Tag Archives: Turner

007.026

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Eva snapped into being on the gate she had made within her new dormitory room. She wasn’t even that wobbly from the teleport. Still, she took a moment to steady herself before moving around.

In that moment, she glanced around. Both with her eyes and her less mundane senses.

She immediately froze.

The very first thing that she noticed was Zagan. She couldn’t see him, but she could feel him. His overwhelming presence occluded everything else. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t trying to hide in the slightest.

It was terrifying and awe inspiring at the same time. Her heart hammered in her chest, screaming at her to run despite her mind claiming that Zagan was an ally.

Eva held her ground. It was all she could do to stand still. Digging her feet into the ground, Eva focused on calming down. Deep breaths helped, but only marginally.

No other presence, not even that of Ylva’s, could be felt through Zagan’s blanket of power. Prax and Catherine had both left the prison before Eva and she couldn’t sense either of them.

Hopefully that was just Zagan overpowering them and not something worse.

Prax and Catherine should at least be nearby. Ylva would be off with Zoe and Juliana. Given that the dorm room was empty of everyone else, Eva was assuming that they were out at the apartment building. Maybe even helping Zoe pack, unaware of the event out here until Ylva arrived. Though, Juliana might be wherever her parents were staying. Even bedridden or wheelchair bound, Eva had a hard time believing that Genoa would miss what was happening at the moment.

In fact, she would be surprised if regular mortals couldn’t feel Zagan.

Eva couldn’t see anything out the window. It looked out the back of the building, away from Zagan’s presence and the main Brakket Academy building, so that wasn’t all that surprising.

What she did notice were the purple lines in the sky. Since they had first appeared, they had been somewhat dim. Faint and barely visible in the daylight while simply there after nightfall. Now they were bright and almost glowing.

Whether that was because of Zagan or because Martina had summoned so many demons was a question better left to Devon.

Of course, he hadn’t come with her.

Eva had left after everyone else because she had taken the time to warn Devon.

Even discounting the issue that he couldn’t teleport alongside her without winding up as ground meat, Devon wanted nothing to do with demon hunters. He was perfectly content to watch Brakket City burn so long as he was left alone. He had even tried to stop Eva from coming.

Something Eva would hear nothing of.

She had friends here. Friends that might need help.

Zagan could hold his own. Whatever he was doing, Eva was sure that he would come out successful. Juliana and Zoe should both be away from the school and with Ylva. Eva considered running after them, hunkering down while Zagan solved all the problems.

But Catherine was still around. Despite all of her complaining about Martina and her words earlier in the evening about lacking loyalty to others, Catherine had still come here with the intention of keeping Martina safe.

And Eva was still somewhat fond of the succubus.

So Eva would help.

Rather than run from her room, Eva opened her window and dropped straight to the ground. Three stories was a long fall, but Arachne’s legs helped to absorb much of the impact. She ran around the side of the building.

And froze.

The walkway between the dormitory buildings was a torn up mess. Potholes everywhere, bricks lying about, and part of the Gillet’s front had been caved in.

An armored man stood against a winged bull. His armor was battered everywhere and even broken in several spots. He held out a sword. One that might have been beautiful with its emerald-encrusted hilt almost glowing in the evening darkness and graceful curve of the blade. But as Eva stared, she felt wary. Revulsion even. Whatever that sword was, she did not want it anywhere near her.

Zagan was looking worse for the wear. His leathery hide was covered in shallow cuts. A few were deeper, one on his muscular shoulder actually showed bone. The wound cleaned itself of blood every few seconds, making the depth clear to see.

Though, for all the wounds on Zagan, the knight might be in a worse state. Not only had he taken his fair share of the beating and had his own wounds of equal severity, but his armor was doing something to his body. Every time he moved, there was a flash. It was almost as if he was teleporting, but he obviously wasn’t. His armor carried him at speeds that human bodies weren’t meant to accelerate to and stop from so quickly.

Eva could see it in his blood.

One moment and everything was normal. The next had his blood and organs pressed up against the back of his body, only for them to lurch forwards when he stopped.

How he was still alive was anyone’s guess. Magic, probably. But it was affecting him. The visible pauses after each flash step as his body put itself back into place were evidence of that. His pausing lasted mere instants, but those instants were long enough for Zagan to capitalize on.

Zagan charged in an odd direction at the same instant that the knight flash stepped. The odd direction became far less odd as the knight appeared right in front of Zagan.

Scraping one of his horns along the ground, Zagan flicked his head upwards, catching the knight right between the legs. The knight went flying, flailing his arms and legs wildly in the air.

Zagan gave chase with a flap of his wings. His flaming hooves hit the knight in the back, crashing both of them down into the bricks.

The ground shattered after a brief moment of silence, leaving concentric circles of cracked brick and earth around the two monsters.

Eva turned away. It was hard. Zagan’s fighting was definitely worthy of watching. But he didn’t need her help. As she had thought, Zagan could handle himself.

What might need her help was at the main school building. A window near the front office area had broken, roughly in the area of Martina’s office. Dust and smoke billowed out.

If Martina was in, that would be where Catherine would have gone. There was no guarantee. Martina could have fled. Or worse, she might have been killed.

Eva didn’t have a better plan at the moment. She took off at a run, leaving the dormitory buildings and the battle behind.

The main school building wasn’t far. At a run and with a few interspersed blinks, Eva reached the broken window almost instantly.

Four circulatory systems were inside the room. Two lying on the ground and two standing upright.

The two upright were Prax and Catherine. Even if Eva hadn’t already memorized their individual blood vessel fingerprint, Prax’s bulk was unmatched by any other and Catherine had wings and a tail at the moment.

The woman who had accosted Eva in the apartment building was one of the circulatory systems on the ground. Martina was the other.

Eva’s ‘eyes’ were immediately drawn to the woman’s heart. It was beating erratically. A beat followed by a too-long pause. Three rapid beats. Another pause. To make matters more complicated, Eva couldn’t be sure that she was even breathing. Though, given the dust in the air, that might not be a bad thing.

Catherine was standing over her, fidgeting a little as if she didn’t know what to do.

Neither did Eva, but there was someone who did know.

“Martina needs to be taken to the nurse,” Eva said as she climbed over the broken glass of the window. The glass on the ground and sill wasn’t strong enough to cut her carapace. She just had to be careful where the rest of her body was. “She’s having a heart attack.”

She wasn’t really, not so long as Eva understood what a heart attack actually was, but time was of the essence and longer explanations would eat that time up.

“Catherine,” Eva said when the succubus made no motion to carry away the dean.

“I know.” There was a short sigh. Catherine’s arms slipped under Martina’s back and legs before hefting her up. “She had better appreciate me,” she said as she dashed from the room.

The nurse’s office was just down the hallway. So long as she was in at the moment, she would hopefully be able to do something. Given the late hour, Eva doubted that she would be in. Still, Catherine was the secretary. She probably knew where the nurse lived and could just head straight there.

Eva couldn’t say that she liked Martina, but she didn’t hate her enough to want her to die. In fact, she really didn’t hate her at all. Martina could be annoying on occasion, but Eva found herself more indifferent than anything.

And if she did die, there would be a lot of contracted demons running around without a contractor. At the moment, Zagan was a bit too tied up to rein them in. If he even cared enough to do so. Prax might be the only one that he focused on because of Prax’s slights toward him.

Eva would hopefully be able to convince Lucy to play nice with people, but the hellhound, morail, and Daru?

Well, Daru was likely dead.

And then there was Catherine. She wasn’t a contracted demon, but rather a familiar. Still, if Martina died, Catherine’s bonds would be broken.

“What about this one?” Prax said in a menacing growl, breaking Eva out of her thoughts.

Eva turned to the other woman—presumably a demon hunter—and found herself frowning.

Her heart rate was normal. Her blood flowed properly. There was a slight burn on one hand, but it didn’t extend deep enough below her skin to damage any real blood vessels.

And two of her fingers were tapping against the ground. Steady, rhythmic taps.

“Kill her,” Eva said, uncorking her vial of Zagan’s blood. “Quickly.”

Prax didn’t hesitate. He lifted his foot, preparing to crush the hunter’s head.

The hunter was faster. She rolled into his still planted foot.

Normally, Eva wouldn’t have expected much. Prax had bulk. Weight. Mass. The hunter, almost smaller than Eva, couldn’t be expected to move such a thing.

But she did. Whether because Prax was already unbalanced from having his other foot raised or some luck on the hunter’s part, Prax fell. His head smashed into the remains of Martina’s desk, sending splinters and papers flying around.

The hunter made it to her feet before Prax’s head hit the ground. A faint glow emanated from one of her rings. The air in front of her fingers filled with a faint white mist.

A globule of Zagan’s blood fell from the air where it had been zooming towards the hunter. It hit the floor as a ball of ice, shattering into pieces.

Beyond that, she didn’t pay any attention to Eva.

Prax was trying to get standing once again, but the hunter slipped one of her feet in the crook of his ankle and pulled. She managed to move his entire body, causing his arms to slip out from underneath him.

She jumped onto his back, knees on either side of his ribcage. One hand gripped one of Prax’s horns. The other took hold of his chin. With a flick of her arms, an audible snap echoed through the office.

Just in time for her to freeze another two globs of blood that Eva had attempted to hit her with while her back was turned. Each shattered on either side of the portal that was swallowing up Prax’s body.

The hunter got to her feet, brushing her hands off as if Prax had been covered in dust.

Though, given the blood on her hands, Eva doubted that the action was all that effective. It was merely an intimidation tactic.

Eva would be lying if she said that she wasn’t a little intimidated at the moment.

She may have taken Prax mostly by surprise, but Eva was getting serious ‘Genoa’ vibes off this hunter. Eva doubted that she would be able to take on an injured Genoa, let alone one able to walk under her own power.

The best course of action might be to simply flee back to Zagan. He would surely be able to do something.

Unless the presence of the hunter distracted him enough for the knight to get a critical hit in.

And even if Eva fled, there was no guarantee that the hunter would follow. She might chase after Catherine.

Catherine was right. She wouldn’t die. She’d be back eventually.

But she wasn’t the only one there. Martina would be with her. And maybe the nurse.

Eva might have found it amusing that she was more worried for the nurse than Martina had the hunter not decided to charge straight at her.

Blinking past the hunter to the opposite side of the room, she ignited her hands. Blood was obviously not working on this person. Granted, she had only tried twice and neither of those attempts had been her giant blood-claw. That took time, unfortunately.

Time that I really don’t have, Eva thought as she tossed a small fireball at her opponent. She didn’t have time build it up more. She didn’t have the time to stand and watch the explosion.

The hunter twisted around the fireball as an icicle flew towards Eva.

Blinking again, Eva found herself just outside of the office, looking in through the broken window.

The fireball hit the ground, erupting with little more than a snap. Like a small firework going off.

For a moment, the two just stared.

Eva didn’t remain idle while staring. She built up a fireball in each hand, both larger than the earlier one. With slightly more distance between them, Eva actually had the time to do so.

“What are you? You’re not a demon.”

Eva opened her mouth to deny that claim. Except, perhaps she wasn’t a demon just yet. A few more treatments.

In the mean time…

“An abomination.”

The hunter blinked, confusion radiating from her eyes. The confusion gave way to about three other expressions, all competing for dominance. Anger, disgust, and maybe a little excitement. She then blinked again.

“Oh,” she said. “Ohhh, you’re the person that nun was talking about. I have to admit, I wasn’t paying much attention. She was kind of annoying. No. Really, really annoying. She kept going on and on about… well, you. I suppose.”

Waving her hand, the hunter opened her mouth to continue rambling. “Doesn’t really matter–”

As the hunter waved her hand, Eva caught a light glow on her rings.

Without hesitation, Eva blinked.

She snapped into being back inside the office, just to the side of the hunter.

Eva dropped both of her firebombs as a boulder made of ice crashed down into the window right where she had been standing.

Window blocked off, Eva blinked to a corner of the room and uncorked a vial of blood. Her own blood, all of Zagan’s blood was lying frozen on the floor. She formed up a blood shield around herself. All in the time it took for the two firebombs to fall to the floor.

Heat and flames filled the room. Strong enough that Eva could feel a small portion of it through her shield. Much of the already wrecked room turned to cinders. What wasn’t burnable was crushed under the pressure of the two bombs’ shock waves.

Eva’s shield was included in that second category. Demon blood would have been able to stand up to the explosions. Only using her own blood, the shield cracked and shattered after only a few moments of staying up.

Luckily, most of the power in the explosions had already been used up by the time the fractured shield collapsed. All that was left was the fire and the heat.

Neither really bothered Eva.

Except, there was more left behind. One thing stood out.

A pillar of ice, stretching from the ground to the ceiling.

Eva didn’t need her blood sight to tell that the hunter was still alive within.

Uncorking every vial of blood that she had left, Eva formed it all into a massive ball made up of thin rings. The rings all circled around each other, gathering to form a frame of blood wires. Spell set, she plunged both hands into the ball.

Two car-sized hands of blood, mirrors of Eva’s claws, appeared in the room in front of her. Eva pushed her hands farther into the rings of blood. The larger versions of her hands moved together, one of them scraping into a wall and tearing it apart as it continued forwards.

The palms of her blood-hands hit the ice pillar. Eva gripped it and squeezed.

Cracks formed in the ice, starting as small fractures before growing into larger and thicker crevasses.

The hunter was actually panicking now. Her accelerated heart rate and more frantic movements within the pillar were unusually satisfying.

At least, it was until her blood claws started to freeze. They were huge, several hundred times the size of the small globs of Zagan’s blood that the hunter had frozen earlier. But locked around the pillar of ice, slowly crushing it, ice started to form on the palms of the hands.

Eva redoubled her efforts, pressing her hands together as hard as she could, forcing more and more magic into the ball of blood to keep the hands under her control for as long as possible.

The top half of the pillar broke off, collapsing into one of the hands. Eva pulled her real hand out of the ball as if she had been stung. The blood forming the hand fell to the ground, forming a large pool of inert liquid.

Glancing down, Eva found small amounts of frost shining white against the normally black carapace of her hand.

Eva grit her teeth and focused on her remaining hand, crushing the top of the already damaged pillar where it was more brittle.

