Juliana didn’t bother jumping to the side to dodge the oncoming icicle. There was no need. Her earlier manipulation of reality worked perfectly. Unless, of course, the hunter deliberately made her attacks miss. That was a possibility. Not one that Juliana could understand however.
So she wasn’t too worried, even while watching the icicle that had been aiming directly at her head as it skimmed past the metal of her helmet. Not a single attack had actually hit though all had come close.
Every missed punch, icicle, ice boulder, lightning bolt, pitfall, and whatever else the hunter had up her sleeve only served to infuriate the hunter when they scraped by Juliana’s armor, failing to actually do any damage. Doubly so when Juliana didn’t move and the attacks missed for no real reason. She tried not to stand still too often. The hunter might eventually decide to quell her irrational rage and just go after the slowly opening ritual circle.
Really, the increasingly intense wind coming from the hand-width space between the bottom of the void and the natural earth was more annoying than the hunter. She had considered making it stop with Zagan’s magic. Yet she hadn’t dared. If the winds were some vital component of the ritual, she didn’t want to be called out as the reason why the world was doomed.
So she left it alone and just squinted her eyes with her visor’s slit narrowed even further. Which helped with the almost blinding light that bathed the surrounding forest in red.
At least she didn’t need to worry about the nun. With the Elysium Order’s magic-eating magic, Juliana wasn’t sure that Zagan’s magic would work properly. Presumably it would. She had seen him use it against the Elysium Order back during her first year of school. But he had several millennia worth of experience using it whereas her experience could be measured in days. Luckily, the nun was having a hard enough time just keeping from being blown off into the forest. She didn’t have the weight of armor keeping her grounded that the hunter and Juliana had. If not for the wards Zoe had set up around her, she probably would have flown off, never to be seen or heard from again.
Almost a shame that the wards were still around. Still, the nun hadn’t so much as tried to escape. Though she had been a decent way away, Juliana had heard Eva’s threat. The nun was obviously trying to avoid triggering it. Anytime she thought the wind might die down, she tried to center herself in the ward, though it was difficult to tell now that the line Zoe had drawn had been blown away.
The hunter hadn’t tried to help the nun in the slightest. Not even a single spell came close to the wards holding in the nun. She didn’t try to destroy the nun’s bindings. At first, Juliana had been worried. Not so much anymore. Now she just wanted to keep the hunter distracted enough for the ritual to finish.
Juliana blinked as a realization hit. She stared down the hunter, taking a step to the side so that an icicle wouldn’t have to curve around her to miss.
She didn’t need to fight the hunter to distract her from the ritual circle until it was over and Eva could take care of the problem. There was no need. Obviously, she could have killed the hunter. Or simply wished her away from here. But… Juliana didn’t want any unintended side effects if she phrased something incorrectly. And outright killing her, even though she was clearly trying to kill Juliana, just didn’t feel right. Especially with how easy it would be with Zagan’s help.
Which, suddenly thinking about it, made her earlier use of Zagan’s powers on the nun all the worse.
Shifting her eyes towards the nun for just a moment, Juliana double-checked that yes, the nun was fine. No side effects from losing her mouth. Probably. She didn’t have a mouth at the moment, but she was still alive.
Okay. Nothing to worry about there.
Back to the armored hunter, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. The hunter was charging forwards, moving so fast that Juliana could almost see through her. Yet Juliana wasn’t worried in the slightest. For what was the opposite of the hunter being armored?
The hunter’s joints locked up mid-punch. Her fist stopped just inches from Juliana’s face. A weighted pause passed as the hunter’s eyes grew wide. She didn’t have time to do more than that. Without her armor—or anything at all, for that matter—she was just as paralyzed as Eva had said she was. Her body collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, already being blown by the wind.
She hit the ground hard enough to make Juliana wince. With her on the ground, Juliana clearly saw the three marks on her back. Dark blotches of skin that didn’t quite follow the contours of the rest of her spine. Just imagining what had happened did cause a small shudder.
Just a small one. This woman had tried to kill her. And had kidnapped her. She probably deserved both her paralysis and whatever Eva was sure to do to her once the ritual was over.
When the hunter started to speak, Juliana repeated her earlier spell and erased the woman’s mouth. It seemed to work well enough on the nun. And she really didn’t want to listen to the woman’s screaming, taunting, or general unpleasant words. Maybe it was hypocritical to worry about the nun while using the same spell on the hunter, but Juliana really didn’t like the hunter.
Juliana reached into her pocket and pulled out her wand—she had yet to replace her ring foci since her kidnapping—and pointed it down at the ground. The Earth came to life, raising small pillars of dirt around the hunter’s body. With a flick of pure regular old thaumaturgy, the earth wrapped around the hunter’s body. A quick hardening of the dirt into rock and the woman was thoroughly trapped. It also kept her from blowing away in the wind, but that was a side effect.
The entrapment was a just in case measure. The hunter was supposed to be paralyzed, but no sense taking any chances. Who knew if she had an earring focus or something else similar that Juliana’s armor-removing spell had missed.
