juliana sent her hair flipping about as she shook her head back and forth. “Not a word. Although I do feel inordinately amused with the whole situation even though I’m pretty sure I don’t feel amused.”

“Well I hope all this buys you some excitement. But I have a favor to ask. Could you–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “I was going to ask if you could blot out the sky. Temporarily of course. Just something to get everyone to stop staring. But there might be a more important thing to spend your time on.

“I would have thought that this ritual would have drawn some attention. Nobody has shown up, not yet at least—which actually has me somewhat worried about what is going on outside the Infinite Courtyard. I would have expected Devon to notice and run over here. Though he might be too cowardly. Redford, Anderson, and all the mage-knights running around town aren’t here for some reason.”

Juliana’s foot ceased its tapping. Straightening her back, she looked right in Eva’s eyes. “You think something has happened in town? My dad…”

“I don’t think anything. It was merely a side comment. I’m more worried that someone will show up and try to stop us from finishing this whole mess.” Especially Devon. “I don’t suppose you can make this place impossible to find? For those who aren’t already here, of course.”

“That would cut off help if we need it.”

“I would assume that you could undo whatever you do.”

Falling silent, Juliana brought a thumb to her mouth and started nibbling on her nail. “I mean, I could try.”

“Just don’t accidentally make us unable to find it. Or remove it from existence. Or alter the ritual circle. Or perhaps any of thousands of possible bad things.”

“You’re sure doing wonders to fill me with confidence.”

“That’s my job,” Eva said with a grin. She didn’t really feel much like smiling, but acting as if nothing was wrong was probably best for morale. Especially if things really were going sour outside the Infinite Courtyard.

Now that Juliana had brought it up, there almost had to be something going on outside. Surely people would have noticed the ritual going on. All the lightning bolts and the massive black dome. It should have been nearly impossible not to see it even with the strange way space interacted with the courtyard. The portals and the massive eye overhead were probably even more obvious, but with the violet streaks having stretched over the entire city and even beyond for a ways, they might not associate that with the Infinite Courtyard and the ritual circle within.

Unless, like the nun, everyone had started staring at it and had been unable to stop. Who knew what that might do to them. The nun had yet to go insane or start mutating into a blob of tentacles and enigmas, though she also had yet to break eye contact. Eva, and pretty much everyone else around, had looked at the eye at least once or twice. Some for longer than others. So far, nobody was exhibiting odd mannerisms.

After staring at it non-stop for several hours, who knew what might change. Maybe nothing. Maybe they would all become zombies. That was why Eva had been going around stopping people from looking.

All that was something other people would deal with or she would deal with later. For now, she turned towards the approaching Catherine and Zoe. Their inspection of the circle had apparently finished. Finally.

“Just think about it. It might not be a priority at all. Maybe no one noticed,” Eva said to Juliana. The weird way the Infinite Courtyard functioned made that a perfectly valid possibility. How did a lightning bolt strike any specific spot while all the space had been compressed into the size of a larger room?

Shaking her head, she left Juliana to her thoughts and blinked towards Catherine, closing the distance. She wound up not far from the still smoking remains of the Avatar of Void. Particles of smoke drifted off into the air and disappeared from sight. Yet it never shrank in size. If Void was still inhabiting it, Eva might not be so surprised. Without any Power generating the body, she had half expected it to disperse and leave at least something of Arachne behind.

Finding herself gritting her teeth, Eva turned away. She turned just in time to catch Zoe relaxing slightly from a tense posture. Not once had Eva seen Zoe sheathe her dagger. Frankly, Eva didn’t blame her. Walking around near what had once been Vektul would have unnerved her as well.

Catherine, on the other hand, didn’t look nearly so tense. Her posture remained its usual drawn back and proper. But the way she walked… Her timid steps actually had Eva double-checking that she really was Catherine. Especially as she approached Eva. She grew more and more subdued. Her shoulders remained up, but every step was smaller than the last.

She stopped cold a fair distance away from Eva. Zoe continued for another few steps before realizing that Catherine hadn’t moved and stopped.

Eva blinked across the short distance away from the avatar. “Any ideas?” she asked, getting right to the point. “Was it my fault?”

“Possibly.”

“Only possibly?” That was better than definitely being the cause of the apocalypse. “I had assumed that I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything that would break the ritual,” Eva said with a thumb over her shoulder towards the avatar.

“That is the thing. You shouldn’t have been able to break it. Your spikes of blood shouldn’t have interacted with any other part of the ritual.”

“Then what–”

“But this ritual is so huge—it covers so much physical space that I can’t say for certain that something isn’t being affected by your blood. There may be some mirrored symmetry that was broken or your blood is acting as a siphon for some branch of magic that I’m overlooking. Given Void’s words before everything went wrong—I believe he said ‘perfect’—I’m going to assume that you did it.”

“Unless,” Zoe said, “this is all part of the plan.”

“Which we didn’t see any evidence for.” Catherine narrowed her eyes as she glanced towards Zoe. It only lasted a moment before she turned back to Eva. As she turned, her eyes dipped down to the ground. For whatever reason, she avoided looking right at the avatar. “By all evidence, this ritual has fallen into a stasis.”

“So how do we resume?”

Zoe turned back to face Vektul. “The simplest thing to try would be removing your blood and having Genoa smooth over the platform. Get everyone back into their positions and then channel your magic into the center point.”

“But…”

Eva had to whip her head around to stare at Catherine. They were acting like twins, complimenting each other’s points.

“That may not be for the best. If we resume this second portion of the ritual, Void may not–”

Catherine took a ginger step to one side, spreading her feet for stability as Zoe toppled to the ground. Eva, without the slightest thought, touched the tips of her wings to the ground to protect against the sudden earthquake.

“I think we’ve run out of time,” Eva said as she reached out a hand to help Zoe back to her feet.

The second Eva’s hand met with Zoe’s, a flash illuminated her face. Like someone had just taken a picture behind Eva’s shoulder. A moment later, a boom of thunder echoed across the smooth ritual circle. Eva whirled around towards where she had heard it come from.

Only to not spot anything amiss.

The others were all shaken—earthquakes tended to have that effect on people—and even the nun was looking around. But no enigmas. No mass of flesh growing nearby. No alien trees sprouting.

“Where did that lightning hit? Did anyone see?”

“Somewhere over the trees,” Catherine said, eyes locked on the horizon. “Can’t say how close it was. I only saw the flash.”

“Great.” If something hadn’t been going on outside before, there definitely was something now. Luckily, an earthquake had accompanied it. Like the nun, anyone stuck staring at the sky might have been shaken out of their trance. They should all be able to defend themselves from whatever might have happened.

“I’ll get rid of the blood,” Eva said. “Catherine, get everyone back to their spots. Zoe, grab Genoa and have her smooth over the area.”

Biting her lip, Zoe said, “We’re resuming it just like that? There might be better methods.”

“We could sit around asking what ifs all day. What if it’s the wrong move, what if there is a better way, what if the ritual can’t be resumed. But that thing is watching us,” Eva said, pointing a finger upwards without glancing up herself. Zoe started to look before catching herself while Catherine still had her eyes locked on Eva. “The real question–” she had to pause for a moment as the ground gave a light tremble. “The real question, did all this start up coincidentally or because it saw us talking about restarting the ritual?”

Eva glanced back and forth between the two, wondering if either would say anything. Another bolt of lightning crashed down. This time it was in the direction Eva was already facing. She could only see the highest point, way up by the portals. The rest of it came down behind the treetops far off in the distance.

“It would have been dangerous no matter how or what we tried,” Catherine said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Zoe shook her head. “Restarting interrupted rituals is always dangerous. Something like this… I can’t even imagine the possible consequences. If there is some pocket of magic that hasn’t dissipated, the whole thing could explode the moment we activate it again.”

“And if we don’t, the opened portal will overwhelm us with monsters. Then who is going to save the world? It might be a bad idea, but doing nothing or waiting is almost assuredly a worse one. I agree with Eva.” Catherine spread her wings and took off, banking slightly to curve around the avatar as she flew towards the gathered humans and demons.

“Juliana might be able to help protect against something like that,” Eva mumbled. She hadn’t been talking to Zoe, but the professor narrowed her eyes.

“And what is Juliana going to do?”

Suppressing a wince, Eva casually crossed her arms and feigned a moment of deep thought. “No idea,” she said, stepping around Zoe. “Just get everything ready. But look on the bright side. If the ritual does explode, then I guess we won’t have to worry about Life being corrupted.”

“That’s another thing we haven’t discussed… Eva!” she called out.

But Eva was already marching towards the Life avatar. “No time for discussion,” Eva called out over her shoulder. “If one of those lightning bolts hits around here or the earthquakes break apart the ritual circle, we could be in serious trouble. The avatar isn’t shooting them out of the sky anymore.”

Much like Arachne, Eva couldn’t imagine that there was any part of Vektul left within. Though the hulking mass of flesh definitely had veins, arteries, and blood pumping through them. It didn’t look like any kind of creature that Eva had ever seen. She couldn’t even find a brain within.

Considering the idea that the entire thing was supposedly a segment of a brain, that might make sense. It still didn’t look like any brain Eva had ever seen. Even knowing that it was only a part, it was utterly alien. The avatar had been using a metaphor, so perhaps expecting it to make any sense was asking too much of the mass of flesh.

The real question was in the tentacles. How much brain was in them? Would it matter if she sheared them all off? They presented a clear danger to herself and everyone involved in the ritual. Especially those closer to the Life side of the circle. It would probably just grow more, of course. A few chopped off now could mean a great deal less hassle later. Especially the few long ones that had been reaching out towards Eva. The few that had caused most of the problems in the first place.

Well, Void wanted to lobotomize the thing. Chopping off a few tendrils couldn’t hurt more.

With that thought in mind, Eva set to work, slicing away at the meat of anything that wasn’t a part of the main mass. Soon enough, she wound up with a fair pile of tentacles. Eyes covered some. Others were tipped in razor-sharp maws. All of them were in desperate need of immediate disposal.

