Snow had finally fallen on Brakket Academy this year. Halfway through December, but it finally happened.
Eva trudged through the Infinite Courtyard, spreading a path of heat along the ground in front of her. It managed to melt the snow off. Unfortunately, the ground wasn’t quite as hard as Eva thought it should be after a snowfall. Mud and grime stuck between her toes, made all the worse from the melted snow. Really, for as much as she hated snow, walking on it might have been better in the end. At least her feet wouldn’t be quite so dirty.
Maybe shoes would be a good investment.
Too late now.
Of course, she hadn’t been able to clear the way from the beginning. Only once they got deeper in. Walking into the Infinite Courtyard and finding a long trail would have been conspicuous in the extreme. Even footsteps in the snow would have been a bit much.
Yet, thanks to her companion’s ability with water magic, none of Eva, Arachne, Anise, or Chris had left so much as a dent in the freshly fallen snow for the first ten minutes of walking. Only when she finally got tired did Eva break out the fire magic.
At least nothing worse than snow had fallen from the sky. Not since the enigmas had crashed down three days ago. Apparently one was still unaccounted for. Nel had seen eight things fall. Between Ylva, the Brakket security, Genoa, and Eva’s own enigma-demon creature, they had only dispatched seven. However, nobody around the city had mysteriously disappeared. Nobody had reported anything wrong. Not even pets had gone missing, apparently. Of course, nothing said that wild animals and birds weren’t being consumed in droves.
While she wasn’t too worried, the missing creature was cause for some concern. It was the other demon-feeling creature. She had tried to track it, but the feeling was so faint that she could hardly tell it existed, let alone where it existed. If it was anything like the other one, it would be fleeing from people rather than trying to eat them. So that was a plus. If it had tentacles on its back, it might even be trying to eat itself continuously, preventing it from causing any trouble.
She still had warned Anderson and his security force. They would try to locate it.
Eva wasn’t holding out much hope.
More importantly, she had arrived at the ritual circle. And found a single butterfly fluttering around in her stomach upon seeing it.
Her ward had held. In fact, it was still holding.
The hemisphere that was her ward had a thin layer of snow coating the entire thing. A giant dome of snow. It was thinner in some parts than others. The base where the dome met the ground was especially thick. But because of its size, it had a fairly gradual curve to it. Plenty of area for the snow to land on and not slide off. There were probably ways to prevent the dome from forming—infusing the ward with some heating element would probably work to melt it all off—but Eva hadn’t constructed it with that in mind. Truthfully, she hadn’t even considered that it would dome up like it had.
Raising a hand, Eva sent out a wave of fire magic-powered heat. Enough to form a decently sized doorway. Her melting disturbed the snow above the doorway for a good few feet, sending it all crashing down onto the ground. Thankfully, the ward worked perfectly fine on water as well as snow and kept the rapidly liquefying snow from pouring into the ritual circle itself.
Which meant that the ice-cold water ran right over her feet instead.
Eva hopped back, taking in a slight hiss of breath as she lit her feet on fire. Maybe a bit of an overreaction, but she really didn’t like the cold.
With dry though still slightly dirty feet, Eva stepped into the dome.
Her jaw just about hit the floor. Few things could actually make Eva stop and stare. Especially not general scenery. But the interior of the smooth crystal dome stopped her cold. Sunlight filtered through the layer of snow in thin rays. Weak sun, as it had already been stopped from its full brightness by the somewhat overcast sky outside the dome, but that was fine. If it were brighter, it might ruin the effect. Where the rays didn’t pierce the thin layer of snow, the sunlight diffused across the entire dome. It was like looking at a night sky except inverted from pitch black to brilliant white.
Pretty, but it really had to go.
Snapping out of her reverie, Eva turned slightly towards the entrance she had made and watched as her two followers stepped inside with the same slack-jawed gazes that she had initially walked in with. Luckily, she had been at the head of the group and therefore had not shown off her face to any of them. So she put on a slightly condescending smile instead.
“It’s beautiful,” Anise said. Her voice snapped Chris out of her gaze. Though Anise stayed staring at the ceiling, Chris turned to stare at Eva.
“Bit conspicuous, isn’t it? Giant white dome in the middle of the forest? You did mention that you wanted to keep this place a secret from others.”