With the hand still freezing over, it was fighting against time.

And Eva didn’t feel like she was winning.

Pulling her hand away from the pillar, Eva lifted it up and over the broken top. Curling the hand into a fist, she slammed it back down.

The hand fell apart, shards of blood and ice scattered everywhere. Most of it went into the pillar of ice through a hole at the top from where the upper part had broken off.

The shards rained down on the inside, each as sharp as knives, cutting into the hunter.

Unfortunately, that was all they were. Tiny knives. Inflicting nothing more than superficial wounds on the woman inside her makeshift shield.

A moment of silence passed. Eva started building up more compressed flames. Dropping them into the top might be her best option.

Rather than tossing the fledgling fireballs, Eva found herself extinguishing them as she dove to the side.

The pillar exploded outwards. Not in shards, but heavy chunks each at least the size of a large brick.

On the ground and curled into a ball, Eva clasped her hands over her head. Just in time to feel a brick of ice hit the chitin on her arm. It sent a hairline fracture up the carapace, but nothing more.

Eva remained on the ground for a moment after the last brick had struck the wall. Just in case.

A moment too long.

The hunter jumped on top of her. Bleeding from hundreds of tiny cuts, the woman clasped a hand around Eva’s throat. Her other hand grasped towards Eva’s face.

Seeing where the woman was aiming all too clearly, Eva used both of her hands to keep her open hand away. Eva could do without a little air for a short time. She had lost her eyes once already and that was beyond enough for her.

Having been curled up, Eva’s legs were crunched up against her chest.

Between her body and the hunter.

Eva found herself grinning despite the vice-like grip on her neck. She kicked with both legs, sending the woman flying across the room with her letting out a short scream.

Flipping back to her feet, Eva rubbed her throat as the hunter got to her feet.

And she found her fingers running over her bare neck.

Thoughts of the hunter gone, Eva turned her attention to the floor around her. Searching, eyes roaming over everything.

“Looking for this?”

Eva’s eyes snapped to the hunter.

One hand was held up in front of her. From it, a thin black band dangled, swaying slightly in the air. A small black sphere hung off the band.

Arachne’s beacon.

“Give that back!”

“Hmm,” she hummed, tapping a finger to her chin. “You know? I don’t think I will.” She dropped the band, not taking her eyes off Eva as it bounced lightly against the floor. Moving the tip of her shoe over the beacon, the hunter grinned. Her voice took on a sing-song tune as she spoke. “I wonder what would happen if it were destroyed.”

“I said. Give. That. Back.”

“I–”

The hunter cut herself off. She blinked, taking her eyes off Eva and giving a glance around the room.

Eva took a step forward.

The hunter took her foot off the beacon. She had to in order for her to take a step backwards. She didn’t make it very far. When Eva had kicked her, she had slammed into a wall and hadn’t moved far from it. Far enough for a single step.

As Eva took another step forward, the hunter’s face twisted into a snarl.

She lifted up her foot and brought her heel down on the beacon.

As if in slow motion, Eva watched as the orb cracked and shattered to dust. A spiderweb of cracks started from her heel and spread out over the surface. The webs contained within exploded outwards, latching onto the hunter’s foot.

Eva saw red.

— — —

It is time.

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007.025

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“This is a surprise. After all that skulking about, you come out of the woodwork now?”

Clement stood unmoving. He could feel the sweat beading down his skin beneath his armor. The battle hadn’t even started yet.

Demons never really frightened him. They were arrogant beings, the kind of monsters who thought themselves so above humanity that nothing short of an army could beat them in combat. When faced against a medieval knight and a lithe girl, most tended to laugh. If given the chance to monologue, which most took, they would gloat about how quickly the battle would be over.

Usually Gertrude would be at his side. Ever the impatient sort, she tended to interrupt them. Whether that be using her water magic to ice over their eyeballs or simply activating a prepared trap, rarely did a demon finish his monologue.

Though, Gertrude wasn’t at his side this time.

Clement opened his mouth only to find his throat drier than a desert in a drought. Licking his lips, he gave a slight cough to clear his throat before speaking.

“You didn’t bring along the other demons?” Unless something had changed recently, there should still be two demons inside the school building. A morail and a hellhound. The rest were still out at the prison.

The devil drew himself up, broadening his shoulders as he straightened his back. “I could kill them with a stray thought. If you’re truly strong enough to challenge me, they wouldn’t last longer than a few seconds.”

Clement blinked. He had been expecting some arrogant oh, you think I need help to fight you? Instead, this devil’s words carried a tone of respect for Clement. They recognized his strength.

Which was not a good thing. He needed to deal with the devil before the devil took him seriously.

Something that had not looked likely from the start.

As Clement looked on the devil, he could find no trace of the man he had spied upon since he had arrived in Brakket. Gone was the flirt that propositioned everyone in town. Male or female. Clement had caught him sweet talking a horse at one point, though given Clement’s certainty that the devil knew he was being watched, that could have been a show specifically for the purpose of messing with him.

No, before Clement stood a devil.

He didn’t look like one, for sure. He looked like a professor. A rather well-off professor. His suit was well pressed without a spot of dust on it. His dark hair was well styled, not too short to look military, but not long enough to look childish. Magnetic and debonair, Clement almost found himself dismissing the idea that this man was anything but a man.

But then there were the devil’s eyes. Bright golden eyes that almost glowed in the surrounding darkness.

Truly a monster.

Regardless of the outcome, perhaps there would be songs sung about this battle. There certainly were plenty of witnesses.

Clement looked around. The two Brakket dormitory buildings stood on either side of him, one to his left and the other to the right. There was a brick campus between the two, not designed for vehicles.

Lights were on in several rooms. The lights made it easy to see the silhouettes of students that hadn’t gone home for the summer. A number of the rooms were dark but still held people—Clement could see as much through his visor’s enchantments.

Unfortunately, it was doubtful that any great bards would take up the task of his song. More likely, some kid would record the whole thing before posting it on the internet. People would argue about it, some claiming it was mere special effects while others would insist that the video was more evidence of magic.

Then it would be forgotten as the next big thing came around.

Shaking his head, Clement looked back towards his opponent. “If we fight like this,” he said with a nod up to the lit windows. “They’ll know who–what you are.”

The devil shrugged his shoulders. “You care. You hunt demons. Demons are your life, your very reason for existence. A big bad demon invading a town of innocent students, why, it might just be the most important fight of your life.” Lifting his arm, he gestured towards one of the buildings. “To them, today is Tuesday.”

Clement tapped a finger against the armor over his thigh as he thought. Gertrude had set up a few traps before leaving for her own mission. Unfortunately, they were all back in the city itself. None on the campus plaza.

Turning his back… was not an option. He was certain that he would be struck down the moment he tried. As cordial as their conversation had sounded, he had no illusions that it actually was.

Leading him back through town during the fight might prove impossible. Surely the devil would see through what he was doing. Or he would avoid going too far from the academy building.

Clement grit his teeth and clenched his fist. He would just have to do this the old-fashioned way.

“Ah, finally ready?” the devil asked.

Clement didn’t get a chance to respond.

The devil’s outfit burst into flames. They cleared away just as quickly as they had come, leaving him baring his muscles for all the students to see.

Great black wings sprouted from his back. Feathered, rather than the bat-like wings most demons possessed. From his waist down, he was covered in a leathery fur that ended in heavy hooves. Fire and smoke sprouted from where the hooves touched the ground. Horns curled off his head—one of them a crumpled horn—each looking more evil every time Clement’s eyes passed over them.

Reaching behind his back, Clement curled his fingers around the emerald-studded hilt of his sword. He drew it without flourish or elegance. Every movement he made was purely utilitarian.

The devil’s golden eyes went wide. For just a bare moment, his smile disappeared as his mouth twisted to the shape of a ring.

“A Persian sword. Not many would use such a thing these days, though I suppose that there is no weapon more fitting for fighting demons. Not the original Zomorrodnegār. If you’ll forgive me for acting out of turn…”

The devil snapped forward with a burst of flames at his back, crossing half the distance between them in the blink of an eye.

Clement raised his sword, both hands gripping the hilt to better defend against powerful attacks.

But the devil didn’t continue on. He stopped moving five feet away.

The flames didn’t stop with him. They curled around the devil’s body, continuing forwards and wrapping around Clement. There was a mild heat accompanying the flames. Nothing that would be dangerous.

He stood his ground. Something that was becoming increasingly difficult as the bricks under his boots became brittle and cracked away under the heat. But he couldn’t afford to move. This was a test of some sort. Through his visor’s enchantments, he could see that the devil hadn’t moved after launching the flames.

There was a sensation in Clement’s gut that if he moved, he would lose his head.

After a moment of the flames wrapping around him, they dispersed into mere embers.

The devil was hazy. Heat waves trailed up from the glowing red bricks, distorting everything around Clement. Even some parts of his armor had a faint red glow to them.

“Yes,” the devil said, “definitely not the original. The original would have eaten those flames.”

With a shrug of the devil’s shoulders, the plaza returned to normal. The heat haze vanished as the bricks lost their glow.

The bricks that had cracked beneath Clement’s feet stayed glowing and cracked. The tips of his armor retained their red-hot temperature as well.

Already bright gold, the devil’s eyes lit up with a maddened delirium as he burst into laughter. “Excellent,” he said. “Marvelous! What is your name?”

Clement hesitated. He was not a mage. Nor had he much training apart from what to expect from demons and any other entities that Gertrude thought he should know about. He had heard that names had power. Where he had heard it, he couldn’t say. Books, perhaps. Fiction.

Except it was so difficult to tell what was fiction and what was a mage writing about personal experiences under the guise of fiction.

Never before had a demon asked his name. He had never had cause to ask Gertrude about names.

Then again, he didn’t use his real name. ‘Clement’ was a moniker given to him by Gertrude.

“Come now,” the devil said as he tapped a foot against the brick plaza. “We don’t have all night. I’m sure I have to go hunt down your girlfriend before morning.”

“Clement,” he said through grit teeth. Readying his sword, he shifted forwards.

This devil couldn’t be allowed to chase after Gertrude.

“Clement huh? I’ll remember that. For at least a day. You may call me Zagan, Great King of Hell.”

Clement didn’t acknowledge the devil. He charged forwards using his toes to activate the enchantments in his boots, and slashed down at the devil.

Zagan was, predictably, not in the path of his blade by the time it passed through the air.

Rather than follow through with a second slash or chase after him, Clement pulled back and brought one arm up to his eyeline.

Zagan’s open hand caught the gauntlet’s wrist. He started to twist Clement’s arm, eliciting a light groan from the armor as the metal protested the movement.

Bringing his sword around with his free hand was enough to send Zagan hopping backwards a few steps. Clement tried to hit him with the closed fist of his released hand, but struck nothing but air.

Before marching up to Brakket Academy, Clement had removed the fingers of his armor on his left hand. On one of those fingers, he wore the ring that Gertrude had given him.

So long as Zagan didn’t notice it, all he had to do was slip in a punch while the devil was distracted by the sword. At least, as long as Gertrude was right in her assumption that it would work. Clement had never known her to be wrong about much of anything.

Though, given how he was avoiding it, Clement hoped that his sword would work just as well.

They entered into a vicious cycle of back and forth attacks. As the devil circled around him, all Clement had to do to get him to back off was step forward and slash with the sword. He kept his slashes short and moved as fast as he could to prevent any long openings that might give Zagan another opportunity to grapple.

Not once since the earlier flames had the devil tried to use magic. He had named the sword, which likely meant that he knew its properties. Magic wouldn’t work well against the sword’s wielder. It was still disconcerting just how quickly he had figured that out.

Neither did he have any weapons, though no demon ever did. They always preferred to use their own natural talents and abilities over any kind of artificial enhancement. Which was good for Clement. It meant that Zagan had to get in close to actually attack.

Twisting around another attempted grapple, Clement reversed his grip on his sword and thrust it back and around his side.

Curved swords weren’t made for thrusting, but they still had a point.

And he felt that point dig into the devil’s flesh.

Clement put space between them with the enchantments in his boots. Turning, he found Zagan staring down at his arm.

A long streak of black liquid ran from his elbow down to his wrist. Every few seconds, the blood would vanish. It vanished completely and thoroughly, leaving no streaks or markings on the skin. Even the droplets that fell to the bricks disappeared.

No matter how many times the blood vanished, the wound always remained.

Zagan chuckled, throwing back his head. “Yes, Clement. This is perfect. When the pale horse comes for you, you must remind me to thank dear Martina. You can do that for me, yeah?”

Clement didn’t respond. All of his focus went towards dashing forwards and striking at Zagan a second time.

— — —

For perhaps the first time since she had taken over her office, Martina Turner had drawn back the curtains and pulled up the blinds. She never knew who might try to peek into her office from the outside or what might be going on inside when they tried. It was generally safer to simply keep them shut.

She didn’t mind. Her eyes were well accustomed to the dim lamps that she kept around the room. Her desk light lit up papers enough to work on. Natural lighting was overrated by leagues.

But tonight was different. Zagan was out fighting.

Or dancing.

It was hard to tell. He was taking great pains to avoid a sword, resulting in him twisting and jumping all over the place. Every time he got close, the sword fighter found a way to make him back off.

Irritating, Martina thought with a glower. She tipped back a glass of her favored liquor, shaking her head as the drink warmed her blood. “Stop toying with him and kill him already,” she hissed out to no one in particular.

No one was around. Her newest morail was standing guard outside the room along with the hellhound. Zagan wouldn’t hear her from where he was. Even if he did hear her, he wouldn’t listen. His own amusement trumped everything else in his contract.

She was already regretting sending Catherine and the cambion off with Eva. Zagan should have been able to deal with any issues that arose. When she had sent her demons away, she hadn’t accounted for Zagan’s eccentricities.

Though, with the text she had sent, she had expected them back by now.

Unless they were dealing with the other demon hunter.

If that was the case, well, good luck to them.

Zagan took to the skies as Martina watched on. With a flap of his wings, he pulled a back flip. Four hooves cracked the ground as he landed in his full demon form. A fearsome winged bull with smoke streaming from his nostrils. He pawed the ground twice before charging.

