Tag Archives: Zagan

007.021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement jumped back, jerking away from his binoculars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we intercept?”

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

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

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

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

Merely his swordsmanship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had taken his visor as well.

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you bring her to a school?”

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

“And if they do come back?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a demon.”

“Then leave her to the hunters.”

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

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

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

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

“I–Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“About the sky?”

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

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

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

“Sounds complicated.”

“I try not to worry about it.”

“That seems…. irresponsible.”

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

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

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

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

Catherine’s desk was empty.

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

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

“–can’t allow them to–”

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes were drawn over Martina’s shoulder.

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

Eva immediately realized her mistake.

She had seen this demon before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even her enhancements didn’t reach Hell.

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

“Of course I have.”

Eva blinked, not expecting the blunt response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I rescued Lucy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are three of them including Prax?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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007.008

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It had taken about an hour for Catherine and Devon to discuss the changes to the circle. Considering that it had taken almost an entire month for Devon to design the latest version of Eva’s treatment circle, that was essentially lightning fast.

Either Catherine was really a genius at understanding how rituals worked and how to change them, there hadn’t been all that many changes to be made, or Devon just cared so little for Catherine’s safety that he wasn’t too interested in checking, double checking, and ensuring that everything was protocoligorically correct.

Eva was leaning towards that last point if it wasn’t all three. Which was actually somewhat flattering for her. It was nice to know that Devon cared. Even if all that care was just for her as a test subject and not as a person, friend, or anything similar. But she really didn’t expect any of that anyway.

After sketching out a preliminary circle in Devon’s notebook, they had started on the larger circle. Something they had been working on for about another hour. One would think that it would go faster with the two of them erasing and redrawing everything, but no. Not really. They kept getting in each other’s way, going over sections that had already been done, bickering, and all sorts of other nonsense.

Frankly, it was amazing that they had managed to sketch out the changes in the first place.

Though, perhaps not quite as amazing as the lack of fireballs while working on changing the circle itself.

Eva was staying far away from it all. She had sat in and watched during the notebook phase. It had taken all of her willpower to not fall asleep. She should have been paying attention and she should have been learning.

Devon’s ritual circles were so beyond her own abilities that she couldn’t understand a thing about them. He and Catherine had been speaking another language as far as Eva was concerned. Zoe might have enjoyed it, but she was off collecting new prospective students for Brakket Academy.

Whether or not she actually came back with any remained to be seen. Eva was well aware that she had several misgivings about how Brakket was being run.

But, that wasn’t too relevant to what was going on at the moment.

Eva stood back at the edge of the converted basketball court while Devon and Catherine argued over some line or other on the circle.

She still didn’t know what Catherine hoped to gain from the experiment. Well, that wasn’t true. Power was likely the answer. But in what form? Some abstract ‘blip’ on a map?

Zagan’s motivations were actually clear for once. Based on his conversation with Eva when she had asked him to participate, Eva could guess that he wanted to see some new variation of a demon. Even if it was still based on Catherine’s ‘template’ or whatever.

“So,” said a voice to Eva’s side, “that seemed pretty intense.”

“Not something I’ll look forward to in three months.”

“Three months?” Serena just about jumped out of her boots. “You have to do it again?”

Eva turned to glance at the vampire. Now that she mentions it… “Actually, I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask Devon about any changes to the schedule. Until now, however, I’ve been doing a similar thing every three months since I was nine-ish years old.”

“Nine?” Serena trembled a little.

It looked fake. Like an actor on the stage of a play. But it was entirely possible that she couldn’t emote properly, being a vampire. Maybe she was exaggerating her motions in a forced attempt to emulate the living–a way to put regular people more at ease. Eva really didn’t know enough about vampires to say one way or the other.

“I don’t think I could have done something like that when I was nine.”

Eva laughed. “Oh it was far worse back then.”

“Worse! How?”

“All that blood in the air? It had to be transfered through needles in the old version of the ritual. You don’t even want to know how much of a baby I was about having a needle stuck in me.”

There was no way she was about to tell Serena that the old ritual had been essentially painless. If the vampire wanted to think that she had always been a tough kid, who was she to correct her?

“But,” Serena said with a ponderous expression, “you’re a blood mage. You have to cut yourself daily.”

“Yeah, there might be some connection there. Maybe I picked up those blood magic books because of the needles.”

It was entirely possible. Eva hadn’t thought of that before.

“But,” Eva said, “speaking of blood.” She pulled the tee-shirt she had changed into up to her nose and gave a few light sniffs. Nothing smelt especially unusual. But that was why she was bout to ask Serena for her opinion. “When we first met, you said that I had a good smell. At the same time, you didn’t seem so fond of Arachne’s blood. How about now?”

Serena glanced at her with a quirked eyebrow. Her lips peeled back into a smirk, revealing her sharp fangs. The storm clouds in the back of her eyes lit up.

I should not have asked, Eva thought as she averted her eyes. It was just an idle curiosity. She didn’t need to know the answer. Now she had gone and made Serena shift from a sixteen year old girl to a hungry vampire.

It took a great deal of effort not to pull back as Serena leaned closer and drew in a deep breath.

How long has it been since she last fed? Eva thought with a sudden start. The vampire had been lounging about the prison for at least the last week. There weren’t people around here. No one to turn into midnight snacks.

The profound yearn for blood emanating from Serena died off. She slumped away from Eva to stare off towards the ritual circle.

Eva just about sighed in relief. Not that she was worried. She was strong. Her hands and legs made it so that she was never unarmed, plus she could light herself on fire. Vampires didn’t like fire. Even if she couldn’t fight off the vampire had Serena decided to clamp down on her neck, Devon and all the demons would have been able to put her down.

Well, Devon would have stepped in to help his precious research subject. Lucy probably would have done something as well. Zagan? Doubtful. If Eva guessed correctly, he would have considered such a thing a mere failure in her being–not worthy of becoming a demon or something along those lines.

Catherine might have helped out. But she might not have. It was hard to say. A friend would have helped out, but Eva could very well have been too hasty in naming Catherine a friend. She hoped not, but the possibility was there.

“No good?” Eva asked, trying not to let her relief come across as too obvious in her voice.

Serena glanced up with a tooth-filled grin. “Oh, no. You smell delicious. I was just thinking. Reflecting, really.” Her grin slid by the wayside as she turned back towards the ritual circle. “Not so long ago, there was a cloud of blood overhead. I am always hungry, but I didn’t feel anything about it. No desire to go slurp it all up or anything.”

“Because it was demon blood? Or something else?”

The vampire put a finger to her lip as she hummed out a thoughtful tune. “Don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “Could be a huge part of it. Perhaps it is like sugar?”

“I don’t… you’ve lost me.”

“Demon blood. It’s like sugar. With you, it’s like a sweet cake. Sugar with all kinds of other things mixed in. Them, however… well, you wouldn’t want to eat a spoonful of raw sugar, would you?”

“I suppose not.”

Her tongue traced the edges of her lips. “Buut,” she drew the word out, “it has made me hungry. Hungrier.”

“That’s a shame.” Eva kept her voice steady and as neutral as she could force it. “Perhaps you should go find someone willing to give you some blood.”

“Come on. It won’t even hurt. Just a little bit.”

“Sorry.” Eva pointed at herself. “Blood mage. I’ve become a bit protective of my blood lately.”

Serena let out a long groan. “So, what’s all this then?” Serena asked, changing the topic while waving her hand out towards the ritual circle. “You’re not doing it again, are you?”

“Not for me. Catherine wants a try.”

“It seemed unpleasant enough with you. Are demons usually masochistic?”

“Catherine being so wouldn’t surprise me. As I said, I’m not looking forward to additional treatment.”

As they watched, Devon placed his hands on his hips, leaned and cracked his back. “The circle is ready,” he said, not even looking towards the assembled demons.

“Well,” Serena said, “I think I’ve had enough screaming demons for one day. Unless you’re going to help satiate my hunger…” She trailed off with a glance at Eva.

“Sorry,” Eva said without meaning the word in the slightest.

“Then I think I’ll head off and seek a meal elsewhere. Need to get going and get back before daybreak.”

As Devon started organizing the demons into their proper spots, Serena stalked off with her hands behind her head. Eva only watched her go for a few moments before turning her attention to the yelling going on around the ritual circle.

“This was not part of our contract,” the carnivean said, hair-tentacles dancing in the air in rage. “Find someone else to be your pet. I’ve had enough of myself being drained away for one day.”

Devon looked about ready to toss a fireball at Qrycx. His hand was outstretched with the rings on his fingers lightly glowing in that sickly green he used for his fire.

Turns out, he needn’t have bothered.

A large hand clasped around her head, completely ignoring the tentacles as they lashed out to attack the invader of her space. The carnivean’s legs dangled beneath her as Zagan lifted her off the ground with the single hand. She was a good few feet off the ground—she was only about half as tall as Eva and yet Zagan had his arm almost parallel to the ground. He twisted his wrist once she made it to eye level, facing her towards him.

As soon as she saw who had a hold of her, Qrycx went still. Her tentacles dropped to her sides, not a single muscle in them even twitched. With her tentacles smoothed over her body, her tiny form looked even smaller.

“You will participate,” Zagan said with a smile. Qrycx’s stillness failed as she started shaking. “There might even be something in it for you.”

Qrycx actually stopped her trembling to glance up at Zagan. Or she tried to. Zagan released her. She fell the short height and landed on her feet. Without sparing a moment for hesitation, she moved out of the way as Zagan continued towards his position.

It still took her a moment to move to her spot. Her fists clenched and her teeth ground together. Yet she went with no verbal complaint.

Lucy was under no such reservations. Between the bounces in her steps and the occasional giggle, she actually looked excited to participate. Devon did have to fuss with her a bit to get her facing the proper direction–a task complicated by the fact that Lucy was an axopodia. How was she supposed to sit with her back to Catherine when she was just a bunch of tightly wound spaghetti noodles?

Somehow Devon figured it out. It took a lot of doing, but he had managed to rearrange Lucy’s tentacles. She still looked like a human, but a dark spot on her neck stood out.

Once everyone got to position, Catherine stepped into the center. She rotated once, eyes roving over the ritual circle for one final check. Satisfied, she knelt and gave Devon a short nod.

He replied with a scoff.

Kneeling down himself, Devon placed his hands at the edge of the circle and started channeling magic.

Eva watched with rapt attention. She had never actually seen someone else’s treatment before. The terminal child from the hospital was the only one who had received Devon’s treatment to her knowledge, and she had been simultaneously groggy from her own treatment and off helping Ylva clear enigmas out of her domain. She had only caught the tail end of it.

Of course, this wasn’t anything like her old treatments. And it really didn’t resemble what little she had seen of the hospital kid’s treatment.

Catherine sat, much like Eva had, as a cloud of blood gathered overhead. Streams of blood descended and entered her wrists. Catherine didn’t scream out. Apart from gritting her teeth and her tail stiffening, her body remained very still.

On the surface, at least. Beneath her skin, Catherine was definitely feeling something. Her heart rate spiked. Her organs–which were, for the most part, remarkably human-like–trembled as her breathing sped up.

Now that Eva wasn’t in agony, she could actually see what the blood was doing. The blood didn’t spear through organs, unlike what she had thought. It hit an organ and started to spread around it. Once an organ was fully enveloped, the blood sunk inside and became indistinguishable from Catherine’s preexisting blood. Then, the tendrils of blood would search around for more organs. All the while, the blood would diffuse throughout her muscles, veins, and other non-organ parts of her body.

Fascinating to watch for the first few minutes, but Eva quickly found herself growing bored. Her own treatment had lasted from noon to nightfall. She had no reason to believe that Catherine’s would go any faster. In case something strange happened, she still wanted to watch.

But first…

Eva went back to the women’s ward and grabbed a tome and a chair–Devon, Serena, and Lucy had not had a chair the entire time for some odd reason–and dragged them back to the basketball court.

The tome was her book on blood rituals. Eva had promised both herself and Nel that she would hunt down Sawyer after her treatment. She had no intention of breaking that promise. There was a particular ritual that she had come across in the past and wanted to refresh herself on before using it.

Settling into her chair, Eva kept the corner of her eye on Catherine and her ritual while she flipped through the pages of her tome.

— — —

Succubi were fools. Incubi as well. Every last one of them.

Obsessed beyond measure with the pleasures of the flesh and other such carnal desires.

And for what? What did sex get any of them?

Momentary pleasure that vanished as quickly as it came, a reputation—not a good one in Catherine’s opinion—and perhaps the largest subset of demons simply due to breeding practices. Though true succubi were far rarer than cambions, lesser succubi, and other such derivatives.

Their population couldn’t even be turned into any sort of real power. Succubi were almost hard-wired to hate and despise other succubi and incubi. They felt threatened by others of their kind. Envy and jealousy ran rampant through their veins.

In other words, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Much as she couldn’t understand the end goal for what succubi were designed to do, neither could Catherine understand the why.

Why would she ever want to be in such close proximity to filthy and utterly disgusting mortals? Humans, elves, dwarves, mixed races, goblins, trolls, ogres, whatever else existed. All were nothing greater than dirt to Catherine. It would be akin to a human fornicating with a cockroach.

She was above them all.

That wasn’t to say that she hated humans. They could be interesting at times. A decent diversion from the monotony of existence. As long as they kept their distance and left her to do as she willed, Catherine was more apathetic than anything else.

Irene made for a good toy. Pushing her to things that made her uncomfortable brought around interesting reactions. Those she played games with were… stand-able to a mild degree. From a distance. She wouldn’t wish to meet with them in person. They would be just as disgusting as the rest of their filthy race.

By that logic, demons would be more on her level. She should enjoy the company of other demons.

Perhaps she would. It was hard to say, having never tried.

