Tag Archives: Zagan

010.029

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

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

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sister Cole?”

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

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

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

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

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

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

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

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

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

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

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

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

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

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

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

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

Which it promptly did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I hate you.”

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009.020

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Footstep after heavy footstep jolted Juliana awake.

She immediately wished that she had stayed in blissful unconsciousness. Everything hurt. If she had thought she was in pain before, that had been nothing compared to what she now felt. Her leg had been dislocated, fingernails broken, ankle crushed, arms broken, back battered and bruised, and her head throbbed. And that was just the big things.

But she was alive. A painful existence, but she existed nonetheless. If she were the more optimistic sort, she might consider the pain a good reminder that she was alive and be a little more thankful for it.

The stomping around above slowed to a stop. The unintelligible shouting hadn’t, however. From what little Juliana could understand, the hunter couldn’t find the stairs. Juliana wasn’t sure if that meant that the stairs were gone or if the hunter simply couldn’t see them.

A moment after the stomping stopped, jack-hammering started. Dust rained down from the ceiling, forcing Juliana to pinch her eyes shut.

“Persistent, isn’t she?”

Juliana raised her head for just one second, thinking she might take a peek at Zagan. A pain up her neck and down her spine stopped her cold. She instead left her head lying on the cold floor.

“I don’t–” Her words died in a cough. Turning to the side, Juliana spat out a bit of coppery blood. Her entire mouth tasted foul. One tooth felt a little loose. That probably wasn’t a good sign. Though it was relatively minor when compared with everything else wrong with her body. “I don’t suppose you can fix me up?”

“Can? Why yes, I can.” His voice grew closer. After a moment, she could feel his hot breath just to the side of her head.

“But you won’t.”

“Why don’t we find out why you thought it was a good idea to summon me, yeah?”

“You didn’t leave Earth on your own terms, just thought I’d bring you back.”

“And who says that I didn’t intentionally allow myself to be banished?”

Juliana opened her eyes, intent on glaring at Zagan with all the disbelief she could muster. His gold eyes met hers the moment she looked. It was enough to make Juliana jerk back, causing a sting of pain up her side.

“Alright. I admit it. I didn’t plan on being banished. I wasn’t quite sure what he had in his hand, but he kept trying to hit me with it. I wasn’t expecting him to throw it down my throat. I’ll be sure to tear his out when next we meet.”

“Ah. Except he doesn’t have a throat. Or much of a body above his legs. Eva killed him.”

“Then I shall visit upon her my congratulations,” he said in a tone of voice that made her think the last thing he wanted to do was congratulate Eva. “But he doesn’t matter, I suppose. He isn’t why you brought me here. I believe I have told you before how I feel about people summoning me to solve their petty problems.”

“What, you can’t enjoy a free ride to the mortal realm?”

He stared for just a moment, eyes darkening in disappointment. “If you truly wanted nothing from me, I suppose I won’t have to kill you.” Zagan turned towards the opening. He reached out a hand, casually moving through it as if the barrier hadn’t ever existed. “Now, where oh where is little Eva?”

“You… You’re leaving me?” Juliana said through grit teeth. It would be just like him to leave and not deal with the hunter upstairs. In fact, she should have expected it the moment she summoned him.

He turned back with a frown. “Should I not? Was there something more you wanted?” Zagan stared down at her with his golden eyes strangely mute. They lacked their normal sheen, their lust for something new.

Juliana had a strange feeling that no matter how she answered, Zagan would not be happy. Would he kill her? That was a harder question to answer. But he definitely was not about to deal with any of her problems. It was all too old for him.

“Fine,” Juliana said in a whisper. She threw herself over, rolling up onto her back and ignoring the pain that spiked pretty much everywhere on her body. “Fine! You want something new! Something to ease your boredom? Something you’ve never done before?” Grabbing the tattered hem of her shirt, Juliana exposed her chest.

Before even starting the summoning circle, she had drawn out one other circle. Rather, a triangle with three circles around it and one in the center. The sigils within the circle came entirely from her memory. She hadn’t even paid it all that much attention the one time she had seen it. But Zagan should realize what she meant. He would fix it.

If he agreed.

For the moment, he just stared.

Juliana waited with bated breath. If he didn’t agree—or worse, if Juliana was wrong and someone in the past had tried to do what she was doing—he would probably kill her for having the audacity to suggest such a thing. In fact, she could see him phrasing it exactly like that. And then when her mother bound her as a ghost to the deepest pit on the face of the Earth, he would probably come to kill her then as well. Which might be a good thing, now that she thought about it.

A sharp sound split the silence. Juliana flinched backwards. She didn’t have the energy to shield her face from whatever was coming, not that it would have helped.

But it didn’t matter. The sound had been a laugh. A single burst of a laugh that quickly descended into raving chuckles.

“Do you even understand what you have failed to smear over your chest?”

“I was working off my memory, okay!” Juliana shouted just before she collapsed onto her back, unable to take the strain of propping herself up on one elbow. “I saw it once and I didn’t even have my soul at the time.”

Zagan turned away from the open doorway, approached Juliana, and squatted down just to her side with the heels of his shiny shoes pressed flat against the ground. He reached out. A leather-gloved hand brushed over her ribcage just beneath her breast. His finger traced a circle before he pulled back.

“If that is even a half-accurate recreation of what was on your friend’s chest, it is no wonder she and her demon wound up so inside out.”

Juliana opened her mouth to respond. She didn’t quite make it. Though Zagan had both of his hands clasped together, she could still feel his finger pressing into her chest. It pressed deeper and deeper.

“What did you do?” The pressure started turning to pins and needles.

He just grinned.

Juliana couldn’t do much beyond squirm as the pins and needles turned to a hot branding iron. She opened her mouth to scream but all that came out was a strangled squawk. Then she realized something. Her body had been lying to her. Broken and mangled though it was, it hadn’t been in pain. What she had felt had merely been light aches.

As midnight black scars traced over her chest, Juliana realized exactly what real pain felt like.

Her hands clawed across her chest. Bones unbroken or broken, fingernails intact or not, it didn’t matter. Just so long as she tore off the skin on her chest.

But she never quite reached her chest. Zagan moved forward, pinning her hands beneath his shoes. Juliana could do nothing but sit and writhe.

Juliana didn’t know for how long it lasted. It couldn’t have been long, as Zagan would surely have grown bored of standing over her. However, end it did. All at once too. Juliana blinked her eyes in a daze, half wondering if she hadn’t just imagined all the pain on her chest. Everything else still hurt again, but nothing more than the same amount of hurt she had been in before Zagan touched her. In fact, it was strangely muted now.

She could still see and feel all her injuries. Zagan hadn’t cured her.

