010.033

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Nel Stirling, formerly of the Elysium Order, augur to the Charon Chapter, stood in a position that she had never thought she would occupy.

She sat at the head table in the Elysium Grand Cathedral. Not the Salem Cathedral. Not any of their other training centers. The Grand Cathedral. To the Elysium Order, there was no place more central to their power. It was within this building that the leaders resided. Within this building was the vault containing a vial of every augur’s blood, ready to be given to the inquisitors should one go rogue. All the primary secrets and artifacts collected by the Order since their inception in ancient times were kept in the vaults as well.

Including the source of the Elysium Order’s eyes. Deep down in the bleakest basement vault, under twenty-four hour guard by some of the highest trained individuals the Elysium Order had ever produced, was the Skull of God. She hadn’t ever seen it with her own two eyes, but she had more than two eyes. She doubted it was the skull of an actual god in biblical terms. It looked like a human’s skull, sized like one too. Knowing what she now knew about the Elysium Order and the magic they used, perhaps it had originally been a part of one of Death’s minions. Someone like Ylva’s mother or the Baron.

Whatever it had been, now it was just a skull. A skull that produced two eyes every decade. No more and no less.

It was the primary reason for the Elysium Order’s Inquisitorial Chapter. A single nun going rogue represented a significant amount of time required to replace them. An augur, with their many, many, many eyes would take centuries to create from scratch. Thus recovering as many eyes as possible was vital to the long-term survival of the Elysium Order as a whole.

Nel couldn’t say she cared much about that. Even had she known exactly how long it took to create new eyes, she would still have run away. While it had a few bumps and bruises, her life had been drastically more pleasant since she had asked Eva for shelter.

Now she was back. This time on the other side of the table, looking down on all the nuns scurrying about rather than being looked down upon by leaders who hated augurs merely for the possibility that they might escape.

Nel tried not to look down upon her old comrades and coworkers in the metaphorical manner, most had never done anything to her, but avoiding looking down on them literally was a much harder task. Despite the table at the far end of the chapel being only a few steps higher than the rest of the hall, everyone seemed so tiny as they scurried about to carry out their tasks.

Maybe it was the lighting. The chapel had high ceilings, vaulted to the point where the only way anyone could change light bulbs was with magic. Yet there wasn’t a dark corner anywhere. Between the high-powered lights and the massive windows behind the head table, it was brighter than day inside. The vaulted ceiling just made everyone else look tinier in comparison.

Of course, Nel wasn’t sitting in the center of the table. Lady Ylva occupied that prestigious position. She had done away with Provost Willem’s ornately carved chair. It would have been too small for her even had she not preferred to slouch in her marble throne. To Ylva’s left, the two students sat, trying to keep from shaking in fear. They were probably the two newest members of the Elysium Order and they were already sitting at the table reserved for the most important members. It was almost enough to make Nel laugh at their predicament.

As for herself, Nel was feeling fairly good. Sure, her arm was still shriveled up. Even with the skull down below pumping out eyeballs every so often, she doubted that she would ever regain full use of her limb. It had simply been too long. In fact, it should probably be amputated. Who knew what kind of infections she could wind up with if something started festering in the vacant cavities.

But it was highly unlikely that any inquisitors would ever hunt her down in the future. Without that giant bag of stress weighing her down, she actually smiled on occasion.

Most importantly, she was seated at Ylva’s right hand side. Not only did that mean that she was the most trusted of all of Ylva’s contacts, but it meant she got to be a personal advisor. Probably. She hadn’t actually done much advising since Ylva performed her little takeover of the Elysium Order. Or much of anything.

Being an advisor would be a big turnaround from her earlier days as an effective slave to Ylva, but if she wasn’t actually advising her…

She might be replaced.

A jolt of fear ran up Nel’s spine and she suddenly started paying close attention to the goings-on before her. A nun, one of the chapter heads—Phobos Chapter, if she remembered correctly—was giving a report. On what? How could she advise if she hadn’t been paying attention to anything?

What a disaster.

Nel shook her head and stared.

“–Coven of vampires around the Liverpool area. They’re difficult to uproot due to the high population, but–”

“Enough,” Ylva said in a tone like marble grinding across granite. “Vampires do not concern Us.”

Prioress Daniella, whose arms and legs started shaking at Ylva’s voice, blinked and stared up at the giant. “But… But they’re a p-plague.” She paused, wincing slightly as if she expected to be berated for speaking against Ylva’s statement. When none came, her confidence grew. “They have been primary enemies of the Elysium Order since the Order was founded.”

“And that is precisely why We are here. The mismanagement of this organization cannot be allowed to continue. Vampires lack souls. Their existence is nothing more than magically animated masses of flesh deluded into thinking they have the autonomy a soul grants. They do not concern Us.

Nel chose that moment to clear her throat, hoping that she wasn’t out of line in interrupting. But it was a perfect moment to jump in and advise. “Lady Ylva,” she said, angling her body slightly in her seat to properly address the demon. “Most members of the Elysium Order joined specifically to hunt down vampires. Recruitment spiked especially after the Lansing Incident. For most nuns, I would assume that vampires represent a personal vendetta that they need to participate in hunting down. Even more members may leave if you shut down vampire hunts entirely.”

Contrary to Nel’s expectations based off her actions in dealing with the inquisitors, Ylva hadn’t slaughtered anyone who made to escape once it became clear that she intended to command the organization. Most of the high council and several dozen nuns fled immediately after the meeting with the two girls. And that was just the people around the Grand Cathedral. Given the Elysium Order’s status as a global organization, who knew how many overseas chapters would simply fail to report in.

Nel fully expected splinter organizations to crop up in the coming years. Possibly several of them. Whether they would simply continue with the Elysium Order’s mandate of hunting down undead or whether they would become enemies of Ylva and her faction remained to be seen. Optimally, they would just leave each other alone. Somehow, Nel doubted that would be the case.

Without a way to create new eyes, any splinter factions would eventually die off. The Elysium Order took great pains to salvage eyes. So long as these other nuns continued that tradition and kept the eyes from being destroyed in combat, other factions dying off could take a very long time.

In her private opinion, Ylva should have at least kept the high council from running off. They were the ones most likely to present a hostile front to Ylva. A single chapter running around after vampires in Russia wasn’t going to hurt anyone. It was the ones who had lost their power and would be wanting it back who were the real threats.

Only one of the high council had remained behind. High Inquisitor Witman, garbed in the black and gold of the inquisitors, sat to the right of Nel. She didn’t know why he was here. Perhaps he thought he might get fame, fortune, and power by working under Ylva. Perhaps he merely lacked the power and connection with the others on the High Council and had been left behind because of that. Even Saint Adal had disappeared–which disturbed Nel somewhat; Saint Adal had more than twice as many implanted eyes compared to any other augur and Nel had a feeling most of those would be removed to fashion into new recruits for the splinter faction.

Really, she couldn’t help but wonder how splinter factions would work given the shared consciousness within the eyes. If anyone developed a spell for countering magic of the Elysium Order, everyone else would know about it right away and be able to prepare countermeasures. With a bit of luck, everyone might be forced into non-hostilities simply because of that.

Whatever the reason for Witman’s presence, Nel didn’t like him. Since Ylva hadn’t made to get rid of him, he must serve some use. For the moment, Nel would pretend he didn’t exist. It wasn’t like he could harm her. Not with Lady Ylva at her side.

While Nel’s thoughts wandered to the council, Ylva had apparently mulled over Nel’s words.

“Very well,” Ylva said, voice dragging reluctantly along the ground like a quartz slab. “You are to deliver your reports on vampires to Witman.”

“Me?” “Him?”

Nel shot the inquisitor a glare, which he shrugged off as he turned to Ylva. “My… Lady, pardon my impertinence to your illustrious grace–”

“Your facetious flattery is unnecessary. Move on to your point or be silent.”

He jolted, obviously unnerved—it put quite the smirk on Nel’s face—but he ended up continuing anyway. “I had assumed that you would wish for me to form a task force for going after those who have fled from the Order. If I am weighed down with the hunting of vampires, I will be unable to find my former comrades.”

“Indeed,” Ylva said, entirely uncaring. A slow movement of her head had her staring back at the chapter head before the table. “Any reports dealing with vampires or mummies are to be given to Witman. Move on to your reports on liches. We are aware of thirteen roaming the Earth and find Ourself curious whether mortals know of any others.”

“I…” The nun looked down at the stack of papers in her hands.

A stack that Nel would bet her entire life with Ylva against it having anything but vampires. Liches were the rarest targets of the Elysium Order. If asked, the Elysium Order—the old version anyway—would have said that they hunted liches down. The truth was that liches tended to be exceedingly dangerous and often held grudges. If they couldn’t locate a phylactery, the lich would just come back with a chip on their shoulder. When phylacteries were located, they were quickly destroyed, but the Elysium Order tended to avoid them otherwise.

Sure enough, she glanced back up with a rapidly paling face.

“Necromancers?” Ylva said as her eyes half closed, making her look upset.

“I–I’m sorry, Lady Ylva. My report was too narrow in scope. I shall correct this immediately,” she said in a much higher pitched voice. Turning, she started to run.

Only for Ylva to say, “Stop.”

The nun’s feet locked to the ground as if magnetized, causing her to shout out a clipped scream. Or maybe it was Ylva’s voice that made her scream. Nel could almost see teardrops forming in the corners of the nun’s eyes.

“You are to gather your reports on liches and deliver them to Anise.”

The girl sitting immediately to Ylva’s left, who had been trying her hardest to avoid drawing attention to herself, sat ramrod straight with a slight squeak. “Me?”

“Nel will delegate a contingent of augurs to you for the purpose of locating phylacteries.”

“Yes, Lady Ylva,” Nel said immediately. Being the head of the augurs was nice even if several had run away. It meant that she could get others to slave over an altar for hours and days on end instead of doing it herself.

“Anise, you will prioritize liches and assemble teams to destroy them and their phylacteries.” Ylva turned her head ever so slightly without removing her chin from her fist to look at the now shaking girl. “If you require assistance, you need only ask.”

Without waiting for an answer, Ylva looked back to the nun. “All reports on necromancers are to go to Chris.” She turned her head to her left once again. “You will receive a contingent of augurs to assist with locating and prioritizing targets.”