As it was, Catherine feared other demons. In Hell, she kept to herself. Much like most other demons, she visited no other domains and invited no others to hers. Catherine was not a strong demon. Even a pathetic wretch like Arachne would be able to slaughter her effortlessly.

Such was the station of a lesser succubus.

Being lesser succubus wasn’t all bad, however. It made living among mortals incredibly easy. Almost to an absurd degree. Between her body, her natural succubi grace, and maybe a tiny bit of power poured into some mind magic, getting what she wanted from humans wasn’t difficult at all.

At least, that was how it should be. Catherine didn’t often find herself wanting anything from mortals. When she did, she ran into people like Eva’s mentor. People who weren’t enamored with her and who could just blink away if she got too close. People who knew about succubi charms and could either defend themselves or shrug them off.

Given her lesser succubus status, Catherine was willing to bet that he hadn’t even noticed.

But again, having power over mortals was like having power over cockroaches. Not glamorous. Not elegant. Not worth it.

Blinking her eyes open, Catherine sighed. She should have known.

The women’s ward. Only once or twice had she visited in the past, occasions when she had needed Eva for something or other.

She had been feeling something soft at her back for some time now. All the time she had allowed her thoughts to run rampant, the couch had been cradling her. Idle thoughts that were, ultimately, as meaningless as sex. They brought her nothing that she hadn’t already known. She hadn’t made any philosophical discoveries. No sudden enlightenment to how she could gain power over her betters.

Staring up at the brick ceiling dotted with runework lighting of the women’s ward, Catherine had to wonder why she had even tried. Nothing felt different. No surge of power or notion that she could rule the world. If anything, she felt exhausted.

That could just be the aftereffects of the ritual. Maybe she would gain in strength over the next few days as she recovered.

Somehow, she doubted it. Throughout Eva’s ritual, she could feel the girl steadily growing stronger up until its completion. After that, the steady growth dropped off, but still continued for a while longer. Catherine hadn’t been able to pay attention during her own ritual, but it must have stopped at some point afterwards. She could feel Eva now and the girl had felt mostly the same since Catherine had regained consciousness.

Though, thinking about Eva just made Catherine more depressed.

One of her favors had been consumed just to perform a worthless ritual. All because Catherine’s succubi wiles were too weak to get one mortal to even give her the time of day.

Working up the effort to turn her head, Catherine found the girl in question seated in a chair with a book in hand.

Eva glanced up and smiled at her over the top of the book. “The sleeping beauty is finally awake. Didn’t even take a kiss.”

“Don’t you dare,” Catherine said, though the words came out hollow. She was too tired to put more effort into it. That and the action of turning her head caused all kinds of strange prickles in the back of her neck. Trying to lift her arm caused the same to happen there.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Eva said with a snort. “And don’t try to move. I was all kinds of shaky after waking up. Could barely even stand.”

Catherine didn’t speak. She turned her head back to the ceiling and stared.

“It failed,” Catherine said to herself. It wasn’t a question for Eva. Rather, it was a simple statement of a fact.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

Catherine would have started at the new voice, but she had already been aware of Zagan’s presence somewhere nearby. In order to see him, she would have had to tilt her head up and back.

She didn’t bother with that, but couldn’t help the eyebrow that was crawling up her forehead.

“It didn’t fail?”

Zagan gave a low chuckle. “I suppose that depends. Did you expect to come out of that ritual able to challenge me?”

Catherine didn’t respond, which only raised Zagan’s chuckle to a full boisterous laugh. He walked around the table to stand just to the side of Eva’s chair.

He was, thankfully, back in his suit. Catherine didn’t care one way or the other about people in the nude, but Zagan was more like an incubus than most incubi she had met over the course of her existence. Seeing him clothed was reassuring.

“Then yes, it failed. If you might lower your expectations a few notches, perhaps you might be able to see some success. Already, that little diabolist man–”

“Demonologist,” Eva interrupted.

Zagan glared, but didn’t admonish her. The glare was probably enough. Eva shrank down in her chair and stared at the floor.

“That man is running around with his notebook, recording every little idea his mind can dream up as they come to him. Foolish, yeah? But amusing for the time being.”

Catherine frowned. When he had said that the ritual didn’t fail, she was hoping for more a more selfish result. Even something as simple as her charms being more irresistible.

“Well that’s just great for him,” she eventually said.

Eva cleared her throat. When Zagan didn’t glare or behead her or anything similar, she sat up a little straighter and looked at Catherine. “Devon has actually requested your assistance. It was a begrudging request, but he did admit that you know your way around rituals. He might not have admitted it in such a straightforward manner and there might have been a lot more reluctance… I might be paraphrasing too.”

Eva trailed off, searching for the proper words.

Catherine shook her head. “Great. I am so excited to waste my time with that insufferable man. I’m sure I have nothing better to do with my time in this mortal realm.”

“He’s not that bad,” Eva said with crossed arms and a pointed stare.

“Catherine has the more accurate assessment of the man,” Zagan said, patting Eva on the head. She didn’t appear appreciate the gesture, but not enough to actually fight back against the devil.

Probably a smart move.

“However,” Zagan continued, “I caught a glimpse of his notebook. There are some rather fascinating things for you. This ritual didn’t work the way you wanted, but it was never intended to do that anyway. Your rush job altering it was clever, but ultimately a failure. A more specialized ritual, one designed from the ground up with you in mind…”

“You’re saying,” Catherine said slowly, trying not to get her hopes up, “that there might be something we could do that would put me on par with you?”

“With me?” Zagan laughed. He threw his head back and grabbed his stomach.

Catherine immediately regretted saying that. She should have been vague. Asked for more power in a general sense or something similar.

Zagan’s golden eyes looked down at her. She could feel herself being placed on scales, weighed and measured.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing such. I shall not set my expectations so high. Show me something new. Create yourself anew. Do so and I may grant you a boon of some sort. Fail and…” He shrugged. “Try not to fail.”

With an unrestrained shudder, Catherine nodded. She had just been given an order. An ultimatum. One does not reject such a thing when the source is a Great King of Hell. Not if they wanted to continue existing.

But, oddly enough, she didn’t mind so much. The thought of becoming more powerful was an enticing one. And then there was a boon from Zagan? She was too afraid to ask just what that was. Boons were generally not bad things though. Receiving one from him would be far greater than a thousand favors from one as lowly as Eva.

Whetting the insides of her lips with her tongue, Catherine smiled. “When can we start?”

Yes, this project is far more enticing than the usual desires of succubi.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.006

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Juliana Laura Rivas flipped through the news.

It had been months and there was still no sign that anything was amiss around Brakket City.

The purple streaks in the sky had attracted a good amount of attention for the first month. Brakket was fairly isolated from much of the mundane world, but not so much that the sky would go unnoticed. Even had satellites not been able to pick up the anomaly, people in neighboring cities could look out the window and see the sky. It was simply too huge of an effect to contain.

Conspiracy theorists had come out of the woodwork to appear on talk shows. No one could agree on any one cause. Mundane experts were baffled. Some tried to claim that the purple streaks in the sky were caused by light refracting in certain ways in the area. One guy with extremely messy hair appeared numerous times to claim that aliens were behind everything.

Once it had been found out that Brakket Academy was supposedly one of those ‘magical’ academies, people started to get nervous.

Everyone had been expecting a repeat of the Lansing incident. Some catastrophe of city-leveling proportions. Cameras were trained on the city—from a safe distance—day in and day out.

Somehow, one news station had managed to get Dean Turner to do an interview.

“The state of the sky is the result of a failed experiment. The intended effect was to shade the entire sky for a set distance, filtering certain wavelengths. Uses proposed for the intended effect was to use it in certain parts of the world to control light level to crops, helping to feed millions. It could remove harmful radiation. A more controlled version could be used to color the sky for a celebration, taken down the next day.

“Obviously, things went wrong. The streaks of purple are not harmful. We do not currently know if the sky will return to normal on its own, but we are researching ways to remove the effect.”

Roughly the same announcement that Zoe had said was given to the people of Brakket City.

The interviewer had asked a number of other questions. Most dealing with Brakket Academy itself and the use of magic. Dean Turner had dodged some of the questions while others had been answered.

If Juliana didn’t know better, she might have believed the dean.

But she didn’t need to believe it. She just needed Erich and her dad to believe it.

That interview had started up the debate on whether or not magic actually existed or if everything was a cover up for government conspiracies. Even a decade and a half after Lansing, some people still doubted the actual mages conjuring matter from nothing on live television.

After a month of nothing notable happening around Brakket, the media started to get bored. Less and less of the city was shown. News anchors briefly mentioned that nothing had changed before talking about a plane crash on the other side of the world with a gleam in their eye.

“Now they don’t even show Brakket at all. Obviously nothing bad has happened.”

“We’ve had this discussion before, Juli. You’re not going back.”

Juliana flicked the television off with a huff.

“Mom said I could.”

“Your mother–” Juliana’s father cut himself off with a sigh. He pulled off his glasses with one hand and pressed his thumb and middle finger to his eyes. Bringing his fingers together, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your mother is a reckless woman. I love her for it, but she often thinks that others can be as reckless as she is.”

“You aren’t as strong as Genoa. You cannot survive what she can survive.”

Juliana’s head whipped to her other side to stare at her brother. “You think I don’t know that? If I was as strong as she is, mom wouldn’t be in the hospital.”

“Juliana–”

“And stop agreeing with each other,” Juliana said, looking between the two men. “It’s weird. You’re supposed to be fighting or arguing. Ignoring each other at the very least.”

Resetting his glasses on his nose, her father looked down at her. “Your brother and I have had our… disagreements in the past. Especially regarding your mother. That doesn’t stop the both of us from caring about you. We want you to be safe.”

Juliana rubbed the black band around her finger. Her thumb idled around the skull pattern engraved into the heavy-yet-light metal. The body heat coming off her finger should have kept it at least lukewarm, yet it felt icy to the touch of her thumb.

The only things–demons, at least–that it hadn’t protected her against were the imps in the prison and Zagan himself. Technically Willie, though she had attacked him first, making that one more of her fault than anything.

“I’ll be safe enough,” she said as she stood.

Erich stood the moment she did.

“Will you calm down?” Juliana half-shouted. “I’m just going to my room. I don’t need you babysitting me everywhere I go. Don’t you have a career to get back to?”

“The bank has given me extended leave for a family emergency.”

“Yeah? Well, emergency over. Go back to work,” Juliana said as she stormed out of the room.

In her first year of school, Juliana had been somewhat sad that the school wanted students there for most of the summer. It had taken her away from her parents and thrust her into a world of unfamiliar people.

Now? Juliana wished that the magical world had decent truant officers. Someone to show up and tell her father and brother that she had to be at school. It didn’t even matter that the school seminars hadn’t started up yet.

Anything to get a little breathing room from her family.

Juliana hadn’t been lying earlier. She had fully intended to head upstairs and lock herself in her room for a few hours.

A sound in the kitchen put that plan on hold.

Her mother was at the hospital. Her father and brother were in the living room. No one else should be home.

And yet, there was a sound in the kitchen.

Heart beating faster, Juliana channeled magic through her ring foci. Metal plates coating most of her skin turned from solid to liquid. It flowed over her, providing armor to her hands and head. A long blade stretched out from either wrist until they broke off from the main armor to act more like regular swords.

Thoroughly ready, Juliana pressed open the swinging door to the kitchen.

And promptly froze.

The familiar smell of sulfur permeated the room. It was all coming from one man. Dressed in a dark suit, a barrel-chested man with short black hair was rummaging through the refrigerator.

“No Hellfire,” he said with a click of his tongue. With an overly exaggerated sigh, he turned to stare at Juliana with golden eyes.

“P-Professor Zagan,” Juliana squeaked.

This was bad. Or good? Probably bad.

What can I surprise him with? Zagan liked to be surprised. If she wanted to survive whatever he had come for, she needed to think of something so unexpected that Zagan wouldn’t see it coming.

Juliana bit her lip.

Her mind was completely blank.

A pair of footsteps behind signaled the arrival of both Erich and her father. They must have heard her squeak.

Both had foci in hands, aiming at the devil.

Juliana’s hands shot out, grabbing both of their arms and yanking them downwards. She let her helmet melt away back to her chest–it wouldn’t help against Zagan anyway.

“Don’t! That’s my professor.”

There was no chance any of them would survive if he attacked. Juliana had watched first hand what Zagan had done to Willie. And that had been inside of Willie’s domain as well.

Her father glared. “What is he doing here,” he spat.

Juliana grimaced. Of course her father would recognize Zagan. There was no chance that he hadn’t looked at a photograph or even seen in person the one who had dropped her into Hell.

“I’ve come to inquire about this,” Zagan said, holding up a folded piece of paper between two fingers. His golden eyes turned from Juliana to her father. “Withdrawing your daughter from Brakket Academy?”

“She’s not going back,” he said with finality. “Juli has already been accepted at–”

“I don’t care.” Zagan waved his hand. The air in the room froze for a split second, cutting off all sound. “I merely came to ascertain whether or not this was legitimate and then claim what we had promised each other.” With that, he turned to regard Juliana.

Juliana blinked. She blinked again. On the third blink, her cheeks burst into flames as she realized just what he was saying.

His contract stipulated that he could not ‘lay hands’ upon students. Likely only Brakket Academy students and not whatever school-castle her father had condemned her to.

She hadn’t even considered that while her father had been making arrangements. Between her mother’s recovery, destroying diablery books with Ylva, news about Brakket City, and dodging her brother’s overbearing protection, she had barely spared a thought for Zagan and their ‘promise.’

Her father started to speak. “What are you–”

“The withdrawal notice was a mistake!” Juliana was in a panic. Their agreement was private. Not to mention embarrassing. Something that she absolutely very definitely did not want her father and brother hearing about.

If her father asked, Zagan would blurt it out. He didn’t care in the slightest about her embarrassment.