Letting out a short breath, Juliana raised her head just enough to see just what had happened to her chest. The blood she had smeared over herself had vanished entirely. In its place, deep black lines marred her chest. Neat lines as well. Like they had been drawn with a steady hand in permanent marker.

The sigil on Shalise’s chest had been a triangle. Of that, Juliana was certain. That was what she had drawn using her own blood. The markings in the circles had been the fuzziest part of the whole design in her memory. As for what was on the chests of the Brakket students who had bound demons, she had no idea. Anderson had tried to get her to bind a demon only for her to rebuff him.

Her mother wouldn’t have been happy.

Hopefully she wouldn’t kill Juliana for this.

However, the marking on Juliana’s chest wasn’t a triangle. A five point star sat on her chest within a larger circle. An endless string of words ran around the edge of the ring. Though Juliana couldn’t read whatever language it was written in, it seemed like the words changed the longer she followed the text. Like there were more words written in the space and she had to continue looping around to read them all.

It actually made her dizzy trying to stare at it.

Dropping her head back to the cement, she just breathed. The cool air soothed her throat and her lungs definitely needed the oxygen. All the while, Zagan stood over her and stared down. He kept her hands pinned beneath his shoes.

“What did you do?” she asked again, finally feeling ready to talk after a moment of silence.

“I corrected your mistakes. I gave elegance to your crude scrawling. I made it worthy of a higher being.”

At first, Juliana felt the beginnings of a scowl cross her face. Zagan’s words sunk in just a little deeper and the scowl shifted to a trembling smile. “So… You are agreeing?”

“Let me make a few things clear,” he said, squatting down while still keeping his feet on her hands—something she was glad to not be able to feel all that well with all the rest of her muted pain. One of his hands moved out to place a single finger beneath her chin. “You are likely not the first to have come up with this idea.”

Zagan stopped talking. His lips closed and he simply stared.

Once or twice in the past, he had grown extremely irritated when Juliana had interrupted his talking. But, at the same time, he might get angry if she didn’t say something. She swallowed, feeling the pressure of his finger beneath his chin, before looking up at him. “Likely?”

“It’s hard to say. I likely killed my summoners before they could think to ask.”

“Oh. But…”

“You are in an interesting position. Martina is dead. My contract keeping me from harming school children is null and void. I could kill you for having the audacity to try to contract with me. But…” He trailed off, removing the finger from under her chin as he stood. “Is that not also boring? I have killed people before for a myriad of reasons. This… could be something worth trying once.

“Of course, how interesting this is will be entirely dependent on you. I am not like that cambion that infested your friend. Displease me and I will claw my way out of your body leaving nothing but a ruined husk behind.”

Juliana brushed her tongue across her dry lips, tasting tried blood as she went. Really, whether he killed her in the future or left her to die at the hands of the hunter, it probably wouldn’t matter. She would be dead either way. One of those ways sounded like she might at least be able to get revenge first.

“Fine,” she said. “I can keep you entertained. Even if I have to go to the ends of the Earth, Hell, or some other plane of existence.”

He leaned down again, grabbing the back of her hair with his hand. “I shall keep my hopes low,” he said, yanking her head to meet her eyes dead on. “For your sake.”

Juliana glared. Or tried to. As Zagan pulled back on her hair, her chest started burning. Quite a separate sensation from what she had just felt when he corrected her binding circle. It was… almost pleasant. A certain warmth. Like being stuck out in the cold for hours only to come home to a roaring fire. Except centered on her chest rather than her entire body.

Above her, Zagan wasn’t looking quite his usual self. He had turned transparent. Though not a ghostly sort of transparent. More like a black smoke in the rough shape of a man. His only real defining features were his gold eyes that lit up his smoggy face.

She breathed in before she could stop herself. Zagan’s smoky form flooded into her body, pushing up into her mouth and nose, and even her eyes and ears. She couldn’t stop him. She couldn’t breathe.

It only lasted a moment before every last wisp of Zagan had disappeared. Without him holding her head up, she fell, knocking her head against the ground. All at once, she could breathe again. Her blocked airway cleared and Juliana sucked down fresh air.

Zagan still squirmed around inside her. Heat still poured off the sigil on her chest. Just as she wondered how long it would go on for, the sigil pulsed a faint red. After it faded, she couldn’t feel anything. No heat, no Zagan.

And no fixes to her body. Her bones remained broken, even if the pain felt considerably muted. For some reason, she had thought she might heal. Prax inside Shalise altered her body. She had said that she healed better as well as had those giant muscles.

So shouldn’t she be able to do something similar? Zagan could probably heal extremely rapidly. Better than Prax.

Of course I can. But there are simpler ways to fix your body. Faster ways.

“Zagan,” she whispered. Obviously he was still around. He wouldn’t just disappear. And Shalise had said that she could talk with Prax while he had been inside her head. “How do I heal?”

The sigil on your chest grants access to all of me. If you wish to turn into my demonic bovine form, do so. If you wish to grow horns and wings, do so. If you wish to access my magic, do so. And my magic will allow you to heal your body instantly.

“But you’re not going to tell me.”

There is a certain amusement to be gained from watching you struggle. Do try to avoid erasing yourself from existence, however.

“That’s a possibility?” She didn’t get an answer, though she did get a strange sensation like she wanted to laugh except she really didn’t.

Instead she focused. She had never really needed to think about magic before using it. The effect she wanted from her magic, yes, but never magic itself. Now, however, she could feel something else. Something only barely tangible. She could feel it slip through her fingers—metaphorically—when she tried to draw on it. She had the idea of healing her body in mind, but it just failed to do anything.

But as she thought and focused, Juliana realized something. The hammering up above had ceased. She wasn’t sure when it had ceased, but she couldn’t hear anything. No heavy footsteps as the hunter walked around either. She might have given up and taken a seat or she might have left.

Juliana was leaning towards the latter. Especially once she got a whiff of the smoke.

The hunter hadn’t been able to break through the floor, probably because of Zagan, and was now trying to burn the place down?

She had to move quickly.

“Any hints?”

My power does not do anything directly. You must take a more… inverted approach to your problems.

“What, I have to try to hurt myself?”

Getting warmer. But skip the process. Hurting yourself is a process. Healing yourself is a process. Focus on your current state and how it relates to your desired end result.

Juliana remained still as she thought, glad she was on the floor. The air overhead was looking a little hazy. The black plastic around the chimney pipe had melted away. The hunter must have thrown something down there, but Juliana couldn’t see anything from her angle on the floor.

“End result,” Juliana mumbled to herself. “I am injured and broken. I want to be alive and well. But inverted? So dead?”

The intangible feeling of Zagan’s power vanished, torn from her grasp.

“Aww, worried about me?”

I’d rather not have my fun ended before it can begin.

“So that’s wrong then.”