His crumpled horn struck the armored hunter in the stomach. From her angle, Martina couldn’t tell whether or not it had pierced the armor, but it did some damage. The hunter paused, stunned for a moment.

A moment long enough for Zagan to twist his head and toss the knight.

The sword clipped Zagan on the shoulder as the knight sailed through the air. He crashed down through the wall of the Gillet dormitory building.

Martina blinked, staring at the dormitory’s crumbled walls for just a moment. “Ah. I forgot.”

Catherine was gone.

Martina moved away from the window back to her desk. Removing the phone from its cradle, she hit a few buttons to connect her to the public announcement systems in the two dormitories and the main school building.

“Attention all students and staff within the Brakket Academy campus,” Martina said into the phone. “There is currently a combative situation involving at least one intruder on campus. All students are to remain where they are so long as it appears safe in your location. Keep away from windows and walls that look out over the general plaza between the dormitories.”

Anything else? “The situation is well in hand. Do not interfere with any fighting. If you see anyone that does not appear to be a student or staff, avoid them.”

Martina placed the phone back down and moved back to the window. Luckily, school was out for the summer. Most teachers were gone. Most students were gone. New first years hadn’t even arrived yet. The only ones sticking around were those with no place else to go.

Of course, given how watched the city was since the sky issue, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out that some reporters were recording this somehow. Unfortunately, there was nothing that she could do about that at this point.

Martina was about to take another drink when she heard a loud cracking noise.

She turned towards the door just in time to see it split in two. Both halves flew across the room and turned to splinters as they hit the wall.

Silhouetted against the hallway light was a lithe woman, head tilted down so that her red hair hung down and obscured most of her face. Her hands up to her elbows were coated in black liquid. Viscous droplets hit the ground, staining it with each splash.

Behind the woman, two void portals swallowed up the remains of what could only be her guard demons.

The woman looked up, locking one green eye and one red eye with Martina’s eyes.

Martina took a casual sip of her drink as she looked over the woman. She held no obvious focus. No wand, no book, no gemstones. She had no rings on. Not a mage?

But she had just killed two demons. Granted, she may have ambushed them, but it looked like she had torn them apart with her bare hands. And with that eye…

“A half-demon? Or did you graft the eye?”

“Hellfire?” the woman said back. “You know that’s made by mortals who thought it would be a cool name? No relation to demons at all.”

Frowning, Martina brought the glass to her lips once again. Of course she knew that. She had become addicted to the taste long before she summoned her first demon.

And the hunter hadn’t answered her question.

“Here to talk?” Martina asked. That would be the best case scenario. Anything to delay until Zagan got off his ass and finished up with the armored hunter. Or even until Catherine returned. “Or here to fight?”

“Here to kill.”

“I see.”

The hunter dashed across the room without further preamble.

Martina dove to the side, dropping her glass as she moved. She forced her magic into the summoning circle in the center of the room, hidden beneath a large rug. There was no enticement set. She was opening the portal, a calling to any demon who might answer.

Frankly, she didn’t care what kind of demon she got. Though she was hoping for something marginally stronger than an imp. It was doubtful that such a pathetic being would even give the hunter pause.

There were no shackles around the circle either. A good thing in this case. So long as the demon went after the hunter and not her. Normally Zagan would be present. He was the best deterrent to any subterfuge, better than any set of shackles created by man, in any case.

The hunter jumped away from Martina, landing in the center of the circle. She clenched her fist and slammed it down into the floor.

Audible cracks ran through the floor.

Martina felt her magic backfire before she saw it. A sudden twist of her magic in a way that was not meant to be.

She cut off channeling her magic into the circle.

Too late.

The damaged circle rumbled before exploding outwards, filling the air with dust and debris.

Martina flew back, hitting her hip against the edge of her desk. Groaning out, she breathed in a cloud of dust. She descended into sputtering hacks and coughs. Pulling up the edge of her shirt to cover her mouth, Martina tried to breathe in a lungful of filtered air as she looked around for her opponent.

The cloud of dust obscured everything more than a foot away. There were shadows around.

One moved.

Martina used her rings to fire off a sickly green bolt of lightning.

“Summoning more demons? Tisk, tisk.”

She whipped her head around and immediately shot off another bolt into the corner of the room.

“I appreciate a fight as much as the next hunter, but I’d say that we have our work cut out for us with what is already around.”

A different corner, where the sound had come from, exploded from another lightning bolt. More dust and debris filled the air, sending Martina into a fresh set of coughs.

Her eyes burned. The shadow was moving around faster and faster, making Martina dizzy as she tried to follow it around her room.

“You kill me,” she coughed through her shirt, “and Zagan will be off his leash. You don’t know the destruction he will cause. He’ll kill everyone around. Innocent students, teachers, children.”

“Ah, I’m sure Clement will be broken-hearted to hear that. Unfortunately for you, you mistake me for someone who cares.”

Martina didn’t launch another lightning bolt. That tactic was obviously not working. She had to try something else.

Building up her magic, Martina tried for a teleport.

Only to collapse to her knees as she felt like she had run head first into a brick wall.

“Zagan,” she shouted, “help me–”

A cold hand pressed around her mouth, cutting her off.

“Calling for help? Is that all you can do? That is why you will die. One less summoner around will make our job much easier.

Martina gripped the hand. The arm led somewhere behind her, but she couldn’t take the chance of missing again.

With the hand still around her mouth, Martina cast a sickly green lightning bolt straight at the arm.

Her body was wracked with pain, convulsing as the lightning tore through own flesh.

Still, she kept it going. More lightning, more and more. It was tearing through the hunter’s body just as much as it was hers.

Steam pouring off her body, Martina collapsed to the ground as her mind went blank.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.021

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“Well that… that… that just rains on my parade!”

Clement pulled the binoculars away from his face to glance towards his partner. Gertrude was leaning half over the edge of the roof with the visor from his armor pressed against her eyes. Her mouth was twisted into a pout.

With a gentle hand, Clement pulled her back. She wouldn’t die from the fall. They were on top of some sort of dancing club for the students to waste time in, it was only a few stories high. The idea that she would even be injured was laughable. Still, he didn’t want to jump down after her. Neither did he care to wait around with their guest until she climbed back up.

Once sure that she wasn’t a stiff breeze away from falling, Clement brought his binoculars back up.

It wasn’t the best view. The roof of the club was a bit lower than the floor of their apartment. He could still see most of the room. Better yet, he could see the demons through the walls. Just faint outlines, enough to track them. A similar enchantment was on his visor, though of slightly higher quality.

Though there wasn’t much to see anymore with the naked eye. Before he had put his binoculars down to deal with Gertrude, the demon that they had captured had already been in the process of being carried out of the room. The only thing he could still see was their original target, the hel. She stood, gazing around the room with eyes as dead as a soulless corpse.

At first glance, she was a beautiful woman. Long hair, regal features, smooth skin. She had everything needed for a classical sort of beauty. But that all disappeared the longer he looked. The iced over lips, skin too smooth, dark veins barely visible underneath her skin, and her lifeless eyes. All of it added together to give the hel an unnerving quality.

Clement jumped back, jerking away from his binoculars.

She had stepped towards the window. In doing so, she had put most of her body into the early morning sunlight.

Watching her skin vanish as if a bucket of paint thinner had been dumped over a sheet of freshly painted glass was the worst. Clement had seen skeletons before. They didn’t bother him. But this hel… there was intelligence behind those empty sockets that just shouldn’t be.

With a shake of his head, he pressed the binoculars back to his eyes. This time, he angled towards a movement at a street-level door. Faint outlines were near the door.

The girl, the one who had been first on the scene and had broken the seals on the door, walked out of a side entrance. Her bright red eyes glanced around, but didn’t spot anything suspicious. With a wave of her hand, she gestured to her companion.

Some person wearing a poor imitation of his armor followed her out. Between the two of them, they had a bundle of blankets.

It didn’t take many guesses to figure out what was squirming around inside. It took even less guesses when a few tentacles slipped out into the air.

Clement reached back. His armored hand curled around the hilt of his sword.

“Shall we intercept?”

Gertrude hummed. Then she hawed. She hummed some more while running her fingers through her red hair.

With a frown, Clement released his sword. If she was pretending to think about it, the answer was no. Gertrude often came to quick, near instant decisions. Her current actions were just for her own amusement.

“Nope,” she said after a few more indecisive scratches of her head. “We could end the tentacle monster easily enough. Possibly the girl as well. We just don’t know enough about her at the moment to say for certain. Somehow, she learned of the tentacle demon’s presence and ruined everything. How?”

Clement did not respond. He had no insights to offer. Gertrude was the magic specialist. He couldn’t create even a small spark if his life depended on it. Luckily, with the armor that she had made for him, his life never depended on his magical abilities.

Merely his swordsmanship.

“Besides,” Gertrude said with a nod towards the apartment window, “the hel is still watching. Fun as it might be, we’ll get her attention and possibly attract every other demon in the area. I don’t think the girl is any kind of big shot, but there is a reason we tried to trap the Hel instead of fighting.”

“We could–” Clement cut himself off with a frown. The hel was powerful, true. Not so powerful that a well placed swing of an enchanted sword couldn’t lop her head right off. With both him and Gertrude, he doubted that she would have much of a chance.

If other demons joined in, even if only as distractions to him and Gertrude, that slight chance grew immensely. It was why they had gone with the trap plan in the first place.

And that was assuming that the devil stayed content to merely watch.

There was a tingle going up Clement’s spine. Some small shiver as if he were being watched. Glancing around, he couldn’t see anything that might be the source.

The hel and everyone else at the apartment building were too far away. It couldn’t be them. There was a reason that he was using binoculars. Of course, someone there might have enhanced vision. Peeking through his binoculars again, he couldn’t find anyone looking in his direction.

Every time he thought of the devil, he felt the hairs on his neck rise up.

It was that devil. It had to be. The only question was whether or not the devil was actually causing the sensation. It was entirely possible that everything was all in his head.

Gertrude never felt anything. He had asked. She was certain that whatever magic she was doing was enough to keep them off the devil’s radar. It worked for the rest of the demons. No one really noticed them while wandering around. So far, he hadn’t seen any sign that the devil actually was watching them. As far as he knew, it was working.

Glancing around, Clement still couldn’t shake that feeling of being watched.

Gertrude paid no mind to his unease. She spun around with a bright smile on her face before resting against the raised lip of the building’s roof. “Anyway, all is not lost. We’ll just have to modify our plan for the other one. It wouldn’t be good to face them all at once. Besides, with him around, we can try trapping the hel again.”

Clement turned to face their guest. He couldn’t see anything. Morail were annoying like that. There was no doubt that the demon was trapped within the shackles on the roof. They had been hastily constructed, but they were no less effective. Even better, they were suppressing his demonic aura. None of the other demons should be able to sense him.

Of course, that hadn’t helped with the girl. As Gertrude had said, she had found out somehow. She hadn’t been concerned going into the apartment complex. Clement could guess that there was some range limitation on whatever ability she had. If not, then this morail would already be known to them.

Since they weren’t under attack, no one knew.

“They’ll be wary if we try the same trick again, Gertrude.”

“Ha! They’ll be wary no matter what we do. Still, just need to draw them out to where we’ll have the advantage. Otherwise…” Gertrude trailed off, rubbing a finger over the ring on her hand. “Well, we might just have to straight up fight them. No tricks or traps. But that’s for later.”

“And where will we try again? Not the original location?”

Gertrude’s smile grew ever so slightly. “Pack him up,” she said with a nod towards the apparently empty set of shackles. “Tight. Compact. I doubt he’ll need limbs. Then meet me at that little gas station on the edge of town, right near the highway.”

With that said, she pushed back with the tips of her toes, falling over the edge of the roof backwards.

Clement didn’t bother with checking over the edge. She would be fine.

Instead, he gripped his sword, hefting if off its mount and readying it in front of him.

And he paused. Gertrude wanted his limbs off, but the rest of the demon should probably be intact. Somewhat of a difficult prospect while his target was invisible.

She had taken his visor as well.

With a frown, he brought the binoculars up to his eyes. It was dizzying to look at something so close, but he could see a thick outline around the demon through the lenses.

It would be hard to aim. One of his hands had to keep the binoculars pressed to his face.

Oh well, he thought as he started his advance, it might be a bit messier than otherwise.

— — —

Eva and Juliana set Lucy down on a bed in one of the Brakket Academy infirmary rooms. They hadn’t known what else to do with her. At least not before talking with Martina Turner.

Nurse Post stood to the side, watching with a frown on her face. “You know,” she said, “I remember a time when it would be seen as odd to walk into the infirmary with a bundle of tentacles. I don’t even know where to begin with treatment.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, you probably won’t have to treat her. She’ll heal on her own over time.”

Nurse Post made a face. It was a bit hard to see behind her surgical mask and gauze covering one eye. The blood behind the coverings didn’t lie. Her lips were twisted into a grimace and her nose had wrinkled.

Eva wasn’t sure why she felt the need to don a surgical mask. Maybe she thought that she would be operating on Lucy.

Upon seeing her when first entering the nurse’s office, Eva actually had to do a double-take. Both Nurse Post and the woman who had likely kidnapped Lucy had eye patches. It was such an unusual trait that Eva’s eye had been drawn to it first while her mind jumped to conclusions.

Stupid conclusions. Nurse Post had much darker hair. The woman’s was red. Their facial structure was different. Nurse Post lacked that somewhat disturbing smile as well.

“She?” the nurse asked, face still wrinkled in a mixture of confusion and discomfort.

“Oh. Right.” Eva rested a hand on the bed near Lucy. “Meet Lucy. The security guard,” she added when Nurse Post failed to show any recognition. “This is what she looks like when not doing her poor impression of a human.”

Narrowing her eye ever so slightly, Nurse Post said, “that should surprise me. Somehow, it doesn’t.” She sighed as she shook her head. “She and the other specialist went missing. Shall I prepare to receive another wad of tentacles?”

“Oh no. Daru looks like a human for real. Lucy is something of a special case.” Eva paused for just a moment before continuing in a more somber tone of voice. “Also, we haven’t found him yet. I don’t even know if he is still… around.”

