Tag Archives: Shalise

010.029

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Catherine snapped a quick picture of the ritual circle Devon had devised to close the portals. It could be handy in the future given her other plans. For the moment, it had served its purpose. Magic now spent, the faint glow dimmed and was extinguished, plunging the entrance to Brakket Academy in the dark of the night.

As it should be. Her phone’s clock and the light of the sky now matched without the portals flooding daylight everywhere. She scanned the dark, starry sky—cleared of any clouds by the final blast of magic—for any hint of a leftover scar. Not a sign of the portals remained. No shimmering streaks. No slight distortions in the sky. It should be fairly easy to spot anything as the portals glowed. Against the backdrop of night, they would stand out. Later on, she could set up a camera to record the moon transit just in case. With its distinctive pattern, any distortions should be easy to spot.

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

Who could say how many monstrosities made their way to earth before the portal closed. Someone would need to deal with them. They would probably need to scour a fairly large area around Brakket as well. If any escaped… well, it wouldn’t be another apocalypse, but tons of people could get hurt.

Tons of people who Catherine didn’t care about in the slightest. A clear job for someone else.

As she heard the academy doors opening behind her, Catherine gave the approaching woman an appraising look.

Yes, she thought. Perhaps someone like Lynn. Or the whole of the Elysium Order. The Elysium Order specialized in things that didn’t die properly and Lynn had been working on that captured enigma for quite some time. Ylva as well, though she had been conspicuously absent for quite some time. Last Catherine had heard, Ylva had gone to visit the Elysium Order’s headquarters. Perhaps she had finally been done in by them.

Wrapped in Lynn’s arms while putting up a marginal effort to escape was the more useless of Eva’s mortal friends. Really, Catherine couldn’t fathom why Eva had her as a friend. Pity, perhaps. Though, seeing the brunette reminded Catherine that she hadn’t checked in on Irene since the end of the ritual.

She just about started heading off to find Irene when she realized that the former nun was trying to talk to her.

“What was that?”

“Is it over?” She sounded tired. Exhausted. Looked it too, with her dark hair hanging disheveled off her head. Catherine wasn’t sure what for. It wasn’t like she had done anything at the ritual site or elsewhere.

“Somewhat. Cleanup is needed. Killing enigmas and such. I expect you have it well in hand, given your research.”

“I… I haven’t actually finished a spell to kill enigmas. I’m close, but Eva took away my test subject.”

“Ah, yes. She did show up with that thing.” Catherine sighed for a moment and checked her phone. “Pity about your research. I’m sure you can find another enigma lying about,” she said with a casual wave of her hand. There were enough pieces of enigma scattered around the courtyard. Surely Lynn could scrape some up and resume her tests.

Before Catherine could walk away, the younger version of Lynn escaped from the elder’s iron grip. She stepped right up to Catherine without looking like she had been pulverized and broken in the slightest. “Do you know where Eva and Juliana are?”

“Not a clue for either. Eva isn’t on Earth. Or she’s extremely far away. For all I know, she was in those fireballs that launched towards the eye.”

The girl gasped as she looked up. Obviously there was nothing to see. Catherine tried to step away again—she really wanted to get some notes down while everything was fresh in her mind or go bother Irene—but the girl glared at her with a look befitting Eva.

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

“Should I be?” Catherine said, shifting her eyes slightly towards Lynn—who just gave her a shrug in return. Given a few of the former nun’s comments about Eva, Catherine wouldn’t be surprised to find her throwing a party upon finding out that Eva died. For herself, Eva would have been a valuable subject to repeat the treatment ritual with. Given recent plans, Catherine was slightly less concerned with that than she otherwise would be.

“As for Juliana…” She shrugged. “I don’t know why she wouldn’t be on Earth, but I am not her minder.” Catherine doubted that she would have died given who she was hosting, but that was a separate matter entirely.

Catherine tried to step away once more, yet found herself nearly walking into Lynn.

“You said that Eva appeared with my engima? Is it still around?”

“I suppose somebody should clean up the ritual circle,” Catherine said after a long sigh. And, now that she was actually thinking about it, ensuring its destruction sooner rather than later would be a good idea. Not only would it prevent others from inadvertently pulling things to this plane that were never meant to be on it, but it would keep more people from stumbling across what she intended to make her magnum opus.

Yet neither were earth mages. Leading them there would ultimately be a waste of time. For her, at least. Besides, the girl knew the way.

“Hold on for a few minutes. I’m going to get Genoa to take you out there. She can destroy the ritual circle while you collect your enigma. Also the other nun there. A certain Cole, I believe Eva said.”

“Sister Cole?”

Catherine didn’t bother humoring her, instead pulling out her phone. “Oh,” she said as she typed out a message, “tell Srey that he is free to leave once the circle is destroyed. If Saija is still out there… you can probably leave her out there. I’m sure she’ll heal someday.”

And that should be the last thing she had to take care of. At least for now. Time to go write down a few notes. With maybe a stop to check on Irene on the way.

— — —

Zoe slumped back in the couch in her office. The nurses had tried to shove her into one of the infirmary beds the moment Devon left, but they needed those beds for others. Maybe that was a bit too selfless. She was missing an arm, after all.

She stared down at her arm, half expecting it to be there yet knowing it wasn’t. It gave her a strange sensation. Like she was constantly off-balance. When she had been walking towards Devon, she felt almost certain that she was tilted to one side even though everything looked straight.

Of course, how much of that was her injury and how much of it was the cocktail of potions keeping her sensation of pain numbed, she couldn’t say. Frankly, she was surprised that she was conscious and lucid at all. Then again, maybe she wasn’t conscious or lucid and everything was a pain induced hallucination.

She shuddered at the thought that she might be hallucinating and decided that no, the bed was real. Her body was real. Her eyes were really seeing and her arm was really sitting under a stasis ward not far from the bed. Just in case it could be reattached.

It should be able to be reattached. Even mundane medicine was capable of fixing a severed limb so long as it happened within six or so hours after being severed. Unfortunately, the doctors and nurses were far too busy dealing with all the other injuries sustained to look much at her own arm. Eva’s cap was adequate enough while there were more serious things to attend to.

After ensuring that she wasn’t going to bleed out, they had dumped a few potions down her throat and went on their way.

She sighed as she stared out a window. The sky was back to normal, but she could still see security guards patrolling about. Not so long ago, she had watched them fight off an enigma as large as a bear, though it lacked the tentacles dangling off its back. Maybe it actually had been a bear.