Without the flames from the avatar, she wasn’t entirely certain how to go about that. Her own fire wouldn’t be sufficient. There was almost no doubt about that. Just shoving them off to the side probably wouldn’t be healthy once the ritual started up again. Right now they were inert. The blood wasn’t even pumping through the main body, let alone the tentacles. Yet Eva wouldn’t bet a penny that they would stay that way.

Eva shaped her blood into wings once again, bringing the sharp points of blood together. Slowly pulling them apart, she stretched a long thin strand of liquid blood out. The strand expanded and grew as she started wrapping up one of the tentacles. Like a spider cocooning prey. No matter how much blood she coated it with, the blood coating Eva never lessened. In fact, she wasn’t entirely certain that it was coating her anymore. Looking at herself through her blood sight, she couldn’t detect the thin layer of skin beneath the blood except around her hands and legs.

Under other circumstances, she might have found herself concerned about that fact. She liked having skin. Arachne’s carapace was nearly impervious and protected powerful muscles, but her skin was more comfortable. Sitting in a chair or even lying on a bed just wasn’t quite the same anymore with Arachne’s legs.

And yet, she found herself oddly calm about the suit of blood. Maybe it was just whatever had been making her head fuzzy during the ritual. Maybe she just didn’t think properly anymore.

Either way, she had finished her task. Ten tentacles taped to the tip. More blood was weaved out from the ends of her wings and crushed the tentacles into a sphere of blood. Holding the sphere by two points of her wings high above the ritual circle, Eva clapped her hands.

She winced away from the flash of light. Entirely unnecessarily, as it turned out. She had expected an explosion of blood and viscera. None came. Peeking open her eyes, dust scattered to the winds. There wasn’t anything else left.

“That worked out better than expected,” Eva mused to herself.

“Did you have to use those things coming off your back?”

Eva turned with a half shrug to face Zoe and Genoa. “Probably not. But they give me range and I didn’t really want to get close to the tentacles.”

“Are we going to talk about them? Or why you look like you do?”

“So other people can see me,” Eva said with a note of false surprise in her voice. “I was beginning to wonder. Nobody else said anything.”

“You’re probably intimidating them.”

“Even Genoa?” Eva said, glancing in the mage-knight’s direction.

“I figured it was some demon thing,” Genoa said as she approached just behind Zoe. “Strange things happen and you learn to start ignoring them. If you weren’t bothered by it, I wasn’t going to be.”

Zoe just sighed. “Everyone’s ready. Are we sure about this?”

“Not at all,” Eva said as she pointed towards Vektul. “Those holes need to be smoothed over, Genoa. Once that’s done…”

It would be time to start up the ritual again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.004

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Dean Anderson here.”

Eva sat on the edge of a table, staring out the window. So far, nothing had fallen from the sky that she had been able to see. Neither had anything approached the building. In fact, the pulsing of the violet streaks had died down to their usual levels of activity. Or inactivity, as the case was.

Around her, most of the students had lost their nervousness. They were going about class as normal. Even Juliana had gone back to her seat after watching and not finding anything too alarming after several minutes. Or, as normal as class got when they weren’t allowed to leave a full half an hour after class normally ended. Eva hadn’t actually continued with the lesson, choosing instead to stare out the window for the entire time. Surprisingly enough, Professor Lepus hadn’t objected to her watching out the window. She did walk past with a few disapproving looks every now and again, but apparently the situation was odd enough that she was willing to overlook a few people not studying.

Only Arachne sat with her.

She hadn’t yet received a response from Zoe, though telling her that things were falling from the sky probably wasn’t much to go off of. Neither had she received another message from Nel. Of course, Nel was probably out with Ylva and not looking at her phone at the moment.

In fact, the first message about the outside world was likely to be Anderson’s message. So she turned slightly to better give her attention to the overhead speakers.

“The emergency situation has been resolved. Or, to be more accurate, it wasn’t that big of an emergency. Still, given the matters announced at the feast, we felt it prudent to take immediate action to ensure the safety of the school and its inhabitants. There will be a more detailed announcement later, but for now: Someone or something may have modified the weather experiment over Brakket Academy. We do not believe there to be any immediate danger but will continue to investigate. As always, any suspicious persons or creatures should be avoided and reported to Brakket Academy security. Thank you for listening, you are all free to go about your business. The rest of school has been canceled for the day.”

Silence followed the announcement for a good thirty seconds. Professor Lepus was the first to speak.

“Well. What a waste of time. Now the class that should have been in this timeslot is going to be behind schedule,” she said, more mumbling to herself than actually speaking to the class. “I’ll have to catch them up in a hurry.”

“So, we can leave right?” one of the Isomer guests said.

“Apparently,” Professor Lepus said with a sigh. “That is what the message said. Go on and clear out,” she said a little louder to the rest of the class. “I’ve got lessons to reorganize.”

As the students packed up their books and tablets and whatever else they had been occupying themselves with during their detention, two walked over to Eva.

Srey, shaking off his few admirers, moved up a few paces away from Eva. “What was that all about?”

“No idea. Going to go find out in a few minutes, however.”

“The announcement mentioned creatures,” Juliana said, clipping the rest of her sentence with a quick yawn. She went up and peered out the window again for a few moments before turning to face Eva. Brushing a hand back over her ear, she pushed some hair back and revealed a line running up the side of her face where it had been pressed into the desk, sleeping. “He didn’t mention any creatures the other night.”

“Enigmas maybe? Or demons.”

“I can feel something out there,” Arachne said, sliding around Eva to look out the window properly. “Can’t tell what. But then, most demons don’t feel overwhelmingly strong. So they’re either extremely weak or fairly far out. Possibly both.”

Eva hummed for a moment, considering. “Enigmas fit better with the term creatures, but it could be hellhounds or something similar.” As Eva spoke, she checked her phone again. Still no message from Nel. She sent out a simple one asking what they had found. “So we’ve been given the all clear by the school. No reason to stick around. Let’s go find out..” Eva trailed off as she noticed the face Juliana made.

“I don’t know that my mother would be too happy with me running around the city.”

“That’s a good point,” Eva said after a slight hum. “Does your mother know what happened?”

“I sent her a message about the announcement. She said she would be here soon.” Juliana pulled out her cellphone and typed out a few words. “There. Let her know it is over with.”

Eva nodded and turned back to the window. Both Brakket dormitory buildings stood tall outside along with the fountain and demon blood plaza. Nothing around wrecking them which usually seemed to be the case in such situations. In fact, she didn’t see a real need to run out aimlessly in the city anyway. She did want to go find where her clone had perished. Still, no pressing need for it.

“Why don’t we find Zoe then. See if she knows anything more. Your mother won’t object to you running around the school, would she?”

Juliana shrugged. “Don’t think so.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said. After slinging her bag up over her shoulder, she started out of the room with Juliana, Srey, and Arachne in tow. The hall was packed with students. More than normal, anyway. Packed wasn’t an easy state to achieve in Brakket Academy. Not even with all the other schools running around.

Maybe it just felt packed. Everyone was in their little groups. Some walking and talking, some just standing and talking. They were all talking. Eva didn’t even need to listen in to guess the topic. She hadn’t been the only one to notice the fluctuations in the violet streaks overhead.

A few pointed at her or otherwise glanced in her direction as she walked past. She had no idea why. Not beyond the obvious anyway. Even though he looked more or less human, most people knew Srey was a demon. Arachne stood out by appearance alone, as did Eva. After a few weeks around the new schools and several months with Brakket’s students, they shouldn’t stand out quite as much as they did. Perhaps some rumors had gone around about the last time a similar announcement had interrupted classes. Or maybe about the hunter she had fought and killed just before the other schools had arrived.

Eva ignored them and continued on her way.

Yet they didn’t even make it halfway to Zoe’s room before a group of students ran up to them. Saija headed said group, pulling Irene along at her side. Behind them, Jordan, Shelby, and Shalise all followed along.

“See. I told you she was here,” Saija said, slowing down with her hands on her hips. “I can always tell where Eva is.”

Eva held up a hand before anyone else could speak. “Something fell from the skies. I don’t know anything else. I also didn’t have anything to do with it. Whatever happened was entirely not my fault.”

Saija curled her lips slightly, showing off her sharp teeth. “And that just makes you sound guilty.”

Shrugging, Eva turned and continued walking towards Zoe’s classroom. “I’m stopping by Zoe’s office. I won’t object if you all want to come. But apparently the situation has resolved itself. According to the announcement. So there probably isn’t much need.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere on my own after–”

A low rumble in the ground cut Shalise off. The Earth shook, nearly sending the group to the ground. Only Saija, Arachne, and Eva—who grabbed a hold of Arachne’s arm—managed to avoid waving their arms around to retain their balance. No one said a word as they waited, widening their stances to brace themselves against any additional shocks.

Eva slowly let go of Arachne’s arm, standing on her own. “Huh,” she said when nothing else happened. “I wonder what that was about.” She half expected another announcement over the speakers. Even after waiting a few minutes, they stayed silent.

The hallway, however, did not. After the initial shocked silence wore off, everybody in the hallway exploded in conversation. Nobody really freaking out, but lots of questions. Especially from the foreign students, most asking if earthquakes were common around the area. The Faultline students, of which three were walking down the hall, barely seemed to notice the quake. She had thought their school was just a name, but maybe they lived right on top of an actual fault. She actually hadn’t looked up its location.

“I-I don’t like this,” Shalise said, wrapping her arms around herself as she glanced around. “There were earthquakes constantly, or nearly so, in Hell.” Her last word came out a little more than a whisper.

“There are earthquakes all the time on Earth,” Jordan said, voice soft but steady.

Shelby poked him in the side. “Not here there aren’t.”

“Well, no. Not here. At least not recently. There was a fairly sizable earthquake around Yellowstone in nineteen-fifty-nine.”

Shalise shook her head, moving slightly to lean against the brick wall. “And w-what are the odds that a natural earthquake just happens to happen after,” she paused, swallowing her saliva and licking her dried out lips as she glanced towards Eva. “After something fell from the sky. After that announcement.”

