Zoe stared at the spot where the portal had been. She had been too slow. Nothing of Hell remained behind, just the smooth marble-like stone that made up the majority of the ritual circle. Not even blood remained within the portal’s boundaries. Everything that was Eva was gone.
A second portal had opened to swallow her legs—or what was left of them—though Zoe hadn’t paid that portal so much attention. She had been focused solely on Eva’s wide red eyes.
She had been too slow.
Zoe knelt, hand on the ground as if to ensure that the stone truly was solid. Somewhere behind her the hunter let out a series of maniacal cackles.
“Thought she could ignore my enchanted weapons, did she?” the hunter said between laughs. “If she comes back again, I’ll send her right back to Hell where that bitch belongs!”
Slowly, Zoe stood and turned to face the hunter.
“Or better yet, I’ll kill every last one of you bastards. Everyone with the capacity to summon that demon.”
The woman started to laugh again. She didn’t quite finish. A series of tendrils wrapped around the hunter’s bloated arm, squeezing it. When the arm didn’t immediately burst into bloody pulp, Lucy swung her tentacles up and around, carrying the hunter through the air until she slammed down on the ground head first. Considering Zoe had seen Lucy tear apart Sawyer’s demon-human hybrids and had heard of her peeling an enigma apart like an orange, she couldn’t help but gape at the lack of damage on the hunter’s bloated arm.
Upside down with her head half buried in the stone, the hunter pressed her arm to the ground. Half a moment later, it came out from under Lucy’s main mass and carried her at an angle towards the forest. The tentacles still wrapped around the hunter snapped like rubber bands from the force. Without being connected to Lucy, the tentacles that didn’t fly off into the distance fell to the ground around the hunter, limp and languid.
The arm wasn’t even bruised. Because of its haphazard colorization, it was difficult to tell for certain, but there were no distinct markings around where Lucy had grabbed on and the rest of the arm.
Zoe jumped slightly, having missed Catherine’s approach. When she did not immediately answer—mostly because she didn’t have an answer—Catherine gave her a wan smile.
“Don’t bother fretting about Eva,” Catherine said as if she were telling a joke. “That portal means Void has accepted her as a demon. She’ll be back eventually. It might be a decade or two, but any demon will return. In the meantime, I doubt you could say the same should that hunter get her hands on you.”
“Can we even kill that thing?” Zoe said. A certain weight rested on her shoulders as she stared at the monster before her. The hunter had finished tossing Lucy and was now digging her head out of the stone. It took a bit more effort than Zoe would have expected of someone with an arm like she had, but eventually, she popped her head out. “You saw what Lucy tried to do. She got away without a scratch.”
“Could be worse. We could have to deal with the nun at the same time. I,” Catherine paused to lick her lips, “had a few words with her. She won’t be interfering.”
Tumorous growths covered half the hunter’s face. She had no hair on that side of her head. Yet even her human side looked completely unharmed as the hunter scanned the area for the nearest target, settling for Saija.
Who noticed, gave a slight yelp, and immediately turned tail to fly away.
“Besides, does it matter?” Catherine said. “We have to stop her. I have no intentions of returning to Hell just yet. And if you need more motivation than my own pleasures, she apparently means to kill most of the people around the school if only to prevent Eva from coming back. ‘Everyone with the capacity to summon Eva.'”
Zoe pulled out her cellphone, intending to call in everyone she knew. Genoa, Wayne, Nel and Ylva, even Devon if he bothered to check his messages. But the hunter, even though she was focused on Saija, noticed the very instant she wrapped her fingers around the cold plastic. The massive eye in her shoulder swiveled to stare at Zoe.
She didn’t hesitate for a moment. A thaumaturgical lightning bolt crackled over her head as she dove for the ground. The hunter didn’t stop there. Another three bolts struck the ground in Zoe’s wake as she rolled along the stone.
A fourth bolt never came. Saija had swung back around and was pelting the hunter with her own fairly weak balls of fire. The hunter had stopped to shield her face with her oversized hand.
Seizing the opportunity, Zoe swiped her thumb across the screen, unlocking the phone. She had only just tapped the text messenger app when the hunter fired off another lightning bolt. The hunter wound up with a few scorch marks on the side of her face, but her lightning bolt struck true.