Something of a depressing silence fell over the group, only to be broken by Lucy knocking a tissue box off a table next to the bed.

Eva turned to find Lucy squirming a whole lot more than she had been just a moment ago.

Figuring that there was no harm in asking, Eva said, “I don’t suppose you know where Daru is?”

The thrashing tentacles stilled. Eva took that for a negative, but that was mostly a guess.

As Eva watched, Lucy started trying something. Her few remaining tentacles were winding around each other. Lips, or something vaguely resembling them, started to form as the tentacles tightened together. Unfortunately, as she tried to form a throat and some lungs, the lips started to come unwound.

Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t form enough of a face to speak while still having lungs to draw in air needed to create the sound of words.

So much of her body was missing that she couldn’t even put together half of a head to speak. It was amazing that she was still alive at all. Decentralized nervous and circulatory systems were awe inducing.

Eva grimaced at the sight. Absently, she noted Juliana glancing off to the side while trying to not look like she was disturbed. Nurse Post placed a hand over her masked mouth after gasping.

“Alright stop,” Eva said, placing her hands over Lucy. “You’re not helping. If you could write, that might work better.”

The tentacles ceased their formations of various organs, instead just flopping out onto the bed. Eva, once again, took that as a no.

“Just focus on getting better.” Turning back to Nurse Post, Eva said, “you should know that she was taken by demon hunters. They might not be so excited that she got away.”

“So you bring her to a school?”

Eva shrugged. “Summer time. School is out. Most students aren’t even back for the summer seminars yet. If they come back at all. Besides, I can feel Zagan nearby. I doubt that they’ll come here. Still, something to be aware of.”

“And if they do come back?”

“Hide. Let them take Lucy. She won’t die even if they kill her. You will.”

There was a bit of squirming from Lucy at Eva’s suggestion, but Eva paid it no mind. A thought entered her mind about whether or not her statement was true.

“I think, anyway,” Eva said. “The red eyes throw me off, are you a demon or are you not?”

Eva couldn’t sense anything from her. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Zagan was nearby. Probably just down the hall in Martina Turner’s office. With him so close, Eva could barely feel Lucy and they were just about touching. Inexperienced in her ability to detect demons, it was entirely possible that one she hadn’t known about would slip through.

“I’m not a demon.”

“Then leave her to the hunters.”

If she caught wind of the hunters coming after Lucy again, Eva would jump in without hesitation. Asking the same of a school nurse was not really something that she could do. She was counting on the fact that Zagan was fairly intimidating when he wanted to be.

“Now,” Eva said, “I don’t supposed you know if Martina Turner is around?”

“Last I heard, she was in her office.”

With Zagan, Eva thought with a nod of her head. “Right.” She glanced back towards Juliana. “Coming along?”

“I–Yeah.”

As they headed out into the hallway, Juliana let out a long sigh.

“Figures,” she said, “I’m back and in less than half a day, big things are going on.”

“I imagine your little vacation wasn’t quite so eventful,” Eva said with a chuckle.

“Not really. Aside from Zagan showing up, about the only interesting thing was watching this town on the news.”

“About the sky?”

Juliana glanced around the empty hallway. “I know it isn’t some agricultural thing,” she said in a low voice. “What is it?”

Eva shrugged. Juliana had been there when Zagan had explained about the situation with Hell. Of course, her mother had a hole in her chest at the time, but Eva was fairly certain that she had heard enough to get the gist of it. As such, she didn’t feel a need to explain all that.

“Don’t know for sure. The idea that Wayne, Zoe, Devon, and Ylva came up with is that it is some form of attack on Void. It and the enigmas–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “The creatures that your dad came to inspect are the enigmas. I can’t remember if they had their name when you were here last. The idea is that they’re designed to weaken the barriers between the mortal realm and Void. Whether the sky is the cause or a side effect is still up for debate.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“I try not to worry about it.”

“That seems…. irresponsible.”

“It’s sort of like knowing that a meteor is careening towards the Earth. What am I really supposed to do about it? Devon and Zagan don’t seem particularly worried. Devon is a coward as well. If he isn’t running around like a chicken without a head, I don’t know why I would.

“I prefer to focus my energies on things that I can actually affect. Sawyer, for instance. These demon hunters for another.”

Juliana made a small humming noise. Not really one of agreement or derision, just of acknowledgment.

Inside the main office area, Eva paused with a frown on her face.

Catherine’s desk was empty.

She could sense her somewhere. That probably meant that the demon hunters didn’t have her. But she wasn’t nearby. At least, she wasn’t inside Martina Turner’s office. Zagan was. Now that Eva was closer, she could sense someone else inside as well. A demon that Eva found familiar, but couldn’t quite place. It was probably her imagination. She hadn’t run into very many demons since her latest treatment anyway.

With no one around to wave her into the dean’s office, Eva pushed open the door without hesitation.

“–can’t allow them to–”

Martina’s voice cut off as soon as the door opened. She turned away from Governor Anderson to glare at the interruption. As soon as she saw who it was, her face twisted. As if she couldn’t decide whether to soften her features or to glare harder.

For his part, Anderson merely turned to regard Eva with a raised eyebrow.

Zagan was leaning against the wall just to the side of the door. His golden eyes were already staring at Eva as she entered, obviously expecting her. He hadn’t needed to turn his head.

One of his hands was fiddling with the cufflinks on his other wrist. His hands dropped to his sides as he spotted who was behind Eva. His lips split to reveal teeth that a dentist would be hard pressed to find a flaw in.

But Eva paid him no mind. Zagan was a known demon. A devil and a scary one at that, but one that Eva could at least somewhat predict.

Her eyes were drawn over Martina’s shoulder.

The other demon that she had felt was standing there, staring at her.

Eva immediately realized her mistake.

She had seen this demon before.

“Prax?” Juliana said from behind Eva. “What are you doing here?”

The cambion huffed, crossing his beefy arms in front of his bare chest while glancing off to the side.

“What indeed,” Eva murmured with an aside glance towards Zagan.

The devil shrugged his shoulders. “I heard he got loose from his fleshy prison and wanted into the mortal realm. For a time, I considered torture and execution. Now I’ve decided to have him serve out his insult to me by taking over so many of my duties. Marvelous idea, yeah?”

“I only saw him just a few hours ago. He asked to get out of Hell then.”

Just how quickly had Prax been summoned up by Martina? She could understand if Zoe had let slip that Prax was out, but wanting to get out of Hell was another matter entirely. Eva could understand him being able to hear conversations while he wasn’t immediately present. Zoe could do the same through enhancing her hearing beyond human limits.

Even her enhancements didn’t reach Hell.

“Have you been spying on me?” Eva asked.

“Of course I have.”

Eva blinked, not expecting the blunt response.

“I told you before, I have a vested interest in you. A few simple enchantments on your person and…” he trailed off with another shrug and a nod towards Prax.

For just a moment, Eva had half a mind to protest. To demand the removal of whatever enchantments he had applied to her.

Those protests died off when she caught sight of his eyes.

He wasn’t glaring or anything, but Eva couldn’t help the shiver running up her spine.

Ignoring her discomfort, Zagan turned back to his original object of interest. “Juliana,” he said as he reached out a hand to ruffle her hair. “Welcome back.”

She just sat there and allowed him to mess up her blond hair. “Thanks.”

Her voice came out as a whisper as Zagan withdrew his hand.

Eva yearned to ask. Juliana’s earlier request to not talk about Zagan held her tongue. For now.

With a slight shake of her head, Eva turned to face Martina Turner.

“I rescued Lucy.”

“So I’ve heard,” she said, eyes flicking towards Zagan. “No sign of Daru?”

“None. Ylva is convinced that it was a trap for her. I’m inclined to agree.” Eva raised an eyebrow in Zagan’s direction. “Perhaps Daru is intended to be a trap for someone else?”

“A trap for me?” Zagan said with a chuckle. “I’d like to see that. Perhaps I’ll walk into it just to see what happens.”

“Well, I can’t imagine people fighting you in a fair fight. Even if you went as easy on them as you went on Sister Cross.”

“Dammit.” Martina slammed a fist on her desk. “I thought you were keeping these hunters off my back,” she said in a half shout.

“I told you that it wouldn’t last forever,” Anderson said, keeping his voice carefully controlled.

Picking up a large glass off the desk, she downed the dark brown contents in a single swig. A long and harsh sigh escaped her lips as she set the glass back on the desk. “Should have been longer than a handful of months. I expected a year at least. We’re not ready for hunters.”

Eva cleared her throat. Just a light cough before speaking. “You summoned Prax, right? I feel a few others too.”

“Replacements,” Martina said through grit teeth. “With Brakket’s security force decimated, I had to get more in a hurry.”

“There are three of them including Prax?”

“A second morail and a hellhound under his command.”

Eva nodded. The hellhound wouldn’t be sentient, but it made sense that she could sense it. Still, Martina had Catherine, Lucy, Daru, this new morail, a hellhound, and Zagan all contracted to her. The most she had seen Devon summon was three, and that had just been half a year ago or so. Before that, his highest was two at once.

She could only imagine what Devon would say about Martina. Her imagination filled in several uses of the words idiot, menace, and suicidal.

But, it wasn’t her problem. If Martina wanted to surround herself with demons, that was her choice.

Eva just hoped that she had a bag of popcorn nearby when Zagan decided that he didn’t want to take orders anymore.

“Anyway, I think Ylva is wanting to hunt down these hunters. I’m going to help her. Any resources that you could spare would be appreciated, I’m sure.”

Martina went silent for a moment. Her finger ran around the edge of her now empty glass. “Take Prax and Catherine. Zagan will stay at my side. Cereth and the hellhound will remain patrolling around Brakket Academy.”

Eva expected Zagan to stay with Martina. Unless she was far more altruistic than Eva knew her to be, Martina wouldn’t want her strongest asset away from her. Though he could probably kill the hunters in one shot, it would leave her far too vulnerable. The other morail, Cereth, would likely be a backup. Or, he would be sent in to die first while Zagan watched and laughed.

Maybe it was a good thing that Zagan wouldn’t be at her side.

Standing up, Martina placed the palms of her hands against the top of her desk, leaning over. “Get these bastards out of my town.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.019

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Irene sat in her seat, shifting back and forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I sit here?”

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

Randal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re taking enchanting and warding?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irene blinked. “How does–”

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

You could say that again.

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

Irene blinked. Again. Elysium Order? What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until her gaze crossed Irene. Then, she smiled.

Irene shuddered.

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

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

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

The class really needed proper supervision.

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had to keep the numbers up, after all.

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

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

A record, Martina thought with a sarcastic tone.

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

Relatively.

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

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

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

But they did need fresh young bodies.

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

They still needed more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martina started as her door opened with a click.

Catherine hadn’t said a word.

Slacking again?

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

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

There goes my good mood for the day.

Anderson never brought good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unpleasant,” he said.

Of course it is, Martina thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martina froze mid drink.

That was… bad.

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

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

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

Martina grit her teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

Hunters.

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

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

Easy to say.

But what to do?

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

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

“I think I need more security personnel.”

— — —

Laughter.

Maniacal laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet it wasn’t even slowing.

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

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

“Watch the panel, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time for another installation, honey.”

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.001

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Returning to school just wasn’t quite the same. It didn’t feel right. So much had happened and so much was going to happen that sitting in class and practicing thaumaturgy just felt unimportant. Like being concerned over a mosquito bite while bleeding out from a missing arm.

Eva leaned back in her chair and shut her eyes. She was supposed to be practicing heat manipulation.

None of Isaac Calvin’s directions actually made it to her conscious thoughts. The unending swirl and churn of her worries and imagination all mixed up into one gigantic nightmare. Naturally, such a nightmare occluded most everything unrelated.

Someone or something was trying to pull Void out of whatever plane of existence in which He resided.

Without knowing much about Void or how Powers operated, existed, or worked, most of Eva’s worries stemmed directly from her imagination.

In her imagination, Void was like a planet. Or perhaps an entire solar system. Maybe even a galaxy. A galaxy filled with tens of billions of demons.

It probably wasn’t a very good comparison. Planes of existence were so abstract in every way that a galaxy seemed too normal, too relatable. They were the realms of Powers, inhabited and created by them at the same time.

Despite having been to Hell itself, Eva couldn’t confess any knowledge about how it worked. There were islands and water. And that was it. Travel within Hell was done through the waters, so that must be some connecting factor that linked the place together.

When Eva stepped back from the islands and water to consider just how the layout of the place worked, her mind went blank. A sudden moment of absolutely zero thought going on within her brain. She would always snap back to reality with a surge of fear-fueled adrenaline.

Eva didn’t consider herself frightened of much, but nothing scared her beyond anything else. The idea of an absence of herself, her very being, sent shivers up her spine. It stretched the limits of comprehension and filled Eva’s very soul with an innate sense of wrongness. Void illimitable and so thorough that should her conscious thought vanish, so too might reality itself.

The longer she thought about such things at once, the greater the horror upon snapping back to conscious thought.

Shaking her head, Eva found herself with a layer of uncanny sweat formed on her skin. Again, she was falling prey to her own wandering mind.

That instant blank of her mind when she considered Void was so close to nothing that she couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t the reason for Void being named as such.

With regard to all that, thinking of Void as a galaxy solved so many problems.

A galaxy was relatable. Imaginable. Though she had never objectively seen a galaxy with her own eyes–Eva barely glanced up at stars in the night sky–she had seen a number of pictures and drawings. Most of those came from her time in regular public schooling prior to enrolling at Brakket Academy.

Considering the immense size of galaxies and the empty space between might boggle the mind. However, boggle was a far cry from the existential blank of her deeper thoughts regarding Void. She would much prefer a little boggling.

Regardless of how Void would end up manifesting within the mortal plane, Eva held no doubts that it would be anything short of apocalyptic.

Even assuming that Void could enter the mortal plane in a benign manner, the demons that would undoubtedly come along with Him would likely be hostile towards most of humanity.

Those that wouldn’t be hostile to all humans, herself, Ylva, Arachne, and any others, wouldn’t do humanity many favors. Any war between demons fought on Earth would likely destroy it.

And Eva hadn’t the slightest clue as to how she could stop either a war or Void entering the mortal plane. Zagan seemed at a loss. He was back to teaching his combat class, flippant as always.