Frowning slightly, Shelby moved over to the wall and put an arm around Shalise’s shoulders and gave her a few comforting pats. Juliana moved closer as well, though she refrained from actually touching Shalise. Instead she just leaned against the wall with an uncomfortable look on her face. An almost sick look. Maybe she felt guilty over the Hell thing.

“Still, nothing has changed.” Eva paused as her group gave her flat looks. “I mean, nothing in terms of us not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Juliana leaned forward slightly, pulling out her cellphone and frowning at whatever she saw on the screen. She tapped out a short response before slipping it back into her pocket. “What are we going to do?”

Eva didn’t bother responding. A musical tune carried down the hall. The second Juliana heard it, she winced.

Genoa charged up the hallway with her cellphone in hand, obviously using it to track down Juliana. Eva had caught sight of her a few moments ago, which was really the only reason she hadn’t continued onwards to Zoe’s class. That and Zoe was with Genoa, both coming towards them.

“Juliana, you are going to be sticking with me.” Genoa paused for a moment, looking over the gathered students. Nodding towards the wall, she continued. “Shalise as well. The rest of you… well, I can’t order you around. However I suggest sticking with adults and finding safe places.” Genoa turned to address Eva. “I spotted two enigmas on my way here. There might be more.”

Eva glanced to Zoe, giving her a look. “I felt at least two demons out there as well. I can still feel them, though they’re extremely weak. Maybe imps?” she said with a glance to Arachne. She got a shrug in return. “And Nel said eight things fell when she texted me, though she didn’t elaborate much on what exactly they were. Ylva headed out to take care of some of them.”

“And with the announcement,” Zoe said, “I assume Brakket security took care of the remainder.”

“I didn’t realize that the security team had been replaced after the attack early in the summer.”

“He brought on two almost immediately after assuming Martina’s position, but hired another three after the armored hunter attacked. Though, unlike Martina’s security force, I do not believe any of them are demons. Most seem to be former mage-knights. Except for Lucy, that is.”

“Two security guards worked for the school and didn’t help fight that hunter?” Eva shook her head, deciding that it didn’t really matter how many security guards Brakket had if they weren’t going to help out in the big events. Supposedly they did something today with the things that fell from the sky, but for all Eva knew, that had actually been Ylva.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “let’s get out there and find out exactly what is going on. Nel and Ylva should have some information. It’s a bit worrying that Nel hasn’t messaged me back, but–” she cut herself off as her phone buzzed in her pocket. “Never mind,” she mumbled as she pulled up her messages.

Okay! Finished. We disabled four enigmas. Three of which were drawn into portals to Hell when they ‘perished,’ and left something behind. I don’t understand what that means, but Ylva seemed a little upset at it.

“Huh.”

“What is it?”

Rather than answer, Eva just handed her phone over to Zoe. Genoa leaned over to peer over her shoulder, both reading the message. It wasn’t a long message, but Zoe kept staring at it for a lot longer than Genoa. Eva actually had to clear her throat to startle Zoe into looking up.

“Right,” she said, handing it back to Eva. “And this doesn’t have anything to do with you?”

“For the twentieth time, no. I was just sitting in class and maybe trying to bait out the demon hunter at the same time. She didn’t bite. Something that fell from the sky targeted my fake body out in the city and landed on it.”

It had to have targeted her. Maybe if more than eight things had fallen she would have believed that random chance could have wound up with one landing on her. But eight? Brakket wasn’t a big city, but it was still a city. And if Genoa had seen a few on her way over from her house—completely out of the way from where Eva’s clone had been wandering around—then it wasn’t like they had all fallen on top of her.

“So I’m going to head out there and look around a bit.”

“Alone?”

“Arachne will be with me. I’m not opposed to others joining as well.”

Juliana glanced up to her mother and nodded her head towards Eva. Genoa pretended to ignore her, but did put on a slightly more thoughtful expression.

“Anyway, come with me or not, I would like to get moving before the blood dries too much.” Eva waited just a moment before she started walking. Arachne followed after her immediately. Zoe said a few words to Genoa before coming along as well. Despite Juliana’s glare, Genoa stayed where she was, as did the rest of her friends. Not even Saija moved to follow.

Eva didn’t mind so much. Fewer people meant traveling faster. As soon as she made it out one of the side doors, she picked up the pace, moving to a light jog. Just light enough to not completely outpace Zoe. Which had the unfortunate side-effect of inviting conversation.

“Enigmas falling from the sky?” Zoe asked between breaths. “Eva, this doesn’t have anything to do with your ritual circle, does it?”

“I don’t see how it could. The circle is still incomplete.”

Though that did remind Eva that she should text Catherine. Maybe more enigmas had fallen over towards the prison area that Nel had missed. The streaks through the sky did extend over the prison as well, after all. Come to think of it, someone should probably be checking the fields between and all around Brakket as well. It would be just Brakket Academy’s luck for an enigma to wander into town while everyone was unprepared.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I assume this is just a natural progression of the apocalypse. Obviously nothing apocalyptic has happened just yet. Assuming it stops for the time being, that is. Zagan never did give us a time frame. Maybe little things will happen for the next three centuries before anything truly bad happens.” She slowed just a little to look at Zoe out of the corner of her eye. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Zoe started to respond, but Eva reached the end of Brakket Academy’s main campus, turned down the first street they came across and immediately slipped into an alley between two shops. Having been running right alongside Eva, Zoe just about missed the abrupt turn down the alley. Really, Eva didn’t need to take the alley. She had been walking on the open roads not far from Brakket. However, a few quick jaunts down a couple of alleys would save her a little backtracking.

Unlike Zoe, Arachne kept right at Eva’s side. She didn’t need prompting. Nor did Eva’s turn come as a surprise. Eva couldn’t say exactly why, but guessed that it related to Arachne’s fixation on Eva. Small tells in her body language showed Arachne where to go before Eva actually made the turn.

And yet she managed to keep her head turning around, scanning for potential threats on rooftops, streets, and shadowed building entryways. Really, every time she thought about it, Eva was all the more happy that Arachne was an ally and not an enemy.

“I still haven’t told Wayne,” Zoe said as they exited the final entryway. “I want his input before anything. Even if…” she trailed off with a glance at the sky as they slowed down.

Eva followed her gaze, glancing up as well. But there wasn’t much to look at. A gray, partially cloudy sky lined with purple veins. The streaks had returned to their previous stability, looking much the same as just a week prior. Something Eva took as a good sign. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining enigmas and demons anytime soon.

“It looks like we’ve got a little while. I still want your and Catherine’s input as well. In the meantime,” Eva slowed to a stop just in front of a large splatter of blood in the center of the sidewalk. “I would like to find out what attacked me specifically.”

Black blood covered a small portion of the sidewalk and street, barely glistening in the overcast day. Some even splashed up on the brickwork of a nearby bookshop. Not a hint of a person was left behind. Which Eva expected. Her blood clone was just that, blood. It had no bones or organs. Not even real skin, just blood with some magical food coloring to look like her held together in her shape. As soon as it had been disturbed to the point where it couldn’t hold together, the spell had broken and the magic had dispersed.

Sending off a burst of flame from her fingertips, Eva immolated every trace of the blood. Leaving parts of herself lying around for others to mess with just didn’t sit right with her, even if none of it could actually be used for more blood magic.

“This was the same bit of magic you used to fight me that one time?”

“Yep. Just a simple blood clone with orders to wander around. I was trying to draw out the hunter so Nel could get a bead on her. Didn’t work out quite how I hoped.” Eva glanced around, including back down the alley to the side of the bookstore. “No sign of whatever landed on it. I half expected mangled remains of something or other. Or maybe footprints leading away.”

There were a few droplets of her blood that had either splashed a great deal away or dripped from something. Eva, incinerating each droplet as she followed the trail, was leaning towards the latter theory. Especially once she found a few streaks of blood leading up the side of the bookstore. There weren’t any real claw marks, it was more like someone had dragged their hand along the wall. Maybe something capable of flying or levitating around. If something was flying, it was probably a demon. She hadn’t yet encountered an enigma with wings.

That she felt an extraordinarily faint presence nearby only confirmed that idea.

“Up on the roof,” Eva said as she incinerated the trail. It was a good thing the building was made of bricks. A wooden bookstore probably wouldn’t have survived even her tiny flames half as well. As soon as she had finished, she blinked straight upwards, higher than the top of the roof. Once up high, she blinked to a standing position right on the ledge of the building. Arachne followed her up, though by sprouting a few extra legs and scaling the wall rather than teleporting.

Zoe made it up as well, teleporting herself directly to the top without the intervening hop. But Eva barely paid attention to the blast of cold air that accompanied her disappearing.

Her eyes were focused on the creature curled up at the far corner of the next roof over. Just barely out of the range of her blood sense. Its four arms and two legs were covered in fur, which it was licking and grooming as a cat might, but with a humanoid face. The rest of its body was a smooth skin, fur stopping abruptly just above the elbows and knees. Its back had wings, which explained the droplets of blood, but that wasn’t all. A series of tentacles curled around it protectively. Each capped with a tiny mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Eva grit her own teeth, staring at a large gouge in the side of the creature. Violet blood dripped down its bare stomach, matting the dark fur.

“An enigma?” she hissed. But it felt like a demon.

The moment she spoke, two pointed ears on top of the creature’s head perked and angled towards her.

A beat passed before it sprung up, landing on all six legs. Twin tails stuck straight up in the air, black fur puffed out as wide as it could go as it bared its sharp teeth—both on its face and its tentacles—in Eva’s direction.

All at once, it turned and spread its wings.

“Catch it,” Eva shouted as it took off, already running after it.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.023

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“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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009.022

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“To be fair, if she hadn’t summoned a demon, Arachne and I wouldn’t have known where to look. In fact, we had been heading in the wrong direction prior to her summoning.”

Both Genoa and Carlos turned away from their daughter to glare at Eva. Behind them, sitting in the living room chair like it was the hot seat in an interrogation room, Juliana looked up and gave Eva a slight smile. A smile that did nothing to offset the intensity of her parents’ glares. Under other circumstances, Eva might have wilted under their combined stares.

Not today.

“It worked,” Eva said. “She got away and she is unharmed. Do you really need to berate her quite so much?”