At the ritual circle, everything had seemed so calm. Relatively, anyway. The ‘brain’ had lashed out its tentacles and Eva had fought back, but aside from that, nothing had really happened until the hunter attacked well after the ritual had ended. Well, lots of things happened, but not fights or attacks. Shalise’s incident excepted.

Spotting Shalise around the infirmary had been such a relief as well.

But outside the ritual circle, all those lightning bolts, meteors, and earthquakes hadn’t been for show. All of it had meant chaos in the city.

Luckily, it was holiday vacation. Plenty of students left to visit their families. Some did not, however. With how many people were inside the infirmary, Zoe couldn’t help but fret over what had happened. Had an enigma made it into one of the dormitory buildings? Were they having a party out on the streets or in a club?

Zoe couldn’t help but jolt as the door opened. Her hand—her only hand—tightened around her wand. Only for a moment. Her fingers relaxed as Wayne entered the room.

“How are things?” she asked before he could speak, ignoring the way his eyes darted to her arm. Talking about her arm wasn’t something she cared to do at the moment. It would either be reattached someday or she would learn to work with a prosthetic.

But Wayne didn’t respond. He crossed the office, stopping at the table to her side with… not a scowl on his face. A gentle frown. He stared down at the severed arm. His hand reached out.

Not to grab it. Zoe didn’t know why he would want to touch it. Just looking at it sent a wave of nausea through her stomach. There was something disturbing about looking at a part of herself that wasn’t a part of her.

No. His fingers never touched the stasis ward over the severed arm. He picked up her once elegant dagger, frowning deeper as part of the handle fell to the table. Glancing over, he managed to ask about a hundred questions without opening his mouth.

Zoe just sighed again. “I don’t think I can repair it this time.”

It had been damaged not too long ago. But only the handle. This time, the blade itself had been shorn in two. And not a clean cut either. The hunter’s sword connected with the edge of the blade and cut right through it to the base of the wooden handle, which had split in two. She could look over to her severed arm and see where the hunter’s blade had bit into her hand.

If she were a little less lucky, she could have wound up not with a severed arm, but with it mangled and torn to shreds. Something that would have been significantly more difficult to repair than a clean cut.

The dagger would never function as a dagger or a focus again. Not unless it were completely reforged. And if she reforged it, would it even be the same dagger? No. It would be no different from going and purchasing a new one.

“I think I’ll frame it. Put it in a thin glass case and hang it on the wall.”

“It was all we salvaged from Lansing. From your home.”

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

“I thought this ritual was supposed to be safe,” Wayne said, dark eyes moving to stare at Zoe’s arm before looking up to her eyes.

“It was safe.” Mostly. Minus the Shalise part. She didn’t feel the need to mention that at the moment. Sometime when she was feeling better, she was certain that they would go over every detail together. “This happened afterwards. That demon hunter attacked.”

“Where is she?” Despite the calm of his voice, she could see a fire in his eyes. A different kind of fire compared to that of the Elysium Order. More of a hatred than anything magical.

“Last I saw, at the ritual site. The hunter killed Eva–”

“At least that’s one problem solved,” he grumbled, though immediately looked ashamed of himself. Mildly. More for Zoe’s sake than actually caring about Eva.

“She came back roughly fifteen minutes later,” Zoe said, to which Wayne just made a disgruntled grunt. “In the interim, I held off the hunter as best I could. She had said that she wanted to kill everyone at Brakket. I couldn’t let her walk away.” Zoe let a sorry chuckle escape from her lips as she nodded towards her arm. “My best wasn’t good enough.

“Based on the sky,” Zoe said, turning towards the window without looking at Wayne’s face, “I assume that Eva won her second fight with the hunter. She and Catherine likely fixed everything.”

“I’ll believe it when nothing happens over the next year.”

Rolling her eyes at Wayne’s grumbling, Zoe looked back to him. “How are things outside? I didn’t get much of a chance to go and look for myself.”

“Lots of injuries. One of those flaming meteors struck the Gillet,” he said, confirming Zoe’s fears. “It burrowed down to the second floor before stopping. Things crawled out not long after. Anderson made an announcement shortly before that everyone should remain indoors. Had he gathered everyone in the gym, several injuries could have been avoided.”

“Perhaps, but he couldn’t have known.”

“The people… and demons, I suppose, that he has guarding the buildings have been doing an adequate job aside from that incident.”

“That covers the students. What about the rest of the town?”

“Genoa’s mercenaries are proving that the money she spent on them did not go to waste. Or so I understand. Haven’t left Brakket’s campus myself.” He paused for just a second, glancing towards the door the instant it opened.

An ashen-faced Anderson entered the room, flaps of his undone suit billowing behind him in his haste. His eyes flicked between Zoe and Wayne for just a moment before he crossed the room. “Good,” he said as he dragged one of the chairs in front of Zoe’s desk over to the couch she was lying on. “I’ve been looking for someone who can explain to me exactly what happened. The nurse told me I might find you here.”

“Some nurses should mind their own business,” Wayne grumbled just barely loud enough for Zoe to catch it as he moved to lean on the wall next to the couch.

Anderson’s eyes flicked to the severed arm on the table for just a moment before he looked back to Zoe. He showed no disgust or revulsion at its presence. “I need to know everything.”

All so he can come up with a proper excuse for the public, Zoe thought with a slight frown. Then again, so long as he was up to it, she wouldn’t have to go in front of a camera and mention all the injures. Had there been deaths? Wayne hadn’t said. Maybe he didn’t know. Regardless, Anderson’s task was not a job that Zoe envied.

So she decided to start from the beginning, just in case he actually believed Martina’s lie about the sky being an agricultural project.

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

Juliana jolted at the foreign thought intruding on her stream of consciousness. That jolt just about turned the street inside out. She quickly released all holds she had on Zagan’s magic. “Don’t scare me like that,” she snapped.

But she couldn’t deny Zagan’s words. Ever since those lasers appeared in the sky, there hadn’t been any earthquakes, bolts of lightning, or any teardrop meteors. That didn’t get rid of all the enigmas already on earth. Those were slowly being cleaned up. At least none of the enigmas falling from the sky had been the demonic enigmas that left behind bits of Hell when they died.

Which raises an interesting point. Go, seek out one of the locations. See if it has vanished back to normalcy.

“The closest one is on the other side of the city.”

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

“No,” Juliana said as fast as she could. “Merely an observation.” As she spoke, she turned and started walking. There were probably more enigmas up ahead. At the same time, there were probably more enigmas in the direction of the remnant of Hell. Which direction she chose to go hardly mattered.