Far from what she had expected of the Devil. She had expected him to run off and find out who or what was doing the actual Void-to-mortal-plane thing. Then again, maybe he wanted it to happen. Just because Eva couldn’t see any benefits to having Void and all the demons roaming around Earth did not mean that Zagan felt the same.

“Eva.”

Eva snapped her eyes open. Isaac Calvin stood at the front of the room, looking at her. Not a hostile look, nor a look of reprimand for having her eyes closed, nor even an apologetic look. Just a look.

At his side stood the ever-sultry Catherine. Unlike the good professor, Eva could feel the daggers that the succubus glared with.

Why? Who knew? Eva didn’t. Neither did she care. She hadn’t done a single thing to the succubus to warrant such a glare. Not that she could remember, at least. Eva narrowed her eyes at Catherine ever so slightly.

Taking her attention from the succubus, Eva glanced back to Isaac Calvin. “Yes? Professor?”

“Dean Turner wishes to see you in her office.” He gestured to his side, “Catherine will accompany you.”

Eva’s first reaction was to ask what the dean wanted to talk about. She quickly discarded that notion.

Anything Martina Turner had to say would likely not be something everyone in her class should hear.

Looking at the clock behind the professor’s shoulders, Eva decided to pack up her bag. There were only ten minutes left in class. Even if the dean only spoke for a few seconds, coming back to class would be a waste of time.

It wasn’t like she was participating in class anyway.

After shoveling her books into her bag, Eva stood and walked past the two empty chairs at her table.

Neither Shalise nor Juliana had been in class since November. Shalise, being still in Hell, would find it troublesome to show up. Juliana was still at her mother’s side in whatever hospital they had ended up at.

Eva wasn’t certain if the latter was going to or even wanted to return to Brakket.

On her way out, she did give a light wave to Jordan, Shelby, and Irene. Shelby returned the wave and Jordan gave a light smile. Irene, on the other hand, pressed her lips together before giving a curt nod.

Since returning to school, Eva hadn’t had much opportunity to speak with any of them. Most every moment of free time was spent back at the prison with Devon and Ylva. Lunches had been silent and awkward for the most part. No real room for discussion there.

Which wasn’t a good thing. Jordan and Shelby had been the ones to inform everyone about Zagan’s nefarious actions towards Shalise and Juliana. They had known to go talk to Ylva and had known who Zagan was.

That warranted, at the very least, asking how they knew such things.

As she walked behind Catherine, Eva made a note to corner Jordan sometime and ask him a few questions.

Politely, of course. They were friends, not enemies or anything.

Martina Turner’s office was just a quick jaunt down the hallway. During their walk, Catherine never once spoke a word. She didn’t turn around. She barely even sauntered.

If Eva had to guess, the succubus was depressed. And angry. More angry than depressed, in fact. As they walked, Eva’s mind drifted back to that glare. She still hadn’t puzzled out what it had meant, but perhaps Catherine was just angry enough at Eva to withhold her seductive wiles.

More of a punishment for the succubus than for Eva, if she was honest with herself. As expected of a member of the succubi race, Catherine had an almost objectively perfect body. Eva just found herself objectively uninterested.

Catherine paused at her desk. She leaned over–unseductively–and hit a button on her phone.

Half a moment later, Martina’s voice crackled through the speaker. “Yes?”

“Eva’s here.”

“Don’t just stand out there, bring her in!” There was a loud crash on the other end of the line just before the little red light blinked off.

Eva caught a ghost of a smile cross Catherine’s face as she moved over towards the door.

Martina sat behind her desk. Her elbows were resting on her desk while her fingers were steepled beneath her nose. On either side behind her were the two black-coated security personnel.

Lucy smiled and waved. She snapped back to attention after earning a glare from her compatriot. He–Eva couldn’t remember his name–rolled his eyes and faced forward.

Eva might feel comforted at the idea that Lucy found her presence enjoyable. Unfortunately, she had little doubt that the demon was at least partially unstable. She would kill Eva with that same smile on her face at the first request from Martina Turner.

Long ago, there was a time where Eva frequently found herself scared of Arachne. Probably owing to the circumstances surrounding their initial meeting. Even nowadays, Eva occasionally grew nervous in Arachne’s presence. Especially since returning from Hell.

How could Martina Turner, a perfectly normal human, stand having two demons standing at her back? One constantly made low gurgling noises while the other eyed everything in the room as if deciding in which order he would destroy everything.

Then there was Catherine. While less likely to outright murder everyone simply on account of her being a succubus, Eva knew that the secretary did not like her master.

But then, Martina might not be mentally stable either. Not entirely, at least. She did keep constant company with Zagan. If even half of Devon’s complaints about the devil were true, it was almost a miracle that Martina hadn’t already been killed.

Eva stood around as Catherine came into the room, closing the door behind her. For a good minute, no one said anything. Martina merely eyed her from behind her hands, the morail stared off at some ceiling tile, and Lucy bounced on her heels. Catherine pulled out a smartphone and started tapping away.

Remembering the dean’s earlier power plays with Ylva, Eva sighed. She could definitely understand why Catherine disliked the woman. Perhaps it would be possible to poach Catherine off of Martina. Eva would have to look up some information about familiar bonds, though it might all be a moot idea anyway. If Catherine didn’t like her better, there was no reason to alter the status quo.

Besides, she already had Arachne to worry about.

“Unless you’ve summoned me here to deliver reparations for Zagan’s actions towards Shalise and Juliana, I’m leaving.”

After another few seconds of silence, Eva turned on her heel and reached for the door.

“Eva,” Martina said. “You’ve heard why Zagan did what he did.”

Ignoring the woman, Eva tried the door.

Locked, of course.

Eva started building up magic for a teleportation to the prison as she turned to Martina.

“That doesn’t excuse his casual disregard for my friends.”

“And,” she continued, in a tone that suggested she was ignoring Eva’s statement, “Miss Rivas even thanked Zagan for his actions.”

Eva raised an eyebrow.

“You didn’t know that, but it’s true. I was present alongside Catherine and Governor Anderson. Even if you distrust Catherine and myself, Governor Anderson doesn’t particularly like Zagan or myself. Ask him to confirm it.”

“I will,” Eva said.

Governor Anderson had been wandering around since Eva’s return. He never once spoke to her, mostly choosing to spend his time moving from place to place with a sweeping coat. Eva would have assumed him to be a part of Martina’s demon security had Jordan not greeted him between classes one time.

“If there is nothing else you wanted?”

“Actually,” Martina said as she leaned back in her chair, “I have a certain initiative that I would like to start. Among students. Another club, if you will. Potentially a full-blown elective course for the fifth and sixth year students.”

“You’re really dancing around the subject.”

Martina pulled back her lips into a not-so-kind smile. “I would like to enlist Devon Foster and get his assistance and expertise in instructing a select group of students.”

Eva blinked. Her mind crawled through processing exactly what Martina had implied. Devon’s name wasn’t one she expected to hear. As a teacher no less.

That thought sent Eva into a short fit of giggles. She doubled over, hands clutching at her sides.

“Something the matter?”

“Just,” Eva took in a deep breath of air, “just picturing him in a room with a bunch of students.”

“And what is wrong with that?”

“You’ve clearly never met him.” Eva sighed. It had been a long time since she really laughed. The feeling was somewhat euphoric. “Devon in a room with twenty kids? Recipe for disaster. He hates kids. Including me, I’m pretty sure. And what would he be qualified to teach, summoning demons?” Eva let out a short chuckle.

“Exactly.”

Eva’s laughter died off. Martina wasn’t laughing. “You’re serious.”

“Entirely.”

Eva stared.

Martina Turner’s face betrayed no deception.

Finally, Eva shook her head. “I misspoke earlier. He doesn’t hate kids. He thinks they’re annoying and should leave him alone to his research. What he does hate, however, are demons. He loathes the entire population of Hell.”

“He’s a man so steeped in diablery, yet hates demons?”

Demonologist. And he loathes them. Aside from Arachne, every demon he has ever summoned, to my knowledge, has been subjected to domination.” Catherine and the morail both flinched. Lucy was too busy off in la-la land to notice. “Not to mention,” Eva said, “he would never work in such close proximity to Zagan.

“And that isn’t even getting into the fact that you want a bunch of kids to summon demons. Are you insane? A couple loose will make Sawyer look like a peaceful hippy.”

“You heard Zagan,” Martina said. “Demons may be flooding to Earth in the future. It is important now more than ever to broaden people’s horizons. To interact with demons, to know demons, and, if necessary, to fight demons. Widespread knowledge of shackles alone could save millions.”

“Starting with a few kids is the way to go then?”

“Children are the future,” Martina said, smiling as she leaned back and clasped her hands across her stomach. “What better place to start could there possibly be?”

Eva shook her head with a laugh of disbelief. “Doesn’t matter either way. I can ask him, but I guarantee that he will vehemently decline.”

“In that case, you step up and help teach your fellow students.”

“What? I know hardly anything about–”

“You don’t need to. Catherine will be the primary instructor.”

The succubus grit her teeth together loud enough for Eva to hear.

Ah, Eva thought, she isn’t angry at me, she’s just angry.

“Being a demon, Catherine is quite knowledgeable about the subject. You need to provide a human element. Perspective from a human point of view. Things that a demon wouldn’t think to consider.”

“You want me to babysit Catherine while she teaches–”

The bell signaling the end of class interrupted Eva. She let the annoying chime complete its tones before speaking again.

“Kids are stupid. You know that right? One of these idiots is going to get themselves killed. Others too.”

“The initial test group will all be properly screened for any troublesome individuals. Aside from that, you are a child. You had to have started dipping your fingers in diablery quite some time ago. While I haven’t seen any of her work personally, Zagan informed me that Juliana’s summoning circle was passable and the relative strength of the demons we have attributed to her summoning was not low.”

“And look where that has gotten us!” Eva waved one chitinous hand through the air for emphasis. “I’m barely human anymore. I don’t particularly mind, but others? I can’t speak for them. And Juliana? It was Zagan’s fault in the first place! Her mother might be bedridden for life because of demons.”

“That’s a pessimistic outlook.”

“Now you want to bring other kids into this? How long before one of them gets trapped in Hell, sharing their body with a demon?”

Eva pressed her fingers to her forehead and slowly shook her head. “You know what? I don’t even care. Because of Shalise and Juliana’s recent experiences, I’m getting worked up over a bunch of people I probably haven’t even interacted with.

“So I’ll tell you what. I’ll do it.”

“Excellent. Catherine, start–”

“Not so fast, Martina Turner. You have something I want.”

The dean narrowed her eyes. “What would that be, Eva Spencer?”

Clenching her jaw, Eva folded her arms. “Zagan.”

Catherine whipped her head over and spoke for the first time since entering the room. Her face twisted into a look of disgust. “You want Zagan?”

Eva dismissed the succubus with a wave of her hand. “Not in whatever manner is floating through your mind. Order Zagan to get Shalise out of Hell. Order Zagan to fix Juliana’s mother. Do that and I’ll teach your stupid class.”

A silence settled over the office, broken only by a light gurgling from Lucy’s corner of the room.

The silence gave way to a deep chuckle from behind Eva.

Eva narrowed her eyes. She did not turn around. A circulatory system matching Zagan’s had appeared behind her immediately before the chuckle.

“So demanding, my little embryonic one. What has you all fired up?”

“Can you do it or not?” she demanded. He hadn’t even been here to hear, but Eva had no doubts that he had heard.

“Oh I can. With hardly any effort on my part as well.” A hand clapped down on Eva’s shoulder. “Can is a far cry from will.”

Eva steeled herself. She wasn’t about to let Devon’s rhetoric dictate a fear of Zagan. Like most demons in Eva’s experience, Zagan liked politeness. He hadn’t hurt her, directly at least.

Except that one time when they first met. He had pulled her arms off. But he fixed them right away, so did it still count?

“You see, you must ask yourself one question. Does what I offer meet the worth of what I am asking?” He let out a snort, filling the air with the rancid odor of sulfur. “I don’t know that a little teaching position is worth all that much. You know what I mean, yeah?”

“And what, Zagan, would be worth it?”

“That, little one,” he said in a mocking tone of voice, “is something you will have to find out for yourself. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to think it over while you keep dear Catherine out of trouble.”

Catherine let out a sharp scoff, but otherwise remained silent.

Eva ceased speaking as well. Her own teeth were grinding about as hard as Catherine’s had been. Zagan implying that she would accept irked her, but also gave some hope that he might actually help.

The real question was just what Zagan might consider valuable enough to help her friends.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen. I’ll sit in on the stupid class, but don’t come crying to me when the school is set aflame.”

“Excellent,” Zagan said as he clapped her on the back. “I knew we could count on you.”

Eva clenched her fists as Zagan moved up towards Martina’s desk. After a single calming breath, she relaxed. Much better than Catherine was doing, Eva noted out of the corner of her eye. The lesser succubus was actually shaking in rage.

“Zagan,” Eva said, “are you doing anything to stop Hell from being brought into the world?”

He paused his movements, glancing back over his shoulder, he said, “no. Not a thing.”

“You want it to happen.”

“I think,” he said slowly, “that it would be a bad thing–”

“Then why–”

A vice grip clamped down on Eva’s jaw. Zagan’s fingers clenched to the point where Eva could feel the strain in her bones.

“Don’t interrupt me, Eva. I do not appreciate it.”

He held on for another moment until Eva managed a slight nod of her head. When he pulled away, his fingers stuck to the thin layer of perspiration on her skin. It took a conscious force of effort to avoid rubbing her face. There would definitely be a mark there in the morning.

Unless, Eva considered, I can make the marks go away with blood magic. Redness and bruises were both caused by blood beneath the skin. It should be possible to clear it out.

But not at the moment. Eva remained silent as she waited for Zagan to continue speaking.

“It would be a bad thing. Void being in the mortal realm would open Him up to attacks. Make Him vulnerable. Potentially to the point of destruction. The why,” he said, narrowing his golden eyes, “is simply because it is something that has never happened before.

“If it comes down to a battle for survival, I will fight. And I will win. Because that is simply what I do. Anything else will be interesting to watch.”