Eva grinned as Arachne moved up to her side. “I’ve actually told a few people, getting second opinions on the project as well as double-checking that there are no errors in our work. However, you’re right,” she said with a nod of her head. “I’ll be spending some time walking around the thing, melting off the snow.”
“Aww,” Anise said, drooping her shoulders. “But it looks so pretty. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it around a weather ward before.”
“That’s because regular weather wards aren’t supposed to do this. Miss genius over there screwed up in her casting,” Chris said, waving her hand in Eva’s direction.
“Hey, it was my first time casting a ward of this type and of this size. Before this, a dinner plate was about the largest I had tried. I think I did pretty good.”
Chris crossed her arms, staring at Eva while making a slight ‘uh huh’ noise without opening her mouth. After a moment, she shook her head. “But you have some explaining to do.”
Eva sighed. She turned away and moved over to the makeshift resting area they had made up out of a tipped over log and a few plastic chairs they had borrowed from the school. It was just outside the main circle so that nobody had to worry about messing up part of the already constructed area while taking a break.
She had known that this would be coming. Anderson had released a slightly more detailed public statement regarding potential hazards around Brakket Academy. It mostly dealt with describing the enigmas and what they could look like, but it had mentioned a few other things as well. Namely, numerous uses of the word ‘appearing.’ He hadn’t explicitly mentioned enigmas falling from the sky, but between the odd shimmering in the violet streaks, the earthquake, and all the creatures showing up, rumors had been spreading. Even if most people had been focused on the ground, all it took was one person mentioning that the sky had been disturbed to diffuse that concern among the students.
Initially when recruiting Anise and Chris for the ritual project, Eva had explained it as them trying to replicate part of the magic involved in the streaks overhead.
That seemed to backfire a bit with the recent developments.
Sitting in one of the plastic chairs, Eva sank into it with her eyes shut. Behind her, Arachne stood with her arms crossed, doing her best to not glare at the nuns as Eva had asked.
No need to antagonize them. Yet, Arachne really wasn’t that good at not glaring. She had eight eyes, after all!
Devon, Catherine, and Lynn were all out at her prison dealing with their newest resident. Yet here she was, having to entertain these two nuns in order to keep them from telling about the ritual circle. Of course, she would have needed to come anyway because of the snow. The giant dome just stood out too much to be left alone.
She stayed still for just a moment before snapping her eyes open.
“What do you want to know?”
Telling them everything would be a risk. Zoe at least knew about the impending apocalypse and was open to suggestions for resolutions. These two didn’t. She could tell them, but that would rely on them believing her. Chris obviously didn’t like her much even after getting Ylva to help the two of them. Anise might be more receptive. It was really hard to tell. She didn’t speak all that much when Chris was around, choosing to let the latter handle most of their conversations.
If Eva asked them what they wanted to know rather than freely offer up information, maybe they would be vague enough that she could be vague back to them. The fact was that while Juliana was essentially grounded, Eva needed their help more than ever. Doubly so if Eva absolutely needed to use the ritual in the near future. She had wanted to use the ritual by the third event, but now that enigmas were falling from the sky, she might have to use it.
So she sat in her seat, arms crossed and staring as the two nun trainees exchanged looks with each other.
“What exactly happened the other day? The school got put on lockdown, then the earthquake. Creatures running around? He didn’t say demons, but they were, weren’t they?”
“Actually, no. I call them enigmas, but they don’t have real names as far as I know. The fact is that they don’t come from… originate from Hell. Therefore, they aren’t demons.”
Eva then went on to a slightly more detailed explanation. Their tendency to become what they eat was her primary focus. She carefully left Life out of the picture. They were Elysium Order nuns, but did they believe in Powers? Not if their previous conversation had been any indication. But it would be better to avoid mentioning Powers or the apocalypse if possible anyway. All they really needed to know was that they were fairly nasty beings and trying to invade Earth—she skipped over them invading Hell as well.
“Invaders?” Chris said, one hand on her hip. “What, like aliens wanting to conquer the planet?”
“I guess?” Eva didn’t really get what she was trying to say. Her tone, however, wasn’t as believing as she would have hoped. A thought that was confirmed when Chris glanced at Anise with a hefty scoff.
“There were only like five of them, right? Not much of an invasion. I don’t think anyone even got hurt.”