Prioress Daniella trembled slightly as she nodded her head. “Yes. Of course. Right away, L-Lady Ylva.”

Nel couldn’t help but roll her eyes as the woman fled as fast as she could manage without actually looking like she was fleeing. Everyone was making such a big deal over Ylva. It wasn’t like she would kill them if they didn’t do their jobs properly. If they were really so scared, they could leave without any repercussions. She had already demonstrated that with the ones who had left. Ylva wasn’t even trying to get them back. During this very meeting, she had effectively disbanded the inquisitorial task force entirely and set them to hunting vampires.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Witman grumbling about just that under his breath.

She completely ignored him. He wasn’t her problem to deal with. Slightly more concerning was the two girls. Not even out of school and yet they were asked to organize some hunts for vampires and necromancers? Nel might need to speak with Ylva and see if she couldn’t get that assignment pushed on someone else. Someone older. Even though Ylva had given them both rings, Nel didn’t believe that they were any more trustworthy than various members of the Order who had stuck around.

But maybe Ylva knew something she didn’t. Whatever the case, it didn’t seem like a vital emergency that needed to be handled right away. Standing, Nel arched her back in a long stretch. Sitting still for hours on end had put several aches around her spine. Sometime soon, she should speak with Ylva about getting more comfortable chairs. Hopefully the constant meetings would lessen once things had a chance to stabilize.

Before Nel could head off to the baths for a nice relaxing soak—they weren’t as grand as the bath in Ylva’s domain, but still managed to be a far cry better than the cramped showers in Brakket’s dormitories—another nun approached the head table. A Sister Griggs, one of the sisters she had worked alongside in Charon Chapter. Nel had never really spoken to her, but she knew her face and name at least.

With a mild groan, she retook her seat. There weren’t any other scheduled meetings for the day, but if Ylva wasn’t getting up, she supposed she should stick around to find out what the nun wanted.

“Lady Ylva,” Sister Griggs started out with a slight bow and without a hint of nervousness in her voice. Nel had to wonder if everyone called her Lady Ylva solely because that was how Nel had introduced her as or whether they would have called her that on their own. “We captured an individual attempting to gain access to the cathedral,” she said. “When she mentioned your name, we decided to alert you as soon as your meeting was over.”

“In the future, any intruders are to be brought to Our attention immediately.”

Sister Griggs closed her eyes and slightly bowed her head. “Yes, Lady Ylva. Shall I have her brought before you? Or would you prefer to attend to her within the dungeons?”

“Here will suffice.”

“Very well.” With yet another bow, she turned and left the great hall.

While she took her time returning, Nel couldn’t help but wonder if she had bowed to Ylva half as many times in her nearly two years of working under her as Sister Griggs had in less than five minutes. She probably had. Recently? Maybe not so much. But Nel had been far more cowed in her initial few weeks—or maybe even months—of getting to know Ylva. She couldn’t help but wonder how the Elysium Order might act after a year. They were an organization and most of the members would probably have far less intimate relationships with Ylva than Nel.

Sister Griggs soon returned with a pair of other nuns who Nel didn’t recognize. She did recognize the nun between the pair, chained up.

“Sister Cross,” she gasped, leaning forward in her chair.

“Sister Cross,” Inquisitor Witman repeated in a much lower tone of voice. “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I’ll bet you have,” Lynn said with a snort. She gave a derisive shake of her head before looking straight at Ylva. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about the goings on in Brakket City at the moment.”

Nel blinked. That sounded important. And ominous. It couldn’t be anything too serious. Eva probably would have messaged her wanting her to spy on something or other as she usually did. A bit annoying but it did keep her and Ylva up to date on matters they might otherwise miss while off on their frequent trips.

“To be succinct, Ylva,” she said without a hint of the respect that the other nuns were giving or trying to give, “I have developed a method to kill enigmas more permanently than we have been able to in the past. However, I cannot do it alone. Brakket city is… infested with enigma. Many more are likely spread around the surrounding wilderness, getting further and further away every day. With the city all but abandoned, the situation is only going to get worse. The enigmas will spread. We can’t contain and kill them fast enough.” She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “So I figured I would ask for a loan of a few nuns.”

Ylva slowly leaned forward on her throne, staring down at Lynn. “Abandoned? Tell Us more.”

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010.032

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After ensuring that she was indeed alone within her domain—she hadn’t found any enigmas, humans, or demons wandering around, nor had she sensed the presence of any—Eva returned to the common room to further inspect the column sticking through the roof.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a column. All four sides angled inwards ever so slightly up until high above the roof where the angle bent sharply towards a central point. She had searched every inch that she could see and found nothing. No markings or inscriptions of any kind. Whoever had built it hadn’t even had the decency to slap on a sticky note telling why they built it.

Eva certainly hadn’t built it. Sometimes her domain did odd things related to creating structures or items that Eva felt she needed—such as a potion kit when Genoa had been injured—but this was a bit beyond anything her subconscious would muster up. Unless it was supposed to have been something meant to help her move about with no legs, but if so, it obviously hadn’t worked.

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

Under other circumstances, she might have left it behind and pursued a way to get out of Hell, or to at least get a message out to Devon. He would surely summon her. But the strange obelisk wouldn’t have just appeared in her domain for absolutely no reason.

Rubbing her hand, or the blood making up her hand, over the surface, Eva found it completely smooth. The liquid couldn’t find any holes or seams. Each corner was just as solid as the rest of the structure.

Eva did realize a slight problem with her hands as she moved her hand over the obelisk. While she could tell that the obsidian was as smooth as glass, she couldn’t feel it. She saw it. Just like she saw all sources of blood. Her fingers didn’t have nerves. The obelisk could be scalding to the touch and she wouldn’t know. Arachne’s hands suffered from a similar problem, as they were a hard carapace exoskeleton, but there had still been some tactile sense feeding back to her mind.

There might be a solution buried somewhere in her blood books, but it wasn’t such a big deal that she had to drop everything and work on it right this very second. Just a minor annoyance.

Backing away from it, Eva turned and walked out of the alternate women’s ward. The sandy ground was annoying when grains got caught within the blood making up her feet. Too much and she would lose control of the blood as it became more contaminated. Hardening the soles of her feet solved that problem for the moment, but she could fix it with a little construction work around her domain.

First, however, she had a different project in mind.

Standing clear of the women’s ward building and the obelisk sticking out from the center, Eva concentrated on tearing down everything. Her entire domain needed to return to its base state from coast to coast.

Thankfully, her domain bent a knee to her will. The entire alternate women’s ward cracked and shuddered. Bits and pieces chipped off, falling to the ground where they broke apart further. In seconds, the building was indistinguishable from the sand of the island.

All that was left was Eva, a little tree without any leaves, and the towering obelisk.

Of those three, only two were supposed to be around. Eva still wasn’t sure what purpose the tree served, but it had been there on her very first visit. Staring at it, she couldn’t alter it in any way no matter how much she concentrated. It stayed its same brown twiggy sapling without sprouting leaves or crumbling to sand. Some day, she would ask Arachne or Catherine about it. Maybe they had trees in the center of their domains. Maybe they had built their domains over the top of the trees and had completely forgotten that they existed in the centuries since then. Maybe they had nothing at all and it was something unique in Eva’s domain.

For the time being, however, Eva turned her attention over to the obelisk. Bare now that it didn’t have the women’s ward surrounding it, Eva could see it without obstruction. Which only made it seem larger than before. Like the tree, it remained static no matter how much she concentrated. The women’s ward had crumbled to sand at a mere thought. This thing didn’t seem to notice how hard she was thinking at it.

Neither did it light up, change color, turn from the glossy obsidian to a rough granite, or anything else she tried to do with it.

Which really meant only one thing. It wasn’t a part of her domain. It was something foreign.

Something left over from Life’s assault? A beacon? Except Life had been using the enigmas as beacons. Living creatures fit much better with its theme than cold structures, even if the enigmas didn’t count as living ‘enough’ for the sake of her blood magic.

So Void then? Why would it plop down a big obelisk in the middle of her domain. In the middle of her women’s ward, no less. The island wasn’t large, but there was plenty of space outside the walls of the alternate women’s ward. Void could have put it somewhere else without forcing her to relocate her building.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled as she walked back up to the obelisk. For a moment, she considered digging under the sand just to see how deep it went. A better idea came to her. Reaching out again, she brushed her hand over the obelisk. This time, she allowed her hand to partially uncouple from her body. A skeletal finger’s worth of blood dribbled down the smooth slope of the obelisk. Just before the dribble hit the sand, she formed a crystal shell around most of it, protecting it from the sand.

And it burrowed. Deep. Deeper. So far down that Eva eventually lost control as it went out of her range somewhere around two stories deep. Still, there was more to it beneath that. Maybe only an inch. Maybe a mile. She couldn’t tell.

The obelisk grew larger and larger the deeper it went. The angle of the four sides wasn’t that noticeable, but even a single degree could mean thousands of miles if the distance was far enough.

She started to consider just how deep it could possibly be before realizing that she hadn’t the slightest idea how Hell actually functioned. Maybe the obelisk went on literally forever. Maybe if she dug far enough, she would fall into nothingness for eternity. Something similar to the pit in Ylva’s domain.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change the fact that part of the obelisk was above the surface.

Pressing a hand to it again, Eva started to channel some of her magic into it as if it were a rune array or ritual circle of any type. Mostly on a whim. If it failed to produce any notable results, there really wasn’t much else to do with an inert pillar of stone. However, turning her attentions towards returning to Earth wasn’t really appealing so long as there was any sort of distraction. Hence her whim.

Honestly, she didn’t know where to begin in escaping from Hell. There had to be a way out from the Hell side. It couldn’t be a commonly known way out or even a remotely obvious way out. Earth would have been overrun with demons long ago if any old demon could find it.

Eva didn’t consider herself any old demon. Technically, unless something unintended had occurred during the corruption of Life, she was still a sliver human. And that just might be what she needed to get out. Otherwise, there were things to try. When she teleported, she knew that she at least partially left the mortal realm and dipped her toes into Hell. If she could enter the waters and think of a place filled with meat passageways, she just might be able to break into the tunnel from the Hell side.

Of course, she was just as likely to wind up facing some horrible cleaver-wielding demon constantly on the lookout for fresh meat.

