Staring into Arachne’s vacant black eyes frosted over Eva’s heart.
Arachne’s eyes absorbed light. There was no shiny gloss, no light from within. It was like staring into the back of her skull if she had no brain or other organs behind her carapace. Her mouth hung open, slack. No wide grin filled with pearly teeth, no displeased frown. Just a vacant stare.
“Arachne,” Eva said, voice barely audible even to herself in the roaring winds around the ritual circle. She turned slowly, no longer standing with her body half twisted. Vektul shouted something at her and someone else was screaming, but she barely heard them. “Arachne!”
The spider-demon failed to react. Her eyes didn’t light up. Her jaw remained slack.
The red lines on the floor of the ritual circle flashed a bright white for just a moment before the red glow rose into the air. A laser show started swirling around Eva. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off Arachne to properly stare at the patterns. Even when boiling sweat beaded up on her skin, she didn’t take her eyes off Arachne.
Watching Arachne completely fail to react to anything around her had Eva feeling queasy. Her vision swam, jittering around. Which was probably not something caused by the effects of the ritual.
Before even starting, she had suspected things about the ritual. Vektul being a vessel for Void being one. With herself in the center point, however, Eva had entertained the idea that she might be a vessel. Or, failing that, have something happen to her. Hopefully something temporary.
Eva tried to move forwards, to reach out and grab Arachne’s shoulders to shake her back to her senses. Her foot caught. It stuck flat to the ground. Even with her legs being what they were, she couldn’t lift her foot.
She finally tore her eyes from Arachne to find out just what had caught her foot.
At first, nothing looked wrong. She didn’t wear shoes, so her feet were always the shiny black of Arachne’s chitin. It took her a moment to realize that the shiny black covering her legs was not chitin. A thick layer of fluid blood ran over her feet, pooling on the ground. Not a single drop actually left the ring she was standing within. As Eva continued to stare in a daze, she realized that the blood was spreading, seeping from her pores. It coated over the fabric of her normally gray skirt, turning it as shiny and smooth as her legs while leaving it free to whip about in the winds.
Before long, it had spread up over her chest, arms, and even her neck and head.
Despite all the blood covering her, a quick check showed that none of it was hers. Eva’s body had just as much blood in it as it normally did. Minus what she had spent to bind the nun that had attacked. Which meant that it was happening again. Not to the same degree as when Arachne had been stabbed by the hunter’s sword. That had turned a fairly sizable section of the plaza between the dormitories into a pool of blood.
This was far less widespread. More subdued. But then, Eva’s emotions were more subdued as well. She wasn’t the blazing demon of vengeance that she had felt like while fighting the armored hunter.
Now aware of what was wrong, Eva tried to move forward again. Except her foot still didn’t move. The blood locked it in place. All despite the liquid flowing and running up and down her body. It wasn’t like she had hardened it into a solid crystal.
A quick mental command spread the blood away from her body. It obeyed immediately, just as if she had touched it to her dagger. But as it moved from her body and into the rest of the circle, it vanished. Evaporated. More bled from her skin—even from her carapace, which lacked pores of any kind. Commanding it only a short distance away didn’t work either. The second her command was carried out, it stretched back long tendrils that latched onto her body. From there, it pulled back into one contiguous mass that spread over her.
Eva just about tried obliterating the entire mass with a clap of her hands when she realized just how foolish she was being.
She could teleport.
A simple teleport would leave the sticky mass of blood behind. Even if more leaked from her skin, it wouldn’t matter. She would have moved.
Eva blinked, aiming straight for Arachne.
Only to find herself right where she started, still encased in blood. It wasn’t like the few times when she had tried to teleport while wards were up. There was no metaphorical brick wall that she slammed her head into. Just a disappear and reappear similar to when she was first learning how to blink.
She tried again and a third time to the same result.
As she failed over and over again, the laser show above the circle whipped around. One of the beams of light struck Arachne dead in the back. Arachne stumbled forwards, almost toppling straight to the ground. Her catching herself before falling bubbled up hope in Eva’s heart.
Until she realized that Arachne had not caught herself.
