Coughing twice, Zoe waved a hand in front of her face. A quick order shield had been enough to deflect most of the debris. Dust still made it through. While it was possible to make a shield airtight, it generally wasn’t a good idea if she wanted to breathe for more than a few moments.
Of course, she hadn’t anticipated all the dirt being thrown up into the air, effectively blocking off her breathing anyway.
With a whip of her dagger, Zoe quickly cleared away the dirt around her, filling the space with fresh air and letting her see once again.
She almost immediately wished that she hadn’t.
Not much of the campsite remained. Shalise’s tent had been knocked over by part of the makeshift bench while Lynn’s tent was completely gone. A small crater had taken its place, as if a meteor crashed down right on the camp. A mass of tentacles attached to an oversized dog writhed from within the crater.
One of the enigmas.
Zoe didn’t know where it had come from.
At the moment, she didn’t care. She was a bit too busy to think.
Zoe jumped backwards, flinging off a few gusts of razor wind at the tentacles stretching towards her. One of her wind blades caught a tentacle right at the base, shearing it clean off. The tentacle flopped to the ground where it twitched and shook before finally falling still.
They couldn’t be killed according to Ylva, Carlos, and Eva. They could be damaged enough to resemble death. At least for a time.
Unfortunately, chopping off a single tentacle wasn’t enough to permanently hurt it.
That only angered it. It opened its rounded mouth and let out a high-pitched whine. The whine built up, growing louder to the point of sounding like a policeman’s whistle.
All at once, the whistle stopped. Zoe clamped her hands to the sides of her head as a cannon fired inside her mind. She just about skewered herself with her dagger. As it was, she was sure that her hair wound up trimmed just a tad on the one side.
Using the distraction, the enigma charged forward before Zoe could respond. It managed to get one tendril wrapped around her wrist, knocking the dagger out of her hand while yanking her towards its gaping maw.
Never one to travel without a backup, Zoe pulled out the wand that she normally used in the classroom. Another blast of razor-sharp wind sliced through the tentacle holding her wrist. Again, Zoe backed away, feeding the creature a few lightning bolts to cover her escape.
Another whistling whine started up. Zoe didn’t let it get any further. With a flurry of arm movements, Zoe sent out a wave of lightning bolts and a deluge of wind. The whistle cut off partway as the enigma was knocked clean on its back.
Six stubby legs wiggled in the air, failing to gain traction. The mass of tentacles on its back took up the position of legs. Rather than flip around, the enigma scuttled forward across the ground.
With grit teeth, Zoe unleashed a blast of fire at the enigma. Not her specialty, but the lightning and wind just didn’t have enough force behind them.
The flames surrounded the enigma, engulfing it in a bright orange ball. With a thought and a twist of her wrist, the flames collapsed inwards to both crush and burn the enigma at the same time. It took time—Zoe didn’t have the spell prepared in a tome as Wayne undoubtedly would—but the enigma was no longer charging forward. If anything, it was shrinking in on itself in an attempt to keep away from the flames.
At a critical moment, Zoe ceased channeling her magic into the flames and brought up an order shield again.
The collapsing flames exploded outwards, filling the air with fire. The explosion took with it Shalise’s tent and the rest of the wooden bench and table.
And a good portion of the enigma.
Though most of its body was still lying on the ground, the tentacles lining its back were all but gone. Vanished, turned to ash, or otherwise removed.
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Zoe quickly voided the oxygen from the surrounding air, freshened up the air again, and finally breathed back in. Fire had a tendency to consume most everything but the oxygen served as fuel. Removing it even momentarily kept everything from catching on fire. Less to put out later.
A few trees would still need a quick dousing, but Zoe was far more focused on the scene in front of her.
She waited, watching he maimed enigma. If it did jump up and start charging her, she didn’t want to get caught with her pants down.