You’re inverting the wrong part.

“I’m injured. The inverse of injured is healed?”

The power came back… and Juliana still didn’t know how to use it. It was just there, swirling around within her. Trying to grasp and use it still had it just falling from her metaphorical fingertips. It was almost like trying to use magic without a focus. Except she knew that Randal hadn’t used a focus to throw around his anti-magic orbs during the first event.

One time, Zagan said, irritation palpable in his voice. Watch closely. You must frame your current state properly in your mind. If you try to consider the opposite of your arm, you may wind up with nothing attached to your shoulder. For simple things, adding a simple opposite qualifier works nicely. The current state of your arm is broken. The opposite is unbroken.

As he spoke, she felt a tendril of his magic brush against her arm. With absolutely no flair or flashes, it fixed itself. There were no intervening states. One moment, her arm had been twisted to the side. The next it was straight on and fully healed. There wasn’t even a bruise left over.

“Alright. Okay. I think I can do that.”

She lifted up her arm, first inspecting it to ensure that it really had healed properly. Finding nothing wrong, she moved her gaze up to her fingernails. Or where her fingernails had been before pulling them off in trying to escape from the enigma. She started with one that was merely cracked and not completely missing. Start small, she thought. If something went wrong, she probably wouldn’t erase herself just trying to modify her fingernail.

“So it is broken, right?” Receiving no protest from Zagan, she grabbed hold of his magic and pushed it into her finger. “I want my nail unbroken.”

The second she spoke, her fingernail was back to normal. With a slight giddy feeling in her stomach, she moved on to one of her fingernails that had snapped off completely. “It’s off. And now on?” Juliana grinned as the fingernail reappeared on her finger.

To her surprise, the fingernail that had been lying on the cement near the shackles vanished as well. With a furrowed brow, she moved on to her next finger. “There is no fingernail here. And I want there to be one?” Again, her nail appeared in place of the slightly bleeding meat on the end of her finger. This time, however, the fingernail half dug into the cement was still there.

“Seems like kind of an obtuse way of thinking about things.”

Perhaps in the way you are using it. Come complain again after ten thousand years when you’ve discovered the possibilities of turning losses to victories, ups to downs, and love to hostility.

“If you can do that, then how did you lose in the first place?”

There are a few limitations, yeah? I cannot directly kill a sentient being. Not usually a problem as I can strip away defenses and then just tear them apart with my hands. I also don’t resurrect beings with souls as Death gets antsy. The hunter also had a sword and a ring made explicitly to counter demons. A couple other things that you’re not likely to encounter in the immediate future.

“Right,” Juliana said with a slight cough. “Well, I suppose I can do a similar thing to the smoke?”

I believe you have exhausted my assistance.

With that, his voice faded away, simmering in the back of her mind.

“Zagan?” Juliana tried. But he did not respond. “Fine. I can do this myself.”

First her body, then her escape.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She can confirm that Juliana was alive.”

Genoa’s voice cracked. “Was?

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

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

Eva shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“I’m a spider, not a hound.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

Then she got to smearing it around the floor.

“I’m not going to be bait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t fast enough.

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

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

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

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

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

But the feeling passed. Her eyes slowly focused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And still felt herself being drawn back.

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

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

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

Juliana jerked back with it.

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

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

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

Juliana slid back just a little more before everything stopped.

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

She was just… staring.

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

Both were staring in the same direction.

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

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

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Zoe’s heart lurched.

Something happened.

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

Eva. Because what else would it have been.

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

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

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

— — —

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

And all over the front of her cellphone.

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

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

— — —

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

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

“How can you be sure?”

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.028

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Just before the bull slammed into him, it stepped on a bit of rubble. The rubble moved, causing its hoof to slip.

Clement’s fist, and the ring on his finger, went straight over the devil’s head.

Using the enchantments on his boots, Clement hopped back before the bulk of the bull could crash into him. He shook off the brief sensation of nausea—a sensation that had been getting worse as the fight went on—and took a moment to catch his breath. The devil being far enough away and still picking himself up off the ground gave Clement a brief moment to think.

Taking the hit and letting himself get bashed into by the devil might give him a chance to backhand the creature, but just the same, he might simply be crushed before having a chance to fight back.

If he got crushed without managing to tag the devil with the ring, the devil would be free to find Gertrude.

And Clement somehow doubted that he would be able to hit the devil.

Zagan had to know.

The first time that the devil had lost his footing and slipped right under Clement’s fist, he might have chalked it up to coincidence. The second time was a little strange, but perhaps this devil was just extraordinarily uncoordinated.

Ten times? The monster was toying with him.

Panting and sweating, Clement wasn’t sure how much more he had in him. Only about twenty minutes had passed. That didn’t sound like much, but considering most fights were determined in the first two minutes, twenty might as well have been forever.

Worse, his equipment was broken and shattered. Several of Gertrude’s enchantments had failed along with the armor, including ones that enhanced his endurance. The suit of armor no longer supported itself. All of its weight was up to Clement’s natural muscles to carry around. Taking that into account, it might be good that several chunks were missing.

His boots were still intact. Without the speed granted to him by his boots, he might as well have just chopped off his own head. They were pretty much the only things keeping him alive at this point.

It was only a small consolation to know that the devil before him wasn’t having a good day either.

Zagan had been taking pains to avoid the sword entirely as well as the ring. Not that long ago, he had been accepting of small cuts and even a handful of larger gouges if it meant being able to toss Clement around like a rag doll.

Clement hadn’t been able to land a hit in a good five minutes. In fact, the last time that he had been able to hit Zagan, he had sliced off one of the bull’s horns. Obviously, he had been aiming for Zagan’s head. The devil had dodged, just not as well as he should have.

Though, given that he had sent Clement crashing through a second floor window on one of the dormitory buildings at the same time, it had probably been worth it for the devil. Especially considering that that hit had been the final nail in the coffin for Clement’s breastplate.

Out of all the pieces of armor to lose, that was the one with the most enchantments. It offered him the most protection, the endurance boost, minor strength enhancements—his shoulders and upper arm guards gave him more strength. Or, it had offered all of that.

Glancing at the crumpled horn lying on the ground, Clement couldn’t help but wonder if the devil was frightened. His blade had skimmed right across the bull’s head. A few hairs had even scattered to the winds. Just a slight shift in angle would have taken the beast’s brain.

Both hands on his sword, Clement stood firm. The devil was circling him once again. He was looking for any opportunity to charge in. Any weakness in Clement’s defense.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Clement needed him close in order to fight back. Perhaps he would ask Gertrude to craft him an enchanted crossbow once everything was over. Or some magical sword that could release a long-range blade when some trigger was pulled. Just something to grant him a way to attack from at least a moderate distance.