Genoa’s face softened ever so slightly, though Carlos was exactly the opposite. He opened his mouth to say something. Genoa beat him to the punch.

“Eva, I appreciate what you did to help tonight. But Juliana is not your child. I’ll thank you to leave her raising to us.” She shared a brief glance with her husband, who still looked like he wanted to complain, before turning back to Juliana.

“Juliana is safe. You can berate her later if you really feel the need,” Eva said, keeping her voice firm and ignoring the sudden look of betrayal on Juliana’s face. “More importantly, a demon hunter is out there targeting my friends.”

And wasn’t that a scary thought. Eva was quite confident in her ability to fend off a majority of threats, perhaps even to the point of self-admitted overconfidence. Her friends? If that had been Shalise instead of Juliana, things could have gone very differently. Even if Juliana got kidnapped again, the hunter was sure to take more drastic precautions against demon summoning or other escapes.

Though depending on exactly what Juliana had done with Zagan, that might not be too much of a concern anymore. At least not for Juliana.

So far, she had just been sitting in silence, only speaking when spoken to or to clarify exactly how the events had gone. All the while, her parents talked at her and managed to argue with each other despite never quite addressing the other. However, she had yet to mention Zagan by name, only referring to the demon she had summoned as ‘the demon’ and overtly insinuating that it had gone back to Hell shortly before Genoa broke down the walls.

Eva couldn’t tell if her parents believed her or not, but she wasn’t going to be fooled so easily.

“You’re right,” Genoa said with one last glance towards Carlos. “We need to prepare. And inform the school. The hunter could decide to attack just about anyone under the assumption that you might be involved with them.”

Anderson was going to freak out. Eva could see it now. Doubly so if the media got wind of it. He really should have just taken out a bounty on the woman after her first attack, though news of a bounty around the school would have likely gotten out, ruining his media presence anyway.

In fact, if he took out a bounty now, he might even be seen as proactive depending on how much information about old incidents got out.

“I’ll go send a message to Zoe,” Eva said. “A detailed one explaining everything Juliana told us.”

Genoa gave Eva a curt nod. “I’ll send one to Wallace and Anderson. Though I can’t say I have much hope that Anderson will be willing to do much.”

Pulling out her cellphone, Eva slipped out of the room before Carlos could go back to explaining how Juliana was to be escorted to and from school every single day, how she wasn’t ever allowed out of his sight, and how happy he was that she was alright. Really, she didn’t need to be there for that.

She had gotten the information she needed.

The hunter had been after her. And had been walking around on two feet, though Juliana thought that her armor was helping her move rather than any real healing having been done to her back. Which was good for Eva. But potentially also bad. If her armor could do the things that the dead hunter’s armor had done, she could prove to be quite the troublesome foe. Especially because this time, it wasn’t very likely that the doll would show up to distract the hunter while she murdered them from behind.

“So what happened?” Jordan asked as Eva slipped back into the theater room. He, Shelby, and Shalise were all standing around the doorway talking as she entered. Despite the television still being on and showing Irene being hoisted up on Saija’s shoulders before she went flying off into the sky, none were watching.

“Juliana got herself kidnapped by the partner of the hunter who attacked a month ago. She freed herself mostly, with myself and Genoa helping out. Watch out for hunters sneaking up behind you in the dead of night as they’ll likely go after anyone who is friends with me. And that’s it, I think.”

“Concise,” Jordan said as he looked at the other two.

“B-But, wait. Coming after us, you mean?”

Eva gave Shalise a sorry smile. “Yeah. Though don’t worry too much. I don’t have a definite plan just yet, but I’m not going to let this woman run amok while threatening everyone.” She would have cracked her knuckles, but her knuckles didn’t work like that anymore. “I’m going to tear out her throat. In the meantime, just stick with others and don’t wander around the city without an escort.”

Juliana’s father was right about that much, at least.

“Oh. W-well…” Shalise was stuttering again. Eva hadn’t really heard her stutter much since before she got trapped in Hell. Though, Eva had to admit that she hadn’t spent all that much time around Shalise since then. And, in Hell, she had had Prax with her.

“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to leave this person to run around for any length of time.”

— — —

Wind blew past Irene’s face, throwing her shoulder-length hair back behind her head. Trees whizzed past down below and wisps of clouds drifted overhead.

All the while, Irene could only think of how much she hated flying. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad under other circumstances. Airplanes didn’t bother her. But there was something about cutting through the air with no windshield, walls, or floor to keep her from falling to her death that just rubbed her the wrong way.

“I’m going to drop you!”

Irene, one hand in a white-knuckled grip around Saija’s horn as she rode on the demon’s shoulders, took a moment to process exactly what Saija had said. She focused entirely on using her wand to tear down an earthen shell around the Mount Hope crystals while Saija flew them through the air, weaving and dodging the fireballs, icicles, and whatever else the enemy mages were tossing up at them. Or, to be more accurate, Irene’s focus was on holding tight to Saija while occasionally considering the possibility that she really should be thinking about sometimes attacking the earthen shell.

Just because she was an earth mage didn’t mean she was afraid of heights. The two were entirely unrelated.

But Saija’s words eventually registered in her mind.

“Wait, drop me?” she shouted, grabbing on to both horns and almost dropping her wand in the process. “Saija! Don’t you dare!”

“It’ll be fine! You can do more if you’re not trying to shake yourself off my shoulders. I’ll keep distracting them and I’ll even be free to pick some of them up and drop them farther away.”

“Then just set me down somewhere.”

“And give them time to target me?” Saija scoffed with a shake of her head, just about throwing Irene off her shoulders in the process. “Get ready!”

“Wai–”

Saija banked upwards, carrying them high into the sky. She didn’t flap her wings or otherwise try to keep her momentum going. Once gravity caught up to her, she turned and embraced the dive. Irene didn’t. She gripped Saija even harder, wrapping her legs around her neck. Only pure fear of biting off her own tongue kept Irene from screaming.

Five feet from the ground, Saija pulled up at a sharp turn, spreading her wings. As she did so, she shrugged her shoulders and slipped out from under Irene. Her head twisted just enough for Irene to lose her grip.

Irene bounced on the ground butt first, barely feeling like she had dropped much farther than if she had fallen off her bed. Not that she fell off her bed often enough to really know. Above her, Saija continued her flight, aiming straight at one of the Mount Hope students.

Unfortunately, while she had survived the drop, Saija hadn’t dropped Irene off in an isolated patch of the enemy’s camp.

She was right in the middle of all the defenders.

A half-sphere of earth covered each of the four crystals that Mount Hope had acquired. Someone far more experienced in earth magic than Irene had formed the dirt into solid shells as tough as granite. Likely that same earth mage had erected walls around the four spheres, partitioning off their camp from the rest of the Infinite Courtyard.

The walls weren’t continuous. A single wall stood in front of each of the four spheres that protected the crystals. All four together were more like barricades than anything else. At the very center of each wall, the coat of arms for Mount Hope stood out in gleaming blue. Apparently their water mage had been a bit bored and fashioned the coat of arms from ice four times over.

Each sphere reached up roughly to Irene’s shoulder, only slightly lower than the walls protecting them. Which made the spheres perfect cover.

Ignoring the student Saija had charged towards and carried off into the sky, she focused on the three that were still standing around the makeshift walls and barricades. One fired off fireballs towards the sky, apparently not caring if he hit his companion. She felt safe in ignoring him and leaving him for Saija.

The other two both started launching projectiles at Irene. One fire and the other ice.

Irene scrambled around the half-spheres, putting their own crystals’ defense between them while barely peeking around the side to watch what was happening.

Shards of ice swirled around the mage’s wand, forming a silver chain-like whip that dangled from the end. Pointed spines grew from each link in the chain, making her whip look far more vicious than anything Irene wanted to see in what was supposed to be a friendly competition. The mage held tight to her wand, waiting and watching while her fire inclined partner slowly circled around the dome.

Much like the water mage, the fire mage started spreading around flames. His, however, weren’t orbs of fire like what she might have expected. He traced out burning embers into the dirt. They formed into patterns, but Irene didn’t know what they were. Some kind of runes. Traps, most likely. Something to explode in her face if she stepped on them.

But the ground was her domain.

Sort of. She wouldn’t claim to be an expert or anything, but that didn’t really matter at the moment. All that did matter was the runes.

Her first thought was to simply disrupt them. Mixing around the earth should render whatever he had done inert. However, that was just a stalling tactic. The mage was still coming closer and his partner was still watching and waiting for her to emerge.

Pointing her wand out from around the dome—just the very tip—she aimed right at the small patch of earth that held his most recently drawn rune.

His eyes were glued on the dome she had taken refuge behind, not his feet. His footsteps paused as her wand poked around the side.

But when no attacks came and she withdrew her wand, he continued moving.

And stepped right on top of his own rune.

Irene raised her arm, shielding her eyes and face from the sudden light and heat. It only lasted for an instant. That instant had probably been long enough to get a mild sunburn from. When she finally felt safe enough to open her eyes again, the fire mage had been knocked clear back against one of the earthen walls. Maybe ten feet or so.

Though charcoal covered his entire front side, his chest still heaved up and down. That combined with some coughing and moaning meant he was still alive. Probably just fine.

Probably.

So it was nice to know that accidentally stumbling over his traps wouldn’t be fatal. She still disrupted the land around the rest anyway.

The water mage, still with her ice whip, ran to his side. She knelt down to check on him.

But Saija didn’t give her the chance to even touch him. Swooping out of nowhere, Saija hooked her arms underneath the mage’s armpits and carried the now screaming girl off into the night.

Not knowing if the fire mage was in any shape to stand up, Irene pointed her wand at him. The dirt around him turned to a murky soup, sucking him in. As soon as he was a few inches into it, she went ahead and hardened it as much as she could. It wasn’t quite the stone-like granite that made up the spheres around the crystals, but it was good enough for a few moments. She felt relatively safe considering she also moved the mage’s wand away from his hand.