After a full minute, nothing seemed to be happening. The enigma grew still. Perhaps entering that dormant state that could be mistaken for death. Perhaps it was setting a trap. Either way, it wasn’t attacking at this particular moment.
Finally having a moment to breathe, Zoe found herself frowning as she took her eyes off the still-writhing enigma.
Her dagger was lying on the ground, half buried in the smoking dirt. She reached down and plucked it out. The blade was still its shiny silver self. The hilt was not quite so lucky. What had once been a sleek wooden handle was now a crumbly bit of charcoal.
It could be repaired. A quick test with a lightning bolt into the enigma’s side showed that it worked just fine. The silver was the focus, the rest was just for show and a grip. But it was still disheartening to see. Her dagger had been her constant companion since she was little. A piece of her old home that she always carried with her.
A cracking of a branch behind her had Zoe whirling around, sending out a blade of wind as she moved.
The wind crashed against a black transparent shield, scattering harmlessly into the air. The shield fell, revealing Eva with her hands on her hips. Arachne and Shalise stood right behind her as an orb of blood hovered in front of her.
“You’re lucky I had a shield ready,” Eva said with a frown. She took her eyes off Zoe, looking around with a slight whistle. “Guess Shalise won’t be staying here after all.”
“What happened? Where’s Lynn?” Shalise pushed around Eva, eyes frantically darting around the camp.
Zoe let her wand fall to her side. She was still ready to whip it up at the first sign of danger, but keeping it pointed at them wouldn’t help Shalise calm down.
With a deep breath, Zoe said, “I haven’t seen her. She wasn’t around the camp when that thing showed up.”
Stepping up to the edge of the crater, Shalise stared at the enigma with an ashen face.
Zoe quickly placed a hand on Shalise’s shoulder, keeping her from going any further. Shalise had fought a number of them and would certainly recognize it on sight, even in its burned state. She definitely knew how dangerous they could be. However, if she thought that Lynn might be in danger, she might not be thinking straight.
“Why is it here? They’re supposed to be in Hell. We haven’t been summoning demons. We fought so many back there and they’re still hounding us.”
Zoe pulled out her cellphone and pulled up the picture she had taken earlier. One hand still on Shalise’s shoulder, Zoe held it out in front of her. “I don’t suppose you know the purpose of this? It was drawn on Lynn’s window, casting a shadow onto the floor of her tent,” she added after a moment. The picture she had taken was up close of the pattern and didn’t really offer much context in terms of actual location.
After glancing down for a few seconds, Shalise shook her head. “It wasn’t there a few days ago. I would have noticed. I don’t inspect the tents every single day, so it could have been drawn on more recently.”
“Has anyone visited your camp lately?”
Shalise tossed her head back and forth. “No one has ever stopped by. Not until today.”
“We only showed up a half-hour ago,” Eva said, stepping up into the conversation. “How long has it been since Lynn told you to go hide?”
“A few hours? I don’t really have a watch.”
“Maybe she saw the mark and told you to run? Or wrote it herself.”
“Why?” Zoe said with a frown. “A trap for us?”
Eva shook her head. “I didn’t even know I would be here an hour ago. If she knew, she’s been hiding some amazing abilities. And should have probably predicted and prevented both her incarceration, defeat at my hands, and Shalise’s vacation to Hell.”
“Vacation?” Shalise snorted. “Hardly.”
“Well, you got out of schoolwork.”
“Lynn’s been teaching me. I don’t want to say anything bad, but I think I would rather have had a real teacher. Especially if it meant not going to Hell in the first place.”
“Well, for now,” Zoe said, “let’s get you back to Brakket. It’s safer there. Probably.”
“I’m sure she’ll catch up with you.” Zoe rubbed her forehead. She had been doing that a lot lately, but there had been a lot going on that was headache inducing. “If we leave a message, she’ll know where you are.”
“In fact,” Eva added, “we’ll probably have to set up defenses to stall her until she calms down enough to not try to kill us all. Really says something about the one who has decided that she’s your guardian, huh?”
