Just before the bull slammed into him, it stepped on a bit of rubble. The rubble moved, causing its hoof to slip.
Clement’s fist, and the ring on his finger, went straight over the devil’s head.
Using the enchantments on his boots, Clement hopped back before the bulk of the bull could crash into him. He shook off the brief sensation of nausea—a sensation that had been getting worse as the fight went on—and took a moment to catch his breath. The devil being far enough away and still picking himself up off the ground gave Clement a brief moment to think.
Taking the hit and letting himself get bashed into by the devil might give him a chance to backhand the creature, but just the same, he might simply be crushed before having a chance to fight back.
If he got crushed without managing to tag the devil with the ring, the devil would be free to find Gertrude.
And Clement somehow doubted that he would be able to hit the devil.
Zagan had to know.
The first time that the devil had lost his footing and slipped right under Clement’s fist, he might have chalked it up to coincidence. The second time was a little strange, but perhaps this devil was just extraordinarily uncoordinated.
Ten times? The monster was toying with him.
Panting and sweating, Clement wasn’t sure how much more he had in him. Only about twenty minutes had passed. That didn’t sound like much, but considering most fights were determined in the first two minutes, twenty might as well have been forever.
Worse, his equipment was broken and shattered. Several of Gertrude’s enchantments had failed along with the armor, including ones that enhanced his endurance. The suit of armor no longer supported itself. All of its weight was up to Clement’s natural muscles to carry around. Taking that into account, it might be good that several chunks were missing.
His boots were still intact. Without the speed granted to him by his boots, he might as well have just chopped off his own head. They were pretty much the only things keeping him alive at this point.
It was only a small consolation to know that the devil before him wasn’t having a good day either.
Zagan had been taking pains to avoid the sword entirely as well as the ring. Not that long ago, he had been accepting of small cuts and even a handful of larger gouges if it meant being able to toss Clement around like a rag doll.
Clement hadn’t been able to land a hit in a good five minutes. In fact, the last time that he had been able to hit Zagan, he had sliced off one of the bull’s horns. Obviously, he had been aiming for Zagan’s head. The devil had dodged, just not as well as he should have.
Though, given that he had sent Clement crashing through a second floor window on one of the dormitory buildings at the same time, it had probably been worth it for the devil. Especially considering that that hit had been the final nail in the coffin for Clement’s breastplate.
Out of all the pieces of armor to lose, that was the one with the most enchantments. It offered him the most protection, the endurance boost, minor strength enhancements—his shoulders and upper arm guards gave him more strength. Or, it had offered all of that.
Glancing at the crumpled horn lying on the ground, Clement couldn’t help but wonder if the devil was frightened. His blade had skimmed right across the bull’s head. A few hairs had even scattered to the winds. Just a slight shift in angle would have taken the beast’s brain.
Both hands on his sword, Clement stood firm. The devil was circling him once again. He was looking for any opportunity to charge in. Any weakness in Clement’s defense.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Clement needed him close in order to fight back. Perhaps he would ask Gertrude to craft him an enchanted crossbow once everything was over. Or some magical sword that could release a long-range blade when some trigger was pulled. Just something to grant him a way to attack from at least a moderate distance.
Clement dropped his sword to one side. Putting his guard down had worked to draw in the bull before. This time, however, Clement fully intended to enjoy the mild reprieve from holding up his heavy sword constantly. With his armor damaged, his muscles were starting to feel the strain.
The bull moved again, though not as Clement had expected. It had only taken to the air thrice since their fight began. Great wings flapped, propelling it high up.
For a moment, Clement entertained the idea that it had finally broken off their engagement. While good for an extended reprieve, he still hadn’t seen any sign from Gertrude that she had accomplished her mission. He had to delay at least a few moments longer.
So Clement stood his ground, watching and waiting as the beast circled around overhead.
And, with his left hand, he started pulling off the ring. Punching or backhanding Zagan was obviously not working.
The bull’s wings folded flat against its back as it turned into a nosedive. Beneath the glowing gold eyes, smoke billowed out of its nostrils. Flames burned deep within its gullet. Some escaped from the sides of its mouth.