“That was never supposed to be mailed,” Juliana continued. “I’ll be back at Brakket as soon as school starts.”

“Juli–”

“Say one word,” she interrupted her father, “and I will run away. I will disappear and you won’t see me again for a long time.”

“Tha–”

“One word and I’m gone! I’m serious about this, dad. No arguments.”

Her father’s mouth shut with a loud click.

Zagan turned between Juliana and her father, eying them. After a moment of silence, fire engulfed the piece of paper in his hand. Not even ashes remained to be scattered about.

“A mistake. I see. Disappointing in a manner, but not so much in others.”

Juliana sighed. Everything would be fine. For now.

“I’d love to stay and catch up on the last few months. I unfortunately have a previous appointment at noon today and cannot linger. Besides, you seem to have something to discuss in my absence.”

Before the words could properly register, Zagan vanished from the kitchen with a flare of flames.

Coughing twice at the sudden burst of the scent of sulfur, Juliana stumbled backwards. A firm hand settled on her shoulder.

Juliana turned.

Her father was angry. His lips were pressed into a line so thin that it was almost as if he had no lips at all. His face was flushed red with rage. Even the tips of his ears had turned colors.

“Juliana Laura Rivas,” he said in a calm voice that was a complete betrayal of how angry he appeared. “I would like an explanation.”

— — —

Bright blue sky hung overhead. The warm summer sun beat down on the prison, undisturbed by the violet streaks that were only faintly visible in the daylight. A light breeze from the north kept things from hitting a blistering temperature.

The most important thing was the lack of rain clouds in the sky. That would have delayed everything.

The revised version of Eva’s treatment ritual circle was gigantic. She hadn’t quite got the proper sense of scale from Devon’s tiny notebook.

As with most prisons, the abandoned facility that Eva had claimed as her home had an exercise yard. This particular one had a court for the inmates to play basketball.

The circle stretched beyond the width of the court, though it fit inside the length.

Devon had used his green flames to melt away the chain-link fences, getting them out of the way. Four days ago, he had come out and poured fresh cement, widening the platform on either end. As he worked on that, Eva had to take a trowel and fill in all of the cracks around the court that had formed over the years of disuse.

Everything needed to be nice and smooth.

After leaving the fresh cement to set for two days, he and Eva had come out and inscribed the ritual circle into the cement. He had vehemently refused to allow her to form the circle using blood.

Worried about magical contamination, he insisted on doing everything by hand.

Backbreaking work.

Eva hadn’t complained even once. The ritual was too important. If the only expert in the world said not to do it with magic, she would not use magic.

They had barely finished by nightfall on Friday.

This morning, they had both wandered around the circle several times to compare every little line to those inside Devon’s notebook. A few marks had to be corrected. No major mistakes that would require redrawing the entire circle.

Everything was ready.

And yet, despite everything being well, Devon looked like he was going to be sick.

Eva had a feeling that it didn’t have a thing to do with the ritual circle or their preparations.

It had slipped her mind when she had initially asked them to come, but Eva had remembered late the night before. She ran around Brakket Academy and drained a few vials of blood from each of the demons. Without that, they ran the risk of exploding for wandering around the wrong sections of the prison.

Zagan might have been able to survive. In fact, there was no ‘might’ about it. Eva held no doubts that her wards wouldn’t give him the slightest pause. The others wouldn’t be so fortunate.

Technically, she only needed about a half-vial from each demon. Three vials each was a bit much, but they didn’t need to know that. Anything she didn’t use in her ward would simply go towards a good cause. That of ending Sawyer’s existence.

Lucy hadn’t offered any resistance at all. Eva thought that she might be able to ask for more blood and the demon would give it up with a giggle. Or a gurgle. Lucy was… a bit strange.

Apart from a comment on how much blood she was taking, Zagan hadn’t protested either. That had come as a bit of a shock. Originally, Eva hadn’t intended to take more than she needed from him.

Whether his blood was better or worse than the other demons’ blood would take some testing. Testing that Eva wasn’t certain she wanted to attempt. If his blood was better, wasting it on testing would be a grievous misuse. Though she had taken extra, it wasn’t a whole lot. Saving it for a little party might be the best choice.

Catherine had protested the most. Something about having already given blood for Eva’s wards.

Eva had no idea what she was talking about. Catherine wound up donating an extra vial as protest tax.

Combined with the carnivean, that made three demons and a devil.

Three undominated demons and one devil that probably couldn’t be dominated all stood around the basketball court. Not to mention the vampire that had wandered over wanting to know what all the fuss was about.

Serena had bundled up in enough winter coats to make it so she couldn’t quite put her arms down. Her face had a scarf bundled around it and two sets of ski goggles placed on top of each other. And then she still had an umbrella aimed towards the sun.

Perhaps Devon wasn’t so worried about her. It wouldn’t be difficult to ruin her clothes with even a weak fireball and that would have her exposed to the sun.

But with the amount of demons around…

Really, it was surprising that Devon only looked sick. Eva had half expected him to run off screaming once Zagan showed up. Even with the almost too cold breeze, Devon had sweat dripping from his brow as he finished up a few last-minute preparations.

“Is this going to start anytime soon? I do have things that I would rather be doing.”

So Catherine said. The tone of her voice dripped with annoyance.

Eva had been watching her. All the demons, really, but Catherine was notable because of her occasional comments.

She had arrived with her cellphone in hand, tapping away as usual. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the ritual circle from the moment she first spotted it. Her cellphone was still in her hand, but her fingers didn’t move.

Catherine was old. Eva had no idea how old. Presumably, Catherine had been born. If not, as Zagan had said, she would have been created from a template. No matter what, Catherine wasn’t the sort of person that Eva could see celebrating her birthday. It was highly likely that Catherine had no idea how old she was.

But she was old. With age and experience came knowledge. Perhaps some knowledge about ritual circles. During the few times she had taken over Zoe’s class, Catherine had focused extensively on rituals.

Eva almost wanted to ask just what it was that had caught her interest so completely.

If it was anyone but Catherine, she might have asked. There wasn’t a doubt in Eva’s mind that Catherine would only give a scathing or annoyed comment in response. That was just who she was. She wouldn’t be Catherine if she gave a proper response.

Eva couldn’t ask the other demons either. Lucy had never once been summoned prior to Martina. It was doubtful that she had ever learned anything about rituals. She wouldn’t have any insight in the matter.

Rather, she just looked excited to see something outside of Brakket Academy. Her head spun around—almost literally—as she took in the sights of the prison. Eva could tell that she wanted nothing more than to go around and explore.

The only reason she hadn’t run off was because Zagan had ordered her to be still.

Eva had considered striking up a conversation with Zagan. There was almost no chance that he didn’t have thoughts on the ritual or, at the very least, something interesting to say. And they had just had a decent conversation a week ago.

Unfortunately, Zagan’s irritation with Lucy was palpable. After taking a single glance at the circle, he had leaned against the air with his eyes shut. The only times he had moved were to snap at Lucy for her moving or making too much noise.

If he was in a bad mood, Eva didn’t want to say anything to disturb him further.

Qrycx stood away from everyone else. She didn’t speak. She didn’t mingle. All she did was glare.

More than once, Eva had caught sight of that glare aimed in her direction. Even though the carnivean’s eyes had grown back, she still looked about ready to lunge forward and take Eva’s.

“Almost ready,” Devon said, wiping his sweat on his sleeve.

Catherine slipped her phone into her pocket as she shifted to a more ready position. “Finally.”

Devon glanced up from his notebook. His eyes met with Eva’s for a bare instant before turning back to his work.

In that instant, it was like a whole conversation had passed.

‘Why must you torture me so, girl?’

‘Catherine would have been here regardless of Zagan’s presence.’

‘Don’t even start me on that. I thought you were joking when you said you were going to ask him.’

‘Well, I got my sense of humor from you.’

‘I don’t have a sense of humor.’

‘Exactly.’

At least, that’s how Eva figured it would have happened. Lacking in the ability to project and receive thoughts, she really had no idea as to what he was thinking.

He was, however, undoubtedly pissed. Mostly at her for bringing along Zagan.

“Alright,” he barked out, “Eva, strip and get in the center circle. Whatever three demons are doing this, strip and get in the outer circles.”

“Lucy will be staying here,” Eva said as she pulled her shirt over her head. She still wasn’t sure why Zagan had asked her to bring along Lucy. At first, she had worried that he would try swapping places with her at the last minute.

That wasn’t looking so likely anymore.

Zagan, dressed in a sharp suit complete with a tie, undressed the very second that Devon had ordered it. He hadn’t moved a muscle. Still slouched against an invisible wall, one moment he had clothes on while the next they were neatly folded on the ground.

He had zero compunction about standing around completely naked in front of the group.

Standing a short distance away from the group of demons, Serena pulled down her scarf just long enough to give a loud wolf-whistle that Zagan returned with a smile and a wave.

Eva just shook her head as she stepped out of her skirt.

Catherine and Qrycx had to undress in a far more mundane fashion.

Really, Zagan was just a cheater. When a succubus lacked a magical method of ridding themselves of their clothes, something was just wrong with the world.

Though Catherine had arrived prepared. All she had on was a bathrobe, which she threw off without trouble. She probably would have arrived naked had she not needed a pocket to carry her cellphone in.

Catherine also received a whistle from a certain vampire.

Devon looked at her once with a scoff and a sneer before turning back to the circle.

“No chairs?” Eva asked as she stepped into the center. “Or tubes and needles to hook us up together?”

“We only added the chairs after ensuring that the old circle was stable. No chances here. If something goes wrong…” he pressed a tentacle to his forehead. “You’ll be kneeling. All of you,” he said to the demons as they made their way to their positions. “Sit with your backs to Eva.”

It was strange… No. It was unnerving to watch Zagan kneel down without protest. Eva had expected the Great King of Hell to ignore Devon and pull up an invisible chair. Or whatever else he felt like doing.

Apparently, he felt like following orders.

Catherine was the one who looked most disgusted by being told to sit on the ground. Still, after a glance at Zagan, she complied without a verbal complaint.

“As for the transfusion, it won’t be necessary. The ritual circle will take care of that.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said as she knelt down.

Since she had received Arachne’s limbs, Eva had often considered them to be useful. More often than not, in fact. Her legs were stronger and tougher than the old human ones she had previously possessed. Maybe that would have changed after becoming a demon, but there wasn’t a way to know for sure at this point in time.

Whatever happened in the future would happen. At the moment, Eva was just glad that she could kneel on the hardened carapace instead of her old fleshy skin.

“So, what next boss-man?”

If the glare that Devon had shot Eva earlier was along the lines of being pissed, the glare he sent at Serena was absolutely apoplectic.

Serena actually took a half step backwards.

“Next,” Devon ground out. He turned back to Eva and the three demons, glancing between each of them. “You all remain as still as possible. The demons might feel some tingling and discomfort. Eva… just try not to die.”

“That’s reassuring.”

Devon didn’t bother responding to that.

Which didn’t make Eva feel any better. How was she supposed to try not to die? Obviously, she didn’t want to die. It wasn’t like she could hold on to the edge of a cliff or dodge a bullet.

Eva shook her head. Worrying about it would just lead to stress and anxiety.

“You,” Devon shouted, pointing towards Lucy. His arm swing around to point at Serena. “And you. No matter what you hear or see, you are not to cross onto the ritual circle. In fact, take ten steps away and do not move.

That was even less reassuring. Just what were they going to hear and see?

Turning back to the demons, Devon took a deep breath. “Everyone ready?”

“Get on with it already!”

Eva had to agree with Catherine. The longer Devon delayed, the more nervous she got. This treatment was nothing like the sessions with Arachne. That had been a little unconsciousness and a little lethargy afterwards.

This sounded like it was going to be painful.

There was a sigh from Devon and Eva was proven very right.

Eva’s hands had been resting on her knees. When the ritual started, the hydraulic pressure in her hands failed. Lacking any resistance, the strong muscles in her hands clamped down.

The only reason she hadn’t crushed her knees was because they were made of demonic chitin. The strength of her knees was just enough to resist the strength of her hands.

Gritting her teeth, Eva watched with wide eyes.

As the lines of the ritual circle lit up around the demons, something started peeling off and pulling out of the back of their necks.

Smoke poured out of their necks to pool in one great cloud above Eva.

A pitch black cloud.

It took Eva’s panicked mind a moment to realize that it was blood.

While Zagan didn’t seem to notice at all, Catherine moved her hand back to idly scratch at her neck. She wasn’t hurried or panicking. It was as if whatever she felt was no more notable than a mosquito bite. The blood just flowed around her fingers, not sticking to them in the slightest.

Eva couldn’t see the carnivean’s reaction–she didn’t have the mental power to spare on looking through her blood sight.

The dark cloud of demon blood gathered overhead made its way closer and closer to Eva.

Thin spools–two miniature tornadoes–pulled downwards from the cloud. They reached Eva’s wrists and started burrowing.

Up until now, Eva had managed to keep the pain under wraps. Though she grit her teeth and couldn’t control the clenching of her hands, she hadn’t made a sound.

That ended the moment the blood entered her wrists.

Eva arched her back, opening her mouth wide to scream out at the sky. The blood tore through her body. It didn’t care that there was meat and, after leaving her arms, bone in the way.

Organs? Shove them aside. Can’t shove them? Go straight through them.

She could feel it coursing through her. Despite feeling like it was penetrating straight through her organs, she could also feel it wrapping around them, embracing them, infusing them.

From the tips of her toes to the deepest recesses of her brain, her body felt as if it were on fire and drowning at the same time. Flayed to shreds. Worse even than the effects of her method of teleporting.

Her screams died to rasps as her throat gave up.

The dark cloud overhead was steadily shrinking. The demons were no longer contributing to its growth.

The last droplets came down and disappeared into her wrists. Her pain hit a crescendo and everything stopped.