That was all for if this obelisk didn’t do anything. At the moment, with her hand pressed against it, she could feel her magic flowing into it. There was a place for it to go. Something inside it accepted her magic.

But it wasn’t actually doing anything. No lights brightening it up, no mystic portals opening up to spit out demons or enigmas, nor any portals opening up to any other plane of existence.

With a frown, Eva pulled her hand away. The obsidian was just as smooth as it had been before. No hand-shaped mark. As another thought crossed her mind, Eva pulled all the blood of her hand back into her body. With nothing more than bare skin, she reached out.

Once again, she tried pressing magic into the obelisk. This time, she really opened the floodgates. If it needed bare skin contact, she had that covered. If it just needed more magic to fill its massive size, the torrential deluge of magic she was releasing should fill it to the brim. It was like trying to overpower thirty of her most explosive fireballs at once while teleporting. Every scrap of magic filling her veins that was not keeping her legs cohesive flooded into the obelisk.

This time, she got a reaction.

A faint glow. A red light right at the very tip. Barely notable. In fact, the only reason she did notice it was because of the pitch black sky in the background.

But red was a good color. Had it been violet, she might have stopped the instant she noticed. Red, Eva associated with demons. Which meant that it was probably not something Life had left behind to restart the rending of the borders between planes. She didn’t know what it was for.

Perhaps it was a gift. She had done fairly well in averting the apocalypse, in her opinion. It might not have gone exactly as Void had planned, but Void hadn’t seemed too upset during her brief death at the hunter’s hands.

She held it as long as she could. But the dim light never got any brighter. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she tore her hand away. The sweat dripping from her forehead flung through the air as she collapsed down onto the sandy beach.

For a moment there, she almost forgot to keep her blood circulating. Which represented a certain weakness in her new heart—aside from the obvious need to replace it eventually with another bloodstone, perhaps one from her void metal dagger if she could find it. It might take time, but she should heal. She was demonic enough. Her heart would come back sometime. Until then, she absolutely needed to make circulating her blood such a habit, such a regular act of her subconscious that she could circulate it properly while she was asleep or otherwise unconscious.

Something to work on.

Once she was certain that her body wasn’t going to unexpectedly shut down, Eva looked long and hard at the once again dim obelisk. Even straining herself to the breaking point didn’t do enough. There was something, but not enough.

Which made her wonder if two people would do any better. Or four; there were four sides, after all. Unfortunately, as she had been lamenting earlier, she didn’t know three demons in Hell. At least not three she wanted to meet with.

But this was her domain. Why should she need other people? It could conjure up buildings and people-like simulacra like Eva could conjure up fireballs. The entire place was more or less under her control.

Eva took a moment to reform her legs—they had gone a little jelly-like when she had collapsed—before standing and once again pressing her arm against the obelisk. This time, she only let a trickle of magic pass through her arm.

Most of her concentration went into her domain. The magic of the world that surrounded her. She focused hard, imagining a massive hand squeezing it all down into the obelisk, pressing and draining every droplet of magical energy from the ambient air against the pillar.

With the force of her domain behind her, Eva watched the top of the obelisk. The red light increased in intensity. It doubled over, steadily brightening. But it didn’t stop there. It kept doubling its brightness, reaching a point where Eva had to look away to avoid her eyes burning out.

The current of magic charged the air, making the hairs on Eva’s arms stand on end. At the same time, a pressure built up. Opening and closing her jaw made her ears pop like she had been driving up a steep hill.

As she poured more magic into the obelisk, she could feel the receptacle she had noticed earlier filling up. The reservoir, though deep, was not infinite. It had a ways to go. She increased the efforts of her domain to fill it while keeping herself from straining.

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

Eva found herself flying backwards, leaving her legs behind. It took her a moment as she flew through the air to realize what happened. A quick thought just before she hit a bank of sand drew some of her legs back to her body, but a good portion of the blood had already sunk into the sand around the obelisk.

Veins of red ran down the sides of the obelisk, branching and splitting as they moved downwards, becoming individually thinner but densely coating the sides. It became so dense that Eva couldn’t tell that there was any of the obsidian left from ten feet off the sand and below. And it didn’t stop there. It continued downwards below the sand, presumably until it hit some sort of base. Even if Eva could sense that far down, she wouldn’t have been able to see the lines. They weren’t blood. All she could see was a faint glow squeezing between the grains of sand in a short radius around the obelisk.

Eva stared, rebuilding her legs—much shorter now than they were before—as she waited for it to do something. Though, for all she knew, it might take a good few hours before the red reached the bottom. If it ever did.

It had thrown her away like a used washcloth while still drinking of the magic of her domain. She could feel the flow, though only tangentially. Eva didn’t think that she would run out of magic anytime soon. Her domain was a part of her, yet not. Her subconscious and conscious both contributed to how it worked. The amount of magic it would take to build and destroy nearly anything at will, including semi-sapient constructs of people, had to be extreme. Given that she had never heard of a demon running out of magic in their domain, it had to be excessive.

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

But all of Hell was essentially a part of Void. That had been the whole point behind Life’s plans in drawing Hell to the mortal realm. It was a way to get at Void. So unless this obelisk was meant to exhaust the magical ability of a Power, she doubted she had to worry about much.

In fact, seeing that it would probably take some time, Eva conjured up a chair. The sands around her rose up, molding into smooth leather as she sat down. The soft cushions of one of the Rickenbacker lobby chairs cradled her, taking away the need to keep legs of blood formed. Comfortable, she sat back and waited.

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

“An attack,” Dean Anderson said. “An attack on what we stand for. What we are doing here.” He gazed out, peering over the assembled cameras and reporters. Mostly mundane, but there were a number of obvious mages standing around the crowd. “Make no mistake,” he continued in his most authoritative voice, “there are those who do not agree with the decisions of Brakket Academy, Nod Complex, Faultline, Isomer, and Mount Hope to disclose information about the magical community to the world at large.”

Zoe found herself frowning. If her memory served, and she had no reason to doubt it at the moment, Anderson had sprung the idea on the other schools. Faultline, at the very least, had been upset. Mount Hope and the Nod Complex had far more subdued reactions to his announcement during the initial feast between the schools. They very well might have known beforehand.

Yet framing the incident as an attack against all of them made the other schools far more likely to stand with Brakket Academy against criticism and adversity. Which was more of a public relations move on his part than a real call to action. There was no real enemy. Not in the manner he was implying.

Zoe refrained from interrupting. He had obviously put a some thought into what to say. She would wait and see if anything was morally objectionable beyond lying about the potential apocalyptic situation they had been in. Frankly, telling the layperson about an averted apocalypse would probably be worse than lying about nonexistent terrorists. So, with a sigh, she pushed the imaginary dull pain in her missing arm away and focused on his speech.

“Fools,” he said, making Zoe glad she was sitting behind him along with most of the rest of the various schools’ staff members. A bit of spittle might have escaped his mouth as he spoke. “Releasing dangerous creatures into the city? Creating that ghastly illusion in our skies to frighten off good and wholesome people? What do you hope to accomplish by harming children and innocents?”

He slammed his fists down on the podium, sending a loud crack through the assembled microphones. Zoe could actually believe that he was honestly angry.

“It is too late to go back to the way things were. It has been too late for a long time.” Anderson held up a cellphone, raising it high over the microphone-covered podium. “You, who attacked us, may be unfamiliar with mundane technology given your desire to cling to the old ways. Nearly every mundane human carries one of these. They are getting smaller, faster, and smarter.” He flipped it over, pointing towards the camera. “They record everything, uploading pictures and videos to data servers where the images become nigh impossible to remove. It is a wonder, an absolute shock that knowledge of magic was only as widespread as it was before our tournament.”

He dropped his hands to his sides, putting on an expression of remorse. “And yet you would sabotage this attempt at peaceful revelation. I can only hope that whatever trust has been broken between our societies because of this incident can be repaired.”

Silence befell the briefing area as Anderson dipped his head in a solemn nod of respect. It took a few moments for the silence to be broken.

One of the reporters stood, holding up a hand. He didn’t wait to be called upon before blurting out a question. “Do you know who is behind the attacks on the school?”

“Specifically? No. As a group, they’re terrorists, nothing more. We have people attempting to uncover their identities.”

“Hank Hanson,” Hank said as he stood up with an award-winning smile.

Among all the reporters in the audience, very few had actually been present for the ‘attack’ with the exception of Hank. The only real evidence of that was the matted gauze pad on his face from where he had gotten a bit too close to an enigma in his overzealous attempt to get an up-close story. Frankly, he was lucky to have survived. One of the various demons had apparently saved him.

And yet, he was still smiling. Perhaps more impressively, he hadn’t run off screaming.

“You say that you have people looking into their identities. Is it common for schools to take care of constabulary duties?”

“The magical society is not as large as our mundane counterparts. We don’t have anything like a standing army or police force. The Royal Guild of Mage-Knights,” he said with a vague wave of his hand towards where Redford sat not far from Zoe, “are trained bounty hunters who we are working closely with us to bring these terrorists to justice.”

Redford’s hands rubbed over the top of his cane as he stared out with a deep scowl on his face. Zoe had told Anderson the truth, but she had no idea what he had told Redford. Were the members of the Guild looking for terrorists that didn’t actually exist?

“One more question,” Hank said before another reporter could stand up. “Have you…”

He trailed off. Zoe couldn’t figure out why until she noticed the ashen faces of the rest of the crowd of reporters. Most were staring at some point over Anderson’s head. Anderson realized that something was wrong as well and turned to look along with most of the staff.

On the horizon of the city, a faint red glow had encompassed the rooftops. The center point, the area that glowed the brightest, was straight towards where the obelisk was.

Panic quickly set in. Of course it had. They were in a meeting discussing the actions of terrorists. Whether or not those terrorists actually existed didn’t matter. The reporters didn’t know the truth. And that horizon looked an awful lot like another attack.

A thunderclap coming from Redford’s cane as he slammed it down onto the ground silenced the slowly mounting noise. In the same motion, he created a dome overhead. “Do not panic,” he shouted out. “We will keep everyone safe.”

Anderson looked to the staff, to all of the remaining professors, but especially the security guards. “Ensure the students don’t come to harm,” he said loud enough for the reporters to hear.

Zoe shared a look with Wayne. Just a brief look. They wouldn’t be heading to the dormitory buildings. A silent agreement passed between them. Wayne teleported away first.