Clement didn’t move. He had been hoping that Zagan would charge again. This worked just as well. He held the ring in his hand, waiting.
Just a moment more, he thought, watching the bull fly towards him. Just a moment more…
With his thumb pressed against his middle finger, Clement flicked the ring up into the air.
At the same time, he activated the enchantments on his boots.
In a flash, he was at the window of one of the dormitories. A student on the other side of the glass let out a short shriek before running out of the room.
Clement couldn’t bring himself to care. He turned back to the plaza with weary eyes.
Zagan was back in his human form, coughing and sputtering with a hand clasped to his throat. Black bands shot out of the ground, wrapping around his wrists as a portal opened up beneath him.
Two golden eyes met Clement’s, burning with promised pain and death.
And then he was gone, dragged beneath the surface of Earth, back to Hell where the demon belonged.
Clement collapsed to his knees. He dug the tip of his sword into the ground, using it as a crutch to keep from falling flat on his face.
And he sat. He reached up to his forehead, wiping off a streak of blood that had dripped down into his eyes earlier.
It was over. For him at least.
He was in no shape to find Gertrude and help her. The largest threat had been dealt with. Gertrude could handle whatever was left.
Using his sword to push himself back to his feet, Clement headed back to their safe house. Not the apartment, but a regular house on the outskirts of town. A long walk, doubly so given Clement’s speed. To make it even more troublesome, he took back alleys.
The back alleys were where he and Gertrude had set up their traps for Zagan. They went unused for the fight, but they might still be useful. If anyone was following him, he hoped that would slow them down long enough for him to slip away.
He really didn’t want to use the enchantments on his boots anymore. Every time he used them, stopping was like running into a brick wall. It was worse without the enchantments of the rest of his armor.
But eventually he made it. Daylight was starting to peek over the horizon, but he made it. He took one last look around for any enemies; his visor, cracked and shattered as it was, wasn’t up to the usual task of highlighting any demons around. Still, he didn’t see anything suspicious.
With a weary sigh, Clement hopped the back fence, walked up to the door, and entered the house.
His breath hitched. His heart skipped a beat.
An icy cold gripped him, filling him with dread.
Gertrude was already home. Lying face down on the floor, she had her shirt off.
Three holes ran up her spine, starting at her lower back and ending towards the middle. All three had been frozen over, preventing her from bleeding out. But they were deep.
Zomorrodnegar, Clement’s sword, fell from his limp fingers to the ground with a soft clatter. Tearing the remnants of his helmet off his head and tossing it into a corner of the room, Clement charged forward before falling to his knees at Gertrude’s side. He reached out his hands…
and drew back immediately. Moving her could agitate her injuries. Even touching her might leave her worse off than before.
She was breathing. Her chest pressed against the hardwood floor with each shallow breath. Ice crystals came out of her mouth, only stopping as she breathed in.
The iced over holes in her back were the most obvious injury, but they were far from the only ones. Shifting his position slightly, Clement’s eyes were drawn to her arm. Or lack of arm. As with her back, ice covered nothing more than a stump just below her elbow.
Though, that wasn’t to say that her arm was completely missing. It was underneath her, fingers sticking out near her shoulder.
Her head had a similarly treated injury. A simple slit up the top of her scalp, visible through her red hair only thanks to the ice.
“Forget bleeding to death,” Clement hissed. “You’re going to freeze to death.”
Gertrude didn’t respond. Looking obviously unconscious, Clement hadn’t expected her to, but it was disheartening all the same.
Climbing to his feet, Clement ran to the bedroom. They had a supply of potions stashed away. Gertrude normally handled potion administration—Clement wasn’t a mage and, as such, he couldn’t brew potions. As such, he wasn’t the most knowledgeable.
They had labels. He would be fine.
Clement shook his head.
Gertrude would be fine.
— — —
“The walls have stopped bleeding.”
Eva hummed, not really paying attention. She was too busy enjoying the embrace with Arachne.