Eva slumped forward. She could barely process what was happening. The runic circle was still glowing with magical energy and she could still feel that energy swirling around inside of her.

Trying to sit as still as she could even with her ragged breathing, Eva waited. She waited and she hoped that the worst of it was over with.

Twelve eternities passed before the light of the ritual circle was finally snuffed out. It had been near noon when they had started, but when the light died, the sunlight had gone dark.

Only the pale moonlight lit up the ritual circle.

Like a puppet with her strings cut, Eva slumped forward. Her arms could muster no resistance to stop her head from smacking into the concrete.

Eva’s hazy mind caught sight of the blazing red eyes of Catherine’s demon form staring down at her.

Everything went dark.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


007.005

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Finding Catherine wasn’t half as hard as Eva had imagined it would be.

Really, quite the opposite.

It was as simple as walking into the Brakket Academy main building and heading for the secretary’s desk in the reception area. Catherine sat at her usual desk, absolutely absorbed in whatever was on her computer monitor.

Eva had no idea why she had expected anything different. It was doubtful that she had a home outside of her secretary desk.

A few minutes of standing around, waiting for Catherine to finish whatever she was doing and Eva had still not received even the slightest acknowledgment that she existed. Catherine had a set of headphones on, ones that covered her entire ears and had an attached microphone to one side, but her eyes should still have worked.

“Their whole team is dead! Get on the point!”

Eva froze at Catherine’s sudden outburst.

“Do I have to do everything myself?” Catherine let out a low growl. “Pathetic humans,” she hissed under her breath.

Eva kept frozen until the growl died off. The scowl on the succubus turned to a grin radiating pure evil in the blink of an eye.

That almost scared her more than the shouting. Still, Eva had a task. To accomplish that task, she needed to get Catherine’s attention for ten minutes.

Waving her hands a few times elicited no response from Catherine.

With a sigh, Eva blinked from her side of the desk to Catherine’s side, placing her just over the demon’s shoulder.

The screen was a flurry of lights and colors. Caricatures of people ran around the screen, most of whom were targeted and killed by Catherine with pinpoint accuracy. The images moved so fast that Eva barely had time to process what was happening.

It was giving her a mild headache. She had no idea how Catherine could keep up with it all.

Eva reached out and slid one side of Catherine’s headphones back behind her ear. Carefully, of course. She didn’t want to startle Catherine into attacking.

Turns out, her worries were misplaced. Catherine was far too focused on the game.

Eva didn’t get it. But then, she had never used computers outside of classwork–both at her old mundane school and here at Brakket. She would much rather be reading through musty tomes than whatever it was that Catherine was doing.

“Winning?” She knew enough about games to know that winning was a thing.

“If you would cease your distractions,” Catherine said without taking her eyes off the screen. “I am utterly annihilating these pathetic mortal brats.”

“Children? Surely there are more engaging targets.”

“Mortals are all children to me.”

“Fair enough.” Eva leaned forward with narrowed eyes. There were words scrolling along the left side of the monitor. “What is an ‘aimbot?'”

“When mortals find that they cannot beat me, they constantly accuse me of cheating. It almost got me banned one time, until the company personally monitored my playing and determined that I was not using any sort of hacks or programs.”

Eva pulled back from the screen with a shake of her head. If she continued asking questions, she had a feeling that the conversation would quickly head in a direction that she could not follow. She hadn’t come in to discuss games, after all.

Unfortunately, she did not want to irritate Catherine. With Ylva having already declined her request, Eva didn’t want Catherine to deny it out of pure spite.

So, she sat back and waited. There was a countdown timer at the top of the screen. Eva assumed that the game would end then, freeing Catherine up for a quick chat.

She could wait five minutes.

Thirty seconds later, a golden ‘VICTORY’ flashed across the screen.

Catherine removed her headset with a satisfied sigh and turned to face Eva. “Mortals have come up with some amusing things in the past century or so,” she said with a wistful smile.

That was good news. If she had been in a bad mood, Eva had thought that she might just come back later. Good mood Catherine meant more agreeable Catherine.

Hopefully.

Eva took a deep breath before she spoke. “I need help. Or a favor? Yeah. A favor. And I’ll return the favor, of course.”

“Sounds like work,” Catherine said as she reached for her headset.

Reaching out, Eva grabbed on to Catherine’s arm. “You haven’t even heard what it is yet! Just hear me out. Please.”

Catherine stared for a minute before sighing. The sigh came out far less blissful and far more exasperated than her last one. “What is it?”

“I need someone to sit in on my treatment. You really only have to sit there for a few minutes and donate a little blood. Plus some magic stuff that I don’t really understand. There will be two other demons there in your position, you’ll be the third. But no work at all. It’s just sitting in a chair for a ritual, maybe a few minutes of lethargy, then you can be back to your computer.”

Catherine’s eyes lost their disguise and flared bright red. “You want to take things from me,” she said, her voice cold as ice. “You’re the one who told me to grow powerful. That was just so you might take it from me later?”

Eva’s eyes went wide. Was that why Ylva had declined? No, it couldn’t be. Ylva had seen the ritual. She knew what it entailed. Arachne was not lessened after every ritual. Devon had definitely used the word ‘copy.’

“No! Copy, not take, you’re still fully intact. Minus some blood, but that shouldn’t matter with a demon’s constitution and regeneration speed.

“Arachne used to be my partner for my treatment. I’m sure you’ve heard, but she…” Eva’s voice dropped a few notches in intensity and volume. “She died. Lightning bolt to the face. There wasn’t much face left.”

That at least got Catherine smiling again.

Eva couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It didn’t make Eva smile.

“I wouldn’t have asked you had she not died. I didn’t plan this or anything. You’re free to grow in power as much as you want and keep it too.” Though, I’m not sure how playing games advances that particular goal.

There must be something that Eva had missed about video games.

“No work,” Catherine said to herself. “I’ll be sitting there and nothing will be lost.”

“Yes. And I’ll owe you a favor.”

“Three.”

Eva opened her mouth. Her first instinct was to glare and state ‘two favors,’ but she was somewhat desperate. With a resigned nod, Eva said, “I can do that.”

“Very well. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” Eva said. “I appreciate it. It will be on this coming Saturday. I’ll let you know exactly when after I figure it out.”

“Works for me,” Catherine said with a shrug. She rubbed her hands together with a smile. “Now, for my first favor, I want you to–”

Her smile dropped off her face as she let out a thoughtful hum. “I was going to have you do a tall stack of paperwork that was supposed to be done a month ago. But being owed favors is like having power over you. I wouldn’t want to waste it on frivolous tasks.” She looked up at Eva with a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “Besides, Martina hasn’t yelled at me about the paperwork more than once. Probably not important anyway.

“And you’re not bound by the limitations of my contract.” Her gaze shifted towards the door leading into Martina Turner’s office. “Yes. I think I will hold on to your services until I have something that I want that I cannot get for myself.”

Eva frowned. Something that Catherine was restricted from doing? It couldn’t be any good. “What are the details of your contract?”

“Not telling you,” Catherine snapped. “You’ll find some way around doing what I ask.”

“I wouldn’t do that. Believe it or not, I’m being honest at the moment. I need help and I’m willing to pay for it.”

Maybe I should go offer Ylva a few favors.

“Nope. Not falling for it. You’ll find out when the time comes.” She reached forward, taking her headset in her hands. “If there’s nothing else, you know the way out.” Catherine started to place the headphones on her ears, but paused with them just in front of her face.

“In fact. I’ll use up one of my favors right now. Don’t tell Martina about our arrangement. Or anyone else for that matter. As far as everyone is concerned, I’m helping you with your treatment out of the goodness of my heart.”

Eva scoffed, but she still nodded. “I can do that. No one will hear of it from me.”

“Good.” Catherine slammed the headset on her head. In a flash, her hands were back on the keyboard and mouse.

Once again absorbed in her own little world.

Eva sighed as she walked out of the office. While happy she had secured a second demon for the treatment, she had wanted to ask where Daru and Lucy were. Maybe Zagan too.

Though, owing Catherine favors was one thing. If Zagan asked for the same, she would probably just walk away.

Given the fact that Catherine was in her usual spot, the security guards were probably in the guard room. Or patrolling around the school. Zagan would be harder to pin down, but he might be around as well. If Eva couldn’t find anyone, she could always come back and ask Catherine.

Ten steps down the hallway and Eva already knew she was going to be meeting with one demon. She caught sight of his circulatory system long before she heard his heavy footsteps.

“Intelligent decisions?” Zagan gave a light sniffle. “Our little succubus is all grown up. Brings a tear to my eye.”

Eva turned to face Zagan with a frown. “There is no way that you heard our conversation. Martina Turner’s office was empty. No one else was around. I know, I can see through walls.”

“Alright. I wasn’t there and I didn’t hear,” there was a golden glint in his eye as his silver voice spilled out obviously false words. “Of course, if I wasn’t there and didn’t hear, you might find it difficult to convince me to help with your little problem.”

“You’re willing to help.” Eva’s voice was flat. She crossed her arms and glared, feeling more irritated by his smile as the seconds ticked by.

Zagan mimicked her pose. With his arms crossed, he leaned back, resting against thin air like it was a solid wall. And yet, he didn’t confirm or deny Eva’s statement.

It wasn’t that she would be ungrateful if he was offering to help. Zagan was beyond powerful. Devon didn’t think it would matter much, but he hadn’t ever done this particular ritual before. He was designing it from scratch specifically for her. If there was even a chance that she could give herself a fraction of Zagan’s power…

Well, it would probably help with Sawyer, if nothing else.

The problem was that no one in this world–or in Hell–did anything for free. Everyone wanted something. Zagan would be no different.

Not even two minutes ago, Eva had considered skipping over Zagan no matter what. But with the possibility dangling right in front of her, could she really resist?

At the very least, she could hear him out.

“What do you want?”

“What do I want? A better question would be, what could you possibly do for me that I couldn’t do for myself?”

Eva narrowed her eyes. She had a feeling that she knew what he was talking about. A different answer came to mind after a moment more thought.

“I taught that diablery class in your place. Without me, you would have had to do it all yourself.”

Zagan stared for a moment before bursting out in raucous laughter. “That you did,” he said, slapping Eva on her shoulder.

Eva winced, but ignored the pain. If he was actually trying to hurt her, she would be writhing and screaming on the ground.

“You told me that teaching that class wasn’t worth getting Shalise out of Hell. Is it worth sitting around for a few minutes every few months?”

“It just might be,” he said, still chuckling.

Eva couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “So you’ll help out?”

“Saturday? I suppose I can clear my schedule.”

Devon is going to be pissed when he sees who shows up, Eva thought with a barely restrained giggle. And I don’t even care.

Zagan didn’t even ask for a favor. Not unless she counted the diablery class.

Eva didn’t.

It had been tedious, but relatively simple all things considered.

“Do me a favor,” he said.

Eva drew in a deep breath through her nose. She had thought too soon. What manner of horror was his favor going to involve?

“Bring along Lucy.”

And she let that breath back out again.

That wasn’t so bad.

“If you don’t mind my asking, why?”

“An experiment of my own. If I am right–” he gave a dark chuckle, “and I always am–I’d like for there to be four demons at your little birthday party.”

“Experiment?” Eva blinked in confusion. “Wait, no… Birthday?”

“My little embryonic one, do you not consider your treatments to be birthdays? Every one that passes brings you more strength, more power, and a step closer to a true rebirth.”

“Not really.” Eva frowned. It made sense. Kind of. “Wouldn’t the day I complete the treatment be more like a birthday than every single treatment? The day that I cease being an ’embryo’ to use your word.”

It was Zagan’s turn to frown.

They just stood for a moment, staring at each other with frowns on their faces.

“I like my interpretation better.”

“I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” Eva said with a shrug. “I barely celebrate my actual birthday now. I couldn’t imagine doing so at your age.”

Something about Zagan’s words sent her mind in a strange direction. “Do you still celebrate your birthdays? Or wait, were you even born? I was a little preoccupied at the time, but I distinctly recall you saying that you did not have a mother back in my domain.”

“That is true.” He shifted his lean against the air behind him and cracked his neck to one side with a few loud pops. “I suppose there is no harm in telling you.

“I am a Pillar of Hell. One of the seventy-two created by Void from nothing.”

Eva’s face twisted in confusion. “Aren’t most demons created by–”

Two fingers shot out and pinched her lips shut. “From and nothing are the key words there. And don’t interrupt me.”

He released Eva’s lips.

She nodded.

“After the seventy-two, demons were created from a sort of template. Every demon is based on one of us in some form or other. None as unique. None as powerful. None as handsome,” he said, stroking his chin.

When he winked, Eva just rolled her eyes.

“Others were born. Not all demons can get pregnant. Not all demons can sire children. Those that can will have demonic children. Too similar to their parents to be called unique. Often less powerful than their parents as well.

“So no. The answer to your question is that I was not born. I was created.”

“Alright,” Eva said with a nod as she digested the information. “But what about me? Arachne and Hel too?”

“Arachne?” He shrugged. “Lackluster. I am not impressed. The mages behind her transformation were amateurs in the most pathetic sense of the word. Hel may have been able to make something of herself. Death got his claws into her before she became a demon, unfortunately. If she truly can be considered a demon; she resides in Hell and even has her own domain, but there is just something off about her in comparison to the rest of us. You’ve noticed that with your friend, yeah?”

Eva frowned. She hadn’t really. Though, now that he mentioned it, Ylva had always been in a league of her own. More akin to Zagan than any other demon that she had met.

Zagan’s grin split across his face. “You, my dear embryonic one, have us all very excited. We expect great things of you. You weren’t born a demon. You’re not created from a template. Not even created by Void himself. What will become of you?”

“Does Arachne not count as a template?” Eva asked, latching on to the one thing he said that didn’t carry mind bending implications. “She’s been my partner in the treatment since the start. Wouldn’t such a ‘lackluster’ demon create a lackluster demon?”