“It’s always one thing after another,” Anderson mumbled just before Zoe disappeared.

She reappeared on the far end of the street from the obelisk—no sense teleporting into the middle of a hundred enigmas or demons if it was some sort of invasion. Wayne apparently had the same idea. He wasn’t standing far from Zoe.

His eyes twitched back and forth in the tell-tale signs of mental acceleration, so she didn’t bother saying anything for the moment. Instead, she surveyed the situation.

The obelisk was covered in veins of red lines, all lit up like a Christmas tree. A very ominous and slightly evil Christmas tree.

But that was it. No monsters running about attacking people. The dark area of sand around the obelisk wasn’t spreading. Or, if it was, it was spreading so slowly that Zoe couldn’t tell. The few mage-knights who Anderson hired to watch over it were backing away slowly, but none of them were being eaten alive or disintegrated by some wave of magical energy.

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

Still… perhaps it was time to evacuate Brakket City. Anderson might not like it. Then again, he didn’t like much of anything. It could be temporary. Catherine had been concerned over the obelisk for about a day until her search for more came up with nothing substantial. It was entirely possible that these obelisks were merely benign remnants from the ritual.

Better to be safe than sorry.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.031

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Eva opened her eyes, surprised to find she had eyes to open after watching the avatar being torn apart in the walls of the teleportation tunnel. She had fully expected to be torn apart as well. Even if Void reclaimed her, she would still have awoken in that void where nothing existed save for her mind.

Awaking in a familiar place, staring at a familiar cracked sandstone ceiling, Eva let out a soft sigh. The women’s ward. Her own bed. Definitely a far cry from the endless abyss that had been her earlier death. The blankets felt soft and fluffy against her skin, as if they had just recently been laundered.

She didn’t want to get out of bed. For so long, she had felt this stress building up. And now, everything was over. Or it should have been over. Unfortunately, she couldn’t say that with absolute certainty. As much as she wanted to just lie down and relax for a week straight, Eva needed to find out what had happened. To find out whether or not everything worked out properly.

Mustering up her willpower, Eva threw off the blankets and swung her legs out of bed.

Only to fall straight to the floor, unable to even catch herself on the edge of the bed.

She had no legs. Her arms ended as stubs just beneath her elbows. Unlike how she had woken after using her beacon, no coalesced blood served to replace her missing limbs. Neither had Arachne’s carapace returned. Just raw skin that terminated around her bones.

However hard she tried, she couldn’t force her blood to pierce her skin. Or move it much at all, for that matter; trying to manipulate her blood within her veins worked, but the blood couldn’t escape her body.

Which wouldn’t stand.

Maybe it was her skin being too demonic, too strong for such a weak manipulation to work. Maybe it was something else entirely. Even if she had a cut, she doubted that her control over her blood was to the level where she could form limbs from it.

If her demonic power involved blood, that was great. She knew blood. Practically her entire life had been spent as a blood mage. But if it only activated when she was under extreme stress, what good was it? Especially now that she lacked Arachne’s limbs, she really needed it.

Propping herself up into an upright position, Eva glanced around with a scowl on her face. Nothing around the room would help her. Her dresser held clothes and books. The end table had a few runes to control the lighting of the room—which she hadn’t activated, and yet she could see perfectly fine despite the dark sky outside the window. Perhaps another demonic aspect? Night vision? Neat, but useless as far as mobility was concerned.

She didn’t have a wheelchair. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to wheel it. Her thaumaturgy wasn’t good enough to help. Fire wouldn’t do much except make a mess and her skills in air magic levitation were lacking. Earth magic might be able to push her around, but she was barely experienced enough to work with dirt, not the hard cement of the women’s ward floor.

Dragging herself around was a possibility, if an unpleasant one. She hadn’t had clothes since before her transformation at the ritual circle, so she would be dragging her bare skin across the ground. Bearable until she reached someone, she supposed, but that was another problem in and of itself. Did she really want to appear before anyone else while crawling across the ground? Juliana and Shalise might help her out without question, but they weren’t likely to be at the prison. Catherine, Devon, or Devon’s demons were the ones who should be around.

Eva had a sinking feeling that the demons would lose all respect for her while Devon would see it as an opportunity to lock her up and keep her from getting into more trouble. All for his experiments, of course.

Arachne was the only one she would trust and she was obviously not around. If Arachne were anywhere nearby, Eva had no doubts that the spider-demon would have sensed her presence and sought her out above all other happenings. Even were the world back in peril of ending.

In attempting to clamber back onto the bed—because so long as she was stuck thinking, she might as well be stuck in comfort—Eva knocked over the end table. A crystalline dagger, one she hadn’t touched in years, slid across the floor away from her. The hilt lacked a bloodstone. It hadn’t had one in years as well, the same years in which she hadn’t touched it. Neither did she have the means of creating a new bloodstone.

Her void metal dagger, and the gems it held, were likely lost. She had the dagger on her person before the ritual began. After transforming into the bloody winged version of herself, she hadn’t checked for its presence. After returning to Earth from Hell, she had wound up naked. Maybe it was lying out on the surface of the ritual circle. Maybe it was gone forever. She would make a few attempts to look for it, but obviously not at the moment.

There should be a few spare stones lying about from her trip to Florida however.

Before she could get excited about digging them out from whatever corner of the room she had tossed them in, Eva realized just when her trip to Florida had been. She had gone on the very first day school had ended. While she had spent a few days wandering about before finding the gang she had dismantled, it hadn’t been a significant length of time. Which meant that the bloodstones were at least seven months old. Probably closer to eight.

Normal bloodstones lasted only about three months before deteriorating. Those left over from her altercation with Sawyer would be nothing but dust. Her void metal dagger and its stones had spoiled her.

Slumping back against the bed, Eva scowled. She had such a simple solution to her problem and yet no bloodstones with which to enact that solution. She could try teleporting to the dormitory. Crawling around, she would be more likely to encounter Genoa, Shalise, or another human. But there were also a number of demons there. Possibly including Catherine. They would be able to sense her without much difficulty and might investigate.

Though, given that no one had come to see her at all was somewhat strange. Her room was a separate ward scheme than the women’s ward and the rest of the prison, but they could still have knocked on her door without exploding. Something… was wrong.

Eva slid herself across the floor, angling herself towards the window. Nighttime, just as she had seen before. But it wasn’t a proper night.

There were no stars in the sky. No clouds, not even a wisp. She couldn’t see the ground or any prison walls from her position, but she bet that there wouldn’t be much out there. Nothing besides sand and an endless ocean outside the walls of her women’s ward.

The alternate women’s ward.

Eva grit her teeth. Of course. She should have realized the moment she woke up. The normal women’s ward had been destroyed by enigmas during the attack. She had seen it with her own eyes.

Her first thought was to simply use her beacon to return to the real world.

But she didn’t have one. In the short time between returning to Earth and taking the Avatar of Life through the teleportation tunnel, she hadn’t had time to create one. She hadn’t even thought of it.

“Void!” Eva shouted. “Put me back on Earth! There are still things that need doing.”

She waited, but for once in Hell, only silence answered her. Eva had to concentrate to keep her teeth from grinding together. The plan to return Life’s avatar hadn’t included this. Had it even succeeded? Void was supposed to have used the connection Life had forged between their realms to punt the brain back at the Power. But if she were here, was it here as well?

Eva did not want to walk outside to find chunks of Vektul or the avatar lying strewn about her domain.

Though, she didn’t want to be in her domain in the first place. In fact, she really didn’t want to be in her domain. There was nothing here. Nothing at all save for what she created. Which she knew about, and had known about for a while, but it hadn’t really registered with her until just now. She had always figured that Arachne would be around to keep her company. Unless some significant amount of time had passed, she doubted that Arachne would be hanging around in her domain. Same with Lucy. Not that Eva ever wanted to return to that domain, but maybe she could have gotten some imp to go to Lucy’s domain and extend an invite. Catherine and every other demon that she knew would be back on Earth.

Well, not every demon. Visiting Willie didn’t seem like a good way to pass the time, however. Prax died a while back, he might have returned from Void’s pit of Hell, but Eva didn’t really care to see the cambion again.

There had to be a way out.

Though first, she needed to get mobile.

Being in her domain, she should be able to conjure up something. She had built the entire alternate women’s ward, after all. But what to conjure up? A set of crutches clattered to the ground to her side. Without hands to grab them, she wouldn’t be able to use them even if she had the balance of a succubus. She couldn’t even reach the doorknob let alone turn it without hands.

Destroying the door, or the entire women’s ward would be possible. That would just leave her on a sandy beach and while she could roll into the waters of Hell and visit another domain, she had already decided that that probably wouldn’t be the best of ideas. Especially not while missing limbs and unable to defend herself. Sure, winding up in trouble might increase her control over her blood based on what happened in tense situations in the past. At the same time, she might wind up torn apart at the hands of another demon.

A dozen bloodstones dropped out of mid-air at Eva’s next request, rolling across the floor. One rolled right up to her arm. Despite the bad feeling about it, Eva ground the stub of her arm against the ground until it started bleeding. Dripping the black blood over the bloodstone, Eva waited for just a moment before sighing.

It wasn’t working. She felt no control over her blood beyond what little there was from being in her veins. And that was rapidly dissipating now that the blood had left her body.

The lack of control was probably because the bloodstones were simply constructed from her memories and not from the heart of a living being. Even if she conjured up a body, she doubted that creating a bloodstone from it would work as it would be a construct and not a real living person.

Really, she was the only living being that she had ready access to.

A sardonic smile crossed her face. Of course, her body was the only one she had access to. Her heart beat in her chest, ready to go.

And she had a modicum of blood under her control within her own veins. Likely not even anything demonic, but rather from the ritual she had performed before even coming to Brakket that allowed her to heal from the small cuts that were so prevalent in blood magic. She probably could have controlled the blood within her veins years ago, she had just never had a reason to do so.

Now? She did. She needed to get back on her feet. She needed to be able to move around. Perhaps more importantly, she needed something she could use as an active weapon.

Everything seemed calm at the moment. Seemed being the key word. She had not forgotten the enigmas that had once run rampant around her domain. Void had mentioned that he had been cleaning up after the invasion, but it had sounded like a work still in progress. If there were things outside her room, destroying the building or leaving could be dangerous. She was not invulnerable within her own domain. This was where an enigma had bitten off her leg, after all.