Being a spider-demon made entirely of hard chitin, she wasn’t all that comfortable to hug. Arachne was smooth, not covered in spikes or anything, but it was like hugging a marble statue.
Not that she had ever hugged a marble statue, but it was how she imagined it to be.
“It happened before,” Eva said without opening her eyes. “Blood came out of the walls while Juliana was around. I didn’t see it myself, but I don’t believe she would lie about that. And then again when you… died. I don’t remember it exactly, but I guess there was a lot more blood around me than there should have been.”
“That isn’t caused by your blood magic?”
“I don’t know what it would be. I haven’t performed any rituals that might make walls bleed around me. It has to be a demon thing.
“A portion of my domain got attached to the dormitory. Ylva thinks that it is because I had humans inside the domain while I was out here. Whatever is attacking Void latched onto both me and Shalise, creating a connection through our dorm. I don’t know if I believe that, but after she showed me how to disconnect domains from reality, it went away.” Eva shrugged. “It might have something to do with that.”
“Part of your domain manifests as blood through the walls?” Arachne tipped her voice at the end, skeptical.
“It’s just a theory,” Eva said quietly. “Devon and I haven’t been on the best of terms since you died, so I haven’t had much of a chance to ask him about it all.” Not to mention how busy she was.
“Enough of me. How?” Eva pulled away from Arachne. Not much, just enough to look her in the eyes. She kept her hands firmly around Arachne’s wrists, just to make sure that she was real and wouldn’t disappear. “How are you here? I saw your beacon crushed with my own eyes.”
Arachne smiled. Moving one arm out of Eva’s grip, she ran her claws gently through Eva’s hair.
Despite knowing just how sharp the tips of her fingers were, Arachne didn’t cut her in the slightest as her fingers ran over Eva’s scalp. It felt light and tingly. Almost as if something was crawling through her hair—not in a creepy sort of way, but rather a relaxing and calming feeling.
Perhaps more like a massage.
“I accepted a bargain. The proverbial deal with a devil.”
And just like that, a dark storm cloud moved over Eva’s good mood. “What do you mean by bargain? What do you have to do?”
“Not only did Void put me back together far sooner than I would have been able to, but he gave me transport out of Hell. I suppose… you might say that I must return the favor.”
“You must… I’ll assume you don’t mean anything related to healing Void,” Eva said, receiving a light nod of confirmation. “Which means you have to transport Void out of Hell?”
Arachne rolled her neck, nodding with not quite as wide of a smile on her face. “Essentially.”
“That’s… We’ve been trying to prevent that from…” Eva trailed off as she thought.
No one was actually trying to prevent anything. Both Martina Turner and Devon had summoned demons the first time they needed to. And that was despite Devon being the one to theorize about summoning demons and destabilizing Hell. Ylva had shut down her domain. That might have been one of the worst offenders, according to Devon.
And yet, that was all anyone had done.
No one was actually doing anything. The apocalypse was still approaching, just slower than before.
And now Arachne was supposed to help it along?
“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. Void is bored.”
“Bored? Bored! He wants to start the apocalypse!”
“I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. Actually, if I understood everything he explained to me, this should be less destructive to the mortal realm.”
“Oh? And how do you figure that?”
“Zagan said that Void and all of Hell was going to be dragged into and merged with the mortal realm. We are only summoning the entity.”
“No Hell along with him?”
Arachne shook her head. “And if Void wanted to destroy the mortal realm, he could just unleash all of the demons on Earth as he did with me. We wouldn’t need much prompting to run wild.”
“That is not reassuring.” Eva fell silent with a sigh. “Besides, what about the entity that was attacking Void? It wanted Void in the mortal realm, isn’t this just playing into its hands? Things don’t usually attack unless they think they can win.”
“Void thinks he can win.”
Eva put her hands on her hips, glaring at Arachne.
What am I supposed to say to this?
If it was going to happen anyway, maybe it was for the best. Especially if Void was going to be coming over on his own terms, rather than be dragged over into a trap or whatever it was that the second Power had in mind. Not knowing much of anything about the other Power, Eva definitely wanted Void to win this entire engagement.