Eva waited for a moment extra, just to ensure that he had finished speaking. “Because you’re bored?”

“A very good reason to do things,” Zagan snapped. “Finding ways to pass the time without boring myself to death is a much better reason to do something than most mortals have for committing atrocities.”

“If someone were to try to stop it,” Eva said, “would you stop them?”

“You? You mean?” He laughed. Both of the demons behind Martina hedged away from his rumbling bass tones. Martina herself managed to remain steady, though she did glance over at him with narrowed eyes. “Not even I know what is causing it nor how to stop it. Some massive ritual, I presume. Granted, I’m not actively looking. If someone were to try to stop it?” He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be any fun if I intervened too much. In the meantime, Catherine, fetch me a bucket of popcorn!”

The succubus jumped at being addressed. The surprise on her face quickly turned to a scowl. She opened her mouth for just a moment before snapping it shut. She turned and walked out of the room, apparently having decided that Zagan was serious.

Eva turned back to the rest of the room. She decided that she didn’t have much to say to them either. Martina Turner would pull her out of class at some point, presumably, for more details about the nonsense with diablery class.

With a quick thought, her built up magic discharged and swept Eva from the room.

A high-pitched scream filled Eva’s ears. No matter how much she tried to ignore it, it pierced her like a needle to the brain. Burning heat tore her flesh from her bones as she flew through a tunnel of viscera.

The agony induced by her method of teleportation was half as intense as it used to be. This time in the previous year, all flesh was seared off in the heat. Even her bones had turned black and charred.

Now, however, most of her bones were already black. A shiny sheen covered them in a manner similar to her carapace, rather than the charcoal-esque burning and cracking of her bones even a year ago. Even some of her muscles managed to weather the storm–especially those near Arachne’s limbs which were unaffected by the process entirely.

The heat didn’t touch her eyes either. Something Eva was extremely grateful for. She had had enough eye horror in the last few years to last a lifetime.

When her women’s ward gate spat her out, she still stumbled, gasping for breath. It wasn’t as bad, but the pain was still there. She had thought she might build up a tolerance for it, but every time she teleported, it felt exactly the same.

She needed more treatments.

Grasping at the water bottle she had started keeping inside the gate room, Eva uncapped it and took a long drink, moistening her sore throat. She tossed the empty plastic into a small trash bin without a second glance as she made her way into the common room.

Without pomp or circumstance, Eva flopped over on her couch. She needed to get to Devon and tell him about the dean’s plan. At this point, she wasn’t sure whether he would burst out laughing or start swearing up a storm at Martina’s idiocy. Probably some combination of the two.

Arachne could be told as well. But that could probably wait.

No, it could definitely wait.

Using as few muscles as possible, Eva stretched a hand under the couch and pulled out her current research project.

The Arte of Bloode Magicks

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004.028

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Juliana awoke with a start, eyes stinging as a few droplets of sweat fell.

Another nightmare, she thought, lifting her head from where it rested on her mother’s bed. At least this one had something more than just her mother dying in various horrifying ways. It had been a reminder about something she had forgotten.

Something she couldn’t allow to remain forgotten.

“This is not a long-term care ward.”

The light in the infirmary was set as low as it could possibly go without actually being off. Still plenty bright to see, but it did give contrast to the bright light shining through a crack in Nurse Post’s office door.

“With your wife stabilized, I’m going to have to ask you to move her. We can handle the finer details, but we still need your approval.”

Juliana glanced down at her mother and got the impression of peace. Her sleeping face appeared at rest, compared to the contortion of pain she was in back in Hell. A remarkable state considering her sternum had shattered, several ribs were broken, and several internal organs and blood vessels were raw and fresh.

A machine was hooked up to her chest, acting entirely as her heart. That particular organ would need to be regrown entirely.

And yet, her face was calm as if she were resting on a sunny beach.

Painkillers worked wonders.

“I understand,” Carlos’ voice drifted through the office door. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“Of course. Happy I could help. Now, if you’ll just take a seat, we can go over a few things.”

Juliana tuned them out. It sounded like they would be busy for a while and she didn’t want to disturb them. After scrawling a quick note on a tablet on the bedside table, Juliana left Brakket Academy’s main infirmary.

And promptly ran into a small entourage. Her breath hitched as she watched the members go by. Dean Turner led the group, followed closely by a man in a long dark coat. At his side was a primary source of Juliana’s consternation.

Zagan.

The devil moved with the group yet he felt distant from it all. The man in the dark coat was speaking to him, but if Zagan was listening, he gave no indication. He did not, however, miss Juliana standing stock still. Flashing his white teeth, Zagan gave a casual wave in her direction.

Which only brought everyone’s attention down on her.

Dean Turner was the first to angle towards Juliana. Zagan followed without hesitation, forcing the man in the coat and a fourth member–the secretary, if Juliana remembered right–to head over as well.

“Miss Rivas,” Dean Turner said in greeting. “Is your mother..?”

“Stabilized and resting. My dad is discussing what hospital to move her to for longer-term observation and treatment.”

“That is good to hear.”

Juliana nodded, leaving her head aimed at their feet after her nod; Zagan was looking at her as if expecting her to ask something of him and Juliana had no idea what. He had already made it clear that asking for additional assistance was grounds for termination. She was still a student and he was presumably still under contract, so he probably wasn’t expecting a comment about that.

Unless he wasn’t expecting her to ask for something. Looking up to meet his golden eyes, a response formed in Juliana’s mind. “Thank you,” she said, “for getting us out of there.”

His eyes widened a tiny fraction, giving Juliana the impression that he had been expecting something else entirely. Which was probably a good thing. He had said, upon being summoned, that the only reason she wasn’t dead was because of the novelty of a situation he had never experienced before.

So surprises were one of his weaknesses. She’d have to go and think up a bunch if she wanted to be in good standing with the devil who so casually dispatched the demon her mother, Arachne, Eva, and herself had all failed to inflict meaningful damage upon.

After his brief surprise passed, he gave a slight bow in return, saying nothing.

Both the secretary at his side and the man in the coat gave him something of an evil glare.

“If there’s nothing else,” Juliana said, “I was just on my way to my dorm room…”

“Oh, don’t let us hold you,” Dean Turner said. “You should be with your mother, family, and friends in times like these.”

Juliana nodded and slipped around them, ignoring the quiet remarks at her back. She wasn’t much interested in conversation with any of them.

Power-walking back to her dorm room, Juliana sang out a string of curses under her breath. All of them were directed at herself. Five days. Five whole days passed and she had let herself forget one of the most important things.

She was in an all out run by the time she reached the third floor.

Throwing the door open and flying into the room, Juliana skidded to a stop in front of her desk. It took mere seconds of rifling through her drawers to find the object of her current ire.

A small glass eye, fit for a doll.

Gripping the loathsome object in her hand, Juliana threw it with all her might.

It shattered against the floor, sending pieces every which way.

Not willing to take a single chance, Juliana pulled out the dustpan and brush from underneath the sink and set to work. Everywhere had to be checked. Under her bed, under her desk, Eva and Shalise’s beds and desks. Her meticulous sweep of the room reached everywhere even a speck of glass could have gone.

It wasn’t a short job. A full broom might have made it go faster, or at least easier on her back, but Juliana was somewhat glad she had to make do with the mini broom. It was just another sort of penance for screwing everything up.

With the pan full of glass dust, Juliana dumped it all into a plastic bag. She then embedded the bag into her armor, forming the metal around it to keep every last bit sealed off.

Now she just needed to find a fire mage capable of creating enough heat to melt glass. Professor Lurcher should do. He would probably be happy to get rid of a potentially dangerous object.

Back creaking as she stood, Juliana turned and promptly froze. Again. Second time in as many hours.

Ylva ducked into the room. Not quite fitting with her height, she had to keep slouched over. With a frown marring her sharp features and speaking volumes of her displeasure with the height situation, a pillar of fog enveloped the giant.

From the fog emerged a tiny version of Ylva that came roughly up to Juliana’s chest. Tiny-Ylva took one glance around the room, looking significantly more satisfied, before she focused on Juliana.

“Y-Ylva?” Juliana tried not to stutter, but having the demon just show up had all sorts of thoughts running through her mind. Especially given recent experiences with demons whom she thought were friendly. “What are you doing here?”

“We had little chance to speak after your ordeal and wished to ensure your wellbeing.”

“I’m okay, I guess.” Juliana shook her head, slumping back and finding purchase on the edge of her bed. “No, I’m not okay. I’m angry. I’m upset. Every time I shut my eyes, I see my mother lying on the ground, dying in various ways. Sometimes someone is standing over her, blood dripping from their hands. Willie, Arachne, Zagan, even Eva and you.

“But most of the time, it’s me over her body.”

Ylva stood still for a moment in thought. With a slight frown touching the edges of her lips, she strolled forwards. Eva’s bed sank slightly as Ylva hopped on top. Too short to reach the ground, her legs swung in the air.

“Blaming yourself will lead to misery. Willie should be the subject of your anger. He set up the situation and forced the others into it. Perhaps Zagan as well, for dropping you into Hell to begin with. Though We cannot agree with his methods, his discovery may have been well worth your sacrifice.”

Juliana shuddered, remembering his words to Eva back in Willie’s domain. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about that.”

“Perhaps nothing can be done. Time will tell.”

Frowning, Juliana nodded. Though it was evident that her attentions were well meant, it didn’t quite provide the comfort Ylva’s tone implied it should. None of her words did.

After sitting in silence for a long moment, Juliana looked tiny-Ylva in the eyes. “Can I trust you?”

“Have we given you cause to distrust Us?”

“No,” Juliana said after a moment of consideration, “but neither had Willie when he decided killing everyone was a good idea.”

Tiny-Ylva closed her eyes and crossed her tiny arms over her tiny chest, her tiny head nodded once. “Then We shall strive to not repeat his mistakes.”

Juliana supposed that was the best she would get. It wasn’t like Ylva couldn’t kill her just by reaching out a hand and touching her.

Lifting her ring finger into the air, she asked a single question. “What is this?”

“Our gift to you for services rendered.”

“Do I belong to you?”

“In a sense. Demons are selfish beings and possess ways of claiming property. Rest assured that We do not consider you as such. You are free to remove the ring and, should you so choose, never lay eyes upon Ourself again.”

For a moment, Juliana looked at the ring and considered removing the light devouring band. She ended up dropping her hand back to her lap with a shake of her head. Ylva hadn’t given a reason to distrust her. Not only that, but she had also helped Zoe, Eva, and her mother to find Shalise and herself.

Although…

“Why did you not come yourself? Willie was scared of you.”

Ylva closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “We consider Ourself a ruler. Prior to our interactions with Eva, We have not had chance to exercise Our majesty. Delegation is key for one in power and We believed that your mother, Eva, and Arachne were sufficient for the task of reclaiming you.”

Juliana started to open her mouth to say how wrong that was, but Ylva was not finished.

“In addition, We lacked knowledge of Great King Zagan’s motivations. He would not have missed the ring on your finger. We considered his actions an attack on Our person. Extended absences from Our domain could see its connection to reality severed without a fight.”

“He still dropped us into Hell, you don’t consider it an attack anymore?”

“Perhaps. As We spoke of earlier, the knowledge he gained may afford him amnesty, such is the importance of the information. Even should it have resulted in your sacrifice.”

Juliana pulled her eyes off of Ylva, looking down at her hands. Of course, she thought, what measure does a mere mortal hold next to ‘Great King Zagan’ and Hell? Oddly enough, she didn’t think in a sarcastic tone.

“We say as much not to disparage or detract from your personal importance. We merely wish to impress the gravity of the situation.”

“I know,” Juliana said with a nod. That didn’t make her feel better. Though…

Juliana looked up, determination filling her eyes. “To confirm, you can’t heal my mom?”

“Our abilities take lives, not repair them. Were she mortally injured, We might hold Death at bay for a time. Eva has already performed that task most admirably.”

That was what she had expected to hear, so Juliana gave a short nod. “Then, perhaps you might be willing to assist me in a little side project that I’ve decided to take up.”

Ylva tilted her head to one side.

“I know it might not matter with the Hell thing, but there are books I’ve decided to collect. Or their pages, specifically. Anything related to talkina or Willie.”

— — —

“Do you understand why I am angry with you?”

“I hurt your mortal friend’s mother.”

“Wrong.” Eva stared at Arachne, waiting for any response. Eight red eyes stared back without wavering.

When she realized no response was coming, Eva shook her head. “You cheated. You liked fighting Genoa. Genoa liked fighting you. I’m sure she would have been happy to die in a real battle with you. But you cheated. Worse, you used me. You made her think that you were going to kill me. And she jumped in to save me, getting hurt in the process.”

Eva shook her head. “I thought you were going to kill me. Or attack me, at the very least.”

“I wasn’t going–”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to do. When you turned your head in my direction, my heart just about jumped out of my chest. And then you started charging at me.”

Eva pressed a sharp claw against Arachne’s chest. “What if Genoa hadn’t jumped in the way? Would you have stopped? Kept going? Maybe you would have barreled over me like a rag on the floor.”

“That was not my intention. I was merely exploiting a flaw in humans to allow us to escape from the demon per his rules of engagement.”

The finger poking into Arachne’s chest remained there for a moment as Eva stared into Arachne’s eyes. Eventually, she let her arm drop with a sigh. “The worst part is that I don’t know if you can even be held responsible for your actions.”

That got a slight head-tilt from Arachne, causing her hair tendrils to slide off to one side.

“While we were all fighting,” Eva explained, “I got very wrapped up in the illusion. To the point where I was practically crying over one of things that passed as a minion. After they were all dead, it still took a few minutes before I snapped out of it. I don’t know if the same was true for Genoa or not, but you had a lot of minions still alive.”

Arachne opened her mouth. Only a sliver. Just enough to see the sharp tips of her teeth between the strips of carapace that passed for her lips. She closed her mouth without saying a word.

“Even beyond that, I hear voices down here. Or a voice, at least.”

“Void.”