Eva took a deep breath. Not willing to waste any more time thinking—just in case an enigma barged into her room—she started to act. Blood, under her direction, etched itself into the surface of her heart. A perfect etching of circles and sigils. The most detailed version of bloodstone creation that she knew how to create. Normally, she drew it on the back of her hand and pressed her hand to the chest of whoever she was turning into a bloodstone. If she could, she pressed her hand directly against their still beating heart. With the sigil directly etched into the heart, something she had never tried before, she was expecting a high quality stone.

Hopefully. She had a slight comfort in knowing that Void would reconstitute her body should she screw everything up. Not the best reassurance, but a reassurance nonetheless.

With another deep breath, she flooded the shallow etchings with magic.

The pain came instantly and without remorse. Eva cried out, screeching at the top of her lungs. If anything was in her domain and hadn’t known that she was there, it did now. Though Eva didn’t spare a moment of her thought to consider that terrible prospect. She didn’t have a moment of thought to spare. Not a single coherent thought formed.

Her heart crunched down, tearing itself apart from the veins and arteries that connected it to the rest of her body. It twisted. The flesh of her heart chaotically folded in on itself, hardening as it shrank down. The rough walls of her heart smoothed out, becoming as glass.

Despite her heart being completely disconnected from her body, the pain in her chest didn’t stop. A burning fire welled up within her. At the same time, she started to see spots in front of her eyes. Her arms, even though they were half gone, felt as heavy as lead.

Eva failed to maintain her half-sitting position. The muscles in her back just wouldn’t respond.

As she slumped down to the floor, a single coherent thought made it through the jumbled mess that had become her stream of consciousness.

She needed to circulate her blood.

The moment the thought crossed her mind, her blood started pumping again. A second later, she gasped in a deep breath of air.

Her heart didn’t pump. She had no heart. Just a gemstone the size of a marble. And it… worked. Blood flowed around the stone, filling her veins and carrying that vital essence of life around her body. She didn’t know why she had started to see spots so soon. Being ninety-nine percent demon, she barely slept, ate, or did other human things. Breathing was something of an automatic reaction, so she hadn’t really stopped doing so, but had thought that she could go without oxygen for some time.

Obviously not something she was about to test.

For what seemed like an hour, Eva lay on the floor in a puddle of her own sweat that she hadn’t realized she had even shed. That entire time, the pain slowly lessened and lessened until she could stand to actually think for a few moments about how foolish her solution had been.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so foolish had she already had an implanted bloodstone. Something that she could have kept her blood flowing with while her heart underwent its transformation. Of course, had she already had a bloodstone in her chest, she wouldn’t have needed to make one in the first place.

By the time Eva felt well enough to actually move, her body was sticky and somewhat unpleasant smelling.

But it had worked.

It had worked.

Her blood was flowing rapidly through her body, all according to her direction. Much like when the hunter had stabbed her in the chest. She didn’t need a heart. She had blood magic. And maybe a little demonic constitution helping out as well. A normal human might have a bit more trouble recovering from that pain or even standing up again.

Speaking of standing… Eva glanced down to her sweat covered arms. One was already injured, lightly leaking a little blood from it. She stretched the blood out, forming it into a hand shape. A mass of liquid hand. Glancing to her other arm, she watched as thin needles of blood burst from the smooth skin, wrapping around the stub until it too formed a hand.

She repeated the action with both of her legs, pouring blood from her stumps.

Which almost had her passing out again. Eva quickly sucked the blood back into her body as she considered a second, albeit smaller problem.

Unlike before, she wasn’t mass producing an endless supply of blood. That had been some demonic power. Maybe she would learn to harness it fully one day. For now, she only had the blood in her body.

Trying again, this time Eva did not make solid arms and legs. Her hands were thin and bone-like. As if the bones of her arm were the only things that extended out, no meat and no muscles. Her legs were the same. She only had narrow bones of liquid blood stretching out from the stubs at her hips.

She still felt a little anemic, but it was better than nothing. So long as her body continued to produce blood cells, she could fill out her thighs and hands to their proper shape. For now, skeleton Eva it was.

And she stood, shaky at first. Whether the shakes came from how narrow her legs were, the dull thumps of pain still pounding in her chest, or simply because she wasn’t quite used to walking around just yet—using the blood as legs before had felt a whole lot more natural—she couldn’t say. But she did stand.

Standing was an improvement worthy of praise in and of itself.

Technically, she didn’t need to stand. Neither did she need long legs. Floating around on platforms of blood should be possible. It was basically what she was doing anyway—unless she hardened the bones of blood, they were fairly poor supports for her body. And she could harden them, and probably would later, but only once she had enough blood to spare for proper legs.

However, half her reason for not wanting to crawl around was appearances. Specifically not wanting to appear weak in front of other demons. Floating around on a platform of blood might be convenient, but didn’t look imposing enough. In that respect, skeletal legs were probably more intimidating than filled out thighs.

Similarly, she didn’t really need hands. She could form her blood into tentacles or just leave it all within her body until she needed to manipulate something. Even in that case, she wouldn’t need to move her arms. Floating blood was a trick she had learned a long time ago.

Maybe some day, she wouldn’t feel the need to maintain appearances. For now, she walked out of the room on two feet made of blood with two skeletal hands.

And, as she left the room, she found herself in the common room of the alternate women’s ward.

In the real world, and the last time she had seen the alternate version, the common room merely held a table and a few stolen couches. It normally sat between all the cells of the prison and led out into the main walled off courtyard.

However, as she walked into the common room, Eva found herself face to face with an obsidian column. Sandstone bricks from the roof and floor of her domain littered the floor around the common room as if it had risen from under the ground.

Eva found herself staring into her own glowing red eyes in the reflection of the smooth obsidian wall. “Huh,” she said, slowly walking around the construct. “I don’t remember creating that.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.030

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Catherine sat back on the couch in the women’s ward. With her cellphone in hand, she started jotting down notes. Important observations about the previous twenty-four hours that she felt vital enough to jot down. She had nearly perfect memory. The notes were just in case she did manage to forget something. As unlikely as that was.

What she really needed to do was to print them out and send them to her domain. The cellphone was an amazing tool that the humans had come up with, but it was no replacement for heavy tomes and thick manuscripts. If she did wind up perishing, she doubted that she would be able to recover her notes. Even if she were foolish enough to upload her works to the mystical ‘cloud’ that their computers operated from—foolish as who knew who might read her notes—that would only last for a few decades at most.

By the time she got resummoned, the company would have either gone out of business or deleted her data under the assumption that she was no longer using the service. Not to mention all the moving parts involved in keeping the data intact. Who knew when a power failure would wind up with all the backups erased.

No. Phones were poor replacements to tomes. Yet they were excellent tome creation utilities. Write a tome within a decade or so, print it all out, and enchant it with some longevity. It shaved off all the tedium of writing by hand. Not to mention the handy organizational aspects of technology. If she wanted one paragraph in front of another, it was a simple cut and paste. Physical manuscripts had to have several pages rewritten entirely or absurd annotations detailing where to find a relevant paragraph.

Unfortunately for Catherine, she didn’t get too many notes out before her phone rang.

Juliana.

Catherine stared at the name, trying to remember if the girl had ever called her before. She couldn’t come up with a single time. In fact, she couldn’t actually remember entering the girl’s number into her phone. Nearly perfect memory was only nearly perfect, after all.

With a sigh and a feeling that she would regret it later on, Catherine answered the phone.

“Help me!”

Yep. It’s later on and I am definitely regretting answering. For a moment, she considered hanging up. But, with another sigh, she said, “Maybe explain what you need help with?”

“There is this giant obelisk in the middle of the city. Zagan thinks it’s dangerous… or maybe he doesn’t; he won’t tell me straight, he’s just being annoying. It’s something to do with Hell probably though and I can’t get a hold of Eva or any other demon besides maybe Ylva, I haven’t tried her. My mother doesn’t know much about demon things. So please tell me that this isn’t something terrible that’s also going to destroy the world!”

Catherine blinked, staring at the phone as she held it a few inches away from her ear. Despite the distance, she heard every word that the girl said in her diatribe of near nonsense. Once certain that she was finished, Catherine brought the phone a little closer. “It’s always one thing after another with you people isn’t it? The moment I sit down to relax, the world is in danger again.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t do anything though. I just found it. If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”

She considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems went away if they were ignored long enough. Unfortunately, if the world really was in danger again, she needed it mostly intact. The Power summoning ritual wouldn’t function from Hell. She had to do it on Earth. Or some other plane of existence, but Catherine had never been to one. Expending additional time researching safe locations within other Powers’ domains was an extra task that was completely unnecessary while the world was safe.

So, heaving a great sigh that she ensured was audible over the phone, Catherine said, “First, calm down. I don’t know what Zagan said but Irene is cute when she is flustered. You’re not.” She ignored the indignant huff on the other end of the line. “Then calm down more and tell me, in clear and concise words, exactly what is happening.”

“I’m at the spot where Eva killed the demonic enigma. An obelisk is jutting out of the remnant.”

Catherine waited. Juliana didn’t continue. “That’s it? That hardly seems like an emergency. Let alone an emergency worth contacting me about.”

“You weren’t my first choice, but Eva wasn’t answering her phone.”

“She isn’t on Earth. In any case, some obelisk–”

“Wait!” Again, Catherine had to pull the phone away from her ear. “What happened to Eva?”

“She disappeared.”

There was another brief moment of silence before Juliana’s voice crackled over the speaker. “What? Just like that? What happened? Did she die or what?”

“Well, she never reappeared. I don’t know if she died or not, but she hasn’t come back. I would know unless something happened to her demonic side—which is most of her these days.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

I am going to sit here and enjoy my respite from her ritual circles. Do you realize how busy I’ve been with all that nonsense ever since she showed me the circle?”

“We’re just going to leave her? Where is she? What if she needs help?”

“She got back from Hell once in less than an hour. That’s faster than Zagan managed.”

Once again, Catherine held the phone away from her ear as the increasingly irritating young girl kept sputtering nonsense about needing to rescue Eva. As if such a thing was necessary. Had someone even summoned her after she had died? Catherine didn’t know a single demon who could manage to return so quickly. Possibly Zagan or other members of the seventy-two. Yet he hadn’t after he had died at the hands of the other hunter. That made Catherine lean towards the idea that he could not.