“She… means well.”
“She tried to kill me,” Eva said. She had a pout on, but it was obviously fake.
“Yeah,” Shalise said with a wince. “My statement still stands. She’s just a bit aggressive.”
“Uh huh.” Eva kept her voice flat. “But you still asked to be kidnapped by us.”
“Camping is fine for a day or two. A month? More? I don’t even know how long I’ve been out here.”
“Then,” Zoe broke in, “as I said, let us leave.”
“Hold on, what are we going to do about the enigma?”
Zoe glanced first to Eva then to the crater containing the enigma’s remains. “We can’t leave it to regenerate,” she said after a moment.
While it might just run around the forest without causing much trouble for a while, eventually it could find its way to civilization. Or even another group of campers. While they might be able to eventually kill it, they wouldn’t know or be prepared for it to come back to life. Even killing it a second time could lead to people thinking that they simply hadn’t critically wounded it the first, resulting in a third attack before people finally took proper measures to contain it.
“I could send it to Willie’s domain through a transference circle,” Eva offered. “I’m sure Juliana would appreciate more complications in his life.”
“Is filling Hell with essentially toxic waste really a good idea?”
“It has got to go somewhere. Might as well be with people we hate.”
“There has to be a better option. Sending them back where they came from, for instance.”
“Figuring out how to do that would be your job. And unless you have figured it out, we need a more immediate solution.”
Without hesitation, she moved up and pulled out her dagger. She dug it straight into her arm and pulled out a long ribbon of black liquid. The blood immediately twisted around into a wide circle, large enough for a human to stand up fully within. Sigils and signs filled in the inside as it moved just above the enigma.
As Eva held out her arm, the circle filled in with a deep black void. So dark that it sucked in the surrounding light, darkening most of the crater. Eva and Arachne worked together to lift and toss the enigma into the portal.
Rather than sit around and watch, Zoe cast a quick telekinesis spell. Two severed and charred tentacles flew through the air, disappearing into the darkness of Eva’s portal.
After a quick double-check around the area for any other enigma parts, Eva collapsed the portal with a clap of her hands. The blood in the air flashed white before vanishing into nothingness.
“Alright,” Zoe said, turning to face the full group. “Any other reason to stay?”
“Just Lynn.” Shalise’s voice was quiet, barely above a whisper.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll catch up with us before nightfall.”
“Even if we wish she wouldn’t.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. Tightening her grip on Shalise, she started building up her magic for a teleport. “We’ll be taking off ahead of you.”
— — —
Eva stayed behind, watching the spot Shalise and Zoe had just been occupying for a moment. She couldn’t leave just yet. Arachne still had to shrink down before she could leave. However, there was another reason she couldn’t leave just yet.
Pulling out her vials of Arachne’s blood as she turned, Eva faced a still burning portion of the forest. Zoe should have helped to put it out before she left, but apparently she forgot. The task fell to Eva, but at the moment, she was more concerned about the circulatory system lurking behind one of the less flaming trees.
“How long are you going to skulk about?” Eva shouted as the orbs of blood started orbiting her.
A certain former nun slipped around the side of the tree. Today, Lynn wasn’t wearing her nun habit. She had a pair of jeans on while being wrapped in a heavier wool jacket. Her shorter hair hung free, unkempt and unbound.
“The last time we fought in a forest didn’t go so well for you,” Eva said. Arachne moved up around her, readying for combat with her extra limbs sprouting from her back. “And I was alone then.”
Lynn eyed Eva, staring first at her before glancing towards Arachne. Her gaze was dull, half lidded and almost bored.
“Have I ever called you a monster?”
Eva tilted her head to her side, half shrugging as she did so. “Probably. I imagine a lot of people have, though I don’t consider myself one. At least not morally. Physically?”