Eva nodded. “You know what He tells me?” At Arachne’s slight shake of her head, Eva continued. “Promises of power, destined for greatness. Garbage like that. Shalise,” Eva pointed her thumb somewhere over her shoulder, “said that she gets ‘complained about.’ I have yet to ask Juliana, but while rambling at Genoa’s side, she mumbled out something about a voice helping her. What do you get told, Arachne?”

Arachne’s stiff lips opened in a sort of grimace. Her interlocking teeth grit together. “Complained about. That fits His words for me well enough. Typically, they’re single words. Pathetic. Imbecile. Fool. Disgrace. So on and so forth.”

“No whispers to attack the rest of us?”

Eva had to back slightly away. Arachne started shaking her head back and forth with gusto. “No, nothing like that. They’re always directed at me.”

“Well,” Eva said after a moment. “I suppose that’s good. That still leaves us with the problem of what happened to Genoa. I don’t know if you were affected by whatever affected me, I don’t know if you know whether or not you were affected. And I’m not going to try to figure it out. I’m going to assume you were, and I do not wish to hear anything more about it.

“Since I know you well enough to know that you would never even consider this, I’ll just tell you. Apologize to Genoa–”

This time, Arachne’s mouth opened wide. Some noise started to come out before Eva held up her hand.

“I’m not finished. Apologize to Genoa and Juliana–”

“She stole your book. Got us into this mess in the first place.”

Eva’s frown deepened. “Maybe true, maybe not. Zagan needed to pick someone and it probably would have been them anyway just because of their relation to us. Besides, I did the same thing. Remember me setting an imp on Master before he decided to sit me down and actually teach me a little about diablery?”

A small smile flittered across Eva’s face at the memories. A wistful sigh escaped her lips. “Good times. Of course, I had begged him several times to teach me things and he refused until I stole his book and set the imp on him, so there might be some difference there.”

“You’re not upset that she lied to you?”

“Somewhat, but I think Juliana is punishing herself more than I ever could.” Eva cracked her knuckles, though her exoskeleton lacked the typical sound. “I might have to impress upon her some proper demon handling knowledge in the future.”

Eva shook her head. “You’re getting me off topic. Apologize. To both of them. Maybe Carlos too. Get on your hands and knees and sincerely apologize. You heard what Zagan said. We don’t need Genoa coming after you for revenge.”

“She–”

“I don’t know if she will forgive you. I wouldn’t, in her position. She has every right to be angry. You’ve broken the trust she put in you.” As Arachne opened her mouth to protest, Eva spoke over her. “And don’t say she didn’t trust you. She fought mostly friendly spars with you. You said yourself that you two fought as a team against the monsters that attacked Brakket. And, most obvious of all, she let you near her daughter.

“So go, apologize. Maybe regain some trust, maybe to just keep her from killing you in a moment of weakness out of spite.”

Eva locked her gaze onto Arachne. She kept from blinking, focusing all of her attention on the demon in front of her.

Arachne stared back.

As the seconds turned to minutes, Arachne’s gaze started to waver. Eventually, she tipped her head to glance at the floor.

“Alright.”

It was almost too quiet to hear by normal means. Within her domain, Eva quickly found she could hear and see anything that happened.

“Good.

“We’ve talked about trust before; several times over the years, but I’m specifically thinking of the last time we were in Hell together. When you tricked me into exchanging hands.” Eva waved one of those hands around for a little extra emphasis. “This time, this one time, I will choose to wallow in ignorance. I will choose to believe that harming me never crossed your mind. That the talkina was controlling your actions, at least to an extent. All so we can maintain some trust between us.”

With a smile slowly forming on her face, Eva reached up and gave Arachne’s shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“You’ve been my friend for a long time, Arachne. Ever since that night you killed those bastards. Even if you saw me as nothing other than a pathetic mortal for a few years after that, I liked you. I want to keep liking you. So don’t, please don’t do anything to betray my trust.”

Arachne glanced up, sharp eyes boring into Eva. “I won’t.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

Giving Arachne one final squeeze of her shoulder, Eva turned away. Walking around the large couch in the room, she moved up to the window and looked out.

So long as she kept her eyes off the sky, everything looked just like the women’s ward courtyard. The sandstone walls and path, the dirt and weed covered ground, a few long dead rose bushes beneath the windows, it was all there.

Inside was even less distinguishable from the real world. The couch even had some dried patches of Zoe’s blood from when her home was attacked. With the ceiling overhead, the pitch black, starless void of a sky wasn’t visible.

Shalise lay on a clear patch of dirt with her hands clasped over her stomach, looking serene as she gazed up at the emptiness.

Opening the door from the fake-women’s ward, Eva walked out.

Arachne followed a few feet behind until she reached the doorway. There she stopped.

Upon reaching Shalise, Eva lay down on the ground next to her. For a few moments, no one said anything. Eva simply stared up at the sky alongside her friend and roommate.

The all-encompassing void was just so empty. There was nothing to look at. At the same time, it felt like it could reach down and swallow her whole. Not exactly a pleasant sensation.

As the silence dragged on, the shrinking feeling passed. Boredom replaced it soon enough. There was nothing to look at. At least a regular sky had stars or clouds. The sky in her domain was like staring at a wall. A very uninteresting wall.

And Shalise had been out here staring for at least an hour now. Then again, she had someone in her head to talk with. Something Eva both lacked and was quite glad she lacked. Though that lack did not help with the growing sense of boredom.

So Eva broke the silence first.

“Doing alright?”

In her peripheral vision, Eva watched as Shalise tilted her head to look at Eva. “I suppose,” she said. “Prax has stopped making a fuss for the most part. I told him that I would go back to the prison and figure out a way to get him back in his cell. He might have been lying to me when he said it in the prison, but seeing the world through my eyes for a few decades can’t be worse than staring at a hellhound every day.”

Eva gave a short, almost forced laugh. “I can see that being a pain. But it might be for the best if we tried anyway.”

“Still no plan?”

“Not a clue. Arachne doesn’t think that summoning Prax will work because you aren’t Prax. At the same time, you carry Prax so Ylva can’t let him pass through her domain into the real world. Not without going to the Keeper’s prison herself, that is.”

Stretching her arm into the air above them, Shalise started to fill it out with muscles. Her arm rapidly went back to normal before the tips of her fingers started being affected.

“That’s kind of disturbing,” Eva said.

“You have Arachne’s hands and legs.”

“Point,” Eva said as she lifted her own arm up into the air alongside Shalise’s arm. Despite moving it around in the dirt, not a speck of dust stuck to it. Thank you strange Domain magic, she thought.

They both let their arms fall at the same time. Shalise released a small sigh as hers hit the ground.

“It’s probably for the best. At least down here I don’t have to see the look on Sister Cross’ face when she finds out.”

Eva snorted. “At least you only have to worry about a look. She’ll try to kill me when she finds out about Prax, and again when she realizes you went to Hell, and yet again when she finds out you’re still here.”

That got a short laugh out of Shalise, though it died off with another sigh.

“We’ll get you out of here,” Eva said. “Or maybe it won’t even matter much in the future.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just something Zagan said.”

Shalise let out a short huff.

“When he dropped the two of you into Hell, I don’t think you went straight to that prison. From what you told me, there was about a week’s worth of time that just went missing. I don’t know what he did with you two or your souls–and I am very glad you have them back–but he used them to figure out something disturbing.”

“More disturbing than losing our souls in the first place?”

“Maybe. Though, as disturbing as it is, it might mean a way home for you.

“Zagan said that someone or something is trying to bring Void–the Power that essentially runs Hell–and all of this,” Eva swept her hand across the sky, “into the mortal plane.”

>>Author’s Note 004<<

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003.027

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“Has she woken up yet?”

Shelby stirred at the soft voice. She pulled herself out of the puddle of drool that had gathered on her sister’s bed. Wiping off her cheek, she looked towards the doorway.

“I don’t think so. What–” An involuntary yawn drowned out her words. “What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning,” Jordan said as he pulled up a chair. “I was just talking with Nurse East. He said that she should be waking up anytime now.”

“That would be nice,” Shelby said as she looked back down to her sleeping twin.

For the first time in weeks, Irene lacked the furrowed brow. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning either. She seemed… peaceful.

“She’s going to be alright, right?”

“He said it was just a concussion. A bad one, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few potions.”

“She’s not going to be like, possessed, is she?”

“Those weren’t demons,” Jordan said. His features darkened, looking like he wanted to spit. A look of pure disgust. “Just parts of them.”

His voice lacked all the inquisitive excitement usually present within.

Shelby shook her head. “And you knew about that Ylva girl? And Professor Za–”

A finger pressed to her lips. She felt her face heat up even as Jordan shook his head.

“Don’t say his name. There are ways to find out if someone talks about oneself. I don’t know if he is doing that, but I’d rather not give any excuses to draw his attention.”

He sighed, pulling his finger away as he glanced off towards Irene. “I knew about Ylva. She wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding herself. When you’ve got a family like mine, you notice things like that.”

“A family like yours,” Shelby said with a half-suppressed yawn. She didn’t know what time she had finally fallen asleep the night before, but it was clearly too late.

As she thought over what he said, Shelby slowly put her head back down on her sister’s bed. She had to wiggle a little in her chair to avoid the damp patch of her own drool. “You’re like Eva then? All into demons or something?”

“Well,” he said. His voice had an audible smile in it. “I like to think I can keep a secret much better than she can.”

Shelby snorted into the blankets. “I’ve known you my whole life. I’ve only known Eva for a year and a half. It’s clear who the secret keeping winner is.”

That got a small laugh from Jordan. “But my family values knowledge and an open mind, I guess you could say.”

“Irene knew, didn’t she. That’s why she freaked out about Eva last year and kept her at an arm’s length since then. She asked you, or you just told her.”

Jordan took in and let out a deep breath. “She stumbled upon me in a fairly compromising position a few years ago.”

Shelby snorted again. It came out slightly pained. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

“Not like that,” he said. “She just walked in on me manipulating shadows like I did yesterday. My family Swore her to secrecy. That’s Swore with a capital ‘S’ otherwise we would have told you too.”

“That doesn’t seem like something Mr. Anderson would do.” Shelby frowned as a though occurred to her. “Are you going to do the same to me?”

“We’re older now. I’ll have to tell my parents, of course, but that was mostly so that Irene couldn’t talk about it. Kids are known to talk about things they shouldn’t, after all.

“I actually wrote to them last night about Eva, all the demon-things, and Juliana and Shalise. I completely forgot to mention you.”

Shelby reached out and jabbed him in the stomach, eliciting a small grunt. That had to be one of the most offensive things she’d ever heard.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you can tell my dad yourself. I got a call this morning. He said five words: ‘I am on my way.’ I don’t think he is very happy.”

“That’s not the point, Jordan Anderson. You’re not supposed to forget about your gi–” Shelby cut herself off with a barely disguised cough, “–your childhood friend.”

They weren’t officially going out. They hadn’t even been on a date. He didn’t pay extra attention to her. Their entire relationship felt entirely one-sided.

It was entirely one-sided. They were friends and nothing more.

Shelby sighed. He’d probably prefer going out with someone like Eva anyway.

“I couldn’t help it. So much went on yesterday. I decided to e-mail it instead of texting it because it was so long.”

“That’s just–”

Shelby froze as a light groan came from the sleeping patient.

“Wha–”

Irene didn’t get any further than that before Shelby wrapped her arms around her. Carefully, of course–Irene wasn’t supposed to move or be moved much until the nurse signed her off.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Shelby said when she finally pulled herself away. She had to wipe something away from her eyes. Her vision had gone all blurry. It certainly wasn’t tears.

“What happened?”

“Long story,” Jordan said. He stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll go let Nurse East know you’re awake.”

Shelby watched Jordan’s backside as he walked out of the room. She shook her head and looked back to her sister. “What do you remember?”

“I was–” Irene’s half-lidded eyes burst wide open. Her face heated up to the point where Shelby was wondering if some of the old Irish blood wasn’t showing itself.

“Are you okay?”

“Nothing!” Irene squeaked. She shook her head and immediately winced. “I was just in the hot springs with Eva.”

Shelby frowned and quirked her head to one side. “We don’t have bathing suits.”

Irene’s already red face turned roughly the color of an overripe tomato.

“Oh,” Shelby said with a nod. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“That’s not–It wasn’t–” Irene devolved into sputtering while Shelby tried to keep her face straight. “There were monsters! I was running and then… I don’t know. What happened?”

“Nurse East said one of the security force people brought you in. You’d have to get the full story from them, but I guess Eva was fending off the monsters until the security guard got to you.”

“Oh.” Irene went silent for a moment. “Where is she?”

“The security guard–”

“Eva.”

“I don’t know. I heard Professor Baxter herself say that Eva had been stabbed with a cursed knife, but I haven’t seen her. It’s only been a day.” Shelby paused, but decided to add, “Juliana and Shalise are missing.”

She’d been told in no uncertain terms not to reveal where they went missing. Juliana’s mother was a scary woman and Shelby wasn’t about to disobey, even to her sister.

“One of the school nurses died. A different security guard is in critical condition, I guess.”

“Start at the beginning.”

Shelby shifted to be more comfortable in her chair before speaking. It could take a while.

— — —

The amount of paperwork involved with the recent incident was beyond staggering. Every form that Martina filled out and filed was replaced by three new ones. Catherine just kept digging out more.

While she wasn’t about to complain about her secretary’s new-found work ethic, Martina couldn’t help but think that it was yet another method of getting under her skin. Half the forms were only tangentially relevant. Half of the remainder were so out of date, Martina couldn’t see how they applied to the modern school.

Still, Martina filled them out. The attack was a large incident that had occurred on Brakket property. She wasn’t going to get herself fired over a misplaced RF-Two-Three-Three form.

It helped matters that Gregory had finally delivered his personal report over the incident. Martina Turner set the report down on her desk. It wasn’t everything she had hoped it might be.

While unexpected, the incident proved to be an effective test. Only Daenir, the elf, had been injured among the security team. Gregory’s claim that the addition of several unaffiliated allies had ‘saved the day’ was unneeded.

She’d be sure to leave that bit out when the time came to make a report to the administrators and whatever they ended up telling the public.

The specialists performed their task most admirably. Neither had been on either end of a friendly-fire ‘accident’ which, if Martina was being entirely honest with herself, was a concern she had had. Lucy even dragged that delinquent that had skipped class to an infirmary.