With a sigh, she turned to the spheres. Now that she wasn’t flying around at dangerous speeds and heights, she had a moment to actually examine the crystals’ granite shields. Conjuring stone or turning regular dirt to stone was an advanced technique. Way up there at the end of sixth year kind of advanced.

However, breaking it back down into dirt wasn’t. Destroying things was always easier than creating.

Irene cracked the shell. She didn’t turn the entire thing to dirt, that would have taken far too much effort, she just created hairline fractures in the rock and then pried away the dome like it was a hardboiled egg. And found nothing.

Nothing at all. The hollow shell didn’t have any crystals within. Just an empty patch of earth.

Turning, she cracked open each of the other domes. As with the first, she found nothing inside any of them. Just in case they had decided to be a little tricky, she dug down beneath the spheres for a good ten feet.

And wound up with nothing to show for her efforts.

Neither could she find anything underground between and in the very center of the spheres.

Saija dropped down at her side, startling her half to death. “No crystal thingies?”

“They have to be here somewhere,” Irene said, pointing a finger up to the sky.

Overhead, a massive magical billboard displayed a list of all the schools and how many crystals each had in their possession. Only two were listed under the ‘in transit’ section. Mount Hope supposedly had four still.

“The crystals have to be within the boundaries of their camp or they don’t count. So they’re somewhere around, just hidden.”

Saija frowned as she craned her neck to see the billboard. “We’re running out of time. Need to find them fast.”

Only six minutes left on the clock. Even with Saija flying them back, it would be tight.

“But don’t worry,” Saija said, puffing out her chest in undeserved pride and spreading her wings out. “I’ll handle this.” Turning from Irene, she sauntered over to the soot-covered fire mage.

Irene followed a few steps back, frown on her face as she wondered just what Saija was going to do. She had a pretty good idea, but…

“Hey there hot stuff,” Saija said, obviously suppressing a slight giggle as she leaned over the trapped mage with one hand on her hip. Her other hand tugged slightly at her neckline. “My friend and I were just wondering if you might be willing to help us with a little problem. If you could tell us where you hid the crystals, I would consider it a personal favor,” Saija breathed more than spoke.

The mage, whose eyes had already been slightly glassy—a concussion, maybe?—fell entirely into Saija’s sweet words. Trapped as his arms and legs were, he could do nothing but nod his head. “The domes are decoys.” His words came slow and slightly slurred. “They’re in the center of each wall. Behind the school’s logo.”

“Aww,” Saija cooed, reaching forward to brush his cheek. The moment her long fingernails grazed over his skin, his head slumped forward and his eyes fluttered shut. Smiling, Saija turned to smile at Irene. “Well, what a nice young boy.”

Irene rolled her eyes. Since the mage had collapsed against one of the walls, she got to work right away.

Only to find her magic not working quite as well. Shattering the domes had been easy enough. The icy coat of arms… It was exactly what Juliana had said to do except disguised as an emblem. But it wasn’t as complete as what Juliana had done to the miniature castle. The icy emblem only covered the outsides of the wall. Knocking down a portion of the surroundings exposed a few inches of pure rock.

Splitting that revealed a hollow cavity and a glowing green crystal.

“Earth,” Irene said with a click of her tongue. “Too heavy. Just leave it.”

“I could carry it.”

“Yeah, but I can’t. Not if I want to carry the others. And you’re going to be carrying me.”

Running over to the next wall segment, Irene didn’t even need to break the wall to get at the split in the middle. Water ran off the emblem, pooling on the ground below. As expected, opening the wall revealed a fire crystal. Coating it in a thick layer of dirt provided enough insulation to handle it with her bare hands for a few seconds at a time, but she still handed it off to Saija while running to the next.

The last two were air crystals. Neither required any special preparation to hold on to. In fact, they were the best of all the crystals to carry. They wouldn’t freeze or burn whatever they touched and they didn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball.

Taking off her jacket, Irene wrapped all three of them up for easier carrying. A single large bundle was much simpler than three separate items. And it would help keep the air crystals from flying off like a feather.

“Alright,” Irene said, “four minutes. Think you can make it back?”

Saija grinned. A vicious Eva-like grin filled with sharp teeth. “Just who do you think you’re talking to?” She scooped Irene up into her arms and took off in one smooth motion.

Irene managed to suppress her yelp of surprise. Being ready to be picked up helped quite a bit. “No shoulder ride?” she said after they were well underway.

“That was attack position. This is comfort flying. For both of us. Do you know how annoying it was having you jerk my head around?”

“That’s… well, sorry. I suppose I can’t argue against the comfort though.” Riding on her shoulders had carried a constant feeling of being one slip away from falling off. So long as Saija held tight, that was almost gone. Still no windshield. Her hair was whipping around all over the place and she couldn’t even fix it without dropping the crystals. Some even got into her mouth.

Really, she was lucky it was winter. There weren’t any bugs out to get splattered across her face.

“Looks like a fight at our base.”

“Just circle around overhead inside camp boundaries. We’ll keep our three safe. The others on the ground should be able to keep the three there safe for the last few minutes. Then we win!”

“That sounds good,” Saija said, flapping her wings a few times before her flight shifted to a far more languid drifting than the high-speed rush it had been before. “We should do this again sometime. When there isn’t all this fighting going on.”

Irene hesitated for a moment before allowing her head to nod up and down. She wasn’t afraid of heights. Just the falling part. Like this, with Saija’s arms wrapped around her, flying wasn’t so bad at all.

Finally feeling her heart rate drop down to more normal levels, she just watched and waited for the clock to run down while hiding from the cold air in the warmth of Saija’s body.

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009.019

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“A lot of help she is,” Eva mumbled as she slipped her phone back into her pocket.

Deep wrinkles of thought and worry lined Genoa’s face. Since picking up Juliana’s cellphone, she hadn’t stopped pacing up and down the street. She did pause as Eva finished her call. “Nothing?”

“Nel was using the armored hunter’s blood to track them, assuming it is that hunter again. He died. Plus her vision was slipping as well. She only really was able to watch them thanks to her watching them non-stop since they did their beam attacks near the prison. The hunters that attacked her and Ylva interrupted that.

“However, it is most likely that hunter. When Nel tried to use Juliana’s hair to track her down, her vision slipped off just like the hunters. So unless more people have all suddenly developed the ability to evade Nel’s sight, it’s that eye patch woman.”

Eva couldn’t quite understand how it was that woman. She had been crippled. Blood sight didn’t lie. The woman had three holes in her back, hadn’t moved in the slightest, and even had a neck brace with a focus built into it. Tearing up the street this much just wasn’t something a woman so badly crippled could do. Maybe Juliana had done some of it, but the damaged cellphone had been hers and the imprint of a body had been about her size as well.

Though there wasn’t any ice around, and that definitely seemed to be the woman’s favorite tactic. At least, it had been in previous encounters. Maybe the hunter had found a new henchman to do her dirty work.

“And Ylva cannot do anything? That ring she gave Juli…”

“She can confirm that Juliana was alive.”

Genoa’s voice cracked. “Was?

“The ring has been removed. Juliana was alive up till the ring was removed at the very least. She doesn’t believe that Juliana is dead, however. With Juliana still likely on Earth, one of her reapers could figure that out. I guess. Nel wasn’t being perfectly clear.”

Closing her eyes, Genoa dipped her head as she let out a short sigh. “But they can’t locate her?” she asked after a moment of silence.

Eva shook her head.

After a quick thought, she pulled her cellphone back out. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby all deserved to know. They were with Carlos. They should be safe, according to Genoa. But they should be on their guard at the very least. She sent a message to Zoe as well, though she probably wouldn’t answer it until after the event.

If she looked during a commercial, would they cancel the event? Continue as planned to avoid creating a panic?

For that matter, were there other people she should send messages to? Eva was limited by the low amount of phone numbers she had collected. So it wasn’t too big of a list to scroll through. She did send off a message to Catherine.

And received an immediate reply. Catherine had probably been on her phone when she received the message. Nothing had happened out at the prison, but she would keep an eye out. Which, for Catherine, probably meant that she would be playing games or researching ritual circles until she realized that the prison was burning down around her.

“I’m a spider, not a hound.”

Eva blinked and glanced up. Genoa was… not quite glaring at Arachne. Arachne definitely had an annoyed look on her face. She could only guess what Genoa had asked while Eva had been distracted.

“Alright,” Eva said. “Someone kidnapped Juliana and is keeping her alive. Most likely a demon hunter at that.”

“Which means she is going to be used,” Genoa said, voice stone cold.

“There are a lot of demons in the city. The first time they actually tried, they killed a good half of the demons. Last time, I think they were specifically trying to get me. Since I killed her partner, I am willing to bet that a similar plan is running through her mind with a little more reckless vengeance involved.

“But don’t worry,” Eva said. “Getting Juliana out will be simple. I just turn myself in.”

“No you won’t,” Arachne growled, stepping closer to Eva.

“I’m not going to let her kill me,” Eva said. “We get Juliana out then either I escape on my own or you come rescue me.”

“This is a terrible plan. We would trade a more powerful demon for a weak human.” A slight pause passed by before Arachne turned to face Genoa. “No offense.”

Eva winced at the phrasing, only to find herself surprised as Genoa started nodding along.

“No, Arachne is right. Unless you have a guaranteed way of escaping—and fast—you’ll get killed. Assuming her goal is to kill you, she needs to keep Juliana alive to draw you out to her. Once she has you in her hands, there is no reason to keep you alive. Or Juliana, for that matter. She may tell you to kill yourself before she will hand over Juliana and then won’t follow through anyway.”

“Possibly,” Eva said with a slight hum. Thinking back, she wasn’t so sure. The hunter might kill Juliana if she thought she could get away with it, that much was true. Especially if she was aware of Juliana’s own demon summonings. However, just straight up killing Eva didn’t quite align with what little Eva knew of the hunter.

The hunter had blood covered hands back in Martina’s office. Like she had torn apart demons with her bare hands. And sure, that had been before she had been crippled. But even if she captured Eva now, she would probably want at least a little torture.

“Actually, it would probably be best for you to return to your prison. Stay far away from this hunter. Keep anything that may give her cause to kill Juliana far away.”

“You want me to run away? Abandon Juliana?”