For two full minutes, Juliana didn’t take her eyes off the downed hunter. There had to be some trick. Something that would come back and bite her. But the hunter didn’t move. Couldn’t move, obviously. Without a mouth, widening and narrowing her eyes was about all she could manage.
Finally letting out a small sigh of relief, she turned back to the ritual circle. And promptly took a step back. Doing so just about sent her stumbling over the mound of rock that covered the hunter. Lucky for the woman, a light knock against her earthen sarcophagus didn’t disturb it in the slightest.
The black dome had risen up higher than her head in the time she had focused on the hunter. Maybe even higher than the roof of a small house. Because of the size, the interior was still fairly dark and difficult to see. Even with the bright red beams of light that crisscrossed through the air, Juliana couldn’t see all that much. Maybe because, though overcast, her eyes were far more accustomed to the bright light of normal outdoors. She did have to squint her eyes because of the onrush of air. Though, now that the darkness had receded as much as it had, the wind wasn’t quite as strong.
Nobody was on their feet anymore in the outer ring save for Catherine. She could see that much. Demons and humans alike were pressed down against the ground. It took a good amount of willpower to keep from rushing forwards and checking on her mother. But walking across the ritual circle while it was active… probably not a good idea. For all she knew, chaotic magic would hit her instead of going wherever it was supposed to go and cause the whole thing to explode.
Her mother having her head raised helped to calm Juliana down. If she were dead or even unconscious, her body would be slack on the ground. Everyone’s would be slack for that matter. Even though they were pressed to the ground, everyone looked tense.
Which might not be the best thing.
But, despite the darkness, she could see something towards the very center of the ritual circle. Something large. The center of the circle was the hardest to see discounting the opposite end of the ritual circle where the distance itself fought against Juliana.
At first, Juliana thought that something was burning. She could really only see a silhouette and that silhouette looked an awful lot like a plume of smoke rising from the center of the circle. But the longer she stared, the more intelligent of a form she could see. A design to the pattern of smoke that wouldn’t be present if someone had just started a fire out there.
The smoke was roughly humanoid in shape, somewhat slender. It formed two legs and at least two arms on a flowing body. A second set might be present just under the first, but the smoke flowing off the body made it difficult to tell. If there was a second set, the arms were much thinner. More skeletal than the bulky upper arms. If skeletal was a word that could be applied to a cloud of darkness.
She could only tell the details of its arms because of how large it was. Eva wasn’t far away from it. Vektul as well. The smoke-being had taken Arachne’s place as far as Juliana could tell. She wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but hoped that it wasn’t anything bad. With the other two nearby, they served as decent comparisons for its height.
At the moment, it was more than twice as tall as Eva. Ylva would find herself angling upwards to look at its head.
But, while the column of smoke was the most notable thing inside the ritual circle, it wasn’t the only oddity.
Eva had a shiny black gloss coating her entire body. The red lights reflected off almost perfectly. For a moment, Juliana thought the lights were actually emanating from within Eva, like her carapace had cracked and her insides were glowing. But the lights and the obsidian coating weren’t all that had changed with her.
Two tall spikes jutted above her shoulders. From the tips on either side, a series of thin branches fell back down with the longest nearly reaching her hips. Wings. Though they lacked the fleshy membrane between the branches. At the moment, it was like looking at a bat skeleton. Like the rest of her, the wings were shiny and reflected the red lights on their black surface.
Juliana didn’t know what to think about that. Nobody else had changed besides Eva and Arachne. Not even Vektul, who was in the middle along with Eva and Arachne—or whatever that smoke thing was. At least, she didn’t think he had changed. He looked the same, but he didn’t reflect the light half as well as Eva.
Double-checking that both the hunter and the nun were in their proper places, Juliana built herself a chair with earth magic and a small wall to help shield her from the wind. She sat angled just enough to keep both prisoners and the ritual circle in sight.
Then she sat down and waited. There wasn’t much else to do. She would have to ask about Arachne and Eva’s wings once everything had finished.
— — —
Eva couldn’t tilt her head back. She couldn’t see above her. Still, she felt like the ritual should be nearing its completion. Every moment that passed made the curtain rise faster and faster. With the bottom of the curtain being completely out of her sight, there couldn’t be much left.
Arachne—or whatever had taken her place—barely fit within her section of the ritual circle. With her almost three times Eva’s size, even she was getting difficult to look at. The red beams still had her propped up, but her feet were flat on the ground now. Which only made her height all the more impressive. Had it not been Arachne in all the smoke, Eva might have taken a moment to be impressed.
The wind around her ears cut off as the last of the void disappeared within the murky fog that had once been Arachne’s head. She had almost forgotten what it was like to not be constantly hearing that roaring. Without it, the following silence felt all the more oppressive. No one said a single thing. No one moved.
Eva still couldn’t move, so perhaps the others were the same.