Zoe cried out as her phone went flying from her hands, clattering across the ritual circle while leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Her fingernails had either turned to blackened char or had completely exploded off her fingers. She honestly couldn’t tell which while cradling her hand against her chest. Bright red branching scars were already forming up to her elbow. Thankfully, her elbow had been touching the ground. Had it not, the electricity might have run through her entire body to get out.
Proper air mages carefully directed their lightning strikes even after the bolt hit. Magic could suppress the electricity just as easily as it created it. Drilling that into the minds of students was enforced so heavily that it typically became an ingrained habit.
Obviously, the hunter had skipped those lessons.
The hunter turned her attention back to Saija, shooting her out of the sky with a single spear of ice conjured from the tip of her rapier—the latest sword she had summoned. The icicle tore straight through Saija’s leathery wing. A second and third icicle punched too many holes in the succubus’ wings.
Saija crashed down in a heap.
“Succubi aren’t fighters,” Catherine said, completely unnecessarily. “Neither is Srey.”
The only other demon that hadn’t been either killed or knocked away stood even farther away than Zoe and Catherine. Srey had barely moved when the hunter had first appeared. If he really couldn’t fight, Zoe supposed it was better that way. Otherwise he would simply get in the way. Or get killed needlessly. Zoe might have suggested that he run to find help.
Without Eva, Sebastian, Neuro, and Lucy around, the hunter would undoubtedly notice his running.
Apparently taking a cue from Zoe, Srey pulled out his own phone while the hunter was distracted with Saija. Like Zoe, the hunter didn’t stay distracted for long.
She turned, launching three bolts of lightning from her shoulder and a barrage of icicles from her rapier. Srey didn’t stand a chance. He managed to dodge the first bolt and a few icicles, but one clipped his leg. He fell to the ground under everything else that the hunter threw at him.
No portal opened up, but Srey didn’t move.
“We need help,” Zoe said, standing even as she clutched her scarred hand to her chest.
“I’d use my cell, but I rather like my fingernails where they are,” Catherine said with a certain callousness that did not fit the situation.
Of course, if Catherine died, she would come back. She wasn’t in mortal peril, just in peril over losing access to the mortal realm. Temporarily. Fear meant nothing to her. Not in the same sense that Zoe felt.
In more ways than one.
It wasn’t just her life that Zoe worried about losing—though that was a big part of it—but the thought of what might happen if the hunter did kill everyone here. The hunter would likely move on to Genoa and ambush her in a moment of trouble or rest. With Genoa out of the way, who knew where the hunter would stop. Mage-knights might try to stop her. Other demons might as well. But would they be able to?
Zoe didn’t intend to leave it up to them. In her left hand—her off hand—she curled her fingers tightly around her dagger.
“If you see an opportunity to escape, or even some cover to pull out your phone, send a message to everyone we know.”
With that, Zoe took a deep breath and sprung into action.
— — —
Devon sat with narrowed eyes, feeling more like a traffic director than a researcher of things beyond the average humans’ comprehension. At no point in his life could he have imagined how monotonous fending off an attack might be. An attack from a Power, no less. He had his feet propped up on a table with a heavy leather tome on his lap.
A glowing violet light made its way across a map on the table.
“To the left,” he shouted out. The waxy ruax moved to obey his order.
One of Eva’s enigmas—or something close enough to it—climbed over the prison wall and came face to face with the wax demon. Already standing in place, the ruax made eye contact.
Devon could only imagine the headache the thing felt. Or rather, he could imagine it if he bothered to empathize with the creatures. He didn’t find suffering all that productive and chose to ignore the wailing screeches as the thing curled up on itself. Finding a solution to this mess was a far better use of his time.
As dull as it was directing the ruax around, it could be worse. A flood of the things had cascaded over the walls of the prison some time ago. Eva’s wards had managed to explode a good number of them before the explosions stopped. The number of enigmas had likely drained her wards’ blood supply. They had bought him enough time to get the ruax out of solitary confinement for defense, so he supposed he should try to remember to thank her for that later on.