“I would need to see the exact method of your ‘treatment’ to know for certain. However,” he took a deep breath before smiling at her. “You don’t smell like Arachne. I believe that she has given you a foundation. Your actions, desires, thoughts, and feelings will shape you into what you will become.”

“Let me get this straight,” Eva said after a moment. “I’m going to become a demon no matter what. So this treatment is unnecessary?”

“A building will topple without the proper foundation, yeah?”

“Then it is important.”

“Vitally so.”

Eva let out a long sigh. Their discussion felt heavy. Enough to physically exhaust her. She shot a brief glare at Zagan.

I wish I had an invisible wall to lean against.

But she didn’t.

Pressing her forehead against the relatively cool window worked well enough. Being summer time, it was hot outside. Eva liked the heat. The humidity in Florida had bothered her, but the heat had not.

The cold of the window served to shock Eva, in a manner of speaking. A quick jolt to clear her thoughts.

Zagan moved up to the window alongside Eva, staring out into the woods of the Infinite Courtyard. He didn’t speak.

Eva didn’t say anything either.

They just stood, staring outside in a peaceful silence.

It was strange. She hadn’t expected to meet with Zagan. At least not so soon. Neither had she expected him to agree to help her essentially without any kind of payment.

Least of all, she hadn’t even imagined herself having a cordial conversation with him. Yet they had a conversation. An informative conversation. One that didn’t even have veiled threats or him shoving off his responsibilities onto her.

He wasn’t even causing problems. At least, not at this particular moment. He hadn’t caused problems for a short while as well.

It was almost too good to be true.

The other shoe had to drop at some point.

A shiver ran up Eva’s spine. Or maybe it already had.

His earlier words ran through Eva’s mind. You have us all very excited.

Who was ‘us all’? The other pillars?

Did she have seventy-two of the most powerful beings in existence keeping an eye on her? They were excited about her. Worse, they had expectations of her.

You’re destined for far greater things than a puppet of the puppet-master. The words of Void, the Power. Words that she had assumed were out of boredom. Void spoke with her friends and other demons, so there was nothing strange about it.

At least, that was what she had thought. Now…

Forget the seventy-two. She had a legitimate Power following her actions. What did He expect of her?

Eva didn’t even realize that she had been hyperventilating until Zagan placed a hand on her shoulder. She glanced up to meet his golden eyes, wondering just what words of advice he would offer.

“If your actions will determine what sort of demon you will become, I wonder just what inaction will mean.”

With that, he smiled and walked away.

Eva stumbled as his hand left her shoulder. She watched him wander down the empty hallway with static in her thoughts.

Only after he had gone, only after she had stood still for several minutes did Eva blink.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

The moment the words left her mouth, an idea came to mind. She couldn’t be sure that it was what Zagan was talking about, but it fit as well as anything.

Eva balled her fists. “Sawyer,” she hissed through gritted teeth.

With a thought, Eva teleported to the women’s ward. She had work to do. Preparations to make.

The minute she woke up from her treatment, Sawyer would wish that he had never heard of Brakket Academy.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.014

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Nel paced in front of the door that led out of Ylva’s domain. The last time she left the domain, a series of bad things happened. Mostly to her.

But this time was different. Right? Lady Ylva had threatened the Elysium Order, so they shouldn’t come after her. Eva had her blood wards up around the entire prison, so no one should be able to teleport in and kidnap her.

And if someone started unraveling the wards, Nel was going to sprint at full speed for Ylva’s domain, sky cracking or not.

Nel stopped pacing and let out a long sigh.

What was the Elysium Order’s reaction to Nel and Ylva? Would they actually leave well enough alone, or would they redouble their efforts?

Not for the first time, Nel wished she hadn’t spent so much effort in avoiding Sister Cross while she was a prisoner. The nun had to have at least a few answers.

Nel would have asked Lady Ylva to accompany her had she been around. Unfortunately, she was once again missing. Along with Alicia.

That was another point of concern for Nel. The idea that she could be replaced was absolutely terrifying. She didn’t think it would come to that–Alicia lacked the augur abilities and the potential to become an augur–but the fact remained that Nel was being left behind from whatever activities they were up to.

Maybe she had offended Ylva by being captured. A servant of the regal Lady Ylva should be better than that. Her lady had been forced to act for the first time–at least since Nel took refuge within her domain.

Though that wasn’t actually true. It was Sawyer who made her move to the professor’s house and Sawyer again who sent monsters to attack the school that Ylva had decided to defend. But all of that was reactionary–they came to her. Ylva hadn’t taken an active hand in seeking out enemies until…

Nel frowned.

Until she went to rescue Alicia.

Though it was part of the same operation, and the Elysium Order’s inquisitors running around inside the hotel would have complicated matters, Ylva hadn’t rescued Nel. That had been Arachne along with the school professors.

Nel clutched her forehead, gritting her teeth. Maybe I really am being replaced.

“No, I’m not,” Nel said as she shook the paranoia away. Even if she was going to be replaced, she hadn’t been yet. That meant she still had a chance.

She could still prove to Lady Ylva that she was worth something. That she shouldn’t be thrown out on the streets.

Or worse.

Nel threw open the door to Ylva’s domain and marched out. She tried to keep her head held high in a confident pose.

Within ten steps her head was on a swivel as she searched and glimpsed for any sign of an attack. She didn’t glimpse very far, very often, or for very long. Being exhausted and full of all the headaches had led to her capture more than anything else, in all likelihood. But it was enough that she might have some early warning if anything happened.

Just before opening the door to the women’s ward, Nel glimpsed inside.

Her hand froze on the handle.

The professor stood off to one side, well away from a ritual circle on the floor. Her face looked like she had just finished sucking on an extremely angry lemon. One of her feet tapped against the floor with fervor rivaling a nervous rabbit.

Most of her anger appeared to be directed at Devon. The man stood in a state of undress within the circle.

In front of him sat both Eva and Arachne. Both were hooked up to one another with small tubes.

It wasn’t the first time Nel had seen such an event. The first time she had seen it was while she still worked under Sister Cross. Since then, it occurred on a fairly regular basis. Every three months or so.

Though an audience was rare. Eva, Devon, and Arachne were normally the only ones attending. Ylva occasionally stopped by to watch, but never did anything but stand in a corner.

Nel ceased her glimpse and merely stood outside the door. Intruding on a nude Devon, angry professor, and the unconscious Eva and Arachne wouldn’t get much done except embarrass herself. She had more than half a mind to run back to Ylva’s domain and call it a day.

A tiny sliver of her mind argued that if she returned, she probably wouldn’t leave again for a long time.

But she still wasn’t keen on walking in on them. Especially Devon. She got enough of an eyeful to last a lifetime with just her near-instantaneous glimpse.

Turning from the women’s ward, Nel started wandering. It was aimless for the most part. She wasn’t about to leave the prison walls–even if she wasn’t worried about being hunted, there wasn’t much outside save for a small ghost town that originally housed whoever worked at the prison. At the same time, she didn’t return to Ylva’s domain.

As she walked around the prison yard, Nel slowed and eventually ceased her glimpsing. Her headache was slowly growing and there was still no sign of any Elysium Order inquisitors. If they were going to do something…

Well, they were probably in the middle of doing it.

Nel wanted to believe that they couldn’t do anything. Ylva had decimated the inquisitorial chapter. Unlike other, undead hunting chapters, there was only the single chapter of internal inquisition.

Not many left the order. A good portion of the Elysium Order’s recruits came from places that undead had overrun. Few of those were actually capable of casting magic naturally. Once they had a taste of being able to use magic, few ever chose to return.

Even then, many who left the order did not warrant being hunted down. Most who did leave had their eye surgically removed, ready to be implanted within another recruit.

Because of that, there wasn’t need for more than a single chapter of inquisitors. And because of that, they hadn’t had time to train up a whole new chapter.

Probably.

Nel really should be spending some of her time spying on them.

But for now, she was taking a brief break.

February’s air was cold enough that Nel could see her breath. Oddly enough, none of that cold penetrated her robe. Lady Ylva must have placed some enchantments on the thin garment.

She walked on through the cold air, musing about her station in life and wondering just what, if anything, lay in her future. Lady Ylva, obviously. But would there be anything more?

Nel never had many aspirations. None she could remember, in any case. Since becoming an augur, she had spent most of her time being used for her abilities. The rest of her time had been focused on not being killed.

Eva had once called her paranoid.

Maybe. Maybe not. As the saying went, it isn’t paranoia if they’re actually after you.

And, as an augur, a number of people could and would be after her at any given moment in time.

Not having anything for herself, and given Lady Ylva’s presence in her future, Nel asked herself one question aloud, “what does Lady Ylva need?”

With just how much the domain provided, Nel was having trouble coming up with anything useful.

“What, indeed, does any demon need?”

Nel connected to the source without the slightest hesitation. Lightning arced off her fingertips, flying into whatever was behind her.

The last time an unfamiliar voice sneaked up behind her, it was Sawyer just before he kidnapped her. She was not going to make that mistake again.

In the brief instant it took for the lightning to leave her fingertips and reach their destination, Nel glimpsed that which lay behind her.

Hoofed feet, bare chest, thick arms, wings, and horns. Flames and smoke lit the area where his feet connected with the ground. Two bright gold eyes didn’t so much as glance at the lightning as he casually swatted it away with the back of his hand.

Nel gasped, throwing herself to the ground. She wasn’t quite fast enough.

Lightning sparked against her backside, burning a hole straight through the seat of her robe. Luckily, it wasn’t that painful. Not only did her connection to the source take much of the pain off of her mind, but she hadn’t put much power into her attack. Just in case whoever it was had a reason to be at the prison.

She was relatively certain that the devil that had very nearly killed her was not one of those people.

Nel’s heart was halfway out her throat before she shunted a good portion of her emotions away to the source. A moment of clarity overcame her utter panic.

Before, she had managed to escape. Sure, she might have been nearly dead for three days, but she still lived in the end. And she would again escape. This time, she just needed to make it to Ylva’s domain and pray that the devil wouldn’t enter.

Nel started crawling on the ground, trying to clamber to her feet somewhere along the way. She let out a strangled cry–the women’s ward was on the opposite end of the prison, but maybe someone would come and help–before a heavy hoof impacted the small of her back, sending her flat against the ground.

Her cry turned to a scream as the flames accompanying his hooves seared into her backside. The eyes implanted within her body squirmed, pressing up against each other in their mad attempts to flee from the heat.

“Such a strange greeting you nuns have. I can’t recall a single one I’ve met that hasn’t tried to kill me the second they saw me. And you didn’t turn to look!”

The hoof keeping her down disappeared from her back. Nel tried to move again.

It came back, hitting her in the side of her chest. She flopped over onto her back with the force.

Again the hoof came down on top of her. This time, she could see it coming with her regular eyes.

Despite the brief warning, bracing her stomach did nothing. Her cry of pain cut off as the air was forcibly evacuated from her lungs.

“It’s almost as if you lot are completely suicidal.” He let out an exasperated sigh before drawing in a deep breath through his nose. At that, he blinked and quirked his head to one side. “I know you, yeah? You smell,” he paused to take another breath, “familiar.”

Nel was in far too much pain to even consider responding. That pain also prevented a proper reaction to him gripping the neck of her robes and pulling her up.

They stared at one another eye to eye. Nel’s vision of his golden eyes was marred by a combination of a heavy squint and her own tears. Eventually, he stuck out his tongue, swiping it from her chin to her temple.

“Taste familiar too.” He blinked, recognition lighting up in his eyes. “Oh. You’re that nun. Did I threaten your life the next time we met, or anything similar?

“I would hate to be found out as a demon that did not keep his promises.”

Nel grit her teeth, pulling away from his hot breath without saying a thing. He probably had threatened her–Nel couldn’t remember. She had been trying to repress those memories.

“Ah well, a matter for another time.” He shoved her back.

Flailing her arms to keep her balance, Nel tried to turn and run. A hand clasped down on her shoulder to keep her from fleeing.

“I didn’t plan to meet you, but this is most fortuitous. I’m wondering,” he said, completely ignoring her efforts at escape. Rather, he pulled her in close with a glance from side to side. As if they were conspiring together. After satisfying whatever he was looking for, he pulled a small brass sphere from somewhere. “I’m wondering just what you can make of this.”

Despite her best efforts at escaping his grasp, Nel found her eyes drawn to the object as it cracked open with a small hiss.

Her slight curiosity vanished as she recoiled back from the slime contained within. Unbidden retching almost forced her to her knees. Had the devil not tightened his grip, she would have gone back down to the ground.

He just laughed and pushed her aside.

The pain in her back and stomach vanished as she stumbled. Nel glanced down at herself. Where there should have been charred skin, everything was fresh and new. Not the slightest hint of a burn.

Unfortunately, she could see her unblemished skin. The robes Lady Ylva had made for her were burned straight through.

“I imagine your owner wouldn’t be pleased with our little roughhousing session. Besides,” he tossed the now-sealed brass sphere towards Nel, “you need to be able to concentrate. Go perform your far-seeing upon the contents. I need to go visit with the little embryonic girl.”

Nel fumbled with the sphere. It took her three tries of accidentally knocking it higher into the air before she finally caught it. Her fear at the devil momentarily fled and was replaced by a fear of smelling that stench.

Blinking in confusion, Nel watched as the devil completely disregarded her. He turned and wandered off in the vague direction of the women’s ward.

He isn’t going to kill me?

The moment the thought crossed her mind, the devil froze.

Nel didn’t wait to see what he was going to do. She turned and ran.

“Take care not to touch it,” he called out after her.

The words barely registered. All of Nel’s concentration was centered around placing one foot in front of the other as fast as possible.