“So, you’re talking again,” Juliana said as she slipped into a narrow alley off the main street. Of course two enigmas were trying to eat each other—Juliana had a feeling that they would be cleaning enigma out of the streets for months in the future—but neither posed her the slightest bit of a threat. With a single tug on Zagan’s power, their insides were their outsides. “I hope that doesn’t mean anything bad,” she said as she exited the alley.

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

Despite the casual tone, Juliana couldn’t help but feel her mouth run dry.

Once you find something that works, you repeat it. Again and again and again. No variation. It is, suffice to say, less than amusing.

Juliana started biting her lip. The moment Zagan spoke, she spotted another enigma wandering down the street. She froze, staring at it.

What are you stopping for? We don’t have all night.

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

She took hold of a tendril of his magic. Gnawing on her lip, she tried to think up another way to kill one of the monsters. It shouldn’t be that hard. Life, she had discovered, was fairly fragile when one had Zagan’s power. Since she got it, she had considered plenty of possible ways of killing enigmas or even the hunter.

At the moment, the only thing on her mind was turning the enigma inside out.

Which it promptly did.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered out. “I’ll do it differently next–”

Zagan burst into a raucous laughter before she could finish her pleas. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping that Zagan tearing himself out of her body wouldn’t hurt half as much as it sounded like it would.

Just get a move on already. Before I really do decide to go myself.

Juliana didn’t need telling twice. She sprinted down the streets, ignoring the enigmas she came across, until she reached the spot where Eva had killed the demonic enigma. There, she stopped and froze, staring with a gaping mouth.

After Eva had killed the demonic enigma, Anderson had set guards around the spot. Both Eva and her mother had described it as a dark spot. A taint upon the land. Her mother had added that it was just a little too dark, unable to be lit by any source of light. Anderson’s guards put up an enchanted glass dome to keep things from escaping easily while allowing them to see any possible interlopers. Demonic shackles surrounded the entire thing as an added layer of security.

But the glass dome had shattered. An obsidian pillar reached out, stretching high into the sky. Its smooth, glossy walls towered over the surrounding buildings. The pizza shop’s facade was the highest thing around and it didn’t even reach the halfway point of the obelisk.

“Please,” Juliana said in a slight whisper. “Please tell me this is just a harmless monument from Hell and nothing dangerous in the slightest.”

This is just a harmless monument from Hell. Nothing dangerous in the slightest.

“I think I hate you.”

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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 –>


009.023

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here to tear me apart again?”

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

“You could have just pelted me with fireballs.”

“I tried fireballs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His dead eyes narrowed to thin slits.

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

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

“And don’t you forget it.”

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

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

“About my blood again?”

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t we raise the stakes?”

“What do you have in mind?”

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

“I see no issue with that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which might have been what Anderson was counting on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva definitely needed to deal with her.

>>Author’s Note 009<<

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009.022

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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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva flopped over on her bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not really.

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

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

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

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

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

If it wasn’t that…

I’m not depressed, am I?

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

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

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

“Alright already,” she mumbled.

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

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

“The door works perfectly fine, you know.”

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

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

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

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

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

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

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

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

“For what? I didn’t do anything.”

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

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

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

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

Having her there was enough for Eva.

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or worse, rioters.

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

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

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

“Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the event.”

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

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

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

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

“Excellent.”

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

“True. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

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

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

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

She immediately collapsed into Wayne’s couch.

And started groaning.

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

“Is that what I looked like?”

“What’s wrong? You look fine.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes at Wayne.

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

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

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

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

“Not as bad as I expected.”

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

“The slow motion shots were nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

The squid nudged back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she was staring right at Eva.

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

Eva held her breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emily, did you need something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Wow.”

Eva rested her head on the table with a soft sigh. She had tried to keep her discussion quiet. That had failed within seconds.

Vektul, as Eva had asked of him, had gone around and warned the other demons of the sky cracking idol and the demon hunters. Unfortunately, he had gone around and told everyone during lunch. Everyone, in this case, included more than just the demons. Eva would be surprised if anyone in the whole school didn’t know what had happened the night before.

Having only gotten back to Brakket early in the morning, Eva had promised to tell her friends what she had been up to the night before as soon as school was out and they could have some privacy. After Vektul created an uproar, Eva figured that she might as well explain now.

“There were some flashes on the horizon. Shalise actually woke me up after the first one. I had been asleep.”

“I was just studying,” Shalise said. “I thought it was lightning, but there weren’t any clouds.”

“I can’t believe you ran off to all the excitement without us again,” Juliana said with a half-hearted glare.

Shalise shifted, glancing between Eva and Juliana. “I could do without all the excitement, personally,” she whispered.

“Says the girl who tried to convince Arachne to fight her without even talking to me,” Eva said, pretending she hadn’t heard Shalise’s hushed comment.

“I said I was sorry.”

Eva waved a hand. She really didn’t care if the two sparred or not. It was heartening to see Arachne consider Eva’s feelings. However, as long as she kept herself under control, they could spar all they wanted. There were more important things for everyone to worry about.

“But there wasn’t supposed to be anything exciting last night for you to miss. Just a simple terrain survey and cleanup.”

“You still haven’t explained what for.”

Eva glanced around the cafeteria.

The people who weren’t paying attention to Vektul’s robotic repetition of last night’s events were all leaning in on Eva’s conversation. Originally, he had only spoken with the demons. Loudly. Once a regular human asked for clarification on a point and he had responded without murdering them, that had opened the doors for all kinds of questions.

While the exact details of last night were no longer secret, the ritual still was. He had the sense for that at least.

Eva intended to keep it that way.

Knowing about demon hunters and the ways they could attack might be valuable for someone. Maybe it would even save someone’s life.

But not her ritual.

For Zoe, Eva had simply said that she had noticed something odd outside her prison and had gone to investigate. Eva doubted that Zoe actually bought it, but she hadn’t pressed too hard.

At least not about her reason for being out there. She asked a great deal of questions about the hunters.

Eva could understand her concern. If the hunters decided to use their sky-cracking idol around Brakket, they might kill a few demons. However, they would probably catch a great many humans in the collateral.

Looking away from Juliana, Eva just shook her head slightly. “How did they find us? They weren’t watching us before we went to my prison. Nobody was watching us when I told Srey and Vektul to meet me out there. While they might have wondered why we weren’t at Brakket and assumed that we were at the prison, they weren’t watching us before we left. We didn’t leave much of a trail for them to follow. We could have been anywhere.”

“Some kind of demonic tracking device that doesn’t trigger Srey’s sixth sense?”

“Yeah. Maybe. The good news is that they can’t block Nel’s vision. Or, if they can, they haven’t yet. She’s keeping an eye on them.”