Clement dropped his sword to one side. Putting his guard down had worked to draw in the bull before. This time, however, Clement fully intended to enjoy the mild reprieve from holding up his heavy sword constantly. With his armor damaged, his muscles were starting to feel the strain.

The bull moved again, though not as Clement had expected. It had only taken to the air thrice since their fight began. Great wings flapped, propelling it high up.

For a moment, Clement entertained the idea that it had finally broken off their engagement. While good for an extended reprieve, he still hadn’t seen any sign from Gertrude that she had accomplished her mission. He had to delay at least a few moments longer.

So Clement stood his ground, watching and waiting as the beast circled around overhead.

And, with his left hand, he started pulling off the ring. Punching or backhanding Zagan was obviously not working.

The bull’s wings folded flat against its back as it turned into a nosedive. Beneath the glowing gold eyes, smoke billowed out of its nostrils. Flames burned deep within its gullet. Some escaped from the sides of its mouth.

Clement didn’t move. He had been hoping that Zagan would charge again. This worked just as well. He held the ring in his hand, waiting.

Just a moment more, he thought, watching the bull fly towards him. Just a moment more…

With his thumb pressed against his middle finger, Clement flicked the ring up into the air.

At the same time, he activated the enchantments on his boots.

In a flash, he was at the window of one of the dormitories. A student on the other side of the glass let out a short shriek before running out of the room.

Clement couldn’t bring himself to care. He turned back to the plaza with weary eyes.

Zagan was back in his human form, coughing and sputtering with a hand clasped to his throat. Black bands shot out of the ground, wrapping around his wrists as a portal opened up beneath him.

Two golden eyes met Clement’s, burning with promised pain and death.

And then he was gone, dragged beneath the surface of Earth, back to Hell where the demon belonged.

Clement collapsed to his knees. He dug the tip of his sword into the ground, using it as a crutch to keep from falling flat on his face.

And he sat. He reached up to his forehead, wiping off a streak of blood that had dripped down into his eyes earlier.

It was over. For him at least.

He was in no shape to find Gertrude and help her. The largest threat had been dealt with. Gertrude could handle whatever was left.

Using his sword to push himself back to his feet, Clement headed back to their safe house. Not the apartment, but a regular house on the outskirts of town. A long walk, doubly so given Clement’s speed. To make it even more troublesome, he took back alleys.

The back alleys were where he and Gertrude had set up their traps for Zagan. They went unused for the fight, but they might still be useful. If anyone was following him, he hoped that would slow them down long enough for him to slip away.

He really didn’t want to use the enchantments on his boots anymore. Every time he used them, stopping was like running into a brick wall. It was worse without the enchantments of the rest of his armor.

But eventually he made it. Daylight was starting to peek over the horizon, but he made it. He took one last look around for any enemies; his visor, cracked and shattered as it was, wasn’t up to the usual task of highlighting any demons around. Still, he didn’t see anything suspicious.

With a weary sigh, Clement hopped the back fence, walked up to the door, and entered the house.

His breath hitched. His heart skipped a beat.

An icy cold gripped him, filling him with dread.

Gertrude was already home. Lying face down on the floor, she had her shirt off.

Three holes ran up her spine, starting at her lower back and ending towards the middle. All three had been frozen over, preventing her from bleeding out. But they were deep.

Zomorrodnegar, Clement’s sword, fell from his limp fingers to the ground with a soft clatter. Tearing the remnants of his helmet off his head and tossing it into a corner of the room, Clement charged forward before falling to his knees at Gertrude’s side. He reached out his hands…

and drew back immediately. Moving her could agitate her injuries. Even touching her might leave her worse off than before.

She was breathing. Her chest pressed against the hardwood floor with each shallow breath. Ice crystals came out of her mouth, only stopping as she breathed in.

The iced over holes in her back were the most obvious injury, but they were far from the only ones. Shifting his position slightly, Clement’s eyes were drawn to her arm. Or lack of arm. As with her back, ice covered nothing more than a stump just below her elbow.

Though, that wasn’t to say that her arm was completely missing. It was underneath her, fingers sticking out near her shoulder.

Her head had a similarly treated injury. A simple slit up the top of her scalp, visible through her red hair only thanks to the ice.

“Forget bleeding to death,” Clement hissed. “You’re going to freeze to death.”

Gertrude didn’t respond. Looking obviously unconscious, Clement hadn’t expected her to, but it was disheartening all the same.

Climbing to his feet, Clement ran to the bedroom. They had a supply of potions stashed away. Gertrude normally handled potion administration—Clement wasn’t a mage and, as such, he couldn’t brew potions. As such, he wasn’t the most knowledgeable.

They had labels. He would be fine.

Clement shook his head.

Gertrude would be fine.

— — —

“The walls have stopped bleeding.”

Eva hummed, not really paying attention. She was too busy enjoying the embrace with Arachne.

Being a spider-demon made entirely of hard chitin, she wasn’t all that comfortable to hug. Arachne was smooth, not covered in spikes or anything, but it was like hugging a marble statue.

Not that she had ever hugged a marble statue, but it was how she imagined it to be.

“It happened before,” Eva said without opening her eyes. “Blood came out of the walls while Juliana was around. I didn’t see it myself, but I don’t believe she would lie about that. And then again when you… died. I don’t remember it exactly, but I guess there was a lot more blood around me than there should have been.”

“That isn’t caused by your blood magic?”

“I don’t know what it would be. I haven’t performed any rituals that might make walls bleed around me. It has to be a demon thing.

“A portion of my domain got attached to the dormitory. Ylva thinks that it is because I had humans inside the domain while I was out here. Whatever is attacking Void latched onto both me and Shalise, creating a connection through our dorm. I don’t know if I believe that, but after she showed me how to disconnect domains from reality, it went away.” Eva shrugged. “It might have something to do with that.”

“Part of your domain manifests as blood through the walls?” Arachne tipped her voice at the end, skeptical.

“It’s just a theory,” Eva said quietly. “Devon and I haven’t been on the best of terms since you died, so I haven’t had much of a chance to ask him about it all.” Not to mention how busy she was.

“Enough of me. How?” Eva pulled away from Arachne. Not much, just enough to look her in the eyes. She kept her hands firmly around Arachne’s wrists, just to make sure that she was real and wouldn’t disappear. “How are you here? I saw your beacon crushed with my own eyes.”

Arachne smiled. Moving one arm out of Eva’s grip, she ran her claws gently through Eva’s hair.

Despite knowing just how sharp the tips of her fingers were, Arachne didn’t cut her in the slightest as her fingers ran over Eva’s scalp. It felt light and tingly. Almost as if something was crawling through her hair—not in a creepy sort of way, but rather a relaxing and calming feeling.

Perhaps more like a massage.

“I accepted a bargain. The proverbial deal with a devil.”

