Devon stalked down the deserted streets of Brakket City. The streets were more deserted than normal. Few people remained in the city. Only a handful stayed. The brave or the foolish. The apathetic as well. A few stubborn townsfolk hadn’t left yet. They had nowhere to go or perhaps they figured that they had weathered everything else, what was one more thing?
Some of Brakket Academy’s staff had remained behind. Or so he had heard from one of the professors that stopped by the prison on occasion. A skeleton crew. Not even enough to properly manage anything save for ward upkeep and various enchantments around the school. Those people and the researchers. The professor with one arm he had spoken with in particular.
Aside from the stubborn and the fools, there were a few guards. Mage-knights down on their luck and unable to find alternate contracts. Devon had seen a number of members belonging to the Elysium Order. They had sneered at him—or at his company—but hadn’t otherwise attacked.
He honestly had no idea what they were doing here. Their little club hadn’t fared too well during the initial incident with the Pillar of Hell. If anything remotely as challenging showed up, they would be decimated. The only thing they were good for was getting rid of enigmas.
As for his company, three demons flanked him. Each followed along a step behind. One was under his direct control. The waxy ruax, aside from the occasional fighting against his domination, had proven handy. Those fights against his control were weak and short-lived. Apparently it took a great deal of time to build up the strength to try. Minor nuisances that he could ignore for the most part. Its debilitating effect against anything that attacked him made it more than worth the effort of keeping it around.
One demon following him was merely under contract—a fairly tenuous contract that very well might wind up annulled before long. Not only was the carnivean not performing its duties as a fill-in for Eva’s treatment, but requesting the presence of a fairy queen was not something anyone did lightly. Luckily, he had written enough loopholes into their contract that he should be able to find an out easily enough. It might upset the carnivean, but losing it wouldn’t be that big of a loss.
The final demon was a succubus. Or perhaps she had been a succubus at some point in time. He wasn’t so sure anymore. The rituals Catherine designed and had performed on herself were similar to Eva’s. Superficially, at least. In reality, they were designed to change Catherine on a far more subtle level. Eva had slowly been changing even before coming to this school and having her arms and legs exchanged for Arachne’s.
Catherine had hardly changed in appearance from when Devon had first encountered her. Her hair might be a different length or color, or her eyes just a few shades brighter, but she was a succubus. Her body was easily malleable. All the better to adopt an appearance appreciated by as many people as possible.
Rather, the change had come in how she held herself and how those around her reacted to her presence. Even walking behind Devon, she strode with the confidence of a leader. He could almost feel the aura of command rolling off her shoulders. Other demons would look to her, be more willing to agree to her demands, and other such deferences.
And that was after only a few treatments. One right before all the mess with the tear and one earlier on with Eva and the Pillar of Hell. There might have been a third, Devon couldn’t recall. He honestly hadn’t been paying too close attention to her rituals. Not as close as he should have been, in any case.
Eva hadn’t ever changed like that. Her appearance showed signs of demonic traits. Especially after the recent three-way treatments. Other demons had commented on her feeling strong. Yet Eva had never acted strong. Sure, she had killed the demon hunters. That had taken some strength, Devon was sure. But she hadn’t commanded legions of demons the way that Catherine might if the succubus had the inclination.
Before Catherine’s treatments, the only one who had commanded that sort of presence had been the Hel. Not even the Pillar forced people to take note of him, though that may have been personal preference on the Pillar’s part rather than any lack of ability.
Devon was extremely thankful that Catherine was more like he was in that research held a value on its own. Had Catherine acted anything like the carnivean—or pretty much any other demon he had encountered in recent years—he probably would have killed her before the first treatment.
After observing Catherine closely over the previous few months, Devon had a mild idea of why Eva had turned out the way she had.
Eva was human. Obviously not mortal. There was a definite difference. But Eva was human. She bothered to attend this school despite not necessarily needing what it taught. Because that was what humans did. Especially human children. And, though she had grown older, she was still a child compared to most of humanity, let alone demons. She interacted with humans and demons alike, but most of the demons she interacted with were pretending to be human. There likely was little functional difference in Eva’s eyes.
School, friends, eating, sleeping. All of it Eva did because that was what humans did.
Because Eva viewed herself as human.
That might change in the future. Humans had an expiration date. Even with necromancy, phylacteries, phoenixes, and various other methods of extending that date, it still ran out eventually. Eva wouldn’t. Not so long as she finished her treatment—if such a thing was even necessary anymore; Catherine’s description of what had happened during the ritual to corrupt a Power had been slightly worrying in that regard. But eventually, Eva would be left bereft of those she knew now.
She might befriend other humans, but how long would that last? Another century or so?
Eventually, Eva would be left with nothing but demons. Arachne and Catherine. Probably a few others as well. Eventually, she would decide that maintaining relationships with humans was more trouble than it was worth and slowly associate with only demons. Some amount of time after that, she would stop viewing herself as a human. Then and only then would her transformation be complete.