Especially given her own jump-started leap into demonhood.
Eva shook her head with a long sigh. “I just–”
A chill ran up Eva’s spine. She could feel the tension in Arachne’s arms as well.
Something was missing. Some warm, ever-present sensation of power.
She took a deep breath. “Zagan,” she said.
Arachne nodded her head. “I feel it too.”
“I don’t… think so.”
Eva kept a tight hold of Arachne’s arm. She wasn’t going to lose her again. “What happened then?”
“It feels more like he was banished. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Namely, he’ll merely go back to his domain and won’t be stuck in the Void. Though, I doubt Zagan would spend more than half a day putting himself back together if he had been killed.”
Which meant that Martina would just be summoning him back the moment that she was back on her feet.
Keeping Arachne’s arm in hand, Eva dragged her over towards the window.
Martina’s office window overlooked the plaza where Zagan had been fighting. Considering the damage done to both dormitory buildings and the ground, it was a good thing that the fight hadn’t gone anywhere else. The Gillet had several person-sized holes on it, especially towards the bottom. Not the structurally sound building that it had once been.
Eva doubted that she would be willing to stay overnight inside.
In comparison, the Rickenbacker was mostly undamaged. It had a few holes around it, but it looked superficial. A great number of hoof prints dotted the sides. Perhaps Zagan had run along the walls?
But there was no sign of the great winged bull anywhere. The knight who had been fighting against him was hobbling off in the distance, heading towards the city.
Arachne tried to hop over the edge of the window and chase after him. Eva stopped her with a vice-like grip on her shoulder.
“Zagan may have been toying with him, but that guy still beat him.”
“He is injured. Badly. Look at him move.”
“Arachne,” Eva said, grabbing both of the demon’s arms and yanking her around. Staring at her eye to eye, Eva waited for a moment, letting the tension drain out of Arachne. “I’m not losing you. Not again.”
Arachne stared for a minute more before dropping her shoulders. “He’ll come back,” she said.
“We can deal with him later. You, me, Ylva, Devon’s demons, Zagan—if Martina brings him back—and everyone else. We, as one, will fight him. The other hunter is injured at the very least, possibly dead.”
Taking her eyes off Arachne and looking back out over the plaza, Eva couldn’t spot the hunter anywhere. The plaza was too far from the school building for her blood sight to function. The city was even further.
More than that, people were starting to emerge from the dormitory buildings. Mostly the Gillet.
“Come on,” Eva said. “Let’s go look around before people trample over everything.”
Eva considered blinking straight over the windowsill. Not wanting to release Arachne, she decided to move on her own two feet.
But Arachne didn’t budge.
“There are people out there.”
Eva rolled her eyes. Arachne had been ready to run off after the hunter, but now she was getting cold feet?
“I think we’re long past the point of hiding from mortals,” Eva said. “I doubt that anyone at the dorms missed that fight.”
Tugging again, Eva got the shy demon moving.
As expected, people quickly took notice of their approach. Or rather, they took note of Arachne’s approach. Eva followed their eyes for a moment. None gave more than a glance in her direction.
Perhaps it was because of shock at witnessing the fight, but nobody really reacted much except to back away. A few people ran back into their dormitory buildings. A few others took one look at the state of the Gillet and decided to take their chances outside.
As the spectacle that was Arachne became less of a frightening sight—helped by the fact that she was walking calmly and not flying into a murderous rage—the people still outside began to turn their attention towards Eva. In some, she could see recognition light up. Others, especially the older students, just looked more confused.
She caught sight of a number of the students that she had taught with Catherine. One particular boy with grayish-white hair started to head in her direction before Eva waved him off.
Eva really didn’t consider herself friends with or even peers of any of those students. Whatever questions he had for her weren’t anything that Eva was interested in answering. Martina Turner would come out with some fabricated explanation for all the events of the night. Whatever she said probably wouldn’t answer any questions, but it was better than nothing.
“Just ignore everybody,” Eva said.
There were far more interesting things than the people anyway.
Reaching down, Eva picked up a flat piece of metal. It might have been a part of the hunter’s chest plate. Maybe an arm or leg piece.