Eva held up a hand, inspecting her carapace. Doing so had become something of a habit of hers whenever her inhuman nature was mentioned. She couldn’t say exactly how her habit had come about. Sometimes she felt like showing off for whomever she was speaking with.
Other times, she almost felt as if she were doing it for herself. Her eyes were blood-red with black sclera, her tongue could stretch a good distance and was dark in coloration, and even her teeth weren’t shaped quite like human teeth anymore.
Yet, without looking into a mirror, her hands were her most obviously inhuman elements. Things that she could use to confirm for herself that yes, she was a monster.
“Yeah, I’d say that I am physically monstrous.”
Lynn shook her head with lips curled into a disgusted sneer. “To think I ever saw you as a child.”
Eva sighed, rolling her eyes. Readying some of the blood for a shield while the rest prepared a wire ball for an attack. “Are you going to fight me or not?”
“The enigmas. I’ve been doing research on them.”
Eva paused, narrowing her eyes. “Go on…”
She kept her blood at the ready, not discounting the possibility of a trick.
“They are sent by a Power. One at war with other Powers.”
Alright. Nothing new there, Eva thought as she calmed the flames using her thaumaturgy. If they weren’t fighting, there was no reason to let the forest burn down.
They had known as much since Zagan had given Nel the enigma fetter and she had scried on another plane of existence through it. They hadn’t explicitly known that it had been at war, but that was easy enough to guess.
“The Power creating the enigmas is one that has shown up in history on occasion. Every time it turns up, it manifests in some new form. Adapting or perhaps merely mutating.”
“So what? How does knowing that help us?”
“The problem is that these enigmas are not helpful towards humanity. They attack everyone without distinction. Human, demon, monster, mortal.”
“They don’t attack undead,” Eva said, thinking back to her memories of Sawyer. “Or, I know of a necromancer who tamed them. I don’t know if they tried to attack him before he tamed them.”
Eva had a whistle that she got from Sawyer. Presumably the one he had used to tame the creatures, though she hadn’t actually had a chance to test it out. Had she brought it with her, she could have tried it out on the one Zoe had incapacitated.
“Tell me, do you believe that necromancers worship Death?”
Eva rubbed the back of her head, moving her sharp fingers through her hair to massage her scalp with a practiced touch, glad she wasn’t still cutting her head. “Well, it made a certain amount of sense until you asked.”
“Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Necromancers go around killing people. But to power their constructs, they tend to use stolen souls. Either pulled directly from Death’s realm or from recent kills. Souls that haven’t been picked up by psychopomps.
“Necromancers, vampires, mummies, zombies, skeletons. The Power behind their reanimation is Life itself. To be clear, it isn’t entirely intentional. Merely a side effect of the undying nature of Life.”
“So what then?” Eva scratched her head. Knowing which Power had been attacking Void was an interesting bit of knowledge, but didn’t exactly help. No matter who Lynn named, it was still a Power. Too far above mortals or even demons to affect.
“Can something that embodies the very concept of life be killed?” Lynn shook her head. “I doubt it. And if it can be killed, is it a good idea?”
“But it must be stopped.”
“Especially if they’re going to be showing up in the mortal realm without being pulled through a demonic summoning circle.”
Lynn looked away and down towards the ground. “That might have been my fault. Shalise had been cleansed through the ritual with the obelisk. I was concerned for any taint that I had collected. I had been attempting my own ritual using natural moonlight. By the time I realized that something had gone wrong…”
She held out an arm, pulling back the sleeve of her jacket. Her dark skin was covered in violet bruises. Bright enough to be almost glowing. “I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I managed to prevent it spreading.”
“Would you like an amputation?” Eva asked, forming some of her blood into a small ring. When Lynn looked to be hesitating, Eva said, “Ylva mentioned corrupting effects of enigmas. Leaving it alone could be bad.”
“I believe that they become what they consume. Being touched or…” She held up her arm. “This isn’t corrupting me.”
“You’re willing to take that chance?”