No. In Catherine’s mind, if Eva wasn’t on Earth, it was because she didn’t want to be on Earth.

And if she didn’t want to be on Earth, Catherine wasn’t going to risk her ire by trying to drag her here. Catherine didn’t know what Eva was capable of while angry, but she had a fairly good idea from her fights with the hunter. Even after her most recent treatment, she doubted that her paltry tricks would have much of an effect on Eva.

“Juliana,” Catherine said, stopping the flood of words from the phone. “I told you before that you are not cute when you’re flustered. If you have nothing to say that doesn’t involve Eva, I have other things to be doing.”

“Wait! What about the obelisk?”

“I was hoping that you would forget about it,” Catherine murmured. She swung her legs off the couch, standing in the same smooth motion. Might as well get whatever was going on over with.

“How could I forget? I’m standing right in front of it!”

“Yes, yes. Just tell me where you are.”

Catherine stared up at the obelisk with a frown on her face. “It’s definitely something from Hell,” she said, walking around it. Each of its four sides were only a few feet wide. It hardly would have been worth noting were it not for the height. “Perhaps a construct from some demon’s domain.”

“How do we get rid of it?” Genoa asked with crossed arms. She stood just to the side of her daughter, half protective, half trying to look like she wasn’t looking protective.

It would have made Catherine laugh under other circumstances. For now, she just felt a little depressed. A chunk of some domain was sitting on Earth. Similar to how a demon could connect a portion of the world to their domain, except without the permission of a mortal and, most likely, without a demon being involved at all.

Having her domain connected to the world would be a great boon. She would be able to organize all of her notes without the possibility of a transference circle losing them somewhere in Hell. Unfortunately, she doubted many people would be willing to give her permission. Maybe tricking someone into it would work, but not around here. Ylva disconnected her domain from the mortal plane willingly because of the theory that it would accelerate Life’s plans. Even though the plan had been foiled by all appearances, she didn’t want to risk coming under attack because of a linked domain.

Besides that, Brakket Academy had way too many demon hunters running around. Even if they were all dead for the moment, it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long. More idiots would rush in and fill their spots. It was high time she sought out greener pastures, to use a human phrase.

“Catherine?”

Catherine shook her head. “Sorry. Just have had a lot on my mind since everything ended.”

“Everything has not ended,” Genoa said, tapping an impatient foot. “This obelisk gives me a bad feeling. After it’s gone, maybe I’ll consider things done. Until then…” She trailed off, glancing up at the four-sided pyramid capping the pillar. It wasn’t really visible, as she was standing near the base and the sides leaned in, but stared anyway, perhaps just wanting to look up.

“I doubt this is anything to be overly concerned about.” There weren’t any markings around it like it might be some magical construct. Nothing really decorative either. Just an obsidian pillar, gleaming slightly in the moonlight. “However, other demonic enigmas died, leaving behind remnants of Hell. If they also have obelisks, I’ll be mildly concerned.”

The mother and the daughter glanced between each other for just a moment before Genoa looked back to Catherine. “I’ll be right back.” With that said, she blinked away, leaving behind Juliana.

Precisely the situation Catherine didn’t want.

Catherine started walking around the obelisk again, moving to the opposite side from where Juliana had been standing. Had been. The moment Catherine started to move, so did Juliana. Juliana moved ever so slightly faster as well.

The girl caught up and opened her mouth.

“If this is about Eva,” Catherine said before Juliana could say anything, “I don’t want to hear it. Demons aren’t allowed to help other demons reach the mortal realm, remember? Anything I say may constitute help and then I’ll end up at the mercies of the dolls.” She tilted her head up with a slight shake. “No thank you.”

That was a complete lie. Mostly. Catherine was almost certain that whatever she said, it wouldn’t matter. She could tell everyone exactly how to summon demons and no dolls would come after her. So long as she didn’t directly participate in the summoning or circle construction, she should be safe. Not only did she want to avoid testing that theory, but it served as an adequate excuse for avoiding a discussion that she had no interest in participating in.

Sure enough, Juliana’s mouth shut with a light clack of her teeth.

Catherine kept the smirk off her face as she pretended to observe the obelisk. It was somewhat of an odd structure to have leaked through. Mostly because it hadn’t been there before. If anything was going to appear over the remnants, she would have expected it to appear shortly after the remnants formed.

More than that, the base of the obelisk almost perfectly occupied the ovular section of Hell on the ground. Any random construction in a domain would likely have appeared incomplete. A section of a wall. Maybe even a floating chunk of a building that was connected to the rest of the structure beyond the borders of the remnant.

In fact, the more Catherine stared at it, the more she decided that it couldn’t just be some random section of a domain. A sinking feeling built up in her chest. Something was definitely off about the obelisk. No markings. No inscriptions. From the base, the tip was just a little too hard to see with how it leaned inwards.

Spreading her wings behind her, Catherine took off without a glance at Juliana.

She circled around. No part of her crossed the threshold of the remnant. She had ensured that on the ground and it remained true for up in the air. Crossing over into another demon’s domain was dangerous enough under normal circumstances. Especially unknown demons. Not only had this been created from an enigma, but the entire thing shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Catherine had no intention of being sucked into nonexistence should the remnant suddenly cease to exist. Which, frankly, wasn’t that far-fetched of an outcome. Normal domains had their links to Earth broken when the demon died. Since it had been created from a demonic enigma and that demonic enigma had, by all evidence, perished, Catherine didn’t believe for a moment that the area was as stable as it looked.

With Life’s corruption and subsequent sealing of its portals, she couldn’t say what was keeping the remnant around. Unless, of course, it was some odd interaction because of the enigmas’ inability to perish. Which might be what had caused the remnant in the first place.

Ensuring Lynn finished her research into killing enigmas might be a higher priority than it had been not so long ago.

Like the rest of the obelisk, the top wasn’t inscribed or detailed in any way. Facets that faced the moon gleamed a brilliant white while their opposites were as dark as the night. She didn’t touch them, but figured that they would feel smoother than a pane of glass. The very tip stood a good ten feet above the base of the pyramid, which, itself, was on top of the rest of the obelisk. It was more of a spire than an actual capstone.

But, Catherine breathed out a sigh of relief. There wasn’t any kind of activity at the top. No laser beams, no buildup of magic about to destroy the world. It was as inert as the rest of the structure. Probably just some demon’s poor idea of aesthetic architecture.

Feeling much calmer, Catherine dipped down and landed on the ground just a short distance from Juliana and the girl’s mother, who had apparently returned during the flight.

“Well?”

“I only checked one other. The one just outside the city, not far from our home. There is something there, but not like this. It might have been an obelisk–”

The relief vanished from Catherine faster than it had come, leaving her with a vacant empty feeling. “Another obelisk? Same type, same size? Give me more details.”

“Identical, as far as I could tell, but destroyed. I didn’t exactly sit around and measure it, I doubt I could tell the two apart. However,” Genoa paused, holding her hand up above her head. “From about here on up, it was rubble. Bright red lava leaked down the side, spreading out across the ground.”

Frowning, Catherine pulled out her cellphone. One of the applications was a map. On that map, she had already pinned the location of each known remnant. One from Eva, three from Ylva, and another two from Brakket security guards, and the one from Genoa. Staring at their location, she couldn’t see any sort of pattern to their placements. The five didn’t form the points of a pentagram or a star, neither were they arranged in anything resembling a circle or a straight line. They were simply random dots on the map as far as she could tell.

Wondering when the obelisk had appeared, she started towards the pizza place—they would have noticed it popping up—only to find a sign out front stating that the building had closed. Permanently. Apparently its owner didn’t feel comfortable in a city filled with earthquakes and raining enigma.

Which sent another, far more worrying thought through Catherine’s mind.

The earthquakes had really only started up after Juliana summoned Zagan. Catherine doubted that Zagan really had anything to do with the quakes; his summoning had merely been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the mortal saying went. Some of those earthquakes hadn’t been accompanied by falling enigmas.

Unless they had and nobody noticed. The affected area beneath the purple shimmers in the sky had extended well beyond Brakket City’s borders. If things had fallen out there and never wandered close to the city, they could still be out there. Or they could have died. That enigma they had captured had tentacles that were eating the creature itself. Who was to say that another enigma’s tentacles hadn’t taken a big bite out of their jugular vein.

And some of them could have easily perished in the fall itself. Some demons, and demonic enigmas by extension, had wings. Those that didn’t could easily not have the hardiness required to survive a fall from such a height. One could have hit the ground at a velocity most terminal, been sucked into a Hell portal, and left behind a remnant that an obelisk now occupied.

It was a silver lining that Genoa’s obelisk had been destroyed. Perhaps it had been some other plan of Life’s to bring more of Hell over. Perhaps something else entirely. With one destroyed, any sort of magical array wouldn’t function properly.

Still, they couldn’t leave it alone.

They needed to do a complete sweep of every inch of the affected area and probably several miles around as well. Unfortunately, they couldn’t even count on being able to spot obelisks cropping up as easy ways to spot the remnants. The obelisk had popped up sometime within the last twenty-four hours. Likely during the ritual after the guards were called away to deal with the situation closer to Brakket Academy. If the obelisks appeared based on time, another remnant could easily remain nothing but a dark blight on the land, easily missable during a quick flyover, only to turn to an obelisk later on when nobody was looking.

“Gather up your mage-knights,” Catherine said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

And a lot of work that would further delay her own research.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.029

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Catherine snapped a quick picture of the ritual circle Devon had devised to close the portals. It could be handy in the future given her other plans. For the moment, it had served its purpose. Magic now spent, the faint glow dimmed and was extinguished, plunging the entrance to Brakket Academy in the dark of the night.

As it should be. Her phone’s clock and the light of the sky now matched without the portals flooding daylight everywhere. She scanned the dark, starry sky—cleared of any clouds by the final blast of magic—for any hint of a leftover scar. Not a sign of the portals remained. No shimmering streaks. No slight distortions in the sky. It should be fairly easy to spot anything as the portals glowed. Against the backdrop of night, they would stand out. Later on, she could set up a camera to record the moon transit just in case. With its distinctive pattern, any distortions should be easy to spot.