By the time she had crossed the relatively short distance to reach Ylva’s domain, Nel was panting and sweating. Only part of it was born out of fear.

The rest was simply because of the unexpected exertion.

Unlike the Elysium Order, Lady Ylva hadn’t imposed any stress filled exercise programs. No waking up in the morning to run several miles, no weight room, no sparring. Living in relative peace for a full year had done wonders for her sense of laziness.

As Nel leaned against the wall back in the safety of the domain, she considered restarting her old training. Surely she would be of more use to Lady Ylva if she had the physical capabilities to, at the very least, flee effectively from immediate threats.

Of course, none of that would matter if that demon decided to burst through the doors and finish her off.

Nel took several minutes to calm her pounding heart. In all that time, the devil never broke through the door.

He let her go. Again.

Sighing, Nel pressed her forehead against a cool marble column. She glanced down at the brass sphere in her hands. He would be back. While he didn’t come with her to watch her scry on the gunk inside and he hadn’t set a later date for her to deliver whatever information she gleaned from it, he would definitely be back.

Fondling the black skull attached to the band around her neck, Nel mumbled to herself, “where has Lady Ylva gone?” Nel would be feeling much better if she were around.

With a start, Nel glanced down at herself. Maybe it was a good thing that Lady Ylva was gone. She was in no way presentable as she was now. Her clothes were a mess, her hair was matted with sweat, and, though the devil had done something to remove her burns, he hadn’t done anything to remove the dirt that had stuck to her clothes and skin.

With renewed vigor, Nel headed straight for the bath.

After soaking away her harrowing experience outside the domain–a process that took a good hour, at least–Nel found a set of fresh clothing and retired to the throne room to await Lady Ylva’s return. As she waited, she went over exactly what she would say in her report.

Elysium habits died hard, when they weren’t about exercise that is. As an augur, Nel had given her fair share of reports to superiors. Mostly about things she had seen from afar. This time it was about something in person, and that changed things. There were so many personal things that she wasn’t sure she was going to share. Her worries about the future, for instance.

A clock struck somewhere within the domain–added for Eva’s friends, who had needed to know when to wake up and when to eat in the otherwise time-averse domain.

Eight chimes.

Nearly three hours since Nel had left the domain. A good two and a half since she had met the devil. An hour and a half since she moved to kneel at her place on the throne’s right side.

And almost a full day since she last saw Lady Ylva.

Biting her lip, Nel changed locations. She moved through the domain, passing over the bottomless pit and through one of the alcoves on the side.

The heavy scent of frankincense stung Nel’s nose as she maneuvered through the augur room to her altar.

Nel found herself at a loss.

She lacked any sort of fetter for Ylva. Something within the domain would probably work. An item that Ylva found to be tied to her in some intrinsic manner, or perhaps a stray hair. Nel couldn’t quite imagine Lady Ylva leaving hairs lying around, but there might be something similar.

Neither did she have a fetter for Alicia. She would be the easier of the two to search out a stray hair, but Nel wasn’t fond of the idea of being caught snooping about the other servant’s things should they return.

With a groan of frustration, Nel decided to cycle through her existing fetters. She dismissed Shalise’s hair right out–seeing anything from that would require standing in the waters–and started with Eva.

Something she should have done as soon as she escaped from the devil.

Eva looked none the worse for wear. Tired by the looks of things, but otherwise unharmed by any devils that may have attacked. Arachne held her in her arms as they both slept on the couch.

Zoe was nowhere in sight, so Nel moved on to her fetter next. Like Eva, she was asleep. Unlike Eva, she slept in an actual bed.

After spending a moment looking around and making certain that there was nothing worth raising the alarm over, Nel moved on.

A handful of others cycled through with nothing of particular happening to note. Sawyer’s was blank as always, as was the boy known as Hugo.

She found Juliana searching through the shelves of a musky library. Unusual, but Nel couldn’t find anything worth watching after a minute. The girl was just reading. Diablery books, by the looks of things.

Really, Nel thought with a frown, you’d think she would have stayed clear of anything resembling demons.

Eventually, Nel was left with only a single fetter left.

A brass sphere she had clipped to her belt by way of the rotating rings.

Nel held it out in front of her. She didn’t want to expose herself to the vile stench, so she didn’t even try to open it–not that the devil had told her how it opened. Concentrating on the contents, Nel sought out its past and present.

A deep drain had her sagging in her seat almost immediately. It felt like she was looking farther into Hell, like when she had found the two children.

Except worse.

Wherever she was looking, it was far away.

Through the haze of her sudden headache, a picture started to form.

Something akin to a planet. From far away, it actually looked beautiful. The air was crisp and clear. Greenery everywhere. And everything on the planet’s surface was in a state of constant motion. There was a slight tinge of purple to everything, but that hardly stood out with everything else going on.

But when Nel zoomed in, she found her stomach churning.

There were plants, animals, monstrosities, and things she couldn’t begin to categorize. Every inch of the planet’s surface was covered in these things. For all Nel knew, there wasn’t even a surface to cover. It could have been just a massive ball of creatures.

Ones on the surface pranced around, treading on those beneath. More creatures exploded out of nowhere, landing on and crushing those too slow to get out of the way.

One particularly nasty set of animated teeth descended on a cat-like creature.

The cat didn’t stand a chance. It was torn to shreds.

Yet it didn’t die.

Despite not having a head or an upper back, the cat’s body sprinted away from the predator. As it ran, it started regrowing the missing parts.

A second cat, identical to the first, clawed its way out of the maw of the animated teeth after a few moments.

Nel’s sight went dark as she slumped over the altar. Maintaining that connection exhausted her. Yet despite her exhaustion, Nel had been unable to look away. It was a disgusting sight and horrifically enticing at the same time.

With shaky hands, Nel plucked the brass sphere out of the air. Taking great care not to jolt or otherwise disturb any part of it, she placed it within the safe that she used to store some of the more valuable fetters–Sawyer’s blood was among the residents. Once the sphere was in place, she shut the door, sealed it shut, and pulled out her gem focus.

Using every bit of her admittedly limited magical knowhow, Nel erected as many wards and defenses around the safe as she could fit. The air around it hummed with volatile magic from the somewhat conflicting wards she had laid around the safe. Anyone trying to unravel the wards would probably set off a chain-reaction detonating the leftover magic. That included herself.

Warding had never been Nel’s strong point.

But it would work. She couldn’t imagine anyone that both had access to Ylva’s domain and would want to steal her fetters, but she felt it all the more prudent to keep that sphere safe.

Lady Ylva would be able to undo it all with a thought should it ever need to be looked at again.

Nel desperately hoped that need never came about.

It took a moment to steady herself on her feet. Once she did, Nel headed straight for the kitchen. She moved past the main area and all its food and drink without a second glance.

After seeing the things she had seen, Nel felt she needed something a little stronger than water or juices of various types.

Nel removed the cork from a bottle of who-knew-what and proceeded to down a full half of the liquid. Her throat burned and some mild hiccups started, but Nel ignored it all.

“When are you coming back, Lady Ylva?”

The moment the words left her mouth, the ground started to quake.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.012

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Irene stretched out in her bed, ready to enjoy yet another day off.

The diablery class hadn’t met for a whole week. Not since the incident. That wasn’t to say it was canceled. Just suspended. Supposedly they would be having regular meetings again on the first of March.

While actively attending the class, Irene hadn’t been aware of just how stressful it actually was. Between the intensity of Catherine and Eva, slipping away or making up excuses to her sister and Jordan, and the ever-present feeling of guilt just for attending, the diablery class was more worry than it was worth.

And really, what was it worth? There were so many aspects of magic to study that she could spend her entire life ignoring demons completely and still never run out of things. The shackles were the most interesting part–they fit well within the realm of warding–something Irene could see herself doing as a profession–but if the class was going to move on to the actual demon parts of diablery, Irene was contemplating dropping the class.

She’d be bound by her contract to remain silent, but that was a good thing. Doing so would just be less stress between her and her sister. A little slice of her past that she never had to bring up.

Irene only jumped a little as her alarm went off. Unfortunately, the day was not a day off for the rest of school.

Slapping the off button, Irene tossed off her covers and started the morning. A small breakfast followed after a brief shower. Once dressed, Irene began the long and grueling task of waking her dear sister.

Despite Irene purposefully making a great deal of noise between her alarm, the shower, and breakfast preparation, Shelby hadn’t budged from her bed. Black hair splayed out in a halo around her head as she lay face-down on her pillow.

“Five minutes…” Shelby mumbled as Irene flipped her onto her back.

“Remember what happened last time? Professor Zagan will kill you if you’re late again.”

“…shouldn’t have made his class first.”

Irene sighed and tore the covers off of Shelby. Her sister immediately curled in on herself, trying her best to fend off the relatively cold air.

And failing of course.

At least, she was failing. One hand scrambled around beneath her pillow from where she drew her wand. After a quick wave, the air around her warmed. Her shivers stopped immediately with a sigh of contentment.

As Shelby uncurled from the tiny ball she had contorted herself into, Irene just shook her head.

“Fine. Suit yourself. Don’t come crying to me when Professor Zagan assigns detentions for the rest of the school year.”

Irene slung her book bag over her arm and headed out of their dorm room. Shelby would probably show up just as the bell rang having skipped both breakfast and a shower. A quick freshening of the air around her and no one would be the wiser.

Air mages could cheat like that. Really, earth mages had hardly any everyday utility. Irene wasn’t complaining. Earth magic could be powerful under many circumstances. But sometimes, she wished she could spend a moment waving her wand at herself and vanish a few of the day’s problems away.

Maybe she could apply makeup with a wand? Minerals and other earthy ingredients made up a good portion of most makeups. With enough practice and control…

Irene shook her head as she headed outside. No. Makeup was a silly, trivial thing to spend time figuring out how to apply with magic. Not when there were so many other things to focus on. Enchanting and warding for one.

She didn’t even wear that much makeup in the first place.

Sighing, Irene pushed open the doors to Brakket Academy and started off towards Zagan’s class. Putting on makeup on days where his class was first was an exercise in futility. He always pushed everyone hard enough to cause at least mild sweating. Showers after class had a tendency to ruin the makeup of even the most careful of her classmates.

Though if she could figure out how to magically apply makeup, her classmates might actually treat her with some respect. Especially if she could put it on quick enough to get to the next class on time and have it look decent.

There were already some magical makeup kits. Things that changed colors throughout the day or entirely vanished acne and other blemishes. Nothing that applied it automatically, however. Not that she knew of.

Enchanting a kit to apply makeup automatically shouldn’t be hard at all. It would take a good deal of order magic to properly align everything. Order magic wasn’t something she had practiced at all. Only dabbled in for a few select classes. They would be getting proper introductions to order and chaos magic next year.

Irene veered off course. She had a couple of minutes of spare time before she needed to worry about making it to class on time. A short trip to the library could get her a decent head start on next year’s lessons.

Her sudden and unannounced course correction resulted in several problems, each worse than the last.

The first and most obvious was the student she bumped into.

Max.

They had been avoiding each other ever since Eva’s revelation of her hands and eyes. Frightened off like a coward. All despite–as Shelby was ever so fond of reminding Irene–the fact that Eva never did anything to them aside from being their friend.

Irene hadn’t thought she bumped into him very hard, but he still stumbled backwards, flailing his arms in an attempt to keep his balance.

Which led to the second problem.

Kristina.

One half of Irene’s one-time table-mates in most of their classes. Max had hung off Jordan almost as much as Shelby used to and Irene just hadn’t fit at the tables with her sister and Jordan. Until Max had started avoiding them, that is.

Since then, Irene had been extraordinarily pleased to move alongside her sister and Jordan. While Kristina never actively hurt her, she always turned a blind eye to Drew’s doings.

Max’s flailing elbow caught Kristina square in the nose. She let out a shriek, clasping at her nose even as blood spilled between her fingers.

And that led to the final problem.

Drew Wilcox.

Kristina’s ever-present shadow stepped around Max’s larger and somewhat muscular body. Before Irene could even react to what was going on, Drew’s clenched fist found its way straight into Irene’s chest.

She tumbled down to the ground, gasping for breath as books from her bag scattered over the tiles.

“I knew you were the psycho type, Coggins,” Drew said. He swung back his foot, preparing for a kick.

Irene had the presence of mind to bury her head in her arms for protection. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself.

The wind from the kick brushed by her legs with a scraping noise.

Irene opened her eyes, surprised to find herself unscathed. Unfortunately, one of her books wasn’t. It slid across the ground until it hit a wall. Another student had to jump out of the way.

“Touch my girlfriend again and I’ll–”

Drew’s chin snapped to his chest as a baseball sized clump of dirt bounced off the back of his skull.

To Drew’s credit–or a good example of just how utterly thickheaded he was–he didn’t collapse to the ground as Irene was certain she would have. Instead, he spun on his heel.

The dirt covering his head did nothing to detract from his rage-filled grimace.

“Who threw that?!” he bellowed at the gaggle of onlookers.

No one chose to respond. Everyone was either watching the show to find out what would happen next or looking between one another in confusion.

Between Drew and Kristina’s shoulders, Irene managed to catch a glimpse of a head of white hair disappearing farther into the crowd.

With no answers forthcoming, he spun back around, raising his fist again.

Irene gripped her own wand, not quite certain what to do but not willing to sit back and take a beating.

The choice was taken out of her hands when Kristina gripped his shoulder. “I need the nurse,” she said with her nose firmly pinched shut.

For just a moment, he looked torn between Kristina and continuing his beating on Irene.

With one last death glare, he wrapped his raised arm around Kristina’s shoulders.

“Keep away from us you freak.”

He led her away without a second glance back, maneuvering unimpeded through the slowly dispersing crowd.

Max trailed after him, not quite managing to sway the crowd out of his way as flawlessly as Drew had managed. The last look he gave Irene was something of a cross between an apology and ire.