And just like that, a dark storm cloud moved over Eva’s good mood. “What do you mean by bargain? What do you have to do?”

“Not only did Void put me back together far sooner than I would have been able to, but he gave me transport out of Hell. I suppose… you might say that I must return the favor.”

“You must… I’ll assume you don’t mean anything related to healing Void,” Eva said, receiving a light nod of confirmation. “Which means you have to transport Void out of Hell?”

Arachne rolled her neck, nodding with not quite as wide of a smile on her face. “Essentially.”

“That’s… We’ve been trying to prevent that from…” Eva trailed off as she thought.

No one was actually trying to prevent anything. Both Martina Turner and Devon had summoned demons the first time they needed to. And that was despite Devon being the one to theorize about summoning demons and destabilizing Hell. Ylva had shut down her domain. That might have been one of the worst offenders, according to Devon.

And yet, that was all anyone had done.

No one was actually doing anything. The apocalypse was still approaching, just slower than before.

And now Arachne was supposed to help it along?

“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. Void is bored.”

“Bored? Bored! He wants to start the apocalypse!”

“I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. Actually, if I understood everything he explained to me, this should be less destructive to the mortal realm.”

“Oh? And how do you figure that?”

“Zagan said that Void and all of Hell was going to be dragged into and merged with the mortal realm. We are only summoning the entity.”

“No Hell along with him?”

Arachne shook her head. “And if Void wanted to destroy the mortal realm, he could just unleash all of the demons on Earth as he did with me. We wouldn’t need much prompting to run wild.”

“That is not reassuring.” Eva fell silent with a sigh. “Besides, what about the entity that was attacking Void? It wanted Void in the mortal realm, isn’t this just playing into its hands? Things don’t usually attack unless they think they can win.”

“Void thinks he can win.”

Eva put her hands on her hips, glaring at Arachne.

What am I supposed to say to this?

If it was going to happen anyway, maybe it was for the best. Especially if Void was going to be coming over on his own terms, rather than be dragged over into a trap or whatever it was that the second Power had in mind. Not knowing much of anything about the other Power, Eva definitely wanted Void to win this entire engagement.

Especially given her own jump-started leap into demonhood.

Eva shook her head with a long sigh. “I just–”

A chill ran up Eva’s spine. She could feel the tension in Arachne’s arms as well.

Something was missing. Some warm, ever-present sensation of power.

She took a deep breath. “Zagan,” she said.

Arachne nodded her head. “I feel it too.”

“He died?”

“I don’t… think so.”

Eva kept a tight hold of Arachne’s arm. She wasn’t going to lose her again. “What happened then?”

“It feels more like he was banished. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Namely, he’ll merely go back to his domain and won’t be stuck in the Void. Though, I doubt Zagan would spend more than half a day putting himself back together if he had been killed.”

Which meant that Martina would just be summoning him back the moment that she was back on her feet.

Keeping Arachne’s arm in hand, Eva dragged her over towards the window.

Martina’s office window overlooked the plaza where Zagan had been fighting. Considering the damage done to both dormitory buildings and the ground, it was a good thing that the fight hadn’t gone anywhere else. The Gillet had several person-sized holes on it, especially towards the bottom. Not the structurally sound building that it had once been.

Eva doubted that she would be willing to stay overnight inside.

In comparison, the Rickenbacker was mostly undamaged. It had a few holes around it, but it looked superficial. A great number of hoof prints dotted the sides. Perhaps Zagan had run along the walls?

But there was no sign of the great winged bull anywhere. The knight who had been fighting against him was hobbling off in the distance, heading towards the city.

Arachne tried to hop over the edge of the window and chase after him. Eva stopped her with a vice-like grip on her shoulder.

“Zagan may have been toying with him, but that guy still beat him.”

“He is injured. Badly. Look at him move.”

“Arachne,” Eva said, grabbing both of the demon’s arms and yanking her around. Staring at her eye to eye, Eva waited for a moment, letting the tension drain out of Arachne. “I’m not losing you. Not again.”

Arachne stared for a minute more before dropping her shoulders. “He’ll come back,” she said.

“We can deal with him later. You, me, Ylva, Devon’s demons, Zagan—if Martina brings him back—and everyone else. We, as one, will fight him. The other hunter is injured at the very least, possibly dead.”

Taking her eyes off Arachne and looking back out over the plaza, Eva couldn’t spot the hunter anywhere. The plaza was too far from the school building for her blood sight to function. The city was even further.

More than that, people were starting to emerge from the dormitory buildings. Mostly the Gillet.

“Come on,” Eva said. “Let’s go look around before people trample over everything.”

Eva considered blinking straight over the windowsill. Not wanting to release Arachne, she decided to move on her own two feet.

But Arachne didn’t budge.

“There are people out there.”

Eva rolled her eyes. Arachne had been ready to run off after the hunter, but now she was getting cold feet?

“I think we’re long past the point of hiding from mortals,” Eva said. “I doubt that anyone at the dorms missed that fight.”

Tugging again, Eva got the shy demon moving.

As expected, people quickly took notice of their approach. Or rather, they took note of Arachne’s approach. Eva followed their eyes for a moment. None gave more than a glance in her direction.

Perhaps it was because of shock at witnessing the fight, but nobody really reacted much except to back away. A few people ran back into their dormitory buildings. A few others took one look at the state of the Gillet and decided to take their chances outside.

As the spectacle that was Arachne became less of a frightening sight—helped by the fact that she was walking calmly and not flying into a murderous rage—the people still outside began to turn their attention towards Eva. In some, she could see recognition light up. Others, especially the older students, just looked more confused.

She caught sight of a number of the students that she had taught with Catherine. One particular boy with grayish-white hair started to head in her direction before Eva waved him off.

Eva really didn’t consider herself friends with or even peers of any of those students. Whatever questions he had for her weren’t anything that Eva was interested in answering. Martina Turner would come out with some fabricated explanation for all the events of the night. Whatever she said probably wouldn’t answer any questions, but it was better than nothing.

“Just ignore everybody,” Eva said.

There were far more interesting things than the people anyway.

Reaching down, Eva picked up a flat piece of metal. It might have been a part of the hunter’s chest plate. Maybe an arm or leg piece.

Eva only held onto it for a second before dropping it.

The carapace on her hands had melted. She stared, watching as bits of chitin flaked off her hand as it cooled.

Arachne repeated the action, holding it for less time before she dropped it.

“Enchanted,” she said as she stared at her own hand. “Something against demons.”

“Troublesome. It still works while broken?”

“Maybe it isn’t enchanted. Something in the metal itself,” Arachne said, shrugging. “I’m not an expert in magic. Not even a novice.”

She paused, glancing around before leaning in a little closer. “Which is why Void said he would send someone else to help with that thing we were just discussing.”