Another two of the red lasers struck her in either shoulder, propping Arachne up. A third pressed into her lolling head, right between her eight eyes. It tipped her head back until she was looking straight up into the void.
A thin tendril of the darkness stretched down in a funnel shape directly above Arachne. It reached down with the lethargy of frozen honey. Eva didn’t even notice it at first. Not until it crossed over some of the red beams of light that were still flying about overhead. The black funnel against the black sky was simply impossible to distinguish without the light for contrast.
The funnel dipped low enough to brush against Arachne’s slack lips. There was an almost intelligent hesitation behind its movements before it dove straight into her mouth. Her carapace cracked immediately. Thin lines spread out from her lips across her face in a spider web pattern. No blood dripped from the cracks. Not to Eva’s sight nor to her sense of blood. But a dark fog churned and billowed beneath the chitinous shards.
Cracks continued to spread, not stopping at her face. Each of the many tendrils hanging off the back of her head bulged before cracking and releasing the dark clouds. Her neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, breasts, navel, legs, and feet quickly followed as the carapace failed to contain the onrushing darkness.
As the darkness forced its way into her body, it started to vanish from around the ritual circle. A dark curtain drew up slow and steady. Bright light peeked through the thin empty space at the very horizon. Hints of the surrounding forest, the base of trees and some brush, still remained outside their bubble of darkness. Though the curtain rose so slowly that only a hand-span of space had moved at the edge of the ring, the funnel into Arachne’s mouth was picking up speed.
Her body couldn’t contain the onrushing darkness. More and more cracks in her carapace appeared as her body started to grow in size. Smoke flowed from the cracks—enough to almost completely obscure Arachne’s actual body. But Eva could still hear every snap of the exoskeleton above the roaring wind.
The smoke flowed down to her dangling feet where, in some kind of cruel mirror of Eva’s blood, it pooled around the ground before thinning out and disappearing into the rest of the air.
Arachne had always been tall. Even while in her most humanoid form, she towered over everyone. Well, everyone human. Ylva had her beat by almost a head and a half. But not for long. Despite the weird angle the beams of light held her at, Eva could see her growing. And not just taller. Her feet, even obscured by smoke, were half-again as large as they had been. The rest of her was scaling to match. The cracked tips of her fingers occasionally came into sight through the fog of smoke. They weren’t so thin and needle-like anymore.
Eva tried to blink forwards again. She tried to move. Thrashing around strained her muscles and bones, but she continued trying. She tried to send the blood away, to obliterate it, to clear it away from her feet and knees just enough for her to move, to harden it with joints that would allow her to move, to do anything that would allow her to move closer to Arachne. To perhaps offer her friend some comfort if she could not stop the darkness.
But it was all for naught. She stayed where she was despite her best attempts otherwise. Even a full teleport to the gate room back in the Rickenbacker dormitory building failed to do anything other than leave her rooted in place. There was enough blood coating her that she couldn’t even turn her head to look away any longer.
The others weren’t faring well anymore. The humans hadn’t been anyway, but now, even the demons were being brought to their knees. A few, Catherine and Genoa notably, had managed to partially resist. Catherine was still on her feet, the one exception to those kneeling around Eva, though Eva could see the effort she was putting into staying that way. Her eyes danced over every little thing, trying to take in the sight of the ritual. Eva couldn’t actually see Genoa with her own eyes. However, she could sense the blood rushing to her muscles as she strained against whatever force was keeping everyone pressed against the ground. Everyone with the exception of Eva, Vektul, Catherine, and Arachne.
With Arachne being forced to consume and contain the black void and Eva being coated in blood, entirely unable to move, she wouldn’t say that they had been spared. Vektul, maybe. He stood perfectly still just as he had been when Eva had still faced him. Unable to turn to look at him, he could be covered in blood as she was.
Eva doubted it. Blood was her thing.
Still, he may have been immobilized using some other method. If he needed it. Of everyone present, he was the one who ordered Saija to stand still. He wouldn’t move on his own.