For a moment, Irene just sat there, going over what had just happened in her mind. The pain in her chest was quickly fading to nothing. Probably because his punch had been less of a punch and more of a shove. Pure shock at the sudden contact was what sent her to the ground.

Or was it?

Irene looked down at the wand clenched in her fist. An earth mage could increase their personal strength and toughness, but Irene had never managed to actually perform the spell before.

Then again, she hadn’t ever managed to manipulate polished tiles before either, and she had managed that at least partially after summoning that creature.

Shaking her head and sighing at the relief of not having to deal with them for the handful of minutes before class started, Irene started to shovel her books back into her bag under the watchful eyes of the remaining crowd.

None of them bothered to help. Irene was well aware that the bystander effect was in full… well, effect. And sure, her situation might have been her fault for not watching her surroundings, but the least someone could do was ask if she was alright.

They didn’t even have to mean it.

Picking herself off the ground, Irene walked over to the one book that had been kicked against the wall.

A darker hand clasped her book before she could get to it.

Irene suppressed a groan at the thought of more bullying before following the arm up to the face. Or, more specifically, the crop of white hair.

“Hello Randal,” Irene said, trying to keep any sign of exasperation out of her voice.

Though she was certain that some had leaked into her tone, Randal merely smiled. He held out the book for her after brushing some dust off. “Should watch out. People can be dicks.”

Irene took it, eying him for any sign of insincerity. “Yeah,” she eventually said. “Kinda noticed.”

“You got hurt at all?”

“Bruised, I’m sure,” she said as she rubbed her chest. There wasn’t any pain at all, any longer, but she wasn’t about to take off her shirt to actually check for bruises. “Other than that, no.”

They stood around awkwardly–Irene used the silence to smooth out a few wrinkled pages while Randal rubbed his elbow.

“Listen–” “I–”

Both stopped talking, half glaring at each other. Randal gestured for her to speak first.

“I should be getting to class. Wouldn’t want to be late.”

“Oh. Right.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I’ll see you in,” he paused to glance around, “our class. Right?”

“Um, sure?” Irene said as she stepped away. Considering how he acted back in that class, Irene wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to see him in it. But he was being strangely nice.

Especially if that was him who tossed the dirt at Drew.

Boys, Irene thought, it would be nice if there were a book explaining them.

Between Randal, Drew, Jordan, and Max, Irene just had no idea how to handle them. She had hoped that Eva’s class would give some insight on Jordan at the very least, but thus far, that wasn’t the case.

Deciding to not visit the library at the moment, Irene made a beeline straight for Professor Zagan’s classroom. There was still time, but Irene had enough excitement for the day. And, though Drew would soon be in that classroom as well, he wouldn’t dare do anything to her under the professor’s watch.

Irene stopped in surprise as she opened the door.

Usually, Professor Zagan would show up the second the bell rung. Never before and rarely later. Today, he actually sat at the desk in the back of the large room, fiddling with something on top.

The situation quickly turned awkward as Irene stood at the door, not sure what to do.

Unlike most of her classrooms, this one was set up for training for a fight. That meant large empty spaces and no desks to speak of. There were no desks to sit and read at before class started. No other students had arrived quite so early, not that Irene would really mingle with anyone but her sister, Jordan, and Eva.

She could sit on the floor or lean against the wall.

But Zagan had looked up. His somewhat yellow eyes met hers and locked on. Even after a moment of fidgeting, he didn’t turn away.

Irene quickly went over her options. Fleeing would only mean that she would have to return later in embarrassment. Ignoring him would be rude and Professor Zagan did not take rudeness lightly. With those choices out of the way, Irene pressed into the room.

“Hello Professor,” she said while walking closer. Hoping–praying that she wasn’t prying, she asked, “working on something interesting?”

Rather than answer her, Professor Zagan held up the object in his hands. A brass sphere covered in engravings with two freely orbiting rings. No bars held up the rings, so it must have been magic. Or magnetism, but given the environment, Irene was putting her money on magic.

Unfortunately, him showing her the object didn’t answer her question.

Well, it did. Partially. The brass ball was visually interesting. But Irene had been more interested in knowing what it was.

Unless they were purely decorative, the markings must have some significance. Yet Irene recognized no part of them. Even taking into account the handful of runes Eva had shown everyone as part of her Christmas gift a year ago, not a mark on the surface looked familiar.

Before Irene could ask what it was, Zagan lazily waved a hand over the now floating ball.

Thin needles extended from the spinning rings, puncturing the sphere. The brass shell peeled away in thin, blooming onion-like strips. Inside–

Irene pulled back, pinching her nose shut as hard as she could. It didn’t help. She could still smell the stench through her mouth. Or worse, taste it.

A thick violet ooze rested in the bowl of the opened sphere. Visible clouds of gas bubbled out of it, staining the very air.

“W-what is it?”

Professor Zagan, looking completely undisturbed by the smell or the ooze, just chuckled. “You can tell a lot about a creature by its soul.”

“That’s a soul?” Irene half-shrieked. She took another step back as a plethora of questions ran through her head.

Why does the professor have a soul? Whose soul? Why are souls so… gross?

He fixed her with a smile, a fairly disturbing, teeth-filled smile. “Not a human soul. Human souls are bright, ethereal, and brimming with an intoxicating amount of magic. Well, human mages’ souls are, at least. Mundane humans lack that last aspect. But they’re still bright and ethereal. You can’t physically touch them.”

In a move that churned Irene’s stomach, Zagan reached out a bare finger and dipped it right in the goop.

It reached up, latching onto his finger. Purple tendrils burrowed into his finger. Irene watched as they pulsed beneath his skin, creating vein-like patterns.

Still looking as calm as if he were relaxing on a sunny afternoon with a novel in hand, Professor Zagan pulled a small butter knife off of his desk. It must have been enchanted because the moment the blade touched his finger, it severed it completely, bone and all.

The ooze pulled the severed digit into itself, releasing more of the noxious gas as the finger turned to more of the purple goop.

Irene only managed to tear her eyes from the ‘soul’ when Professor Zagan waved his hand over the brass ball, sealing it up again.

Something in the atmosphere vanished, some feeling of oppression. It was noticeable enough that Irene almost slumped over as the tension left her muscles.

Professor Zagan just let out another dark chuckle.

“Your finger! The nurse–”

Irene stopped, gaping open-mouthed as the professor held up his hands. She counted to ten. Neither of Professor Zagan’s hands looked like a sixth finger had just been severed either.

“An illusion?”

“Oh no,” Professor Zagan said. “Not in the slightest. Had you dipped your finger in, you would be missing it or worse. But,” he said before Irene could protest, “I’m surprised you don’t recognize the contents.” He tapped again on the brass ball.

Irene blinked, gears churning in her head. She couldn’t think of any reason that should be familiar. “Why would I recognize it?”

“This soul-analogue came from the creature you summoned, yeah? You should keep track of the things you summon.”

It took a moment to fully process what he said. Irene stiffened and clamped her mouth shut.

He knew about the class. Did all the teachers know? Was it okay to talk about it without breaking the contract?

Irene kept her jaw firmly clenched shut. She wasn’t going to take any chances.

Thankfully, two students in her class walked into the room.

The professor’s gold eyes flicked over towards them. A slight frown crossed his face before he placed the brass sphere into a drawer in his desk.

Irene retreated from his desk, moving to stand and wait by her usual training dummy as the rest of the class slowly trickled into the room.

Shelby managed to make it–dragged in by Jordan–just a handful of seconds before the bell rang. She looked about as Irene had expected her to look. With her hair standing on end in abject defiance of gravity, eyes half-shut, and clothes looking like she had pulled them from the floor.

Between her sister’s appearance and everything else that had happened to her on her way to class, Irene decided that next time, she would stay behind and demand her sister wake up on time for school.

Professor Zagan started class the moment the bell rang, as usual. He paired everyone off at random and started them off on continuing the tactics lesson from the last class.

Only to be interrupted as three students walked into the classroom almost a full five minutes after the bell rang. Max, Drew, and Kristina all wandered in. Max ran up to the professor with a note in his hand.

A look of unmitigated annoyance crossed Professor Zagan’s face as he glared first at the note then at the three students. The note burst into bright green flames. The all-too-familiar scent of sulfur stung Irene’s nose.

Irene narrowed her eyes. Neither of the professor’s hands held a wand, rings, or any other type of foci.

“Ah, too good to show up to my class on time? Then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind serving detention tomorrow.”

“What?” Drew shouted. “He just gave you a note from the nurse excusing us.”

“A note? From the nurse?” Professor Zagan drew in a mocking gasp. “Oh no! I guess I had best pack my bags. My efforts to slay you will have to go on hold while you take the time to heal.” He narrowed his eyes as he looked over the suddenly still students. “That is exactly what someone making an attempt at your life would never have said.

“You,” he pointed at Kristina, “had a broken nose? An assailant wouldn’t wait for you to run to the nurse.”

A snapping sound echoed through the room, followed quickly by a scream. Blood started dribbling from Kristina’s nose.

“They’d use your pain and distraction to abuse your openings in any way possible.”

She started running for the door.

And slammed straight into a brick wall. The door had simply vanished. The room’s normal wall just continued past where the door had once existed, seamlessly meshing to the point where Irene couldn’t pick out exactly where it used to be.

“You’ll be allowed to flee to the nurse after class ends,” the professor said with a blasé tone of voice. “For now, fight through your pain. Push past it and learn to deal with it. You’ll be paired off with…” he glanced around the room. For just a moment, his eyes settled on Irene.

She shook her head back and forth as subtly as she could. Irene did not want any extra attention sent her way. As… conflicted as she was feeling watching some of the worst people she knew getting a beat down by a teacher, she didn’t think she would survive any retaliation.

Eventually, Zagan passed her by. “Anderson,” he snapped. “Hold back and you’ll be in detention every weekend for the rest of the year.”

Jordan frowned, but nodded.

“For your detention…” He turned back to the crying Kristina, Drew–who obviously was wanting to look tough in front of his girlfriend but not quite willing to attack the professor–and the bewildered Max. “I’m sure the dean’s secretary would be perfectly willing to supervise tomorrow at noon.”

The slight smile on Professor Zagan’s face slipped.

It didn’t take Irene long to realize what he was unhappy with.

While both Kristina and Drew looked aghast–at the professor’s actions or detention, or both–Max had a wide smile on his face.

“On second thought, I will be supervising your detention.”

Irene let out a small shudder. Professor Zagan could be scary when he wanted. He had assigned a number of detentions over the course of the year. Not once had he supervised them himself, choosing instead to delegate to Catherine.

And then the nose breaking. Callously harming the students like that had to be against the rules. Yet as Irene watched him pick up where he left off before the interruption, she couldn’t detect the slightest hint that he cared about either Kristina or the consequences.

And vanishing the door.

Irene hadn’t the slightest idea how he had managed that beyond preparing ahead of time with some enchanted instant-wall item. Or a complicated bit of order and earth magic to conjure an entire wall.

Either way, scary.

Thankfully, she was paired off with Shelby. She had managed to avoid drawing any extra attention to herself.

So long as she kept her head down until the weekend started, she might just escape unscathed.

A heated glare from Drew partway through class told her otherwise.

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006.009

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Eva hadn’t seen all that many movies, but those she had seen were of the horror genre. And the scene in front of her looked like something straight out of a horror movie.

Blood stained the walls, the floors, and even the ceiling. The blood wasn’t smeared on, nor did it spell out macabre messages. It formed large circles of an arcane nature.

None of it dripped–Eva had made sure of that.

So thorough were her shackles that she actually had to finish up from outside the room. She didn’t want to risk trapping herself in her own shackles and have to call out for help. That would be beyond embarrassing.

Using her own blood, Eva was able to stay outside the room while she worked. The container of her blood came from her last treatment–completely unusable for most haemomancy yet still controllable after dipping her dagger inside. That made it the perfect medium for long-range shackle drawing.

And they were some impressive shackles. Eva had pulled out one of Devon’s tomes dedicated to advanced shackles. Every possible bell and whistle had been covered. No magic at all within the circles. No items could be passed from the inside to the outside. Sound and sight was obscured from the inside to the outside. Touching the edge from the inside would cause more than a little pain.

About twenty other effects as well, all designed to keep a demon contained and unable to interact with anything.

Zoe had offered input and supervision. While not an expert in diablery, she had decided that it would be prudent to learn how to create shackles given all the demonic incidents that she had found herself involved in over the past two years. She had set up air barriers around the place on the off-chance that the demon had already released some toxic gas or anything similar.

Eva was fairly certain that one of the shackles did something along those lines, but she hadn’t said anything. As Eva often felt the need to mention, she did not consider herself a diabolist and neither did she know all that much about shackles. It was all from the book.

Still, the drawings were fine handiwork, if Eva said so herself. So much so that Eva was absolutely certain that no demon she had ever heard of would be able to extract themselves from the room without outside assistance.

She thought that before Zagan walked in, walked around the giant ice cube once, and walked back out without a pause in his steps.

Eva shook her head. He was a devil class demon and therefore he did not count.

“So,” Eva said as Zagan approached her, “what is it?”

Zagan’s twin golden eyes glanced down at her. A thoughtful expression crossed his features for a moment before twitching into one of annoyance.

“That, my little embryonic one, is a curiosity.”

Eva frowned. “To be clear, you aren’t talking about a creature with the name of ‘curiosity’ are you?”

“An enigma, a mystery. Do make an effort to not be so daft.”

“What you are saying,” Eva said, brushing off the insult, “is that you don’t know.”

“It came from Hell, that much is clear. The summoning circle connected properly–I can smell the lingering aura of a domain in the air.”

Eva had been working within the room to set up the shackles and hadn’t smelled a thing. Even taking a deep breath now left her with a fairly neutral scent. There was the slight tinge of her own blood in the air, but nothing more.