Anise stuck a finger in Chris’ side, causing the latter girl to jump sky-high. Chris whirled around and swatted away Anise’s finger with a glare.
“Weren’t you listening?” Anise asked. “She just said that they don’t die. Even if that’s wrong, what if they were just a scouting party?”
“Then they did a poor job of reporting back their findings. But,” she paused, pointing a finger towards Eva. “Let’s say that you aren’t lying. Again. How does that relate to the thing in the sky?”
“A tear in the fabric of reality or something. I’m not much of a theorist. You would have to ask Zoe—Professor Baxter—but they can use it to come to Earth.”
“Then why aren’t they constantly raining on us. We’ve been here for what, nearly two months? This is the first incident. Have there been previous ones?”
“Not like this one. And they aren’t raining on us because we’re actively pushing back against them.” Which wasn’t true in the slightest unless she included Void in the definition of ‘we.’ “This ritual circle is meant to permanently seal the hole. In a manner of speaking.”
“In a manner of speaking?”
“Well, I’m the construction contractor, not the architect. The exact details are a bit of a mystery to me.”
Her proclamation was met with a moment of silence between the two nuns. It only lasted a few seconds before Chris narrowed her eyes. “You’ve had us working on a ritual circle that you don’t know the specifics of?”
“You worked on a ritual circle that you don’t know the specifics of. I don’t want to hear your hypocrisy. Look,” Eva said, standing. Both girls actually took a step back as she moved. Eva ignored them. “I’m not the bad guy here. I’m trying to keep the world intact and whole. Bad things are afoot that I–we are trying to stop.
“But I can’t do it alone. I mean, I could probably grab a shovel and finish the ritual circle on my own, but even then, I need demons and humans placed around the circle to help power it.”
Eva paused, sighed, and sank back into her seat. She had gotten a little heated there and might have said slightly more than she originally wanted, but neither nun was running away or trying to destroy the ritual circle, so it was probably fine.
“So really, mind helping me finish this? I know we’re not the best of friends. Or friends at all. And you might not be extremely enthused with the help I got you for your excommunication problem. Not that you were very enthused with being excommunicated in the first place. But I digress. In light of the creatures appearing around, I would like to get this ready to go as soon as possible. I have third parties—including a professor here at Brakket—investigating the ritual to make sure it does what it’s advertised to do, but if another, larger attack happens, it needs to be ready.”
Speech finished, Eva crossed her arms and stared, looking at the two nuns with the most sincere face that she could muster.
If the two nuns backed out, she might need to talk to Juliana again. Something to keep them from talking like she had done with the vampire—though Eva still hadn’t seen any evidence that Zagan’s magic had worked. And, Eva might need to get Juliana out from under her mother’s eyes long enough to finish the circle. It shouldn’t be more than a few days worth of work. Especially not for Juliana, who was much more used to ritual circle construction than either of the nuns.
Failing that, Eva might have to resort to asking Juliana to use Zagan’s magic to complete the circle. If that happened, Catherine would need to take new pictures of the entire thing and double-check it all over again. Eva didn’t trust Zagan’s magic further than she could throw it. And that was before knowing that it wasn’t infallible. Apparently he had gotten an unexpected result when trying to change the color of Juliana’s clothing back in Hell. And, of course, he had lost against the armored hunter. There may have been extenuating circumstances. He may have been messing around. It might have even been intentional. Eva didn’t know. But she didn’t want him screwing over two planes of existence because he wanted a little more amusement in his life.
No. Actually, that was a terrible idea. In the span of one thought trail, Eva had reaffirmed her decision to not have Zagan finish the ritual. Shovel it was.
“So,” Eva said, “what’s the verdict? If you want to leave, I’m not going to kill you or anything. I’m sure Ylva will still help you out even.” Mostly because Ylva wasn’t acting on Eva’s orders. She just collected nuns for the fun of it. “Of course, I can’t allow you to go around telling everyone. There’s a reason for all the cloak and dagger secrecy around this project.”
Anise took a step forward, moving alongside Chris. “Can we talk about this?” she said, grabbing Chris’ wrist. “Alone?”
“Go ahead,” Eva said, waving a hand. Maybe they would be more open without Arachne glaring at them anyway. So Eva leaned back, staring at the snowy dome. “I suppose I should get this cleaned up. Shame, but necessary.”