A task she had taken to with a great deal of enthusiasm. When the inquisition had originally attacked Eva’s prison, she had put up a small protest against destroying their idol. Nothing had ever came of her momentary anger. She had either realized the necessity or had forgotten about it with her capture at Sawyer’s hands.

But seeing this mockery of the idol had set her off. Eva had a stack of maps and notes to go through as soon as school ended. Everywhere the hunters had been since their departure last night, everything they had been up to, anyone they had met with, and any possible traps around the farmhouse outside of town that they had co-opted as their base of operations.

“So we’re going to counterattack them, right?”

Eva glanced over with a frown on her face. Juliana had used the word ‘we.’

Her mother would probably kill Eva if she knew what her daughter wanted to get into.

The only real advantage Juliana had going for her was that she wasn’t a demon. None of the traps would work on her. At least, none of the ones set up to counter demons specifically. Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of generic traps.

As for counterattacking them…

Charging into Sawyer’s lair could have ended extraordinarily painfully had Eva not spotted his haugbui. That had been a stroke of luck in retrospect. He never would have gone to it had he not suspected the vampires of treachery. That had only happened because Eva failed to provide some secret passphrase, which had only happened because the vampire had gotten a call off and she needed to try hiding it from Sawyer.

A chain of luck that probably saved her life.

Even if they spied on the demon hunters for a week, Eva doubted that Nel would see every trap they had set. Even if she did see them all, who knew if she would recognize things dangerous to demons.

She could still remember opening up their apartment door to find Lucy amidst so many anti-demon magical circles that it had taken the complete destruction of the room to get her out. According to the note left behind, Eva had just about stepped into a trap that was supposed to have reduced Ylva to a scorch mark.

Attacking the hunters in their home base would likely leave them facing far stronger and far more prepared defenses.

“I don’t know,” Eva eventually said. “But something has to be done. We need a large place to work with. Their sky cracking thing ruins outdoor locations.”

“You’re just going to leave them alone? They tried to kill you!”

“I know. I’m not going to do nothing. But I’m not sure what to do.”

Juliana fell silent. She idly stirred some green sludge that had been served for today’s lunch. Eva hadn’t seen her actually take a bite of it. She couldn’t tell what it was and wasn’t about to put it in her mouth. For all she knew, it could be poisonous towards demons. Or humans. Both, probably.

“Do you want to talk with my mother? She’ll have interacted with these sorts before. Maybe enough to give you good advice.”

Not really, Eva thought. Seeing Genoa was just a little awkward these days. Avoiding the woman in the wheelchair felt wrong and yet Eva still did it. But… thinking about it a moment longer and it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

“Maybe,” she said. “Though I’m not so sure about Carlos and your brother.”

“Brother left, actually. His vacation from his job ran out a while ago. ‘Family emergency’ only held out as an excuse for so long.”

Well, that was a positive, at least.

“Of course, if we go there, we might be leading the demon hunters right to your family. With your mother still not up to full speed…”

“I’ve been going there every week since school started,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Given my relation to you, I’m sure they already know about it.”

“But they might not have attacked because they’re seemingly unrelated to me outside of our friendship. This might be just what it takes to warrant an attack.”

“You know what?” Juliana said as she pulled out her cellphone. She held up a finger when Eva went to respond. After tapping twice, she held the phone up to her ear.

“Mom? I– No, everything is fine. Nobody is in trouble… No. Nobody died as far as I know.” She paused, rolling her eyes towards Eva before shaking her head. “I don’t know! Look, no emergency at the moment. I just wanted to ask if Eva could come over and ask you a few questions.”

“Also,” Eva added, “we might be dragging demon hunters to her home.”

Juliana rolled her eyes again. “Eva wants you to know that she is worried that some demon hunters might notice where she’s going and attack you sometime.” She paused while her mother answered on the other end of the line. After a few seconds, she turned to Eva and smiled. “She said that’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to worry about her.”

Back to her phone, Juliana said, “I told her. Yes. Alright, we’ll be over after school. Bye. Love you too, mom. Alright, bye.”

Juliana slipped her phone back into her pocket. “There. No more excuses.”

“They weren’t excuses. I was just concerned.”

“Well, be concerned no longer.”

Eva sighed, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll go.”

Now I need to think up some actual questions.

— — —

Irene watched as Eva, Arachne, Juliana, and Srey took off for the day. During their conversation at lunch, she had kept quiet and tried to draw as little attention to herself as possible. She had already gotten involved in far too many things with the group of them.

Learning about shackles and even demons was one thing. A mildly enjoyable thing.

Being chased around town by demon hunters was another entirely.

And it did not sound appealing in the slightest.

With a sigh of relief at having gone apparently unnoticed all day, Irene started into the dormitory.

Only started.

The exterior door opened up just before she could reach it and she found herself running into another troublesome individual.

“Irene!” A certain succubus said, beaming at her as she skipped the short distance between them. She put her hands on Irene’s shoulders before drawing her close and planting a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been so long.”

Pushing away from the other girl, Irene wiped off both of her cheeks before glaring at her. “You pulled me aside in the halls just earlier today. And what’s with the kissing?”

Saija was a succubus, but she had never been touchy feely like that before.

“Drew said that humans greet each other this way.”

“Maybe in France. And I don’t believe that anyway. It’s just a thing that happens in movies that people think is real.”

Saija pouted. A real lip-out pout. “Then why would he say that?”

“Because he just wants you to kiss him. Next time slap him or something,” Irene said. Drew was such a slime ball. He was supposedly going out with Kristina anyway. What was he doing tricking a succubus into kissing him?

Saija just shrugged, not looking disturbed at having been taken advantage of in the slightest.

Whatever, Irene thought. If the demon wanted to go around kissing everyone, it really wasn’t any of her business. Just so long as Irene didn’t get kissed anymore.

“Was there something you wanted?”

“You ran away from me in the hall earlier today. Did I do something wrong?”

Irene hesitated, about to deny the claim. She thought better of it after a moment and decided to simply answer with honesty. “The people who you have leashed to your little finger are not really the sort of people I hang out with.”

Especially Drew.

“Leashed to my finger? My friends?”

Irene snorted, cutting it short as she shivered a little. Summer had dragged on a little longer this year, but it was still getting to the point where she needed a light jacket while outside. Winter was coming early. She hadn’t brought a jacket as she hadn’t expected to be stuck in the entryway of her dorm for ten minutes.

“If you think those people are your friends…” Irene shook her head. “Well, you’re probably wrong. Is there a reason you stopped me out here instead of somewhere inside?”

“I didn’t want you running away again. If I’m here, then you have to get past me to get to your room.”