Eva only held onto it for a second before dropping it.
The carapace on her hands had melted. She stared, watching as bits of chitin flaked off her hand as it cooled.
Arachne repeated the action, holding it for less time before she dropped it.
“Enchanted,” she said as she stared at her own hand. “Something against demons.”
“Troublesome. It still works while broken?”
“Maybe it isn’t enchanted. Something in the metal itself,” Arachne said, shrugging. “I’m not an expert in magic. Not even a novice.”
She paused, glancing around before leaning in a little closer. “Which is why Void said he would send someone else to help with that thing we were just discussing.”
Eva nodded slightly, but didn’t respond. Too many people around.
Instead, she carefully stepped over the bit of metal, watching out for any other shards of metal lying on the ground. Maybe Juliana would be interested in it. If Willie ever surfaced again, she might find it extremely useful.
Blinking, Eva pulled out her cellphone and shot off a quick text message to Zoe. She had no idea if they were even alright. She assumed that they were fine. Ylva should be with them. While not nearly so scary as Zagan, Ylva could hold her own.
But she needed someone over here, someone with authority. All the bits of metal were potentially dangerous to Eva and every other demon around. She didn’t want random students getting a hold of pieces of them.
Message sent, Eva glanced up from her cellphone.
Lying right in the center of the plaza was an oddly shaped object.
Walking up to it alongside Arachne, Eva bent down and picked it up.
Heavy, but not overly so. About the same as a bowling ball. It was curved just a little bit too much, giving it a crumpled look. The tips of it were dark black, though it grew almost white at the end that had been cut. Red blood lined a good portion of it as well.
The hunter’s blood.
“Perhaps Nel can use this,” Eva said, keeping hold of it.
A pair of circulatory systems appeared behind Eva, closer to the Rickenbacker dormitory building.
With a smile on her face, Eva turned to greet the new arrivals.
“Good news,” she said as she leaned just a little closer to her companion. “Arachne is back!”
Zoe pressed her lips together. Her eyes drifted over Arachne, narrowing just a hair. It took a moment, but she eventually smiled. A small smile. It didn’t quite reach her narrowed eyes, but it was still a smile.
Juliana, not so much.
The last time that Juliana had seen Arachne would have been just after watching her mother get skewered. Eva could understand her presence not bringing up the best of memories.
But even watching Juliana’s slight scowl couldn’t dampen Eva’s current mood. Zagan might have lost, but who cared? He was Zagan. She had Arachne back and that was all that mattered at the moment.
Except… Arachne took a small step forward. Not enough to pull away from Eva, but enough to say that she was acting on her own.
“I had a lot of time to think,” she started, speaking slowly. Her words lingered in the air for a few moments before she continued. “I apologize. For any harm I caused your mother.”
Eva smiled, a new sort of respect for Arachne welled up in her. When she had first proposed to Arachne that the spider-demon should apologize to Genoa, she had thought that she would be dragging Arachne in by the legs. That she apologized to Juliana on her own filled Eva with pride.
Juliana stared. Her scowl disappeared, but she didn’t smile.
An awkward silence between the group stretched on. Eva found herself shifting slightly, wondering if Arachne’s apology wasn’t being quite as well received by Juliana as Eva had found it. It had sounded sincere to her ears.
Eventually, Juliana sighed. “I don’t know why you’re apologizing to me.” A bitter tone carried her voice at a volume a fair bit lower than she normally spoke at. “None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for me.”
“That isn’t true,” Eva said. She kept her voice firm as she stared at Juliana. “Zagan was the one who dumped you into Hell. Maybe it would have happened had you done nothing, maybe not. But you did nothing wrong.”
“I could have turned and walked away from Willie before you even arrived! Willie sweet talked me into sticking around after he knew that people were coming after me! I shouldn’t have bought into it. There were a million things I could have–”
With a hand on her shoulder, Zoe cut Juliana off.
“We have a crowd,” Zoe said, voice quiet and with a soft smile for Juliana’s sake. “Perhaps this is a conversation best left for later.”