It was somewhat disappointing to reach the conclusion of his experiment without having technically finished it. Though it was nice to know the answer. He doubted that he would be around to see Eva’s final transformation.
“We’re here,” Catherine said, coming to a stop.
“Obviously.” Devon curled his lips back into a sneer as he took in the sight before him. The obelisk. The thing that had everyone running away from the academy and the city. Devon couldn’t exactly blame them. It didn’t look like rainbows and unicorns.
Though if anyone around here had actually encountered a unicorn before, they would probably have run just as fast.
“It’s been like this for a week now.”
“All glowing and red?”
Catherine nodded her head. “We first noticed it shortly after you sealed off the tear in realities. It spent three days inert before lighting up like this.”
“And you waited this long before telling me about it?”
Her eyes flashed for just a moment with some slight hint of irritation. “I am not beholden to you. We have worked together as colleagues on occasion. Nothing more.”
“So why bring me here now?”
Catherine shifted. This time, she didn’t look angry. Merely embarrassed. A slight loss of her earlier confidence. Devon curled his lip into a small smile as she struggled to find the words to answer.
“I’ve exhausted my investigative skills and magical knowledge,” she eventually said. Devon waited for just a moment longer, prompting her to cross her arms with a scowl. “I don’t have the slightest idea what that is,” she said with a nod towards the obelisk. “I don’t know why it is glowing. I don’t know what made it start glowing in the first place.”
“You think I do?” Devon looked back to the obelisk. The veins of red that branched off from the top until red covered the entire thing vaguely looked like actual veins. Or perhaps tree roots. But he hadn’t ever seen something like the obelisk before.
“A human might have a different perspective. Given our research together, I know you are knowledgeable about many demonic matters. Most diabolists I have known merely summon a demon for a task then dismiss them immediately after. None ever do actual research into what demons are and other matters of Hell. In that regard, you’re the best diabolist I know.”
“Demonologist,” Devon grumbled as he walked up to the obelisk. A wave of his hand stilled two of his three followers. If the obelisk was some sort of beacon of inexorable power, he did not want either the ruax or the carnivean to get their hands—or tentacles—on it.
It definitely had some power about it. Just breathing, the air felt thick and heavy with magic. It wasn’t the easiest thing to be around; like breathing in a sauna, except less moisture and more ambient energy. Or perhaps it was more of a sharp smell. Something not dissimilar to chlorine.
Whatever it was, it was unnatural.
Devon made a circuit around the obelisk, briefly examining all four sides. They were identical to one another on a superficial level. He did spot a few differences in how the vein of red coming down from the peak branched outward.
He reached out, about ready to brush his fingers over the surface. It looked like the veins were merged with the obsidian background. At the same time, there was a vague shadow like they stood out. However, a subtle stiffening in Catherine’s back in his peripheral vision had him withdrawing his hand.
“Something bad happens if you touch it?”
“Haven’t tried since it lit up. Before then, it just felt like a smooth pane of glass.”
Devon hummed as he bent over. He scooped up a small pebble from the road, took a step back, and tossed it towards the obelisk.
The pebble flung backwards over his shoulder with a crack as it shattered the sound barrier. The brick wall of a nearby pizzeria caught it. It stuck in the wall, half embedded as it radiated a certain heat that he could feel from across the edge of the sidewalk. The pebble glowed a bright red, though one of heat and nearly molten rock rather than the magical red of the obelisk.
“Good to know,” he said as he took a short step away. He eyed the carnivean, considering ordering it to move a dozen steps away. While their contract should prevent it from killing him, he couldn’t discount the possibility that it had slipped a loophole into their contract that would allow it to bump him into the obelisk, letting it kill him through a proxy.
He pulled a small card out of his pocket. One with a prepared ritual circle already inscribed on one side. A simple ritual circle. One for a simple test. No need for some large-scale carvings.
“There are ways of telling where demons come from,” he said, partially for Catherine’s sake. “Not so long ago, I scraped up a bit of ash and found it came from a Pillar, one of the seventy-two.”
“Just so. It burned a brilliant purple. A sign of royalty.” For a moment, Devon considered asking Catherine for a drop of her blood. Normal succubi would cast flames of a pink-hued red. He wasn’t so sure what hers would indicate.
But he only had one indicator paper. It wasn’t difficult to create another one, but this one would be best put to use on the problem at hand. He could always ask Catherine for a drop of blood later.
He took the card between his index and middle fingers of his only proper hand. A flick of his wrist sent it flying. The card landed with its back flat against the obelisk. Frankly, Devon was surprised it hadn’t spontaneously activated just walking up to the obelisk. But it hadn’t.
Unlike the pebble, it didn’t fly away; the magic had a constructive path to travel along inside the card. The obelisk activated the circle drawn on the front through sheer ambient magic. All the lines lit up in an instant, glowing a faint neutral amber. The actual paper of his card wasn’t holding up well. Flames appeared at the corners, slowly eating their way inwards. They didn’t quite make it to the center.