Maybe giant bulls had an enhanced sense of smell.

Zagan ignored her actions, bringing up a thumb to stroke the tip of his chin. “Perhaps the imp brought a creature to its domain whereby the creature was summoned in its place. It could have been invading the imp’s domain much as you and your little friends did to that poor demon I slaughtered.”

Zoe stepped forward, looking Zagan in the eyes. “Does it have anything to do with the situation regarding Hell itself?”

“I suppose we won’t know until we figure out exactly what that creature is. However, I would say that we should eliminate more mundane theories before jumping to something quite so fantastical.”

“Let’s try summoning up an imp,” Eva said. “If it works like normal, then we can probably write this off as some oddity. If we get more of those things,” she thumbed over her shoulder towards the large block of ice, “then we’ll at least know not to summon more imps for our class.”

Zoe turned to face Eva with a sharp glare. “Ah, yes. We still haven’t talked about your ‘class.'”

Eva winced and held up her hands. While she had thought to invite Zoe one of these days, she had intended to broach the subject with far more tact than Catherine showing up and blurting out that something went wrong.

“Martina Turner thought it was a brilliant idea,” she said, trying to force as much sarcasm in her voice as possible. “Take up its inception with her, not me.”

“You’re still teaching it.”

“I’m here to keep the stupid children out of trouble.” And maybe get some help for Shalise and Juliana, she thought with a subtle glance towards Zagan.

The devil was pointedly ignoring the conversation, looking above-it-all as he so often did.

“And a great job you’ve been doing of that,” Zoe said, pointing at the room.

Hands on her hips, Eva frowned. “Well sorry. Being attacked by rogue nuns has a way of making one late to other appointments.”

“Nuns?” Zagan said, attention suddenly on Eva. “The Death nuns, yeah? After the hel’s little temper tantrum, I half expected them to vacate their presence on the North American continent.”

“Hence my usage of the word ‘rogue.'” Eva did not feel it wise to mention exactly who said nun was to Zagan. There was always the chance that he wanted to finish their fight.

Though he brought up an interesting topic. Eva had heard from Ylva about how the inquisitorial division of the Elysium Order had been taken apart–somewhat literally–but she had never heard what happened to the Elysium Order in general. Maybe she would question Sister Cross on the topic provided the nun could contain her vitriol.

That was a laughable idea.

Having Nel spy on her former companions seemed far more likely to get the information.

Unfortunately, Eva didn’t care enough about the Elysium Order to ask Nel to spy. Mostly because Nel was already searching for Sawyer. While Eva planned to solve that issue on her own, if Nel could find him first then all the better for her.

“In any case,” Eva said to Zoe, “if I weren’t around supervising, Catherine would be left to teach the class on her own. And look where that got them today.”

There, Eva thought triumphantly, turn it around and make Catherine and Martina Turner the bad guys.

“Neither of you are responsible adults,” Zoe said, crossing her arms. “You aren’t an adult and Catherine is far from responsible.”

“Martina originally wanted Devon for the project,” Zagan said, oh so helpfully.

Zoe let out a long sigh as she rubbed her forehead. “I’ll be attending classes from now on. And if I can’t make it, Wayne will be there. If neither of us can make it, cancel class for the day.”

Eva blinked in surprise. “You’re… not going to try to stop it completely?”

“As much as I hate to admit it, the idea may not be wholly flawed. Especially given the Hell Convergence issue. Having more humans who are knowledgeable about such things couldn’t hurt.”

“Even though they’re kids?”

Zoe’s lips formed into a thin line. “Are you deliberately trying to get me to have second thoughts about it?”

Eva just shrugged. Honestly, she still wasn’t too pleased with the project herself. She couldn’t exactly say as such in front of Zagan. Not if she wanted his help.

“Perhaps,” Zoe said, “I’ll feel out some of the other staff. We’ll see who might be more ambivalent to the idea of demons.”

“I’ll leave that to you.” Eva almost thought about suggesting a second class for the adults. Unfortunately, that would just take up more time than she was already expending on the class.

Turning to Zagan, Eva said, “is there anything else we need to do while here? If not, I’ve got a prisoner to take care of.”

Zagan brushed his hand off to one side. “Do what you want. I have a few… appointments of my own to keep.” That said, he started walking off down the hall, no longer paying any attention to Zoe or Eva.

Closing and locking the door to the room, Eva glanced around. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a security guard here?”

“Daru left partway through your warding,” Zoe said, pulling out her cellphone. After a few quick taps on the screen, her phone buzzed a response. “Alright, Lucy is on her way. She will keep watch on it over the night. But are we really going to leave it here, in the school with all the children running around?”

“It would be nice if it could stay on ice until Devon got back.” Ignoring Zoe’s eye-roll, Eva continued. “I’m not about to trust that Zagan spoke all of his thoughts about the creature. Even if he did and truly doesn’t know, I’m sure Devon would have something intelligent to say about it. Probably something more useful than ‘it is an enigma’ in any case. Or…” Eva trailed off, biting her lip.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh nothing,” she said with a shake of her head. Both of them started walking down the hallway towards Brakket Academy’s main entrance.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Eva responded. “I just thought of another magizoologist that might find that creature interesting. I doubt Carlos will be all that enthused to receive a letter from me.”

“You haven’t heard from them?”

“Not since Genoa was moved from the school infirmary. Juliana didn’t even tell me what hospital they were going to. She probably hates me,” Eva said with a sigh. “And Arachne too.”

“I can’t exactly fault her for the latter. You, on the other hand, most definitely saved Genoa’s life.”

“If I had better control over Arachne, none of it would have happened. Though, she has made a few interesting decisions as of late.”

Zoe quirked an eyebrow as she glanced down at her side. “Oh?”

“For instance, Sister Cross is still alive. I didn’t even have to warn her off.”

Shaking her head, Zoe let out a disapproving hum. “To be perfectly honest, I would much rather have her stay locked up in her room.”

“I…” Eva sighed. “I just want things to go back to the way they used to be. There is a disgusting, awkward feeling between the two of us at the moment. Hopefully, hunting Sawyer will cheer her up. The thought of it is enough to make me giddy, so it should do wonders for her.”

Walking a step in front of Zoe, Eva smiled slightly as she caught the professor’s lips pressing together in a frown through her blood sight.

“Not going to try to stop me?” Eva said when Zoe failed to respond.

“It is in my opinion that Sawyer needs to be put down. Permanently. I would rather take out a bounty with the Guild or direct the Elysium Order in his direction.”

“But you’re not going to stop me.”

“Just take Arachne with you. Ylva too.”

“I don’t know about Ylva, but Nel wanted to fight. Get herself a little revenge, I think.”

“Would she be any use?”

“She could keep an eye on him. Or exits, I suppose. He’s doing something to block her sight. Likely with the eyes that were not recovered.”

Both women fell into silence as they turned a corner. Despite it being late in the evening on a Saturday, another professor was walking down the hallway. Not one of Eva’s teachers. Probably someone who taught electives or just other years’ regular classes.

With her second year drawing towards its conclusion, perhaps it was time to give some thought towards electives. Warding might be interesting. She already had something of a background in the topic given her blood wards, but those were a far cry from thaumaturgical wards. Still, one could never have enough protection for their stuff.

She hadn’t ever come up with a good way of activating a shield using runes. Maybe a warding class would have the answer.

Golemancy would be interesting too. The blood clone she created earlier had some bases in the subject, though again it was created using haemomancy rather than thaumaturgy.

The basilisk Juliana’s parents had gifted her was probably a golem of some type. If her little enhancement worked the way she hoped it would, a golemancy background could be very useful indeed.

“Ah,” Eva said aloud, remembering the whole reason she wanted to talk with Zoe after their spar. “Are you busy for the rest of the night?”

“I still have your essays to grade. This,” she waved her hand in a vague manner, “occupied far more time than I expected to spend.”

“You can’t put it off until tomorrow?”

“I took a break today for our spar and this, which might have put me behind schedule. I’m afraid I’ll be spending much of tomorrow grading as well.”

“That busy, huh?”

“Let’s just say that leaving Catherine in charge tends to create unnecessary work. If she could ruin your class as much as she did in two hours, imagine what she did to my class over the course of two weeks. I’m still sorting through half of that mess.”

“At least she wasn’t summoning demons in your class,” Eva said with a chuckle.

“Small mercies.” Zoe stopped just outside the Brakket main entryway.

Eva shivered as the February evening air seeped through her clothes. It was crisp and dry, that much Eva was thankful for. Snow had been sparse this winter. That didn’t mean it wasn’t cold.

Clasping her hands around her upper arms didn’t do much to help. In fact, it might have worsened the sensation. The outside of her carapace was not warm.

At least not until she ignited her hands. She kept her clothes from burning. The heat flowed through her.

“Dropping any pretense of needing a wand?”

“I still use it in class. There’s no one out here to see, so why not?”

“A good thing too,” she said, taking a step away. “I can’t say I know any pyrokinetics that set themselves on fire. Especially not without toning down the heat.”

Still shivering slightly, Eva glanced up at Zoe with an eyebrow raised. “Is it really that hot?”

“Not all of us are half demon.”

Zoe’s tone of voice was somewhat jovial, but her smile turned sad.

As she did every time the subject came up.

Really, it was getting to be annoying.

“Do we need to talk about that? Again?”

“No,” Zoe said softly. “I just wish things had been different for you. You’re a good girl, Eva.”

Eva disagreed–haemomancers should be excluded from the ‘good’ category by definition, but she wasn’t about to say that to her face. However, she felt she was far from ‘bad’ as well. It wasn’t like she was Sawyer.

“But,” Zoe said, “I do need to get back home.”

“Ylva still keeping a watch over your apartment?”

“I’m not planning on asking her to stop until the Sawyer situation is dealt with.”

“That can’t come soon enough.”

“Agreed.”

A short moment of companionable silence passed before Zoe gave Eva a light tap on the shoulder.

“I’ll see you in class,” she said. With a puff of chilled air, Zoe vanished.

Eva started to build up her own magic for a teleport back to the prison. A nostalgic thought stayed her hand.

She started walking forwards. The flames on her hands receded to nothing more than warm embers so as to not draw attention from anyone looking out their dorm window. It was late, but who knew with teenagers.

Moving into the Rickenbacker dormitory, Eva headed up the staircase to the third floor. Soon enough, room three-thirteen sat before her.

Eva reached out to the handle before realizing her folly.

Her key was all the way back at the prison. She hadn’t used it in months, having stayed exclusively within her women’s ward or spending the occasional night in Ylva’s domain.

And really, there wasn’t much inside. Maybe a few books of hers that shouldn’t be lying around, but nothing too damning. Anything important was in the prison.

Though she wondered if the same could be said of Shalise and Juliana’s belongings. Had Juliana cleared out her stuff before leaving? Shalise still had things in there for sure.

Taking a step back from her door, Eva had a brief thought to go visit Shalise. Being alone in Hell with no one but Prax for company had to be a nightmare. Besides, it was about time to deliver more homework and collect what she had done.

Shalise had been overjoyed to find she could still do her homework in absentia. Zoe had even passed through Ylva’s domain every other week so far to give her private tutoring lessons.

In light of that, Zoe’s busyness was even more understandable.

Just as Eva was about to leave, she stopped again. Turning to the door adjacent to room three-thirteen, Eva knocked.

A moment of muffled shuffling later and the door opened.

“Shelby,” Eva said as the black-haired girl opened the door, glad that the twins weren’t of the identical kind. Though she hadn’t signed any contracts, accidentally talking about what she wanted to talk about with Irene might lead to some awkward silence and deflections. “Is your sister in?”

The girl before her scrunched up her eyes, brought her hand to her mouth and released a truly magnificent yawn before responding. “Haven’t seen her all night,” she said. “Thought she was with you.”

“I haven’t seen her all night either,” Eva said.

“Maybe try asking Jordan? I know that he met with her earlier today.”

“It wasn’t that important. I mostly stopped by on a whim. I’ll talk to her on Monday.”

“Say,” Shelby said, stepping out of the room. She left the door open a crack behind her. “What have you been up to with my sister? She’s been all secretive and evasive whenever we ask her. She tries not to act like it, but,” she crossed her arms and leaned against the door frame with a smug smile on, “I’ve been her sister my whole life. It’s pretty obvious.”

Eva opened her mouth

and froze.

What excuses had Irene used?

“You aren’t dating her, are you?” Shelby asked, saving her from responding. “I mean, not that I have any problems with that. She’s my sister and I’d support her even if she wanted to marry a troll.”

Eva winced as Shelby’s face turned to a grimace of disgust.

“Well, maybe not a troll,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re very troll-like at all.”

“That’s… thanks? But no, we’re not dating. I can’t say I’ve had a single thought of romance towards anyone. Kind of not my thing?”

Shelby reached out, resting her hand on Eva’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll awaken to a more interesting side of life when you’re older.”

“I see…” Politely smiling, Eva backed up a few steps. “I’ll talk to her later. Don’t want to keep you up all night.”

Letting out another tremendous yawn, Shelby waved her off. “Good idea.” Slinking back into her room, Shelby started to shut the door. “Oh,” she said, “in case I don’t see you tomorrow, happy birthday!”

Eva froze in her walk away, blinking in surprise. After telling everyone when her birthday was over the summer, she hadn’t actually expected any of them to remember.

She only remembered because it meant that it was almost time for her spring treatment.

After giving Shelby a belated “thanks,” Eva wandered off to the nearest stairwell. Arachne would probably want to spend the day with her.

Probably. It was becoming harder and harder to tell exactly what she was thinking.

Sighing, Eva built up the magic for a teleport to the women’s ward.

She still had Sister Cross to deal with.

Or perhaps not. It was her birthday. Sister Cross was not the sort of company she cared for any day of the week, let alone her birthday.

She’d live for one day.

There were others whose company she’d rather be in.

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