Juliana was out of range, being out of the circle. She, Serena, and the nun were likely the only ones who could move properly. Assuming the entire world wasn’t kneeling at the moment, which, now that Eva thought about it, was a very real possibility. Yet Juliana had Zagan inside her. Unless he had taken away her power, she should be able to do something.
Eva actually hoped she wouldn’t. At this point, interrupting the ritual could be disastrous. Maybe she could make it so that it had never happened, but there was no guarantee that everything would be alright. Void had to put Arachne back to her proper state. If Juliana stopped the ritual, Arachne could wind up a broken mess. Or worse. And then, it was doubtful that anybody would be willing to try the ritual a second time. Not with what had happened, everybody being forced to the ground and Arachne being torn apart. Maybe Juliana could modify everyone’s memory. Frankly, Eva would need her own memory modified in order to try again.
Which had Eva wondering if they had tried before. Juliana had looked fairly solemn as she walked off to stand by the nun. Just how powerful were Zagan’s abilities? Could she snap her fingers and reset the entire day back to the beginning? Eva couldn’t even imagine the kind of cosmological problems that would pose. It would essentially have to reset the entire universe.
But her delirious mind was likely overthinking a problem that might have a much simpler solution.
The curtain continued up the dome of the ritual circle, further revealing the surrounding landscape. With it, Eva could hear clashing and clanging in the background rising up and over the still howling wind.
— — —
Juliana bit her lip as the ritual circle vanished. It wasn’t gone gone. She could stare straight ahead and see the massive black hemisphere where there had once been a snowy white dome. But if she looked to the forest to the side and swept her gaze across where it had once been, she saw nothing but forest.
Presumably, that was supposed to happen. Nobody had been panicking anyway. Well, mostly nobody. Irene and a few of the others had fallen over and Saija got herself yelled at. But Vektul had said that they weren’t actually being hurt.
So she took up the solemn duty of guarding their prisoner with Serena. Eva hadn’t wanted to take the time to dump the nun off at the prison. For a good reason, admittedly. They needed to get the ritual going as soon as possible for fear of the hunter coming back and ruining everything.
Which was a very real possibility. Time was dragging on. She sat with her back against a tree, keeping both the ritual and the nun in sight. Once the black bubble touched down, she started to check her phone every so often. Since she bit her lip, it had been nearly four hours.
Someone should have asked Vektul just how long the ritual was supposed to take. Her nervousness at her mother and friends being involved had vanished entirely, replaced by boredom. It wasn’t that she wasn’t worried about them. There was simply a limit to how long she could stand around pacing while biting her nails.
“How can you take part in this monstrosity?”
“Oh shut up.”
Serena tried to add something. An agreement, by the tone of it, but it was hard to make out with how muffled her words were.
There was one person around who could alleviate her boredom—who was capable of conversation, anyway. Unfortunately, Juliana severely doubted that they would have any kind of proper discussion. So far, every word out of her mouth had been scathing annoyances about the company Juliana kept. None of which made Juliana all that inclined to respond.
In fact, now that she was thinking about it…
Juliana drew on a thin tendril of Zagan’s magic. Just a slight alteration to the fabric of reality that would keep the nun from being able to speak. To be more accurate, Juliana just wished that the nun’s open mouth became incapable of opening. Closed, in other words.
And the world complied to her wishes.
In the blink of an eye, the nun’s mouth melted away and left her with smooth skin between her chin and nose. She looked like some telepathic alien from a far off galaxy. Something the nun immediately noticed. Her breathing grew intense, heaving in and out until she was hyperventilating through her nose. Her hands were bound together by Eva’s obsidian-like blood bindings, but her fingers were still free. She brought them up to where her mouth used to be and started feeling around. The feeling quickly became more frenzied, almost digging her nails into her mouth.
Despite it being exactly what Juliana had imagined when she thought to get rid of the nun’s mouth, it was somewhat disturbing. Both the lack of the nun’s mouth and the frantic clawing at her smooth skin made Juliana avert her eyes. Serena didn’t—Juliana couldn’t actually see her eyes behind the dark visor of her ski goggles, but her head was angled in that direction. After a few moments of listening to the muffled screams coming from the mouthless woman, her discomfort grew to a breaking point. It might have been a bit of an overreaction.