“Not necessarily. If running away ensures Juliana’s safety, then yes. Definitely. Whatever ego you have, whatever you think you might be able to do against this hunter, it is secondary to Juliana’s safety.”

Eva took a deep breath. “I understand. Running away might be worse. If the hunter wants me to stay, threatening to kill Juliana would be a good way to ensure I don’t run.”

“I am aware of that. That is why I said if running ensures her safety. For now, we need to find her.”

— — —

“I’m not going to be bait,” Juliana mumbled. She put her finger in her mouth again and bit down. Spitting the scrap of skin off to the side, she waited just a moment for the blood to well up.

Then she got to smearing it around the floor.

“I’m not going to be bait.”

She was being an idiot. She knew very well that there was little chance what she was doing would work. Sitting around and waiting for rescue would be the much better option. Safer option. Maybe. It depended on how truthful the hunter had been when she said that Juliana could go free after she got what she wanted.

Frankly, Juliana was willing to trust her word about as far as she could throw the woman. With all that armor on, Juliana probably wouldn’t be able to lift her, let alone throw her.

So she had come up with a secondary plan. A terrible, foolish, bound-to-fail plan. Juliana was self-aware enough to realize that much. But she couldn’t do nothing. This was like Willie all over again. Except worse because her captor was specifically intending to kill Eva rather than just toy around for her own amusement.

Juliana paused in her smearing of blood to wipe sweat from her brow. It stung in her open wounds, but that was really only a tingle compared to the rest of her injuries. Still, it had to be done. She didn’t want sweat dripping down and ruining her circle. It was already sloppy enough without sweat thinning the blood.

Dust drifted from the rafters as the woman stomped about upstairs. Juliana held her breath. It wouldn’t do her any good if the woman did come downstairs, but it was more of an involuntary response. She did not want to know what would happen if the woman came down and saw a partially constructed summoning circle in the middle of her basement floor.

“What a stupid plan,” she mumbled as she resumed her drawing.

An enigma was going to pop out. She just knew it. But really, what choice did she have but to try? She had no wand, no focus. Eva had taught her a little runework, but none of it would help her out here. Not that she could think of anyway. Maybe if Shalise were here—she had taken to that a bit more seriously. Juliana knew of ritual circles, but didn’t know any specific ones. She lacked an eye implanted in her chest that would give her access to the Elysium Order magics. She lacked the natural magics and abilities of nonhumans.

So Juliana was hoping for a demon but planning for an enigma.

She had already finished several layers of shackles in the far corner of the room. The actual summoning circle was right in front of the door. The nice wide open door, enticing if not for the invisible ward over it. She was hoping that the enigma would ignore her behind her several shackles and go for the path of least resistance. Or least obvious resistance, anyway.

If the enigma did decide that she was the tastier target, well, she was actually pinning her hopes on the hunter. Or, at least, that the hunter did want her alive for the time being.

Juliana probably wouldn’t come out unscathed, but that was a risk she was willing to take at the moment.

Hell, maybe the enigma would decide to go straight through the ceiling. It was probably easier than the barrier or her shackles.

Demons, on the other hand, Juliana wasn’t too sure about. Assuming she got one. A simple imp or even a succubus probably wouldn’t suffice. The woman was a demon hunter, after all. Ylva might win. Ylva had faced off her own hunters, several of them, back during the attack with the doll. But Juliana couldn’t exactly summon Ylva while she was on the mortal plane. She had sisters, but did they act like Ylva? Would they be nice or would they shout at her to kneel until they interacted with people enough to mellow out a bit?

She didn’t know.

Really, that was the problem with most demons. Juliana simply didn’t know enough about them. She had thought Willie was generally nice before everything. That whole situation had turned out about as well as jumping into a meat grinder. Aside from Prax, she couldn’t even think up a demon that she knew and was in Hell. And really, she wasn’t interested in summoning up Prax. Even if he was strong.

So why go for the demon she didn’t know when she could go for the devil she did.

“Ah, I’m such an idiot,” Juliana thought as she finished drawing out the summoning circle. “But I am not going to be bait.”

If she did end up dying, then problem solved. She wouldn’t be bait anymore. Her mother would take up necromancy, summon her ghost—pissing off Ylva and Death in the process—then bind it to some object and throw it in a tomb for ten thousand years while she was grounded. But she wouldn’t be bait.

Juliana paused, staring over the completed circle. She hadn’t drawn one in some time, but she felt confident. It wasn’t too complicated anyway. That didn’t mean she didn’t want to check it for errors. Who knew what she might get?

She had considered trying for a transference circle. Diving into Hell would be away from the hunter. However, there were even more problems with that than trying a summoning. First, nobody would know she had gone to Hell. Which meant that the hunter could still use her as bait. Second, prison had really not been fun the first time around. She liked being attached to her soul and definitely did not want to fight through a jail break to escape again. Third, she really didn’t want to end up in Willie’s domain. Zagan had killed him, but he was probably back by now. He had been able to redirect her away from heading into Prax’s domain. Who was to say that he couldn’t do the same again.

In fact, Juliana didn’t want to end up in any demon’s domain except for Eva’s. Or Arachne’s or Ylva’s, she supposed. But they were three demons among an endless population. The odds were not in her favor.

And lastly, Hell was, presumably, full of enigmas. A single one being brought to Earth was far more manageable than diving into a pit of them no matter how she considered it. Best to deal with one rather than a potentially unlimited number.

Juliana licked her lips, tasting the half-dried blood. It was finished. And now… she was just delaying.

The longer she delayed, the greater chance that something bad happened. Either Eva or her mother would walk into the hunter’s trap or the hunter would come back downstairs.

So she crawled onto the circle, doing her best to avoid messing up any lines.

After closing her eyes, Juliana started pouring magic into the summoning circle. Like clockwork, the circle lit up and started slowly rotating. That was Juliana’s cue to get out.

She scrambled off as fast as she could, trying to get to the shackles in the corner.

It wasn’t fast enough.

Something slimy wrapped around her one good leg just before she could make it off the circle. A tentacle. She hadn’t been trying to summon anything with tentacles. Which meant enigma.

Eva had said something once. They were weak. Except they also bit off her leg. Juliana didn’t quite understand, but she didn’t want her leg anywhere near its mouth.

She reached forward with her good hand and started prying the slimy tentacle off her leg. It wasn’t constricting too tight, but it had wrapped around a good half a dozen times. Unfortunately, peeling it away just made more tentacle rise up out of the slowly rotating summoning circle, which tried to wrap around Juliana’s hand as well. She barely pulled back in time.

A high-pitched whine started winding up between her ears. She tried to press one ear to her shoulder and a hand to her other, but didn’t make it.

A cannon went off. Juliana’s ears rang and her vision blurred. For just a moment, she thought she might pass out again.

But the feeling passed. Her eyes slowly focused.

And she saw the wide round maw of the enigma emerge from the summoning circle. Rows upon rows of shiny black teeth filled the beast’s throat down as far as Juliana could see. And she could suddenly understand exactly how Eva got her foot bitten off, though not so much how she reattached it. If Juliana’s foot went into that blender, it would turn to mincemeat. Maybe this was a different breed.

Not that it would matter in a few minutes. Now that the body had emerged from the depths, the tentacle around her leg had tightened and was pulling her towards it.

Juliana scraped at the hard cement. A fingernail snapped off as she tried to dig it into the unforgiving ground. She managed to move. Barely. Possibly because the enigma was still emerging from the circle, moving slightly forward and giving Juliana that much more room.

Still, as she scrambled away, she didn’t scream. Even as another fingernail split up the middle, Juliana just clenched her teeth. If she could get just a few inches more, she could get her leg to the shackles. Most of her body was already well beyond the threshold.

Just as her leg touched the shackles, the enigma shrieked. Not the high-pitched whine into explosion, but more like a dog being kicked in the stomach.

Her leg went taut with a snap as the tentacles yanked her back. A brief spike of pain crossed her hip. She gripped the flat cement as best she was able, even with her injured arm.

And still felt herself being drawn back.

“I will not go to Hell again,” she hissed through grit teeth as she struggled against the sudden pressure on her leg. “And I’m not going to be eaten either.”

Over her shoulder, the enigma looked like it was having just as many problems as she was. The tentacles streaming off its back were pulled as tight as Juliana’s leg, tense and all leading down into the summoning circle. Its wide maw snapped at the air, not actually managing to accomplish anything.

The tentacles leading into the summoning circle jerked. The enigma jerked with them, slipping a bit into the circle.

Juliana jerked back with it.

She let out a clipped whimper, cut off as she grit her teeth. Something in her knee snapped.

A hand emerged from the depths of Hell, grabbing onto the enigma’s face. Two fingers actually slipped into its razor-sharp maw.

The enigma, snapping down, broke its teeth rather than slicing through the fingers.

Juliana slid back just a little more before everything stopped.

Violet blood painted the walls. Teeth exploded outwards and burrowed into the drywall. The tentacles, save for a little end around Juliana’s ankle, were gone.

Standing with a frown on his face was a golden eyed demon.

“You,” he said in his silver voice, deep and familiar, “are looking far worse than the last time I saw you.”

Juliana didn’t have a proper response. She tried, but all that came out was a pained squeak. Trying again was impossible. Her eyes fluttered shut as her blood-covered face hit the concrete.

— — —

Irene pressed her back against an earthen wall, ducking her head as a fireball flew overhead.

Why did I sign up for this? she thought with a narrowed glare towards Saija. Oh wait! I didn’t.

But Saija was completely oblivious to her thoughts. In fact, she was completely oblivious to everything, including the battle going on around them. A stone the size of Irene’s fist slammed into her shoulder, but Saija barely noticed.

She was just… staring.

Behind her, just to the side of another barrier, Sebastian had stood up and was staring as well. An icicle whizzed past his face and he didn’t even blink.

Both were staring in the same direction.

Something knotted in Irene’s stomach. Something wrong. Two demons, both completely ignoring the battle around them?

“Saija?” Irene said, reaching to grab the succubus’ hand.

Saija didn’t even react until Irene pulled her back down behind the wall. And then, it was just to stare at Irene.