“There are side entrances.”

“That’s… Why aren’t they my friends? I thought humans who hung out with each other were friends?”

Irene tried to slip past Saija. The succubus spread her wings out, blocking entrance as she had said she would. While Irene could go all the way around to a side entrance, now that she had mentioned it to Saija, the succubus would probably just move to block her there.

“Those kinds of people–” I assume “–are shallow. You’re the cool new thing. A demon and a beautiful person. Once something new comes along, you’ll be dropped so they can worship that instead.” Irene paused, glancing down at the succubus’ chest. “Well, at least the ones who aren’t following you around because they’re enamored with your… assets.”

Saija glanced down at her own chest, up at Irene’s chest, then up at Irene’s face.

With a smirk.

“Ugh.”

“Don’t worry. You’re still growing, right? Humans keep developing for most of their life. Especially if you eat more,” she said, poking at Irene.

Slapping her hand away, Irene said, “I don’t care about that. Just go… play with your fake friends.” Again, she pushed past the succubus. This time, when Saija spread her wings out, Irene pressed into the leathery material until it gave way and let her into the building.

Though it took a lot more force than she had anticipated. The wings gave way not because Irene pushed more than they could handle but because Saija let her past. Without the resistance of the wing, Irene stumbled forwards. She almost fell to the ground.

A tail wrapping around her waist kept her upright.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Irene said with a sigh.

“If you really wanted past that badly, you need have only asked.”

“I’m sorry. I just…” She trailed off with another sigh, dropping her head as she did so.

I suddenly wish Eva were here.

The diablery class, barring a certain specific incident, had been somewhat enjoyable. With Eva there to watch and keep an eye on the more rowdy elements of the class, it had been a safe environment to learn in. At least, as safe as such a volatile subject could be.

Interacting with demons—even Eva on occasion—was not something she envisioned herself doing more than strictly necessary. They didn’t act like humans. They didn’t react like humans. They didn’t think like humans.

Without Eva around to act as a buffer, Irene just didn’t know what to do.

Irene idly thumbed at the leather cord around her waist.

Maybe the problem wasn’t in the demons. Maybe it was her.

Saija was easily the most personable demon of the bunch. Almost everyone got along with her just fine. But other demons had been opening up in the recent weeks. Each had their own cadre of friends, though none had as large of a group as Saija. They all, people and demons, seemed to handle themselves fine.

It was just her.

Of course, some days had Irene thinking that she was the only student in school who got bullied. Jordan never got bullied. Juliana never got bullied. Even Shalise never got bullied. Her own twin sister never got bullied.

Eva did get bullied for a short time last year just after her appearance had been revealed to everybody, but that had died off quick enough. Irene wasn’t sure if it was Eva’s menacing appearance or something else, but it wasn’t a thing that had lasted very long.

So maybe it wasn’t the demons that were the problem.

It was that Irene couldn’t properly interact with other sentient beings.

Shaking her head, Irene pulled her hand back from the leathery tail as if it had been shocked. Saija was a succubus and Irene didn’t want a scatter-brained idle action while she had been lost in thought to give the demon any ideas.

“Are you going to let me go any time soon,” Irene asked, glancing towards Saija.

But the demon wasn’t even paying attention to her.

Saija’s eyes were narrowed, glowing bright red as she gazed outside the dorm building.

Following her gaze, Irene peered out into the courtyard.

At absolutely nothing. A handful of students were meandering about. None doing anything suspicious. It was only a half-hour after school. Given the only mild cold, it wasn’t too odd to see her peers outside enjoying themselves. Two of the demons were out there as well, speaking with humans.

Interacting with people. And people were interacting with demons. Casually.

It was enough to make Irene sigh.

Though they had been warned about the sky laser beam thing—they and most of the school thanks to Vektul—apparently they felt safe enough to be outside around people.

Irene watched the two of them for a moment before deciding that nothing worthy of alarm was going on with them. They were just chatting. No rampant murders or demon hunters attack.

“Is something the matter?”

When Saija failed to respond, Irene pushed a wing out of the way to place a hand on the demon’s shoulder.

“Saija?”

The demon jumped at the contact. Her tail tightened around Irene’s waist. Not painfully. Just reflexively as part of her startled jump.

“Sorry. I thought I– It’s probably nothing.”

That made the hairs on Irene’s neck stand on end. “What was nothing?”

“Nothing,” Saija said with a smile and a shrug.

Irene shook her head. “No. You don’t get to say nothing. There are demon hunters running around, hunting demons–”

“As demon hunters are wont to do.”

“So you can’t just dismiss something that had you glaring at the air as nothing,” Irene continued, ignoring Saija’s quip.

“Sure I can. I dismiss tons of things every day as nothing,” she said, waving a hand to one side with a chuckle. “I’m not paranoid.”

“It isn’t paranoia when they’re really out to get you!”

Someone was watching them. Some demon hunter saw Irene with a demon’s tail wrapped around her waist. They would come after her thinking that she was related somehow. Her throat would be slit in the middle of the night without her even knowing.

Irene froze solid. I sit with Eva and Arachne at lunch. I am already related.

She didn’t have special powers to help defend herself. No super strength. No wings to fly away quickly. She was just a boring human caught in things that she really shouldn’t have ever–

Though already frozen, Irene stiffened further.

Saija had her chest pressed against Irene. Both arms were wrapped tightly around Irene’s shoulders as the tail tightened and dragged Irene closer. Her wings wrapped around her, shielding them from any prying eyes.

Or shielding Irene. Saija would obviously still be visible from the outside.

For a moment, Irene thought she was about to be eaten. Or something equally as terrible. But the succubus just rested her chin on Irene’s shoulder and stood there in the entryway of the dormitory building.

It took two minutes of enduring the… hug? —before Irene welled up the courage to push Saija off her.

Carefully.

She made sure she touched nothing but the demon’s shoulders. And even that was as ginger of a touch as she could manage.

“Um, Saija? No offense, but I don’t think I really… like you in a way that involves so much touching.”

“Drew said that hugging helps humans when they’re worried, nervous, sad, happy, and several other thing.”

Irene frowned. At least Saija’s tail wasn’t wrapped around her anymore. But…

“You really need to stop listening to Drew.”

“Alright,” Saija said, voice firm and slightly chipper.

“Alright?”

“I’ll tell him to go hang around with someone else.”

“I don’t– I mean, why? Why listen to what I say?”

“You were the first human to talk to me. You even invited me out to that place outside of school. It’s made me sad that you never come talk to me during school.”

“That…” Was Juliana, Irene thought. She had only been there—and at the demons’ initial arrival—because she had been dragged there by the others.