Eva nodded slightly, but didn’t respond. Too many people around.

Instead, she carefully stepped over the bit of metal, watching out for any other shards of metal lying on the ground. Maybe Juliana would be interested in it. If Willie ever surfaced again, she might find it extremely useful.

Blinking, Eva pulled out her cellphone and shot off a quick text message to Zoe. She had no idea if they were even alright. She assumed that they were fine. Ylva should be with them. While not nearly so scary as Zagan, Ylva could hold her own.

But she needed someone over here, someone with authority. All the bits of metal were potentially dangerous to Eva and every other demon around. She didn’t want random students getting a hold of pieces of them.

Message sent, Eva glanced up from her cellphone.

And froze.

Lying right in the center of the plaza was an oddly shaped object.

A horn.

Walking up to it alongside Arachne, Eva bent down and picked it up.

Heavy, but not overly so. About the same as a bowling ball. It was curved just a little bit too much, giving it a crumpled look. The tips of it were dark black, though it grew almost white at the end that had been cut. Red blood lined a good portion of it as well.

The hunter’s blood.

“Perhaps Nel can use this,” Eva said, keeping hold of it.

A pair of circulatory systems appeared behind Eva, closer to the Rickenbacker dormitory building.

With a smile on her face, Eva turned to greet the new arrivals.

“Good news,” she said as she leaned just a little closer to her companion. “Arachne is back!”

Zoe pressed her lips together. Her eyes drifted over Arachne, narrowing just a hair. It took a moment, but she eventually smiled. A small smile. It didn’t quite reach her narrowed eyes, but it was still a smile.

Juliana, not so much.

The last time that Juliana had seen Arachne would have been just after watching her mother get skewered. Eva could understand her presence not bringing up the best of memories.

But even watching Juliana’s slight scowl couldn’t dampen Eva’s current mood. Zagan might have lost, but who cared? He was Zagan. She had Arachne back and that was all that mattered at the moment.

Except… Arachne took a small step forward. Not enough to pull away from Eva, but enough to say that she was acting on her own.

“I had a lot of time to think,” she started, speaking slowly. Her words lingered in the air for a few moments before she continued. “I apologize. For any harm I caused your mother.”

Eva smiled, a new sort of respect for Arachne welled up in her. When she had first proposed to Arachne that the spider-demon should apologize to Genoa, she had thought that she would be dragging Arachne in by the legs. That she apologized to Juliana on her own filled Eva with pride.

Juliana stared. Her scowl disappeared, but she didn’t smile.

An awkward silence between the group stretched on. Eva found herself shifting slightly, wondering if Arachne’s apology wasn’t being quite as well received by Juliana as Eva had found it. It had sounded sincere to her ears.

Eventually, Juliana sighed. “I don’t know why you’re apologizing to me.” A bitter tone carried her voice at a volume a fair bit lower than she normally spoke at. “None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for me.”

“That isn’t true,” Eva said. She kept her voice firm as she stared at Juliana. “Zagan was the one who dumped you into Hell. Maybe it would have happened had you done nothing, maybe not. But you did nothing wrong.”

“I could have turned and walked away from Willie before you even arrived! Willie sweet talked me into sticking around after he knew that people were coming after me! I shouldn’t have bought into it. There were a million things I could have–”

With a hand on her shoulder, Zoe cut Juliana off.

“We have a crowd,” Zoe said, voice quiet and with a soft smile for Juliana’s sake. “Perhaps this is a conversation best left for later.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.026

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


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 –>


007.023

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At least nothing is on fire, Eva thought with a welling of relief deep inside.

In fact, better than nothing being on fire, nothing looked damaged at all. Everything in the women’s ward was just where she had left it. Outside, well, the prison was a fairly large place. Eva was mostly certain that everything was normal. Her blood wards gave her a view of the place in a manner reminiscent of her using clouds of blood to see and through that, she couldn’t see anything amiss.

Neither could she sense the presence of Daru anywhere. Nor any sign of him physically being here through her sense of blood. If this were a trap, she would have expected some trail of breadcrumbs to point her in the right direction.

Then again, it was barely past dawn. Dew coated the grass and the sun was too weak to give off much heat. The note had said to come at nightfall.

Which meant that she might have a few hours to set up traps before they showed up.

First thing was to prepare her secondary blood wards around the prison. They were wards that Eva had set up after the Elysium Order had attacked. The nuns had sat outside of her wards, taking them down while being a safe distance away. Eva’s secondary wards would lie dormant in a ring around the edges of her main ward, surrounding the prison. If someone walked up and tried to take down the main wards, the secondary wards would activate and hopefully ruin someone’s day.

It probably wouldn’t work against anyone who knew what they were doing. Someone would probably notice.

Hiding her wards better was one of the things that Eva was hoping to learn in next year’s schooling.

But, delaying attackers for a few extra minutes might make all the difference in the world.

Turning back into the women’s ward, Eva ran straight into Zoe. The professor immediately clasped her hands on Eva’s shoulders, freezing her movement.

“What were you thinking?”

“Devon needs to be warned,” Eva said. That was the second thing she needed to do. It would have been the first, but she didn’t want to run from the women’s ward all the way out to Devon’s building only to have to run back to the women’s ward.

“There could have been traps. Shackles in your gate room or even something as simple as a bomb.”

Eva opened her mouth to retort, but found she had no real response. The women’s ward, and the prison by extension, had always been safe. Well, almost always. Barring that one incident with the Elysium Order inquisitors. An incident that her secondary blood wards should mitigate in the future.

But she hadn’t even considered that someone could have taken down her wards in the two or so hours since she was last here, set up traps, and waited.

And if those traps had been intended for Zagan…

Eva shuddered. There likely wouldn’t have been anything left of her.

“Alright. I concede the point. But it is safe right now. My wards are still up and Devon is still around. Or, the carnivean is at least. I assume that he is with her.

“Actually, if you run and warn Devon, I’ll get a few traps of my own set up. We’ve got until, at the latest, nightfall. Best to use our time wisely.”

“What kind of traps?”

“Well, first, don’t walk outside the prison walls for any reason. Obviously, you can teleport back to Brakket if you need to, but the immediate area around the prison might cause bodily explosions.”

“That’s…” Zoe trailed off, rubbing her forehead. She pulled out her cellphone and started typing away. “I’m warning Wayne,” she said.

“What’s your number anyway?” Eva asked as she pulled out her own cellphone. “And Wayne’s. Do you have Catherine’s number as well?”

Catherine was supposed to have met her at the dormitories along with Prax. That was obviously not going to happen now. She needed to get word to them.

But she also needed to do the wards and other traps.

“You got a cellphone?”