“Are you alright?”

“Perfect!” Her voice came bright and cheery. Almost forced. “Come on, let’s show these humans how real demons fight.”

Saija didn’t wait for a response from Irene. She vaulted over the wall, spreading her wings. She was gone in an instant.

Blinking, Irene realized that Sebastian was back to fighting as well. Fighting with, of all things, cutlery. A dinner fork flew from his hands over the wall. A short moment later, someone cried out.

With a short sigh, Irene felt the tension leave her shoulders. If they were both back to normal, it couldn’t have been anything too bad. She stood with her wand in hand.

Only to dive to the side as a fireball crashed against the wall, knocking shards of hardened earth into the air.

“I’m not a demon, Saija,” she mumbled. “I don’t even want to fight as a human.”

— — —

Zoe’s heart lurched.

Something happened.

Both demons at the Brakket post had frozen. That on its own might not be worth noting; however, the scout demon had frozen as well. A second camera showed him over by Isomer’s post. All three of them froze at the exact same time. No matter how she considered it, something was off.

Eva. Because what else would it have been.

She considered making an excuse to step off stage for a moment. To at least grab her cellphone and tell Wayne to be on the lookout for anything odd.

Next commercial break, she thought as she reinforced her smile.

“Glad you asked, Hank,” she said, hoping there was no strain in her voice.

— — —

Catherine jolted. A full cup of coffee spilled all down her front.

And all over the front of her cellphone.

Letting off a stream of curses at the audacity of some demons, she ran to the bathroom to grab a towel. Though she did pause at the window for one moment, looking out over her ritual circle.

Perhaps it was for the best that she had been delayed in committing to the next version.

— — —

Eva and Arachne spun around in sync with each other, turning to face the exact opposite direction from where they had been running.

“We’re going the wrong way,” Eva said.

“How can you be sure?”

“I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt since…”

Eva didn’t bother finishing her sentence. She took off at a sprint with Arachne following close behind.

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009.017

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“Welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy for another night of mystery and imagination. I’m your host, Hank Hanson, and with me is the lovely Zoe Baxter, professor of theory here at Brakket Academy.”

“Thank you, Hank,” Zoe said, trying to keep her smile as natural as possible.

“Now,” he said, “for those of you just joining us, a quick recap of the last event and the purpose of this tournament as a whole.”

As he started speaking, Zoe started tuning him out. Not enough to completely ignore him. She still nodded her head when there was something to nod at or even commented for more elaboration on a few topics he was less familiar with.

He had shown up to several classes over the last two weeks. During the classes, he had always been silent and allowed other students to ask questions. Most of the time, he dutifully took notes. Really, he was probably a better student than half of her actual students.

After class was when the real trouble began. His incessant bombardment of questions was just too much. That wasn’t to say that they were bad questions. Some were quite good. A few even had her needing to do a little research before being able to properly answer.

It was the sheer quantity that grated on her nerves. Since he had started attending classes, Zoe found herself answering questions for up to five hours after school ended. Every single day. A time during which she was generally unable to get other work done. No grading papers. No enigma research. Worst of all, her lesson plans were going to suffer soon if she couldn’t find the time to organize.

After today’s event, Zoe was desperately hoping that he would not be returning for further education. If he was, she would have to set a time limit. A single hour outside school would have to suffice.

On the plus side, he was a lot more confident speaking about thaumaturgical matters. Once the event actually got underway, she might not have to carry ninety percent of the discussion as she had for the last event.

Zoe was still expecting to be the one doing most of the talking, however.

“Last event, neither we nor the contestants knew what the event was going to consist of. I understand that things are different this time around.”

“That is correct,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “The contestants are currently being informed of what they are to do with roughly an hour before the event starts. They can use the remainder of that hour for whatever preparation they feel they need before the event itself will begin. That could mean brewing potions, collecting enchanted items, or simply practicing with their peers.”

“And they’re not the only ones who know ahead of time.”

Again, Zoe nodded. She reached forwards to the small table. Last time, it held a number of refreshments. Neither she nor Hank had actually consumed any. This time, nothing but a few glasses of water and a large pitcher sat on the table. In terms of food, anyway.

The centerpiece this time around was a large green crystal. Roughly the size of a bowling ball, though oblong and with sharp angled ends. Like a plumb-bob with points on both ends.

“This,” Zoe said, picking up the large crystal, “is crystallized magic.” Although the size of a bowling ball, the crystal was earth essence. As such, it was heavy. Really heavy. Zoe cheated with a little bit of air mage telekinesis to lighten the load. Had she not, lifting it would have taken both hands and a great deal of strain. Something that would be entirely unsightly for live television.

Really, whoever designed the set should have used crystallized air essence. The size would be no less impressive yet she could have balanced the whole thing on her little finger.

“It is fairly easy to make through a simple alchemical process, though they’re never made this big normally. Crystallized essence is essentially distilled magic and is used in various potions. Tonight, however, these are the objectives of the event.”

She hefted the crystal up, putting a little more show in the effort than she was actually feeling.

“This is essence of earth. It is quite heavy. Imagine a bowling ball of the same size and you can imagine the weight fairly accurately. However, it is only one of four essences in use tonight.”

She replaced the crystal on the pedestal and clasped her hands in her lap.

“Water, fire, and air make up the rest. Water is cold. Normally we use smaller crystals and they feel like holding ice cubes. One this size has a very real chance of causing frostbite. Fire is just the opposite. Even smaller ones are handled with gloves. For these larger ones, I urge our contestants to exercise caution while handling them. Crystallized air is the opposite of earth. Despite being the same size, they will be almost buoyant in the surrounding air.”

Hank reached forward and, using two hands, grabbed the earth crystal by either end. He managed to lift it, though the strain was evident on his purpling face.

“You weren’t kidding about that weight,” he said as he set it back down.

“Each of our five teams will be given three crystals, which kind will be selected randomly through a lottery draw. They must protect these crystals while attempting to retrieve the crystals from enemy schools.”

“Like a game of capture the flag.”

“With a little twist. For the first twenty minutes, only one member of each school may leave their starting location. He or she may scout out other schools’ camps and, if the opportunity presents itself, steal one or more of their crystals. Of course, with seven members from each school participating and six stuck at their starting locations, it will likely wind up as one versus six. Not the greatest odds, though if they manage to get far enough away from the camp, the pursuing school will not be able to chase the thief without disqualifying themselves.

“The six who cannot leave camp are generally expected to be constructing defenses. Traps, fortresses, pitfalls, and what have you. It isn’t required, but schools who leave their crystals lying about will likely not have the success that others will enjoy.

“Beyond the first twenty minutes, the number of students a school can field will increase by two every five minutes up until all students are allowed to leave at the thirty minute mark. Then the game begins in earnest. The winner will be determined by which school has collected the most crystals after two hours. Just losing a crystal or two does not put anyone out of the game. Though severe injuries or other incapacitations will result in a student being withdrawn for the remainder of the match for medical purposes.”

Hank rubbed his hands together with a grin. “Sounds exciting. And we’re slated to begin in just under an hour. So stay tuned,” he said, looking right at the camera. “After these messages from our sponsors, we will go through the schools and introduce the contestants.”

He held his grin at the camera for just a moment until the live light turned off.

Zoe sighed, sinking into her chair. That had been a fairly long-winded explanation. And the student introductions would just be longer.

She reached under the table and pulled out a small notebook.

At least I did research on the other schools’ students this time.

— — —

Juliana clapped Irene on the back. “There you go. You got it.”

Allowing herself a small smile, Irene stared at her earthen castle. The highest tower only came up to her knees. However, it spread out at least as wide as Saija’s wingspan.

And wasn’t it a sad thought that she was measuring things in terms of Saija’s body.

But, though it was small, it was sturdy. Kicking it with all her might only knocked off small chunks despite it being constructed from dirt. It was like kicking rock. Actually, it wasn’t just like kicking rock. Her foot stung from having kicked it so hard.

“Now let me tell you a little trick my mom does. I can only do it if I’m concentrating really hard. Not really something I can do in battle yet because I’m not good enough at water magic.”

“And you think I am?”

“No, but you have teammates. Six of them. Unless something seriously went weird, at least one should be a water mage. Or an experienced non-fire mage capable of using water magic.”

“Three of them are demons. I don’t know about the other two, but I’m pretty sure that Saija doesn’t know any thaumaturgy.”

Juliana frowned, but held up a few fingers. “That still leaves three others.”

“I think Henry is a water mage, but he hates everyone else on the team. Including me.”

Narrowing her eyes, Juliana turned and glanced around the room. It didn’t take her long to spot Henry—he was off in a corner all on his own, avoiding everyone’s gaze as he looked through that notebook of his.

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. If he wants to play as a team, you can get him to help you out.”

As she spoke, Juliana pulled out her wand. Which Irene found strange. Juliana tended to use her rings even during class. In fact, Irene hadn’t even known that she still carried a wand.

Irene must have had a strange look on her face because Juliana shrugged. “I’m not very good at water magic. Wands are easier than rings.”

Juliana swished her wand and gave it a little flick with her wrist. At first nothing happened. Then Irene noticed dark patches spreading across the surface of the rock-like dirt castle. Some patches even began sweating.

“Any earth mage worth their salt will be able to wave their wand and collapse anything you build. You can fight against it, but then it comes down to a battle of willpower. And you have to concentrate. Not really the best thing if you’re being attacked by several people.”

Once the castle was thoroughly soaked, Juliana snapped her wrist again. Small hexagons of ice started spreading over various points on the castle. The hexagons grew, connecting with each other. The entire surface of the castle had iced over after a few seconds.

“But if you or another water mage infuses the building with water and then carefully freezes it, it will hold its shape even while under attack. Not forever, of course. But it should work long enough for you to fight whoever is attacking you.”

Testing the strength, Irene kicked at the walls of the castle again. This time, not even little chunks of dirt fell off the sides.

“Huh. Neat.”

“The water part has to be done carefully. If you put too much water into it, the whole thing will wash away. Too little and the structure will become brittle. Freeze it too fast and everything will crack and break.”