“Besides, he’s obviously been lying to me. I came to the mortal realm because someone summoned me. However, I’m still here to learn and have fun.”

“Well, okay,” Irene said. That sounded far more innocent than she had expected. Especially of a succubus. Were all of the student-demons like that?

Irene glanced over Saija’s shoulder, watching the other two demons interact with the humans around them. Maybe so.

And besides. The dean of the school wouldn’t have brought dangerous demons to interact with schoolchildren, would he? She knew Jordan’s dad. He could be scary, but he wasn’t evil.

She shuddered a little as she considered, remembering just why she had ‘needed’ that hug in the first place.

“What did you see just now?”

“Just an older woman in a long leather coat running around.”

“Old woman?”

“Well, she had white hair. That means old for humans, right?”

Irene considered Randal. His hair varied between white, silver, and plain gray depending on the lighting. But he was an exception, not the rule.

“Yeah, I suppose so. She was running?”

“Yep. Just dashed across my field of vision. She was pretty quick, I almost wasn’t sure I saw anything. Probably nothing. Though I do wonder why she had a sword. Most humans don’t carry them. Just that one professor.”

“Sword?! That doesn’t sound like nothing!” Irene paused, trying to think of something to do. There really was only one option. “We should warn Eva.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Vague directions, as it turned out, were not the best ways to find people. Especially not people who were spying on Eva and probably knew that she was on her way to find them. Given the time it had taken to gather everyone up, their spy would have had plenty of time to move.

Srey ended up bringing everyone to a stop in an alley some distance from the school.

“This is the spot.”

Eva glanced around, looking for any sign that someone had been around. Her sense of blood wasn’t picking anything up. Neither people nor droplets left behind from cuts or other injuries.

“Here,” Arachne said. She had crouched down, running her long fingers against the ground.

Her fingers were just a few inches away from touching a small metallic emblem. Its silver sheen stuck out against the darker colored ground. There was nothing obviously anti-demon about the simple eye-shaped symbol on the front. But best to err on the side of caution. Especially given the fact that it was metal.

Eva didn’t need to tell Arachne not to touch it. Though she was too close for comfort. With how much the apartment room had been trapped for Ylva, there could be traps lying around for anyone approaching. But Eva couldn’t see any on the walls or ground, so there probably wasn’t much cause for worry. At least on that front.

Touching it was an entirely different matter.

Juliana came up alongside Eva and Arachne, squatting down at their sides. Most of her armor was under her clothes. Still, Eva slid over just a small bit, making a little more room.

Her armor was the perfect example of why she didn’t want to touch the emblem. It was still made up of the metal that had broken off the demon hunter’s armor. No matter what shape it was in, the metal still hurt. While possible it was some lingering enchantment, it was far more likely that the effect came from the metal itself. Something specifically designed to hurt demons. Zoe had a sample that she was investigating, but nothing much had come of it so far.

The small bit Juliana had claimed turned black had a certain resemblance to void metal that was not lost on Eva.

But that had been silver in coloration before changing. This emblem was bright glittery gold.

“We should destroy it,” Eva said before anyone else could offer their input.

“Without investigating it? What if it is important?”

Eva glanced over to Vektul and shook her head. “You usually don’t leave important things lying around. Not to mention, it has an eye on it. We already know that they are spying on us. Perhaps there is information that they cannot glean through whatever methods they are using. Giving this to someone to look at might just reveal more than we want. Touching it might put some curse on us so that even if we destroyed it later, they could still spy.”

“What if it could be reversed? We could spy on them then.”

A possibility. Eva couldn’t dispute that. However, they already had Nel. Her ability penetrated almost any wards. In fact, the only things that could block it would be whatever Sawyer had done to Del and whatever Lynn Cross did—something that was exclusive to the higher-ups in the Elysium Order. Both methods involved the Elysium Order’s eyes.

Well, that and Ylva’s domain. The way domains interacted with the mortal realm while anchored was odd, occupying the same space at the same time. But the demon hunters probably didn’t have access to a domain.

Juliana had mentioned that they were being spied upon the other night, but Eva hadn’t had time to do much about it. Hopefully their method of spying could be blocked through use of her anti-scrying packets. It was a task she planned on working on in the evening. She could slap a packet on Srey and see if he noticed anything.

For now though, Eva just shook her head again. “Not worth it. Also don’t say anything secret while around here,” Eva said, glancing towards Srey. He gave a small nod of his head. “They might hear through it; they’re still watching us. And watch for ambushes.”

As soon as Eva mentioned the possibility of ambushes, Juliana dropped into a combat stance. The metal molded from mostly covering her to completely encasing her. Her head swiveled around as she looked for any sign of impending attack, making her neck look odd where the hard metal of her head and shoulders flowed into liquid metal.

Eva doubted the actions were really necessary. She could see humans through walls for a decent distance. If anyone was around the immediate area, she would have warned them. However, it was good that someone was vigilant. Arachne barely glanced around and Vektul just cocked his head to one side.

Just because she couldn’t see anyone around didn’t mean that they couldn’t attack her. Teleporting in was a possibility. So was some attack dropped on them from above. It was good that the Elysium Order took a ‘not my job’ stance on demons.

Eva did not really want to face that laser beam from the sky again.

But how to destroy the emblem? Her explosions might be good for wood and other, more fragile materials. A small bit of metal would probably just be knocked around rather than take any real damage. And she doubted that she would be able to form a flame hot enough to melt it much.

Since Sawyer’s death and the events immediately after, Eva had become far more wary about using her own blood for frivolous tasks. Especially if she thought she might be fighting soon, which was a possibility at the moment. She had almost passed out after rescuing Lucy from the demon hunter’s clutches.

Of course, she did have a few vials of Arachne’s blood. Again, the possibility of a fight in the near future was quite high. Best to save it for immediate threats.

Demons all used their bare hands to fight. So long as they were counting out touching the emblem, the demons were out as well.

Leaving just one person.

“Juliana,” Eva said, glancing in her friend’s direction.

The sudden sound gave the girl a small start, but she quickly got over it.

“Yes?”

“Can you pull this apart into small pieces?”

Even if it wasn’t violently split apart, it should be enough to destroy most magic on the metal.

Juliana crouched down and reached out towards the emblem. She paused, pulling back after a moment with a shake of her head.

“I’d have to touch it. I can’t– My mom could. We’d have to go–”

Eva put a hand on Juliana’s shoulder, suppressing the wince as her hand started melting. She only kept it there long enough for Juliana to stop talking. Removing her hand was almost as painful. Wisps of smoke came off Eva’s hand.