Without eating her. That was a success all on its own.

If it hadn’t been for that nurse, the day would have been almost perfect.

That was the biggest disappointment of all. If only Lisa Naranga had found a proper place to hide or simply escaped…

Nothing to do about it now. Catherine had already notified the next of kin.

The door to Martina’s office burst open, slamming into the wall.

A man wrapped in a black winter coat walked in. He stood in the doorway, taking in the room with a slow sweep of his head from one side to the other. Every inch his head moved only served to deepen the man’s frown.

Martina caught sight of Catherine. The succubus was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp points. As if feeling eyes on her, Catherine looked up and threw a glance in Martina’s direction with a nasty smile. The secretary’s eyes flashed red for a brief instant before the closing door cut off Martina’s view.

“Governor Anderson,” Martina said. She kept a scowl off her face and even managed to turn it into something of a mournful smile. “You should have sent word that you were coming, I would have arranged–”

“Spare me your pleasantries,” he snapped. “The administrators did not put you in charge so that you could run Brakket’s name further into the ground.”

Martina felt her smile slip. “I’m not sure what you’re implying,” she said slowly. “The new security team I assembled defended the academy against an overwhelming force with only one loss and no major student injuries.”

Governor Anderson shook his head. He folded his hands behind his back. “Have you done a headcount on your students?”

“Not as such,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I know that there are three students not currently at Brakket Academy. All three are known to… disappear at times.”

“Irresponsible. After an incident such as this, the first action you should have taken was to ascertain the location of all students. I don’t care where you think they are. If a student took a week off to visit relatives in Europe, you find out for sure that that student is actually there.”

Martina thought for a moment about calling in Zoe Baxter. That woman would have information about the girls. She stopped before her hand had even twitched towards the phone.

Something was wrong about the whole situation. A member of the board of administrators doesn’t just show up and start talking about missing students after a hundred hostile monsters show up on the school’s front porch. Perhaps the conversation would lead there, but he immediately went into the students.

“I take it you know something.”

“Two of those students are no longer on the mortal plane.”

Martina nodded. “One of those students is only human by the loosest definitions. It is somewhat alarming that she left our plane of existence, more so in that she took a friend with her. Their actions are not the business of Brakket Academy.”

Governor Anderson’s eyes turned dark. “I backed your plan. Convinced the others that there was merit in broadening the scope of magical curriculum. You assured me that you could keep your minions in line.”

“I’m not–”

“Find Zagan. Ask him about your missing students.” He turned on his heel and opened the door. It slammed into the wall with as much force as he had entered with.

Catherine did not look the slightest bit perturbed as he stalked by with his shadow curling up the wall. Rather, she looked interested. Her eyes turned a unique shade of red before she reined herself in.

“Find Zagan,” Martina repeated to herself as the outer door to the offices slammed shut with Governor Anderson on the other side.

“Ah,” Catherine said. She stood from her desk, grabbed a sheet of paper off the top, and tottered over through Martina’s open door. “Zagan stopped by last night, wanting you to have this. Slipped my mind until now.”

“A leave of absence?”

“He is taking a few days off, citing the traumatic incident as the cause.”

Martina tore the sheet of paper in two. She tore it again and again before scattering the pieces in Catherine’s face.

“Find him. And find all residents of Rickenbacker three-one-three.”

The lascivious grin on Catherine’s face died. “Is that an order?”

“Don’t try my patience.” Something had gone on. Something that the governor knew about despite not even living within Brakket city.

Something that involved a king of hell.

— — —

“If the immediate family would gather around for the final prayer and rites.”

A husband, a father, a mother, two older brothers, and a little sister all stood from their seats and approached the closed casket. Before a single word could be spoken, the mother broke down into sobs. The father pulled her into a tight hug while the eldest brother placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

The other brother stood off to one side with an unreadable expression. Boredom? Perhaps shock. The reality of the situation might not have hit yet.

The sister stood back with her brother. Her face was twisted in an expression of confusion as she watched her mother. She had to be in elementary school. Probably too young to understand everything that was going on.

Especially since the casket had been kept closed. The body was in no state to be displayed. Only the parents and the husband had been allowed to look.

The husband stood apart from the family. Silent tears streamed down his face as he waited patiently for everyone to collect themselves.

Zoe Baxter watched the proceedings from the back of the room. She hadn’t gone up an introduced herself. None of Lisa’s family knew her and she’d only met Lisa’s husband once at their marriage nearly six years ago.

She’d considered pleading to Ylva. What about, she wasn’t certain. Restoring her to life or a last chance to talk, maybe. In the end, she decided against it. Even if Ylva could do something–and Zoe wasn’t sure she could–it didn’t feel right.

Lisa and her family were highly religious. Even if it could return her to life, Zoe doubted that they would accept it if it came through a bargain with a demon. Would Lisa herself accept it?

Zoe shook her head. She couldn’t get caught in that loop of thinking again. There was nothing to be done about death.

The family prayer had gone on while Zoe was distracted with her thoughts. She only realized that fact when the undertaker and pallbearers started taking the casket out to the hearse. The family followed and soon after, so did the rest of the congregation of Lisa’s friends.

Zoe remained in her seat until the last person had filed out of the funeral home. She pulled out her dagger.

Dirt and grime coated the blade. Normally, it would have easily caught and reflected the dim light in the funeral home. She hadn’t had the time to clean it after everything.

Or rather, she forgot. There was so much going on.

Still so much going on.

Zoe ran her thumb over the flat of the blade. Most of the dust was crusted onto the blade. It would need the full works when she found the time.

She took a deep breath, wincing at the jolt of pain in her side. Break over.

Rising to her feet, Zoe picked up her cane. She wouldn’t need it in a few weeks–she barely needed it now–but it was nice to have something to lean on during long hours of standing. The nun’s lightning was problematic to heal.

It actively undid any magical attempts to heal the affected area. The magic simply fell apart. Trying to remove the lingering magic from it had suffered similar failures.

Devon had said it would disperse on its own after a week or two and then magic-assisted healing could begin. He spoke from personal experience, apparently.

The effect was something that she’d normally be overjoyed to experience, in a manner of speaking. Figuring out how such a spell worked, especially given that it wasn’t thaumaturgical in nature, would have made an excellent project.

She’d only had time to do a cursory analysis. A theory had almost immediately popped into her head about how to replicate the effect using thaumaturgical chaos magic, but not without also unraveling the spell itself. She had yet to even write down her theories let alone solve the issue.

With a sigh, Zoe teleported through between to the prison.

The place still looked like a battlefield. Half-scorched body parts were still scattered around. All belonged to the minions of the ‘Lord of Slaves’ that no one had bothered to pick up. No one cared, not with their other worries.

Zoe shuddered as her thoughts drifted to that particular demon.

Ylva and Arachne were one thing. Arachne was a psychopath, plain and simple. Plenty of humans were psychopaths, and plenty more were worse than she was. Ylva was more of an enigma. While she did somewhat enslave Nel, it wasn’t the same thing.

The very concept of the Lord of Slaves was fundamentally disgusting. She would be all too happy if Devon never felt the need to summon such a creature again.

A shout echoing through the empty compound pulled her attention away from her thoughts.

“Why can’t you send me?”

Zoe turned and stalked off in the direction of the noise. She tried not to look like she was hobbling, an endeavor she wasn’t sure was entirely successful. Every step sent pain up her leg and around her chest.

Teleporting was, unfortunately, not an option. Genoa had been on a hair-trigger temper since she had been informed about her daughter’s status. Teleporting around her was liable to result in injury at best.

Both Devon and Ylva had advised them not to confront Zagan or Martina over the matter, or even let on that they knew. Not until they could recover the girls.

That irked Zoe more than anything. She was once again considering resigning in protest. And once again coming up with a lack of results that resigning would achieve.

Zagan would have to go.

Later. And with a lot of planning.

Zoe rounded the corner of Devon’s cell house. Genoa, Devon, and Carlos all stood outside. The latter was in the process of trying to calm the two down.

Carlos was looking thinner than normal. He looked far more weary behind his coke bottle glasses. An older look. The lines on his face were pronounced and deep.

It had only been a few days and he was already looking ill.

Her daughter’s absence took a different sort of toll on Genoa. In addition to her hair-trigger temper, she’d become irritated with everyone at the prison. She was eating healthy and took proper care of herself, all in the name of mounting some kind of rescue mission.

Even when the attitude turned in her direction, Zoe couldn’t fault the woman. They weren’t her children, but they were her students. Leaving them in Hell was not an option.

Zoe at least possessed the ability to acknowledge that she was so far out of her element that she wouldn’t be much use. She was willing to heed the advice of Devon and Ylva.

“I didn’t say can’t, woman, I said won’t.” He thrust a sheet of paper at her. The drawing, or a copy, of the transference circle Zoe had taken a picture of. “Draw it yourself if you’re so desperate. But you’re throwing yourself away.”

Genoa snatched the paper from his hands. “I won’t abandon my child.”

“You’ll be abandoning them no matter what you do. You might as well use the connection in Ylva’s domain. That circle has no destination sigil. You could wind up anywhere. Hell is a big damn place. The odds that you’d wind up with your kid are astronomical.

“Then we have to figure out how to get you back, potentially delaying the rescue of your daughter. What a pain. Damn Ylva and its damn payment. I don’t have the time for this shit. It was going to save Eva anyway, I could tell.” Devon devolved into muttering under his breath.

Zoe stepped forwards, ensuring that Genoa saw her before she spoke. She didn’t want to wind up attacked on accident again. “Is Ylva still gone?”

Both Devon and Genoa turned to glare at Zoe. Carlos was the one to finally respond. “Still gone. Is she really going to help get our daughter back?”

“I think so,” Zoe said. And she honestly believed it. Ylva had been protective of her ‘things’ if nothing else. “How is Eva?”

“Unchanged.”

“No one is watching over her?”

“Arachne was with her when we left.”

No one responsible then, Zoe thought with a small sigh.

Genoa crumpled the paper into a ball and turned away. Without a word, she stalked off towards Ylva’s building.

Carlos started after her, but paused and looked back. “I-I better keep her from doing anything rash.”

“Is that true? About the destination thing,” Zoe said as soon as Carlos and Genoa were safely out of earshot.

“I consider myself an expert in these kinds of things. Demons and such. Frankly, that circle shouldn’t work. It’s like a mirror of a proper summoning circle. But if it does work, it will work the way I said it does.”

“You haven’t tested it?”

“Of course not. I don’t want to tip anything off and I definitely do not want to have anything to do with any of the seventy-two. I warned Eva.” He descended once again into mumbling complaints about seemingly everything he could think of as he turned and walked away.

Zoe stood there in the prison courtyard, leaning on her cane, wondering just what she could be doing to help her students.

— — —

Des sat in her chair without moving. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, but struggling would only make things worse.

She did glance over towards Hugo. Unlike Des, he wasn’t strapped down. He even had clothes on. Hugo simply sat and stared with his usual vacant look.

A second chair sat in the room, though it was facing the wrong way. The back was tall enough that she couldn’t see anyone, but it was probably there for a reason. A new test subject for her father, perhaps.

“You disappoint me, Des.”

Her father was smiling. Not at her and not because he was happy. In fact, that was one of the worst smiles she’d seen.

“Don’t worry, we can fix that. But first, let’s discuss why you disappoint me.”

Everything had gone so wrong. Des couldn’t even point out where things failed. Eva wasn’t supposed to have gotten away. She wasn’t supposed to have been an enemy in the first place.

Des was willing to admit that she had let her anger get the best of her. But it wasn’t her fault. If Eva had just played nice, none of this would have happened.

They were supposed to have been friends. Two outcasts joining together against mutual enemies.

That was what her father had said anyway.

“You took our little friends, Des, and got all of them killed. You didn’t tell me first. There was no plan.” Sawyer hung his head in mock sadness. “Worst of all, you ran. You got scared. They were held off by six people and a demon or two because no one was controlling them.”

His voice was soft. Calm. Completely unlike what happened when other people got mad. That was the fifth scariest part of the whole situation.

“That was the whole point in making them. Demons have far too much agency, but they’re strong. With us controlling our demon-golems…” he trailed off with another shake of his head.

“And Hugo helped you.”

Hugo blinked and glanced up to Sawyer. His eyes focused for a brief moment.

Her father snapped his fingers.

Hugo slumped forwards, falling out of his seat. He collapsed to the floor without attempting to catch himself.

Des tried to scream out. She struggled against the chair’s restraints.

They didn’t budge.

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll build you a new toy. A better one!

“But that is the price he had to pay. Don’t disappoint me again, Des.”

The restraints didn’t even allow Des to slump back in her chair. She didn’t want a new toy. Hugo was hers.

“Not all was lost. I noticed your errant actions fast enough to act myself. I caught us a little souvenir.”

He spun the spare chair around.

There was a woman sitting in it with wide eyes and short, messy hair. Milky white eyes were inset in her body everywhere Des could see. At least, between the straps. Some of the spots shouldn’t even be possible. There was definitely not enough meat on her wrist to support an eye and have a functional bone structure.

A small spot on her other arm had dried blood crusted over a hole that might have held an eye at one point in time.

“I’m going to have to change my original plan. There were unexpected complications, but all will be well. We might have to move quickly over the next few days until I figure out how to hide us from the other nuns. Their inquisitorial squad is reeling from losing half the members and one other augur, but they’ll be back.”

As she tore her eyes from the woman’s eyes, Des noticed one odd thing. When her father strapped in subjects, he stripped them to ensure they had no hidden items on their person.

The woman had a choker around her neck. A small, obsidian black skull dangled from the front end. It was highly detailed. For all Des knew, it was fashioned from a real skull. A real tiny skull, but a real one nonetheless. All the teeth were perfectly detailed, the cheekbones had all the proper shapes, and the eyes…

It drew her eyes in. She couldn’t look away even if she tried.

And she tried. She wanted nothing more than to not have to look at the necklace.

Two tiny white pricks were set so far back in the eye sockets that they could be on the opposite end of the universe.

Two tiny white stars, fueling their burning with sheer anger.

>>Author’s Note 003<<

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