“Sounds complicated. And not really worth it unless you’ve practiced.”

Irene glanced over Juliana’s shoulder to where Henry sat. He had actually looked up from his book to watch what Juliana had been doing, but made no move to actually come closer. As soon as Irene met his eyes, he shook his head and buried his nose in his notebook.

“And I doubt Henry has practiced much.”

“Probably. There is also a thing you can do with fire magic, but it requires making clay and then firing it like in a kiln. Takes a while. Probably not useful for tonight’s event.”

Irene shrugged. The water thing didn’t sound all that useful either. Still, she got a few tips for both quick constructions and sturdy constructions. Both should help out.

“Fifteen minutes remaining,” a voice said, echoing over the intercom system in the dueling hall. “Contestants should prepare to move to the starting area. Repeat, fifteen minutes remaining for the preparation period.”

“Well, guess that’s my cue,” Juliana said. “Maybe you can get Henry to practice with you for the last few minutes.”

“Yeah,” Irene said as she glanced over Juliana’s shoulder again, voice flat. “Maybe.”

“Everyone else is already at my mom’s house to watch the show on her big-screen.”

“Thanks for staying and giving me tips.”

“No problem,” Juliana said with a wave of her hand as she turned to leave. “Give ’em hell.”

“Oh, we’ll give them Hell alright.” Saija fluttered in from nowhere, landing just to Irene’s side.

It actually made her jump a little.

Juliana just chuckled as she walked off.

Saija offered a casual wave before she spun around and stared at Irene with the intensity of a thousand suns.

“So, I was just talking with Neuro. I wanted to be the first one to go wreak havoc on our enemies’ bases but then he called me a fool! Can you believe that? Anyway, I said I should go because I could fly and cover more ground, scout out the enemy, and return with good information all before the second group can leave. You know what he did?” She put her hands on her hips and stared.

Irene wasn’t sure if she should answer or just wait for her to continue her diatribe.

Waiting turned out to be the right answer.

“He sprouted wings!” Saija’s wings spread out as she shouted. “Big fluffy raven wings. All covered in dark black feathers. It looked really nice—not as nice as my wings, of course—but I didn’t know he could do that. He never grew wings before. And then he was like ‘I’ll be the first one out. Why don’t you be the last one? Be our last-minute reinforcements in the field and protect our base with your mighty prowess until then.’ Which sounds nice but I mean, he just called me a fool. I’m not so sure I–”

“Saija,” Irene said, placing a finger on the demon’s lips. “Calm down. Why don’t you stay with me? If you’re the first one out, we’ll be separated.”

As much as Irene hated to admit it, she was really grateful that Saija had taken a liking to her. As friendly as Saija might be, she was still a demon. And demons were strong. If Irene stuck next to Saija, she would probably be a whole lot safer than if she were on her own.

“Yeah, I thought about that. What am I supposed to do around our base? I can’t build fancy sand castles,” she said, waving a hand at Irene’s castle.

“You can protect the base from anyone who shows up. We might fall under attack early on.” She leaned in close and whispered, “You heard the rumors that Faultline and the Nod Complex were going to team up to ensure we lost this one.”

“Who said that?”

“Eva. She said it at the last meeting.”

“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumped in slight dejection. “It’s probably true then.” After a moment of keeping her shoulders slumped, she suddenly straightened her back. “Oh! It’s probably true then.” A low chuckle escaped from the back of her throat as a shark-toothed grin spread across her face. “That means two people are going to try to surprise attack us early on?”

“Ah, I guess so? They might wait for reinforcements.”

“The first reinforcements would mean six total people could attack us. If we send two people away as soon as we can, it would be six versus four.” She chuckled again and started flapping her wings. “I have to go talk to Sebastian. I’m sure we can come up with a little surprise for them.”

Saija flew off towards the sharply dressed demon.

Which left Irene on her own once again. Juliana really hadn’t needed to take off quite so early. There were fifteen minutes left. Surely she had more tips to impart. But Irene couldn’t complain too much. She had been the one to stop Juliana from heading off with Eva and the others.

Irene glanced over at Henry. He was the only one who was off on his own. Everyone else was talking with each other or obviously practicing something or other. He just read his notebook.

She had half a mind to leave him to it and continue practicing what Juliana had shown her—just because she did it once in a low stress situation did not mean that she would be able to rapidly build a full-sized fortress with all the pressure of the event on her—but maybe Juliana had a point. With ginger steps, she approached.

“What are you reading?” she asked. She had to ask. He didn’t acknowledge her on her way over and even after hovering for a few seconds, he didn’t say anything.

It still took another moment before Henry sighed. “Just information I’ve collected on Nod Complex’s inhuman students.”

Inhuman? Irene wasn’t actually sure if that was racist or not. It was true, but nonhuman seemed a better term to use. Inhuman made it sound like they were inhuman monsters, or something. She probably wouldn’t have questioned it at all had Henry not cared about all the demons around the school, but he obviously didn’t like them.

“Anything interesting?”

“I just don’t want to be surprised by strange magics. Apparently they have a sandman, capable of putting people to sleep with a touch. Don’t let yourself get touched.”

“I see.” That did sound worrisome. “Anything else?”

“Nothing especially troublesome,” he admitted with a grudge. “The vampire and the dryad won’t be participating. Thank the heavens for that.”

“Well, in that case, did you want to try practicing magic with me? Juliana was showing me all about how–”

“I was watching.”

Irene flinched back. This was a mistake. She should have just gone with Saija and talked with Sebastian. And wasn’t that a sad thought, that she found herself able to get along better with demons than humans. Obviously Henry wouldn’t like her. He didn’t like demons and she was friends with Saija. Was she friends with Saija? Probably.

Henry snapped his book shut, causing Irene to jump again.

“I suppose we might try it. So long as it is a purely thaumaturgical exercise, I don’t have problems with it.”

“It is,” Irene said quickly. Too quickly. “I use earth magic and you use water. Nothing else.”

“Very well.” He pushed himself off the floor, using the wall to help him get to his feet. “Build up a wall and let’s see if we can get this to work.”

Irene smiled as she pulled out her wand. She could feel the strain in her smile, but it didn’t matter. There were about ten minutes until the start of the event. As soon as it started… well, she would still have to interact with him. But there would be others around as well.

Other demons and people who had bound demons. The kind of people he didn’t like.

Slapping her cheeks, Irene shook her head. It wasn’t like he was going to attack them. Or her. They just needed to practice.

— — —

Juliana hurried through the empty streets of Brakket City. Fifteen minutes before the students had to be ready to start. Probably another fifteen minutes to draw straws for the crystals. Maybe another five to ten for them to get into position.

In other words, plenty of time for her to get home.

She wished she could teleport. Even blinking would be nice, but her mother wouldn’t teach her until she was older. How old seemed to increase with every year. It couldn’t be that difficult or dangerous. Eva had learned how years ago. Sure, she had mentioned almost losing a limb once or twice, but that was hardly a big deal. If Juliana lost a limb, maybe she could petition Arachne for one of hers.

Yeah right. Her father would never agree to that and she highly doubted that her mother would be any more open-minded.

But still, Eva only almost lost limbs. Surely she could do it.

Juliana paused and focused on an empty patch of sidewalk ten feet in front of her. She knew that theory. Books in Brakket Library held the answers to most everything she had ever wanted to look up.

Shaking her head, she decided against actually trying. If she were trying with other people around, at least she would have immediate help if she left her arm behind. Or worse, if she left her clothes behind. Brakket was a fairly dead city, but there had been more cameras around than ever before. She wasn’t Eva. She didn’t walk around naked and think nothing of it. It would be absolutely mortifying if someone recorded her teleporting out of her clothes and posted it all over the internet.

With a sigh, she continued on her way home.

Only to find her sigh catching in her throat. In an instant, Juliana’s armor turned to liquid. Metal encased her whole head and solidified into a hard helmet.

Something landed behind her with a loud clank. Something heavy and metallic. A chill ran up her spine and it wasn’t because of the cold evening air.

Juliana turned slowly.

The hunter stood behind her. The one with bright red hair and an eye patch. The one Eva had attacked on the roof. The one who, by all appearances, had been a complete invalid just a few weeks before. She stood in a suit of rough armor.

Unlike the now deceased armored hunter, this woman’s was raw and bulky. Put together in a rush and without proper fitting. There was no paint and no finish. Just rough steel and rusted iron. She lacked a helmet, though she had some kind of a molded circlet around her forehead that Juliana was sure hadn’t been there the last time they met.

“You will come with me,” the woman said, “or you will die.”

Juliana clenched her teeth together. What to do? Run? Attack? Obviously she wasn’t going anywhere with the woman. There was a crazed look in her eyes. Her wild red hair hung around her face making her look all the more deranged. If she went with the woman, she would probably die anyway.

With a brush of her fingers, Juliana could destroy the woman’s armor. Eva had said that she had three holes in her spine, paralyzing her. The armor must be holding her up, letting her move. One didn’t just cure spinal nerve damage in a handful of weeks. Especially because the original injury had been inflicted early summer. That had been months ago. She would have cured herself before launching their most recent attack.

Right. Destroy armor. Disable woman. She might teleport away as she had before, but at least Juliana would get away. Then she could warn Eva and her mother and anyone else that this hunter was still hunting. She didn’t know why she was the one being hunted, but that hardly mattered now.

Juliana charged forward.

The woman stood still for just one second. As soon as that second passed, her face changed. Her lips split straight across her face, giving her a maniacal crescent moon of a smile. Her single eye widened but the pupil shrunk to a tiny pinprick.

Her armor moved. And the woman with it.

The next thing Juliana knew, she was looking at the twilight sky. Except… she had just been charging at the woman. Wha–

Juliana crashed into the ground, rolling and tumbling twenty feet down the street. Everything ached. The liquid membrane between her skin and her solid armor acted as a minor cushion, but it wasn’t enough.

She couldn’t even get up before something gripped her ankle. Juliana found herself swinging up through the air in a high arc before having her back slammed into the ground.

Delirious laughter echoed down the street, the last thing Juliana heard as she fell into unconsciousness.

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