As the two nuns left the dome out the entrance Eva had made earlier, she stood and approached the same entrance. Except she stopped just to the side. Raising her hand, Eva sent out a blast of heat. Much like the doorway, the snow collapsed down and melted to water before either dissipating into a fine mist or running off into the ground. Unfortunately, the entire slice of snow on the dome didn’t collapse. Even waving her arm around still left a huge amount of snow up towards the top of the dome. And then, it was only a tiny slice of the entire dome. The new sliver combined with the entrance she had made only cleared a fraction of it off.
It was clear that she needed to try something new.
Moving back towards the small rest area, Eva approached the ward’s core. A central bank of magic for most greater ward schemes. It functioned essentially as the magical battery that kept the whole dome afloat, working just like the central orb of blood for her blood shields. Except this one was invisible to the naked eye. Without already knowing where it was, she would have been hard pressed to locate it. Presumably, others would be as well. There had to be some ways of locating them. So far, they hadn’t covered any possible ways in class.
Normally, the ward’s core was used solely to infuse more magic into the overall ward. Like a battery to keep the shield running. It was also the single point within the ward that Eva could use to collapse the entire thing instantly. No need to go through the fairly laborious effort of infusing her magic into the shell then ripping it away.
Eva didn’t want to destroy the ward, however. Doing so would ruin the entire ritual circle. Maybe even worse than if she had simply not used a ward at all with all the weight of the snow crashing down at once instead of as tiny flakes.
Modifying it, on the other hand, should be possible. She just needed to infuse a little heat. It didn’t need to be much. Just a slight increase in temperature to let the dome melt. The dome didn’t need to be taken down right this second after all. It had stood overnight. Another hour or two wouldn’t hurt.
She didn’t get the chance to actually enact the changes. The two Elysium Order trainees came back in just in time to stop her.
Which, after getting half a second to think about it, was probably for the best. While Eva knew the theory behind modifying a ward, actually doing so wasn’t something she had done before. Creating a small-scale replica weather ward and then modifying that would probably be for the best. A little practice lowered the chance of her ruining all their hard work so far.
So she paused and turned to face the two girls.
“We’ll continue to work on the ritual,” Anise said.
Chris huffed and crossed her arms. “Under one condition. You told us that we couldn’t look at the ritual while being connected. We’re going to do so and see what the Elysium Order’s best have to say about this.”
Eva bit her lip. Lightly. Not enough to puncture the skin.
But… was that wise decision?
On one hand, them looking at it might do Catherine and Zoe’s job even faster. They might be able to point out mistakes and anything else odd about the circle.
On the other hand, Eva didn’t know exactly how the Elysium Order’s eye things worked. They could stare at it which would allow others in the Elysium Order to know about it. Some of those others might not like it regardless of her good intentions. Then, the ritual circle could easily come under attack by who knew how many nuns.
“Nope,” Eva said with a smile.
“You’re being fired. Don’t worry, like I said, I’m not going to kill you or anything.”
Anise and Chris looked to each other with open mouths before Anise turned to Eva. “What do you mean, fired?”
“How else can I put this… You’re being let go. Your services are no longer required. Your beliefs put us into opposition with one another. Take your pick, I’ve got more.”
“But–But you needed us to finish this.”
“Irene and Saija are still helping. And Juliana. It will be slower, but we’ll manage. Probably.” Eva glanced towards Arachne and shrugged. “If we don’t, well, you’ll know when the apocalypse hits.”
“You can’t just–”
“I can, actually,” Eva said as Arachne shifted. The spider-demon didn’t actually move her feet, she just leaned ever so slightly forward.
Both of the nuns took a step back.
“Now, as I said, you can go. Tell anyone about this before the sky is back to normal and I promise that you will regret it. I can’t kill you because of those rings on your fingers, but I’ll put you through Hell as much as I can manage.” She paused for a moment, looking between them with a stern expression. “Now get out! Or stay and help. But if I see your eyes flare in the slightest, I’ll tear out those eyes from your chests with my bare hands.”
Arms crossed over her chest, Eva watched the two nuns run out of the snowy dome. She let out a light sigh as she pulled out her phone and scrolled down to Juliana’s number. Hopefully Zagan’s magic worked to keep the nuns’ mouths shut.