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

Who could say how many monstrosities made their way to earth before the portal closed. Someone would need to deal with them. They would probably need to scour a fairly large area around Brakket as well. If any escaped… well, it wouldn’t be another apocalypse, but tons of people could get hurt.

Tons of people who Catherine didn’t care about in the slightest. A clear job for someone else.

As she heard the academy doors opening behind her, Catherine gave the approaching woman an appraising look.

Yes, she thought. Perhaps someone like Lynn. Or the whole of the Elysium Order. The Elysium Order specialized in things that didn’t die properly and Lynn had been working on that captured enigma for quite some time. Ylva as well, though she had been conspicuously absent for quite some time. Last Catherine had heard, Ylva had gone to visit the Elysium Order’s headquarters. Perhaps she had finally been done in by them.

Wrapped in Lynn’s arms while putting up a marginal effort to escape was the more useless of Eva’s mortal friends. Really, Catherine couldn’t fathom why Eva had her as a friend. Pity, perhaps. Though, seeing the brunette reminded Catherine that she hadn’t checked in on Irene since the end of the ritual.

She just about started heading off to find Irene when she realized that the former nun was trying to talk to her.

“What was that?”

“Is it over?” She sounded tired. Exhausted. Looked it too, with her dark hair hanging disheveled off her head. Catherine wasn’t sure what for. It wasn’t like she had done anything at the ritual site or elsewhere.

“Somewhat. Cleanup is needed. Killing enigmas and such. I expect you have it well in hand, given your research.”

“I… I haven’t actually finished a spell to kill enigmas. I’m close, but Eva took away my test subject.”

“Ah, yes. She did show up with that thing.” Catherine sighed for a moment and checked her phone. “Pity about your research. I’m sure you can find another enigma lying about,” she said with a casual wave of her hand. There were enough pieces of enigma scattered around the courtyard. Surely Lynn could scrape some up and resume her tests.

Before Catherine could walk away, the younger version of Lynn escaped from the elder’s iron grip. She stepped right up to Catherine without looking like she had been pulverized and broken in the slightest. “Do you know where Eva and Juliana are?”

“Not a clue for either. Eva isn’t on Earth. Or she’s extremely far away. For all I know, she was in those fireballs that launched towards the eye.”

The girl gasped as she looked up. Obviously there was nothing to see. Catherine tried to step away again—she really wanted to get some notes down while everything was fresh in her mind or go bother Irene—but the girl glared at her with a look befitting Eva.

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

“Should I be?” Catherine said, shifting her eyes slightly towards Lynn—who just gave her a shrug in return. Given a few of the former nun’s comments about Eva, Catherine wouldn’t be surprised to find her throwing a party upon finding out that Eva died. For herself, Eva would have been a valuable subject to repeat the treatment ritual with. Given recent plans, Catherine was slightly less concerned with that than she otherwise would be.

“As for Juliana…” She shrugged. “I don’t know why she wouldn’t be on Earth, but I am not her minder.” Catherine doubted that she would have died given who she was hosting, but that was a separate matter entirely.

Catherine tried to step away once more, yet found herself nearly walking into Lynn.

“You said that Eva appeared with my engima? Is it still around?”

“I suppose somebody should clean up the ritual circle,” Catherine said after a long sigh. And, now that she was actually thinking about it, ensuring its destruction sooner rather than later would be a good idea. Not only would it prevent others from inadvertently pulling things to this plane that were never meant to be on it, but it would keep more people from stumbling across what she intended to make her magnum opus.

Yet neither were earth mages. Leading them there would ultimately be a waste of time. For her, at least. Besides, the girl knew the way.

“Hold on for a few minutes. I’m going to get Genoa to take you out there. She can destroy the ritual circle while you collect your enigma. Also the other nun there. A certain Cole, I believe Eva said.”

“Sister Cole?”

Catherine didn’t bother humoring her, instead pulling out her phone. “Oh,” she said as she typed out a message, “tell Srey that he is free to leave once the circle is destroyed. If Saija is still out there… you can probably leave her out there. I’m sure she’ll heal someday.”

And that should be the last thing she had to take care of. At least for now. Time to go write down a few notes. With maybe a stop to check on Irene on the way.

— — —

Zoe slumped back in the couch in her office. The nurses had tried to shove her into one of the infirmary beds the moment Devon left, but they needed those beds for others. Maybe that was a bit too selfless. She was missing an arm, after all.

She stared down at her arm, half expecting it to be there yet knowing it wasn’t. It gave her a strange sensation. Like she was constantly off-balance. When she had been walking towards Devon, she felt almost certain that she was tilted to one side even though everything looked straight.

Of course, how much of that was her injury and how much of it was the cocktail of potions keeping her sensation of pain numbed, she couldn’t say. Frankly, she was surprised that she was conscious and lucid at all. Then again, maybe she wasn’t conscious or lucid and everything was a pain induced hallucination.

She shuddered at the thought that she might be hallucinating and decided that no, the bed was real. Her body was real. Her eyes were really seeing and her arm was really sitting under a stasis ward not far from the bed. Just in case it could be reattached.

It should be able to be reattached. Even mundane medicine was capable of fixing a severed limb so long as it happened within six or so hours after being severed. Unfortunately, the doctors and nurses were far too busy dealing with all the other injuries sustained to look much at her own arm. Eva’s cap was adequate enough while there were more serious things to attend to.

After ensuring that she wasn’t going to bleed out, they had dumped a few potions down her throat and went on their way.

She sighed as she stared out a window. The sky was back to normal, but she could still see security guards patrolling about. Not so long ago, she had watched them fight off an enigma as large as a bear, though it lacked the tentacles dangling off its back. Maybe it actually had been a bear.

At the ritual circle, everything had seemed so calm. Relatively, anyway. The ‘brain’ had lashed out its tentacles and Eva had fought back, but aside from that, nothing had really happened until the hunter attacked well after the ritual had ended. Well, lots of things happened, but not fights or attacks. Shalise’s incident excepted.

Spotting Shalise around the infirmary had been such a relief as well.

But outside the ritual circle, all those lightning bolts, meteors, and earthquakes hadn’t been for show. All of it had meant chaos in the city.

Luckily, it was holiday vacation. Plenty of students left to visit their families. Some did not, however. With how many people were inside the infirmary, Zoe couldn’t help but fret over what had happened. Had an enigma made it into one of the dormitory buildings? Were they having a party out on the streets or in a club?

Zoe couldn’t help but jolt as the door opened. Her hand—her only hand—tightened around her wand. Only for a moment. Her fingers relaxed as Wayne entered the room.

“How are things?” she asked before he could speak, ignoring the way his eyes darted to her arm. Talking about her arm wasn’t something she cared to do at the moment. It would either be reattached someday or she would learn to work with a prosthetic.

But Wayne didn’t respond. He crossed the office, stopping at the table to her side with… not a scowl on his face. A gentle frown. He stared down at the severed arm. His hand reached out.

Not to grab it. Zoe didn’t know why he would want to touch it. Just looking at it sent a wave of nausea through her stomach. There was something disturbing about looking at a part of herself that wasn’t a part of her.

No. His fingers never touched the stasis ward over the severed arm. He picked up her once elegant dagger, frowning deeper as part of the handle fell to the table. Glancing over, he managed to ask about a hundred questions without opening his mouth.

Zoe just sighed again. “I don’t think I can repair it this time.”

It had been damaged not too long ago. But only the handle. This time, the blade itself had been shorn in two. And not a clean cut either. The hunter’s sword connected with the edge of the blade and cut right through it to the base of the wooden handle, which had split in two. She could look over to her severed arm and see where the hunter’s blade had bit into her hand.

If she were a little less lucky, she could have wound up not with a severed arm, but with it mangled and torn to shreds. Something that would have been significantly more difficult to repair than a clean cut.

The dagger would never function as a dagger or a focus again. Not unless it were completely reforged. And if she reforged it, would it even be the same dagger? No. It would be no different from going and purchasing a new one.

“I think I’ll frame it. Put it in a thin glass case and hang it on the wall.”

“It was all we salvaged from Lansing. From your home.”

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

“I thought this ritual was supposed to be safe,” Wayne said, dark eyes moving to stare at Zoe’s arm before looking up to her eyes.

“It was safe.” Mostly. Minus the Shalise part. She didn’t feel the need to mention that at the moment. Sometime when she was feeling better, she was certain that they would go over every detail together. “This happened afterwards. That demon hunter attacked.”

“Where is she?” Despite the calm of his voice, she could see a fire in his eyes. A different kind of fire compared to that of the Elysium Order. More of a hatred than anything magical.

“Last I saw, at the ritual site. The hunter killed Eva–”

“At least that’s one problem solved,” he grumbled, though immediately looked ashamed of himself. Mildly. More for Zoe’s sake than actually caring about Eva.

“She came back roughly fifteen minutes later,” Zoe said, to which Wayne just made a disgruntled grunt. “In the interim, I held off the hunter as best I could. She had said that she wanted to kill everyone at Brakket. I couldn’t let her walk away.” Zoe let a sorry chuckle escape from her lips as she nodded towards her arm. “My best wasn’t good enough.

“Based on the sky,” Zoe said, turning towards the window without looking at Wayne’s face, “I assume that Eva won her second fight with the hunter. She and Catherine likely fixed everything.”

“I’ll believe it when nothing happens over the next year.”

Rolling her eyes at Wayne’s grumbling, Zoe looked back to him. “How are things outside? I didn’t get much of a chance to go and look for myself.”

“Lots of injuries. One of those flaming meteors struck the Gillet,” he said, confirming Zoe’s fears. “It burrowed down to the second floor before stopping. Things crawled out not long after. Anderson made an announcement shortly before that everyone should remain indoors. Had he gathered everyone in the gym, several injuries could have been avoided.”

“Perhaps, but he couldn’t have known.”

“The people… and demons, I suppose, that he has guarding the buildings have been doing an adequate job aside from that incident.”

“That covers the students. What about the rest of the town?”

“Genoa’s mercenaries are proving that the money she spent on them did not go to waste. Or so I understand. Haven’t left Brakket’s campus myself.” He paused for just a second, glancing towards the door the instant it opened.