With the bulk having been taken out, he had plenty of time to go through his books.
Luckily, he had a vague idea on where to start looking. That damn succubus, who just so happened to be missing from the prison at the moment, had brought him designs for a ritual not that long ago. One he had dismissed as being foolish, idiotic, risky, impossible to accomplish, potentially apocalyptic, deadly, and, above all else, foolish. The succubus had dropped the subject and not brought it up again.
What a fool he was.
A demon like Catherine wouldn’t design a highly detailed ritual and then just drop it. All that work and research that would have gone into it, thrown away? Devon wouldn’t have dropped it. Why would he ever expect anything else to do the same?
He stared at the page of his tome, not quite reading the words. He was too busy trying to remember every scrap of information down to the tiniest detail that Catherine had brought to him. The circle had obviously been designed in two parts. Essentially two separate rituals contained within the same location, all mixed up together. The thought of succeeding at something like that without causing an unplanned chaotic demolition of the ritual circle was mind boggling. It had been one of the primary reasons he had scoffed at the idea.
The second reason was staring right at him. With a slight shudder, Devon kept his eyes firmly on the pages. Whatever was above him did not like him. He could feel that much.
Again, the map started glowing. Something else had actually made it inside the prison walls. Damn Eva and her damn prisoners. It was probably that prisoner they had that was drawing them all here. They sensed one of their own and decided to investigate.
What a pain.
“Between the cell blocks and whatever is left of the women’s ward,” he shouted out to the ruax. “And you,” he said, glancing towards the carnivean, “go find that woman. We’re going to need help in a few minutes. There are a number on their way.”
For once, the carnivean didn’t talk back, argue, or otherwise protest against his orders. The thin slits in its red eyes flicked towards the cell block holding their captured enigmas and that woman from the Elysium Order. With a nod of its head, it started running off, leaving the book it had been looking through behind.
Devon reached forwards and grabbed the book as his two demons took care of their duties. The ruax was still dominated. He hadn’t even tried letting it off its leash. Dominating a demon gave a small connection between the dominator and the dominee. Through that connection, Devon felt nothing but hatred directed at him. He didn’t care in the slightest about being hated. Emotions of others rarely affected him. But it was hatred to the point where there could be no cooperation between them regardless of the situation.
With that in mind, the carnivean was far more agreeable. He had mostly left it alone to help with research and occasionally called on it to fend off the monsters should the situation require.
Though, looking at the page in the book that it had been reading, Devon didn’t know why he bothered having the carnivean research. Analytic topology of locally euclidean metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds? What a fool! It was enough to make him chuckle despite the situation. In that respect, Devon actually wished for the company of Catherine. At least the succubus would have been able to tell the difference between infinite conformal symmetry in two-dimensional vector space splicing and the obvious critical exponents in cross-planar spectrum tear.
Ugh. Some people, he thought, mild humor dying as a sense of severe disdain grew towards the retreating carnivean. It looked like it would be up to him and him alone to save the day. Frankly, he had considered taking a vacation in Guam or somewhere else sufficiently far away. He wouldn’t have bothered trying to seal the gap if it weren’t for the fact that such a planar tear had the very real capacity to rip reality in two if it were left alone for too long.
Ah well. Imagining all life as he knew it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in his body exploding at the speed of light was a fairly good motivator to fix everything.
If he was remembering the papers Catherine had showed him properly, the first of the two rituals had been intended to open up a planar tear. The second as well. The first obviously had succeeded, as it had been directly tied to Hell. Whatever that was above him, it wasn’t Hell. His current theory was that the second ritual hadn’t terminated as expected. Likely due to a malformed ritual circle. A ritual that size was bound to have errors.
Thankfully, he didn’t need to recreate the entire ritual. Just the portion of it that would close the planar tear. Something that would be far simpler if she had left her notes and research anywhere he could find. He had already scoured the women’s ward from floor to ceiling—or its rubble, anyway. A good half of the first several enigmas that had assailed the prison complex had tried passing through it. Their exploding corpses damaged much of the structure. Unfortunately, Catherine hadn’t left anything useful behind that he had been able to find.