“Sort of. I barely know how to work it.” Eva shoved the phone into Zoe’s hands. “Put in everyone’s phone numbers while you walk over to Devon’s building. Tell him that we might be hosting some demon hunter guests.”

Eva didn’t wait for any further protests, questions, or comments from Zoe. She all but ran back into her room.

The hovering orb of blood that both powered her wards and held the blood from everyone keyed in had grown quite large since she had first created it. Just about everyone that Eva knew had wound up keyed in at some point. Though they needed to donate only a small vial’s worth of blood, it all added up. A mixture of black and red, demon and human blood all swirled together.

Seeing the ward only reassured Eva that nothing untoward had happened either while she was hunting down Sawyer or during the few hours that she was gone rescuing Lucy. When people not keyed into the ward tried to walk around inside the area of effect, the orb would shrink. Not nearly so much as one of her shields, but enough to be noticeable.

And when she had finally gotten around to repairing the ward after the attack from the Elysium Order, there had been nothing left of the orb save for the blood used for keying people in.

Unfortunately, her secondary set of wards couldn’t be activated from her room. They were essentially small yet overlapping bubbles set up around the walls of the prison.

Turning to her window, one inside her room that hadn’t been obstructed by Serena, Eva blinked straight out to the nearest wall. It didn’t take long for her to open up the small box that held the blood ward.

While the main ward had started out around the size of a basketball and had grown to match a small beach ball, the secondary wards were much smaller. About the size of a tennis ball. They had much less area to cover, but there were a lot more of them.

The container was just a simple plastic storage box. While it would have been nice to have Ylva make some solid void metal cubes with intricate locking mechanisms, Ylva had already offered Eva so many favors for free. Even though the favors suited Ylva’s designs just as much as Eva’s, asking for more seemed to be in poor taste. And, while she had money, even just a mundane lockbox was out of price range for the number that she needed.

So plastic boxes it was. Eva had added a few runes to lock them down, but that was more to keep the elements out than people. If someone managed to get this close to them, they would either be exploding from the main wards or find the runes to be less of a deterrent than a plastic tarp.

Opening the box, Eva activated the ward. It wouldn’t actually cause death just yet, but it was ready to be fully turned on.

Unfortunately, that was only one of… a lot. Eva blinked straight to the next box after sealing the first and repeated the process.

She blinked to the next.

And the next.

And the next.

She only made it about halfway around before Devon stormed out. Zoe and the carnivean trailed just behind him, with Zoe wincing and rubbing her forehead. The reason for her headache quickly became apparent.

Just behind the carnivean was a certain familiar demon with waxy skin. The same one that he had summoned immediately before the Elysium Order had attacked.

Eva didn’t bother to stand and greet them. She finished activating the ward that she had been working on before turning to regard the newly summoned demon.

Through her sense of demons, she had felt it pop into existence–or the mortal realm–somewhere around a third of the way through the wards. However, as before, she couldn’t see any blood within the wax construct. Until she had looked at it with her eyes, all she had known was that a new demon had been summoned.

Whether or not it was the same one that he had summoned before, Eva couldn’t say. The demon was female in form, made of black wax with green flames for hair and glowing red eyes. It looked like the same one, but Eva didn’t know much about that species of demon. For all she knew, they all looked exactly the same.

It didn’t help that she only vaguely remembered the demon. Being skewered by Sawyer’s cursed blade had overshadowed pretty much every other event that day.

Eva turned her gaze away from the waxy demon’s glowing eyes. The intense pain coursing through her mind was something that she definitely did recall.

Nowhere in sight was the Lord of Slaves or the non-euclidean demon.

Something that didn’t fill Eva with confidence. These demon hunters thought that they could take on Zagan. A laughable prospect, but not something to take lightly anyway.

Arachne had been able to kill the carnivean without much trouble. The wax demon had a formidable ability, but it didn’t look like it could take much punishment.

Eva would be feeling much safer if Devon had gone all out.

It was a good thing that Zoe had shown up. Going around activating all the wards wasn’t a difficult task, but it was time consuming. If he was prepared earlier, all the better.

“Thought you said you weren’t followed, girl,” Devon called out as he neared, somehow managing to grumble under his breath and shout out over the short distance at the same time.

“Still don’t think I was,” Eva said. “They were here the very day I got back from Florida.” She gave a light nod towards the wax demon. “I thought that we weren’t supposed to be summoning things.”

“Either I’ll be alive and worry about the consequences later or I’ll be dead and not care much,” he said with a shrug.

Martina feels much the same way, Eva didn’t bother saying. It wouldn’t surprise her in the least if Devon didn’t even remember who Martina was.

Eva glanced back to the wax demon. It was obviously dominated. The way it moved was stiff and unnatural. In comparison, the carnivean had her hands deep in the pockets of a sweatshirt and was glancing off to one side with an impotent scowl on her face.

“You’re going to summon any other demons?”

“She,” he thumbed over his shoulder, “said nightfall. I’d rather not sit around with dominated demons for the whole day.”

“Nightfall is when they’re expecting to fight Zagan,” Zoe said, still rubbing her forehead. “They could show up at any time between.”

Devon’s already dark countenance took a turn for the worse. “He is coming here?”

“I don’t think he knows,” Eva said. Given how often he appeared out of nowhere knowing things, she quickly amended herself. “At least, I haven’t told him. And I don’t think that Zoe showed him the letter either.”

The letter that was a torn, crumpled mess back in the women’s ward.

Zoe, meeting Eva’s eyes, shook her head. “Unless Ylva or Juliana went to tell him.”

“That is a possibility. But if they didn’t, should we tell him? This was his trap after all. If he gets here early enough, he might be able to do something about it.”

Zoe glanced around the old sandstone buildings, looking over the wall of the prison and off into the distance towards the center of the complex. “Unless we’re already inside of a larger trap.”

Eva started, jumping slightly. Not so much at Zoe’s suspicion, though the idea that the trap had already been set was a worrying one, but at the loud scoff from Devon.

“If you’re thinking that there are some shackles around the prison, don’t. The strongest shackles will become worthless graffiti at the first mistake. Shackles large enough to ring in the prison would have many points of failure.”

“Not to mention the time setting up something so large would have taken,” Eva added. “Surely Devon, myself, the carnivean, or someone else would have noticed a few demon hunters running around outside.” Though she had been gone for a few days. Still, Devon wouldn’t have dropped the vigil quite so hard. “And no one has been inside the prison. My wards prove as much.”

Devon scoffed again, putting on a light sneer as he spoke. “Are these the same infallible wards that kept the nuns out?”

“They worked just fine until the nuns took them down. I would have noticed had someone taken them down again.” Glancing back to the plastic crate, Eva shook her head. “Speaking of, I need to get back to work.”

“Do we tell Zagan or not?”