She ignored it for the moment. Clenching her fist shut solved the problem. Her own natural healing—something Eva had discovered in the recent weeks since her last treatment—would take care of it. It wouldn’t be quick as she wasn’t quite on Arachne’s level of regeneration, but a few boils were well within her ability to heal.

She doubted that she would be able to grow back a full limb.

“Try. You’re the best student in our class. You’ve been using magic since long before school started. You decided to specialize in ferrokinesis. If anyone can do it, you can. No fancy shapes. No delicate molding. Just break it apart.”

That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Eva actually had no idea. Her own earthen talents were far from the best. Definitely not nearly good enough to manipulate metal to the degree that Juliana could. She was casually learning air magic first.

If she had thought that learning pyrokinesis was a nightmare, air was another monster entirely.

While Eva was considering their respective specializations, Juliana had stretched her hand out again. The metal around her face had partially melted away, revealing a face scrunched up in concentration. Her eyes were open and narrowed in a tight glare as she chewed on the edge of her lip.

Eva almost offered a few more words of encouragement. She refrained, choosing to remain silent. As it was, she didn’t want to break that intense concentration.

Instead, Eva concentrated as well. Maybe if she could get the walls to start bleeding, she could use that blood. It was odd that she could use it at all given that it hadn’t ever run through the veins of a living being—to her knowledge at least—but Eva wasn’t about to complain. The greatest limitation to blood magic, aside from the cost of bloodstones, was actual blood. If she could get around it, all the better.

A metallic ting echoed through the alley.

“Ah,” Juliana said, accompanying the ting. A wide grin grew on her face. “I did it!”

Broken out of her thoughts, Eva smiled at her friend.

The emblem had a clean split straight down the center. All without Juliana even moving her hand closer than a few inches.

“Good job. Can you split it again? Maybe a few more times?”

“I… think so.” She paused with a shake of her head. “Yes. Yes I can.”

It took another minute, but Juliana split half of the half. Thirty seconds later had her splitting the other half. Every time she tried, she got faster. By the time five minutes had passed, she had turned the badge-sized emblem into a few chunks and some coarse dust.

“We shouldn’t just leave it here,” she said once nothing significant remained. “It’s enchantments should be broken right? Would it be a good idea to absorb it into my armor?”

“Can you keep it separate? Or, better yet, just float it in front of you? So long as its enchantments are gone, we can deliver it to Zoe for further examination.”

“Let me try.”

As she got to work, Eva got up and headed over towards Srey. “They still watching us?”

Srey, despite Eva asking her not to, gave a slight bow before speaking. “It stopped as soon as you said not to say anything secret. It hasn’t started up again. I can point out roughly where the watching was happening, if you want.”

It might be tempting to chase this person down, but so long as they couldn’t block their sight, it would be almost impossible. They would leave and potentially set up traps on their way out before Eva could make it to them. Maybe something a lot more dangerous than whatever this emblem had been.

Since Srey couldn’t find them while they weren’t looking, it gave them plenty of opportunity to hide or rest. They would only be found when they were ready to be found. Probably with a whole lot more traps as well.

In the end, Eva shook her head. “No. But when we get back to school, make sure you go around and let every other demon know that they could be under surveillance at any moment by demon hunters.”

“Me?” Whatever reverence Srey had for Eva was out the window in an instant. He backed up, looking disgusted. “Most of them should already know. We did kill a few groups already. I don’t see why I–”

“Before you all came here, there was another demon around Brakket. Don’t know if you know him, but he went by Zagan.”

Srey drew in a sharp breath, giving Eva a reason to smile.

So he does know him.

Vektul, standing nearby, didn’t react in the slightest. Not even with a tilt of his head. Eva wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret that.

“A pair of demon hunters came into town. One fought Zagan all by himself while the other went on and killed half the demons around Brakket before finally being driven off.” Possibly dead, Eva didn’t bother adding. Her tale was scarier without that bit of information. If by some stroke of luck she had survived, it would be better for him to be wary anyway.

“You might notice that Zagan is no longer around. No one has resummoned him since he was defeated. The human walked away. I can almost guarantee that you guys haven’t fought against that group of demon hunters.”

Eva was absolutely confident that Zagan had been messing around and his hubris led to his defeat more than anything, but the end result was the same.

“So please, do as I ask. Perhaps relay that bit of information about Zagan as well.”

In the meantime, Eva had her own allies that needed to be informed about the situation.

He didn’t argue again, but he didn’t look very happy at being ordered around. Or maybe it was because he had found out that Zagan used to be around. Or that Zagan was defeated. Whatever the case, Eva didn’t much care.

Turning over to Juliana, Eva found her wand out in her hand with an amalgamation of metal hanging off the tip. The wand was odd. Normally Juliana used her rings almost exclusively. Though, thinking about it for a moment longer, it made some sense. The school required her to use a wand. She learned spells with it. Though Eva had no use for a focus, she knew that wands were easier to use than just about anything else.

The metal was all back together, but it wasn’t quite floating.

At least she wasn’t touching it with her hands or anything.

“Let’s get that to Zoe. Hopefully she has a secure place to hold it.” Her little pocket dimension would probably work if nothing else.

Every week that passed gave Eva just a little more paranoia. Nothing would happen one week so it had to happen the next. But nothing happened the next week either.

Her anti-scrying packets had an effect immediately after she had created them. Srey hadn’t complained about anybody watching them for a few days. All of a sudden, it had started up again. Whether they had been taking a break or found a way around it, Eva couldn’t say. Either way, she hadn’t found a way to actually block whatever was watching them a second time. She had given up for the time being. Without knowing how she was being spied upon, it was extremely difficult to come up with passive countermeasures.

Even a few thaumaturgical wards set up by Zoe hadn’t solved the problem.

For the time being, they had to take more active measures against anything they didn’t want to be revealed by being overheard. Namely by not discussing anything. Even writing things down could be dangerous.

As for the emblem, Zoe hadn’t been able to discover any magic on the metal. Traces were there, but whatever magic there was had been broken when the metal had broken. It was, however, the same metal that burned Eva when she touched it despite the different color. That only led credence to Eva’s belief that the demon hunters from before were still around. At least the knight of the two.

Juliana had added the small bit to her armor after being doubly sure of Zoe’s results. It probably wouldn’t be useful against demon hunters, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stock up on just in case.

Though it might not be needed soon. None of the demons that Anderson had brought in were all that… objectionable. In fact, Eva got the impression that most of them were like Lucy in that they had never been summoned before. The way they reacted to things and people were just not quite right in comparison to most other demons that Eva had come across.