But all was not lost. Devon reached out to his sketch pad and drew a thin line around the seal of sorrows. A line that should force the magic to interact with any planar tears. Theoretically, someone could be doing an experiment on the moon with his waist half in a tear. When his circle activated, it would snap shut. Poor guy won’t know what hit him.
He paused his sketching for a moment as he glanced at the map. The mass of glowing dots outside the prison was winking out one by one. In some cases, several by several. It actually had him taking his feet off the desk to sit upright. His thumb rubbed against one of his ring foci as he watched whatever it was carve a path through the enigmas to the prison.
Sending both of his demons away might have been a mistake. Through the connection with the ruax, he called it to his side. But it would be a short time before it got near.
He stood and filled the air with infernal flames as the thing approached the wall.
An enigma made it up to the top first, tentacles thrashing in the air. It didn’t make it over. A bloody hand the size of the entire enigma grasped it by the tentacles and dragged it back down on the other side. From there, Devon couldn’t see what happened to it.
He could hear it cry out much like the ones the ruax had given aneurysms to. The cries cut short with a spray of violet blood up and over the wall like some kind of geyser.
The hand of blood reappeared once again, grasping the top of the wall. A tiny humanoid figure attached to it used it like a grappling hook to vault over the top.
Eva landed in the clearing near the former basketball court. The bloody hand attached to her arm shrunk down to the size and length of a normal human hand, though it remained liquid and bloody from her elbow down.
As she sprinted towards him, Devon considered attacking. There was something off about Eva. Something unnatural. More than usual. Her arms—and legs, now that he looked lower than her skirt—were coated in blood. But that wasn’t too surprising for her. She had always enjoyed blood magic. It was something else. Her red eyes were just too red. Too intense. Her long hair flowed in the wind.
Hair that she wasn’t supposed to have. Eva had hair barely an inch long. That was all that had grown back since she got it burned off. And now that he was actually looking at it, it looked oily.
Before he could actually come to a decision on whether or not to attack, she stopped on the other side of the table.
He let his flames die out. She wasn’t attacking him and both the ruax and the carnivean were almost back to him. If she wanted to pretend like she had hair with blood, who was he to stop her.
Though her eyes still made him shift where he stood.
“Devon,” she said, those red eyes stared at him for a moment before flicking down to the table. “Is this going to close the portals?”
“They’re not portals. It’s a planar–” Devon clenched his mouth shut, grinding his teeth together as her eyes looked back to him. “Yes,” he eventually ground out. “But it isn’t ready just yet.”
“Good. Get it ready. Then find Genoa. She should be in the Brakket Academy infirmary. I don’t know how big this is going to be, but she’ll help you get it set up instantly. But do not start it before receiving my signal.”
Devon faltered, falling back into his chair. The aberration he had created had the audacity to look sheepish with a hand tucked behind her head.
“Sorry,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean that. I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean it all ‘kneel before me foolish mortal.’ I just–”
“What happened to you?” Devon said, narrowing his eyes.
“Not entirely sure. Died, or came close enough to it. Beyond that…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. “But still, don’t activate this until I say so.” She tapped the sketch with a bloody finger. Devon just about yelled at her, but when she dropped her hands to her sides, not a single droplet of blood stained the paper.
“And why should I listen to you? If we leave this open–”
“I know, end of the world. The thing is, it might be the end of the world if we close it too early.” She pointed a finger straight overhead.
Against his better judgment, he followed it up to the massive eye overhead. The eye that had turned black and red and was crying out tears of corruption onto the Earth. He tore his eyes away before he could stare for any longer.
“A chunk of that thing’s brain is sitting around Brakket Academy and I have to shove it back inside its body before we close the portals. To do that,” she said, turning slightly to face the approaching demons and the nun. Her eyes twitched down to the blood-covered glove on the nun’s hand. “I’m going to need my prisoner. I hope you have been taking good care of it.”
Eva rubbed her hands together. Or mimed the action. Where her hands connected, the blood melded together to the point where Devon couldn’t tell one hand from the other. It was just a big ball of blood. A ball that couldn’t possibly have Arachne’s carapace hidden beneath.
“I do need it alive,” she said with a grin.