“No,” Devon snapped. “He’s been here enough.”

“And he didn’t do a single thing against you,” Eva said. “I’d say tell him. But up to you I guess.”

Eva blinked away, straight to the next blood ward. She had no desire to get into yet another argument with Devon about Zagan. Especially not when half the prison was still unprotected from the secondary array.

After a few minutes of discussion between Zoe and Devon, Zoe teleported away. Probably to go find Zagan, though Ylva and Juliana were other possibilities.

Eva paid them no mind, watching Devon skulk back to his cell block as she rounded a corner. By the time she had finished traversing the perimeter of the prison, the sun had climbed the sky. Noon.

Still no sign of any demon hunters.

— — —

Martina Turner propped her elbows up on her desk and clasped her hands together just beneath her nose as she stared at the wall of her office.

She was not having a good day.

What else is new.

Most days weren’t good, these days. Tolerable was about the best that she could hope for. Days where nothing happened, where Governor Anderson held his tongue on any reports that he may have, where investigative journalists weren’t harping at her door about the sky—or worse, mundane journalists taking the sudden notoriety of Brakket City as an opportunity to question magic.

Those last ones were the worst. People should mind their own business. Especially the mundanes. It was getting to the point where she was thinking about sending Zagan to answer questions instead of Catherine.

Of course, it hadn’t helped that she had personally had to chase away some of the journalists over the past week.

Catherine, her familiar, had gone missing for several days. As Martina had later found out, the succubus had been off gallivanting with the self-proclaimed diabolist. And not gallivanting in the manner normally associated with succubi. Rather, she had been researching some ritual circle nonsense.

Martina did not consider herself a slave driver in any sense of the phrase. Both her familiar and her contracted demons were free to go about whatever it was that they got up to in their spare time, so long as they did as she asked when she asked. Having Catherine just up and disappear for most of a week had Martina pulling hair from her head in large clumps.

Not literally, but the stress was there.

Just when she had reeled in the wayward succubus, the current situation sprung up.

Two of her security team murdered. Two demons missing.

Worse, the murders had not been behind closed doors. Not when both bodies had been lying out in the courtyard between the dormitory buildings in the early morning hours, ready for any students still around to wake up and spot them. It was a great deal more difficult to cover up public killings.

Two demon hunter related killings.

The only bright spot in the whole mess was that the hunters were not applying scorched earth tactics. They hadn’t announced themselves in any manner, the school wasn’t in flames, and the citizens were largely unaware of the possible danger posed by the hunters. Typically, if a community was suspected of willingly or knowingly harboring demons, all involved would be killed. Though exact amounts of survivors often depended on the temperaments of the specific hunters.

Martina wasn’t sure what these particular hunters believed in, but she believed that a large portion of their passiveness—if kidnapping Lucy and Daru could count as passive—was because of Zagan. And the hel, to a lesser extent.

“Even the most insane demon hunters would be hesitant to engage in combat with them,” Martina said as a sort of conclusion to her speech. “So I’m sure that you can understand my disinclination towards sending Zagan away. Especially out of town, even if the old penitentiary isn’t all that far. Him being away could spell doom for the city as a whole.”

“To be perfectly honest,” Zoe said after a moment’s pause, “I don’t know the correct course of action. Given that Zagan was named in the letter, I felt it prudent to let him know.”

Martina did not miss the narrowed eyes and the clenched teeth on Zoe as she looked over Martina’s shoulder.

“As there is no evidence thus far of any traps at the prison, whatever these hunters had intended might be something that can be set up quickly. Something to be aware of regardless of whether or not they follow through with their original plan. Even that is in question given both Lucy’s survival and Ylva having avoided whatever trap had been intended for her.”

Pausing for a moment, Martina leaned back in her chair. She half expected Zagan to cut in with his own observations. Or, more likely, for him to run off without her explicit consent.

He did neither, seemingly content to remain standing just behind Martina.

“Perhaps there was never a trap,” Martina eventually said. “The letter could have simply been a means to draw Zagan away from town, giving these hunters free rein to wreak whatever havoc they wished.”

After a brief noncommittal hum from Zoe, she said, “I suppose that is possible. Either way, it is better to be safe than sorry. I will be returning to the prison to render whatever assistance I can.”

Martina nodded and waved the professor away. She had half a mind to insist on her staying around Brakket. Though they didn’t often agree on things—especially things related to demons—Martina had to admit that Zoe was a talented mage. However, what she could do that Zagan couldn’t was essentially nothing.

“Before you go,” Martina said as a thought hit her, “where is the hel?”

“The last I saw of her, she was still at the apartment building.” She paused after she spoke, turning her gaze to one side. Nodding to herself, Zoe glanced back towards Martina. “I’ll be finding her before heading back to the prison.”

“Very well.” Martina couldn’t do much about that, as much as she wanted to. Ylva wasn’t a demon under her control. “Stay safe.”

Zoe blinked, regarding Martina with an odd look in her eye before she finally nodded. “You as well,” she said as she stood.

Martina just rolled her eyes as Zoe walked out of the room. She couldn’t be quite sure what that last look had been, but it was almost as if Zoe had expected her to wish her death.

Obviously, Martina didn’t want Zoe to die. Finding a replacement theory professor would be a nightmare. Especially if she was more or less alright with demons. Something of this scale would be near impossible to cover up. Half of her staff would probably be resigning before next year started.

As such, if Zoe and her little group could clean up these demon hunters quietly and away from Brakket, all the better for Martina.

As soon as the door had firmly shut behind the professor, Martina kicked back in her chair, propping her feet up on top of her desk. She pulled a bottle of Hellfire from her desk drawer and didn’t even bother to pour it into a glass before drinking down half the bottle.

She slammed the bottle down on the desk. Breathing out a breath that felt like it was on fire, she glanced over her shoulder.

“What do you think?”

Zagan walked around her desk, seating himself in the chair that had just held Zoe.

“When you offered me excitement, I was focused on a single topic. That of the odd happenings in Hell. Never did I expect you to actually deliver on your promise.”

“I’m talking about the demon hunters.”

“I agree with your assessment. They were trying to get me out of the way. A distraction while they cleaned up the rest of the demons in town, most likely. Powerful though I am, I am limited to a single location at a time.

“Whatever their plan is to dispatch me does catch my interest. I look forward to their attempts.”

“Can you not simply deal with them now? Nip this problem in the bud before it gets worse?”

Zagan turned his eyes up, glaring at Martina. “You promised me excitement. Sending them on to Death before they are ready for me would be the opposite of excitement.”

Martina didn’t so much as feel the slightest discomfort under his gaze. She had spent enough time around him for any danger he might have posed to have worn off. His words were another story. She buried her head into her hands, rubbing her eyes.

“I was afraid that you would say that.”

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