Apart from Srey, all of them were happy to be here.

“Did you sign up?”

Eva jumped out of her seat. Half of the cafeteria turned to glance at her as her knee hit the bottom of the table, causing plates and cutlery to jump along with her.

Shooting them a minor glare was enough to get everyone back to minding their own business. Or pretending to, at least. A few ears were still tilted in her direction.

She didn’t know why. Most of the time, she and her friends discussed matters of trivial importance. Nothing interesting. Especially so in the recent days with their watchers watching them.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I thought you could see behind you?”

Turning to Shalise, Eva shook her head. “Only if I’m paying attention.”

“Then pay attention more. But you haven’t answered my question. Have you signed up yet?”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Eva said. “I really have no desire to be involved in some battle between schoolchildren.”

“You are a ‘schoolchildren.'”

“But I usually fight with people who are actually trying to kill me. Or at least people intending to cause me serious harm. I wouldn’t want to accidentally go overboard.”

Shalise huffed as she sat down. “Wouldn’t it be nice to do just a normal school activity without all the threat of imminent death or zombification?”

“Normal school activity?”

“Yeah. That’s what this is. I looked it up. Other schools do this kind of thing on a regular basis. Like football except for magical schools.”

“Football with demons.”

Crossing her arms, Shalise glared at Eva.

“That’s why they’re here.” Supposedly. “To help Brakket cheat at magical football.”

“But, they’re not going to do anything overt, are they? I mean, it’s still a secret.”

“Doubt it. I’m not planning on hiding myself.” Now that she actually had eyes, wearing a blindfold wasn’t comfortable or enticing. Gloves were too cramped and shoes were worse. “And some of them,” Eva said with a pointed glance towards Saija, “couldn’t hide among people if their existence depended on it. Even if she could, she wouldn’t shut up about it.”

The demon in question was seated among a gaggle of hangers-on. She was by far the most popular of demons. Even the people not pleased to be attending school with demons didn’t seem to object at her company.

And Catherine had already assured everyone that Saija was not using any sort of endearing powers from her succubus nature to gather her crowd.

Saija sat with the humans, talking and laughing. She didn’t just have people around her. She was popular. Any compliments paid towards her, especially towards her wings, would be met with obvious pride and a compliment in return.

Though a succubus, she shared a trait with Catherine. Neither acted as Eva would have expected succubi to act. While Catherine dressed provocatively, she held utter disdain for interpersonal connections. That included human contact as far as Eva could tell.

In contrast, Saija reveled in the people around her. The only time Eva had seen her without a smile had been at the very start of school, before she had met anyone. And yet, she had something of a fascination with clothing. So much so that she hadn’t worn the same thing twice.

Brakket Academy had a uniform. Though wearing it wasn’t enforced in the slightest, most students chose to wear it. Probably because of the nice material and self-cleaning aspects. Saija had done so on her first day.

Never since.

Where she got the clothes or who gave them to her, Eva couldn’t say. Though some articles of clothing may have been from her… Do those people count as her friends?

Even stranger, the bulkier the clothes, the better. Apparently. Coats, scarves, hats, and even earmuffs on one day. It was only the middle of October, just starting to get cold.

But not that cold.

All of her clothes had been modified with holes in the backs for her wings and tail. Two things that she had never put away.

Maybe she couldn’t.

Eva shook her head, glancing back to Shalise. “If it was supposed to be a secret, it won’t be for very long. Besides, weren’t half the demons going to be becoming bound familiars? I hope you didn’t sign up for that unless you want another demon in your head.”

Shalise backed up slightly, aghast and face drained of blood. “I don’t think– That’s not– Regular humans can participate too, right?”

“They can indeed, Miss Ward.”

Eva rolled her eyes before shifting to see over Shalise’s shoulder. “Mister Anderson,” she said in her least sarcastic tone of voice. “Welcome back. We… missed you.”

“Back?” he said as confusion twisted his face. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“We haven’t missed you either.”

Eva couldn’t say why she felt antagonistic towards Alexander Anderson. Something about him rubbed her the wrong way. He acted too professional. The way he spoke implied that he cared about the students around Brakket. And yet Eva doubted that was the case.

At least Martina hadn’t lied about it. At least not to Eva.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’ve still got a sense of humor. I hear rumors that you’ve been somewhat on edge lately.”

Maybe it is him who is spying on us. Eva quickly dismissed the thought. He was spying, or he had his demons spying, but he couldn’t be the only one. There were definitely demon hunters out there.

“I was just stopping by while looking for someone,” he said, glancing around the table.

“Jordan’s already gone ahead to class, if that’s who you’re looking for. He wanted to get a question or two in before his enchanting test starts.”

“Good for him. But I was actually looking for Juliana Rivas.”

Eva sat up straighter, narrowing her eyes slightly. A thousand possibilities for his reasons ran through her mind. Most involved her parents. Were they injured or in trouble? Or had they found out that Zagan wasn’t even on the mortal plane and were going to pull her out of school.

“Whatever you’re fearing, don’t,” Anderson said. He shook his head. “It isn’t anything bad. I assure you. I merely wished to discuss a few matters with her. Matters involving demons and the possibility of her becoming one of our dear friends’ host.”

“Oh,” Eva said with half a chuckle. Her sudden tension died almost immediately. “That. I doubt she’ll agree.”

“She had an interest in diablery before, did she not?”

“Yeah. It almost got her mother killed.”

“Ah, yes. The mess with Zagan. I was hoping we might look past that now.” He paused to look around again. “I thought I might ask, at the very least. Yet she isn’t here. Did she head to class early as well?”

“Actually, she is skipping school today. Sort of. I mean, she’s here. But she isn’t going to class. You’ll have to try tomorrow.”

“Skipping school? You’re admitting that to the dean?”

Eva shrugged. It wasn’t like the attendance records would have shown her here.

“She wanted to borrow Arachne. They should be out in the Infinite Courtyard.”

Eva would be out there as well, except she had a test today. She wasn’t sure why she bothered. School was there to prepare oneself for the future and she had no idea what she wanted to do after school ended.

Maybe she would be in Hell. Maybe she could join the Royal Guild of Mage-Knights. At the very least, that would keep her appraised of any bounties that might get put on her head.

For the moment, she figured she might as well learn. Especially golemancy. Poor Basila was still not quite her usual self.

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Author’s Note: The first chapter of a new story tentatively titled Analyst is over on my preview site. Meant to have it up a few weeks ago, but delayed because I’m not sure that I write military tactical type things very well. Much less happy with it than I am with Demi-God, but I also wanted to post something. Bigger notes at the bottom of the chapter over there.