Maybe she was more nervous than bored. She wouldn’t normally have jumped to such a mutilation. Even if it wasn’t actually hurting the nun, there was a point where cruel and unusual just became too cruel and too unusual. The poor nun had no mouth yet obviously needed to scream.
“Alright,” she said as she pulled on another tendril of Zagan’s magic, undoing her curse. “Just don’t talk to me. Okay?”
The nun’s lips faded back into being. The second they lost their translucent shimmer, the nun sucked in a deep gasp of air.
Juliana winced in advance, preparing for the scream.
Only it never came. Juliana squinted her eye open, watching the nun.
Her mouth was open like she had been about to scream, but had frozen with her eyes wide, staring behind Juliana.
Juliana didn’t bother to ask what the nun was staring at. She leaped forwards, past the nun and into a tumbling roll as her liquid metal armor built itself up around her. Just in time to protect her from a shower of dirt that had flown high into the air after a resounding crash behind her.
Spinning around, Juliana didn’t find herself surprised in the slightest at the armored hunter. She obviously hadn’t had the chance to repair her armor after her battle with Eva. Her breastplate was blackened and charred with a thin hole right in the very center.
Serena obviously had not moved in time despite being a vampire and supposedly having better reflexes. Too busy staring at the nun, probably. She had been knocked away by whatever the hunter had done and was bent over a tree branch a fair distance away.
Rising from a half-crouch with her fist pressed into a crater on the ground, the hunter brought herself to her full height. She turned. Lifting her fist, she took a step towards the dark wall around the ritual circle.
“No!” She drew on a tendril of Zagan’s power.
But the woman’s fist connected with the bubble before Juliana could work out how to properly oppose the woman.
As it turned out, she needn’t have bothered. The woman’s fist sunk in up to her wrist only for her to be thrown back. She flew through the air right up until she hit a tree.
Hitting the tree didn’t do much to stop the hunter. She crashed straight through the thick wood, sending splinters of bark, pine needles, and wood up into the air. A second and third tree exploded beneath her momentum before a fourth finally held together enough to bring the woman to a stop. The same tree that Serena had ended up hanging off.
The impact knocked Serena off, sending her a few feet down to the ground where she rolled for a moment before coming to a stop. Her motion didn’t cease, however. She clasped an arm over her chest. Part of her coat had torn from rubbing against the tree branch. She placed her arm over to keep the overcast sun from making its way inside.
Juliana doubted she would get much help from that corner.
“It’s a Po–”
Using the tendril of magic she already had wrapped around her fingers, she undid her undoing of taking away the nun’s ability to speak. Juliana didn’t need the hunter to have some wand that worked on Powers back at their hideout.
Though, with Zagan’s power, she could probably do something about it without any difficulty.
At the moment, the hunter could hurt her. But tugging on Zagan’s power again, Juliana twisted reality. The hunter shouldn’t be able to touch her at all. So long as she had done it right, that was.
Even if the hunter could still hurt her, she had experience healing herself using Zagan’s power. And, better yet, it didn’t look like the hunter could really hurt the ritual circle.
Juliana breathed out a small sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about that.
The very second relief crossed her mind, Juliana—armor and all—just about tumbled over as a rush of wind kicked up from around the ritual circle. A tiny sliver of the darkness had lifted up, rising to just a hair’s breadth away from the ground. Gales of wind rushed out from underneath at a constant rate, forcing Juliana to shield the thin eye slit in her helmet with her arm just to fail at keeping her eyes from drying out.
A bright red light leaked out from the crack, making everything look far more bloody than it was.
In the gale of the wind, the nun was faring far worse than Juliana. Huddled up in a fetal position, the winds tore at her increasingly ragged clothes.
On the other hand, the hunter didn’t seem affected at all. Somehow, despite being thrown through three trees, she managed to move forwards, marching closer and closer to the ritual site.
Gritting her teeth, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. If the ritual wasn’t finished yet, she would just have to keep the woman at bay herself.