One by one, the red beams of light started winking out. Soon enough, the sky was back to the dark gray of natural overcast and unnatural violet streaks with only a handful of the beams left. Darker even than when they had started. Eva hadn’t thought that more than ten minutes had passed, but either that wasn’t the case or the very presence of the being in front of Eva was enough to darken the world.
The few remaining beams of light were those that had propped up Arachne. Rather than simply fading away as the others had, they pierced into the smog. Each one knocked Arachne around, sending her form stumbling slightly, yet somehow managing to catch herself before actually falling to the ground. One pierced either shoulder. One hit her chest. The final beam touched to the center of her face, slowly pressing into it rather than a rapid puncture as the others did.
The light around the ritual circle dimmed the moment the beam disappeared.
Arachne, or her hulking form, slumped. She didn’t fall to the ground. Her legs bent in two spots, digitigrade. An orange glow began radiating from deep within her chest. It started obscured by all the smoke and grew to a bright fiery red. Just when Eva thought she might have to close her eyes to shield them from the light, the entire creature burst into flames.
The flames formed a skeletal ribcage. Just the outline, as if there were bones obstructing the light despite that obviously not being the case—as the smoke wafted in and around, the light shone through the ‘bones’ of the creature. From the ribs, the flames traveled upwards and downwards, lighting up both sets of arms and its legs in a similar manner along with a long, whip-like tail. Once it reached its head, it bled into actual features. Teeth, a nose, two eyes. As with the ribs, it lit up where the bones wouldn’t be. Like a jack-o-lantern. Except, rather than the triangular teeth most common pumpkins had, its teeth were sharp and jagged. It lacked symmetry no matter how you looked at it.
Flames exploded from the top of its head, flowing down its back in a very unflamelike manner. As soon as the flames came out from its head, the creature burst into motion. It didn’t walk around like a person. All four of its arms were used in conjunction with its legs to propel it around the ritual circle.
And Eva finally found herself able to turn, to keep it in sight as she rotated to follow its path.
Which was somewhat difficult and not due to the blood that still coated her body. Void scurried around the circle, everywhere it touched the ground left a column of flame and smoke. It went up to Shelby first, circling around her. As it circled, its eyes locked onto her and never strayed. Shelby had her head down on the ground. She couldn’t actually follow it as it moved, but she definitely saw it out of the corner of her eyes.
Eva was fairly certain that she heard a light whimper from the girl as it drew in a deep breath—sniffing the air, perhaps. Yet it didn’t actually do anything more. It never even moved inside the circle in which Shelby knelt. Once it finished another circuit around Shelby, it moved on in a flash.
Its tail snapped back and forth in time with every step. Like the rest of its body, a core of orange burned within the smoke.
Srey ended up being its next target. Like Shelby, it circled around him a few times while occasionally sniffing at the air. Once satisfied, it moved on and on until it had inspected everyone in the outer rings.
It did stop at Catherine, staring at her for far longer than anyone else. Eva watched as the succubus’ knees started trembling. Her face twisted into a strained grimace. Though she had managed to remain standing throughout the entire ritual, Catherine’s knees gave out. She collapsed to the ground. A tune of satisfied laughter rumbled through the air.
Vektul—who, Eva realized, was now on his knees in a mirror of everyone else—barely warranted a glance. The thing didn’t even fully circle around him before it approached Eva.
Apparently warranting the most attention, it crawled around Eva on all six legs. The way it moved was almost serpentine, a slither more or less. It stopped every few steps. The tail coming off its back snapped into the air reminiscent of a scorpion’s tail every time it stopped. Yet, as with the others, it never crossed over the ring around Eva’s spot in the ritual.
Finally, it finished its inspection. The creature that had once been Eva’s friend stopped dead in front of her.
The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?
Eva jolted. The sound– The voice came from everywhere around her. Its mouth hadn’t moved, keeping its rictus grin. The light continued shining without any parting of its teeth further than they were already held. It was more like the very air had caved to its whims and created the words on its own accord.
And the voice itself… There was a feminine tone to it, underlying all the rumbling. Some remnant of Arachne, perhaps. But the majority was just deep. So deep that Eva could feel her insides rumble along with it. Small bits of dust and stray dirt that littered much of the ritual circle vibrated against the ground. The trees on the far edges bent backwards while the words echoed through the air. Just how far had the sound carried? Had everyone in Brakket City heard? Farther?
Though it didn’t matter. Given how everyone around her was on their knees, it was doubtful that anyone on the planet could stand against the being before her. Let alone fight it.
Only as she considered that did the words it had spoken register with her. She had been distracted by the booming voice and hadn’t quite consciously heard them.
Eva wasn’t bowing before it. She was the only one.
“What,” Eva said anger rising, blood coating her beginning to boil, “did you do to Arachne?”
— — —
I was a little worried that the text wouldn’t show up for everyone, so if anyone can’t read that one line of text up there, it says, “The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?” If the text doesn’t show up, shows up as garbled symbols, or perhaps as boxes with little numbers in them, I’d appreciate it if you would mention as such in the comments.
Edit: Altered to just plain bold for mobile users. Sorry about that.