His card exploded off the side of the obelisk, chasing after the pebble. To the untrained eye, it left a trail of dark smoke in its wake. Devon stared at it, following it to where the card had landed on the nearby sidewalk. It wasn’t smoke at all. Black flames hovered above the circle until the more natural flames that had been eating away at the corners broke the ring around the center. Dark smoky fire dispersed into nothingness.
“‘Huh’ what? I assume the indicator paper was made up by humans, because its colors don’t mean anything to me. What would black smoke mean?”
“Not sure. I’ve never seen it before.”
“Is there no documentation involved with the spell?” Catherine walked around with clicking heel, pacing back and forth in front of the obelisk. “I suppose we could reverse engineer the spell and discover exactly what the smoke meant, but that–”
“Black flames, not smoke. And it shouldn’t have been a possibility anyway. I programmed in common colors; red, blue, green, yellow, and so on. I invented the spell, so I know a little something about its inner workings. Black doesn’t mean anything at all.”
“It’s not demonic in origin then?”
“It is, or there wouldn’t be a flame at all,” Devon said as he reached back into his pocket. This time, he pulled out a thin rod. “Take this,” he said, offering it to Catherine.
She didn’t move to take it, staying a few paces away from Devon as she eyed the offered rod. “A wand?”
“Nothing so pedestrian.” He tossed it towards Catherine, which made her catch it more on reflex than anything else. She narrowed her eyes at him, looking about ready to tear his head off. “If I wanted to harm you, I would have had the ruax debilitate you with a series of headaches. I need you to turn it into void metal.”
She looked down at the silver rod in her hands with a certain realization dawning in her eyes. Her fingers lightly brushed over the surface, leaving a trail of absolute black in their wake. Though she did miss a few spots and had to return to touch it up. It made Devon a little worried about the quality of the interior. A worry that definitely did now show on his face—he could give a poker champion a run for their money—yet Catherine somehow picked up on it anyway. “It would have been pure had you given me a golden rod rather than this impure silver,” she paused to hold the completed rod up. “But I made it work anyway. The question is how are you going to make it work? I had a decently sized ritual circle set up when I tried with Eva.”
Devon let a sly smile cross his lips. A wave of his proper hand sent a burst of thin green flames dancing about the street. His fire scorched a trail into the sand around the obelisk and the asphalt. Soon enough, he had scorched a fully-fledged ritual circle into the ground. Almost. He hadn’t completed it fully. Just in case the ambient magic did activate the circle.
It was somewhat haphazard and crude. Precisely the reason he would never try that trick on a ritual circle of any great importance. If this one failed, the worst that would happen would be them having to try again. Maybe a small explosion, but nothing too terrible. The ritual circle would only be active for a split second.
At least, that was the theory.
Catherine walked forwards and jammed the rod into the ground within what would normally be the recipient portion of the circle, easily understanding Devon’s intentions. He had gotten the idea from her, after all. It was a modification to the treatment circle. Catherine had used a variation while testing some of Eva’s more esoteric attributes not so long ago. A fairly brilliant idea, for a demon. Devon had almost exclusively been going off physical appearance along with a few tests on samples of Eva’s blood.
She hadn’t shared her results. Devon hadn’t really pressed that hard. He had intended to run his own version—the same thing he had drawn on the ground just now—after Eva’s New Year’s treatment.
Of course, she had to go and disappear before that could happen. At this point, Devon was fairly certain that she did things like that solely to be a thorn in his side.
As soon as Catherine ensured that the rod would remain upright, she took a few steps back. Devon fired up his green flames at his fingertips once again. He backed away, giving the ritual circle a fair space. A second thought had him backing even further away. Thirty feet should work fine. Both his demons and Catherine followed him back.
Once ready, he tossed out his flames.
The ritual lit up the moment his flames connected the circle together. Much like the card, he could see it trying to burn away under the stress of all the magic in the air. Ash, cement, asphalt, and sand tended to be a bit more resilient to burning away than a paper card. It would last long enough to get a clue as to what the obelisk was.
The rod started to vibrate where Catherine had jammed it into the ground. A haze of heat surrounded it like a bubble, distorting everything around it. Which shouldn’t be possible. Void metal didn’t heat up no matter what forces were applied to it.
Devon actually took two more steps back as the onyx metal started changing colors, brightening first to a dull red before turning white-hot.
“Stop it,” Catherine snapped. “Quick.”
His hands had already been moving. A burst of green flame scattered across the ritual circle, scoring new lines into it not unlike an artist scribbling out a failed drawing.
The reaction was almost instantaneous. The magic, until he disrupted the circle, had been flowing along the proper paths as the lines dictated. Smoothly flowing at that, if a bit strained because of the sheer volume of magic being pushed around. His newest scorch marks didn’t disrupt the flow in anything resembling a controlled shutdown.
A high-pitched tone similar to a pin dropping echoed through the silence of the street. It was the only warning Devon had before the street was torn up and filled the air with chunks of rock.