An ashen-faced Anderson entered the room, flaps of his undone suit billowing behind him in his haste. His eyes flicked between Zoe and Wayne for just a moment before he crossed the room. “Good,” he said as he dragged one of the chairs in front of Zoe’s desk over to the couch she was lying on. “I’ve been looking for someone who can explain to me exactly what happened. The nurse told me I might find you here.”

“Some nurses should mind their own business,” Wayne grumbled just barely loud enough for Zoe to catch it as he moved to lean on the wall next to the couch.

Anderson’s eyes flicked to the severed arm on the table for just a moment before he looked back to Zoe. He showed no disgust or revulsion at its presence. “I need to know everything.”

All so he can come up with a proper excuse for the public, Zoe thought with a slight frown. Then again, so long as he was up to it, she wouldn’t have to go in front of a camera and mention all the injures. Had there been deaths? Wayne hadn’t said. Maybe he didn’t know. Regardless, Anderson’s task was not a job that Zoe envied.

So she decided to start from the beginning, just in case he actually believed Martina’s lie about the sky being an agricultural project.

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

Juliana jolted at the foreign thought intruding on her stream of consciousness. That jolt just about turned the street inside out. She quickly released all holds she had on Zagan’s magic. “Don’t scare me like that,” she snapped.

But she couldn’t deny Zagan’s words. Ever since those lasers appeared in the sky, there hadn’t been any earthquakes, bolts of lightning, or any teardrop meteors. That didn’t get rid of all the enigmas already on earth. Those were slowly being cleaned up. At least none of the enigmas falling from the sky had been the demonic enigmas that left behind bits of Hell when they died.

Which raises an interesting point. Go, seek out one of the locations. See if it has vanished back to normalcy.

“The closest one is on the other side of the city.”

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

“No,” Juliana said as fast as she could. “Merely an observation.” As she spoke, she turned and started walking. There were probably more enigmas up ahead. At the same time, there were probably more enigmas in the direction of the remnant of Hell. Which direction she chose to go hardly mattered.

“So, you’re talking again,” Juliana said as she slipped into a narrow alley off the main street. Of course two enigmas were trying to eat each other—Juliana had a feeling that they would be cleaning enigma out of the streets for months in the future—but neither posed her the slightest bit of a threat. With a single tug on Zagan’s power, their insides were their outsides. “I hope that doesn’t mean anything bad,” she said as she exited the alley.

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

Despite the casual tone, Juliana couldn’t help but feel her mouth run dry.

Once you find something that works, you repeat it. Again and again and again. No variation. It is, suffice to say, less than amusing.

Juliana started biting her lip. The moment Zagan spoke, she spotted another enigma wandering down the street. She froze, staring at it.

What are you stopping for? We don’t have all night.

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

She took hold of a tendril of his magic. Gnawing on her lip, she tried to think up another way to kill one of the monsters. It shouldn’t be that hard. Life, she had discovered, was fairly fragile when one had Zagan’s power. Since she got it, she had considered plenty of possible ways of killing enigmas or even the hunter.

At the moment, the only thing on her mind was turning the enigma inside out.

Which it promptly did.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered out. “I’ll do it differently next–”

Zagan burst into a raucous laughter before she could finish her pleas. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping that Zagan tearing himself out of her body wouldn’t hurt half as much as it sounded like it would.

Just get a move on already. Before I really do decide to go myself.

Juliana didn’t need telling twice. She sprinted down the streets, ignoring the enigmas she came across, until she reached the spot where Eva had killed the demonic enigma. There, she stopped and froze, staring with a gaping mouth.

After Eva had killed the demonic enigma, Anderson had set guards around the spot. Both Eva and her mother had described it as a dark spot. A taint upon the land. Her mother had added that it was just a little too dark, unable to be lit by any source of light. Anderson’s guards put up an enchanted glass dome to keep things from escaping easily while allowing them to see any possible interlopers. Demonic shackles surrounded the entire thing as an added layer of security.

But the glass dome had shattered. An obsidian pillar reached out, stretching high into the sky. Its smooth, glossy walls towered over the surrounding buildings. The pizza shop’s facade was the highest thing around and it didn’t even reach the halfway point of the obelisk.

“Please,” Juliana said in a slight whisper. “Please tell me this is just a harmless monument from Hell and nothing dangerous in the slightest.”

This is just a harmless monument from Hell. Nothing dangerous in the slightest.

“I think I hate you.”

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010.028

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The sky burst into flames.

Catherine couldn’t help herself. Despite the mild danger of being stuck in an almost hypnotic trance should she stare at the massive eye overhead, she looked up.

Burning meteors raced towards the eye from the edges of the shimmering portals. One impacted one of the molten teardrops. Rather than be forced down towards Earth, it continued straight towards the eye, neither stopped or slowed. Everywhere one of the meteors hit, the eye caved inwards. Like a giant bed sheet with bowling balls dropping on top of it.

Plumes of flames burst forth from the impacts.

Less than a minute after Eva disappeared and it already looked as if the world truly was ending.

Though, Catherine didn’t find herself all that concerned. This had been the plan. Probably. Had it occurred when she wasn’t expecting something to happen, Catherine might have worried a little. But Eva said that something would happen and something had happened.

So she turned on her heel. Srey stood there, still staring at the spot where Eva and the avatar had vanished. Unlike Eva, Catherine had a feeling that she knew what had shaken the other demon so.

It was all she could do to pretend nothing had changed.

During Eva’s initial ritual to corrupt the Avatar of Life with the Avatar of Void, she had gone been between the two avatars. And that had not left her unscathed.

Unscathed was probably the wrong word to use. It implied that something bad had happened to Eva. By all appearances, Eva hadn’t been distressed in the slightest. No. She had changed. In a few short minutes, she had gone from feeling like a miniature Zagan to eclipsing him so completely and thoroughly that Catherine had thought she had witnessed the birth of a new Power. For a moment. Further thought revealed the truth.

Obviously Eva hadn’t become a new power. She had only absorbed a sliver of a sliver of a Power. Just because Catherine had trouble distinguishing the feeling between Eva and the Avatar of Void before it had vanished did not mean that Eva had become such a thing.

Of course not.

How silly.

And yet, Catherine couldn’t help but wish that she had been the one to propose that plan. If she had just been the one to suggest that she stand between them while Eva performed a standard treatment from outside the circle… Catherine shivered just thinking about it.

The ritual circle was well and truly ruined. The hunter hadn’t cared about destroying it in the slightest. Neither had Eva or anyone else for that matter. It would be completely unusable should anyone try. Worse than merely fail, it would probably explode. Violently at that. Catherine did not want to be on this continent when that happened.

But it was unlikely that anyone would be able to gather up six humans and six demons and try to start it anytime soon. Zoe had mentioned wanting to destroy it and all records of how to construct it once they had finished.

Not a bad plan. It would certainly keep those humans who liked to meddle in things they shouldn’t from setting off another apocalypse.

Catherine had a feeling that she wouldn’t be deleting her copy from her phone. It was far too valuable. Perhaps not this century, perhaps not even the next, but one day, Catherine would redo this ritual. Not the whole thing. She had no desire to summon up Life. Just the Avatar of Void.

Of course, the ritual would need to undergo some changes. When the avatar had first formed fully, it had gone around to sniff at each and every participant in the ritual. Never before had Catherine felt such a sensation of impending doom.

Yet nothing had happened.

Unless she made some changes, she had a feeling that such would not be the case in any future rituals of the same type. What she needed was an inert avatar, much like it had become after the ritual had been interrupted. Perhaps after running one or two such rituals of that type, she would feel hearty enough to try with an avatar that was not inert.

Catherine shuddered again. Maybe after one or two hundred inert avatar treatment rituals.

Yes. That was a good plan. The century or two she planned to wait just to ensure that everyone save for Eva and the other demons were dead might actually be mandatory given how many modifications she would need to make. Everything in the ritual circle to do with Life could be safely stripped out. Then she needed either a way to turn the avatar inert without it being a fluke or a modification to summon only inert essence.

Much much to do. But she had time. All the time in the world, in fact.

For the moment, she had another ritual circle to go inspect.

Catherine just about teleported herself when she hesitated. “Srey,” she said, glancing to the stunned demon, “remain here. Ensure no one attempts to interfere with this ritual circle unless they mean to demolish it.” When he didn’t immediately respond, she drew on her magic forcing him to look at her. Such a simple thing would have been impossible on another demon not so long ago. What would she be capable of in a few centuries?

“Yes,” he said immediately. “Sorry. I just… with that thing staring at me.” He tremor ran through his whole body before he shook his head. “And was that demon really the same demon we’ve been helping for the past several months?”

“Don’t get any smart ideas,” Catherine said with a curl of her lips. “The day is not yet over, be vigilant. If there are any surprises, come find help.” She glanced over towards the edge of the circle. “And keep an eye on that nun. If she’s still alive. I don’t know if Eva wants her alive for some reason, so I recommend not killing her without due cause.”

“Of course.”

Catherine couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle as she teleported back to the main Brakket Academy building.

Now to find Devon.

— — —

Go take a rest, Eva had said. Take a rest indeed.

How was she supposed to rest when the town was under siege? Every one of those meteors—accompanied by the occasional lightning bolt—spawned another dozen of the enigmas. None of them had hit the ritual circle, so no one there really knew.

Though Genoa had to admit, she had been in far less restful battles. In fact, this might as well be a vacation for her. Juliana was doing a good portion of the work.

Watching her daughter walk down one of the streets of Brakket City while enigmas of varying size, shape, and material—not all of them were fleshy, they had passed one almost entirely made of stone not long ago—turned inside out around her was somewhat disconcerting. Juliana didn’t even have to move a hand. She just looked at them. Boom, inside out enigma.

Disturbing hardly seemed a big enough word. Genoa couldn’t even begin to categorize the feelings running through her as she watched Juliana turn around with a mournful smile.

“So that’s how it is,” Juliana said, a note of finality in her voice. Like she was absolutely certain that she was about to be disowned or something equally ridiculous. She turned away from the most recently inverted enigma with a shudder, looking rather sick.

Genoa couldn’t really blame her. She had never been able to handle such things. It was a wonder she hadn’t fainted outright.

“I can see why you said that you would be fine on your own,” Genoa said as she wrinkled her nose at the last in a long line of twisted monsters. Juliana had insisted that they would do more work saving the town if they split up. Obviously she had been correct. Nothing had sneaked up on Juliana. The one thing that tried ended up just as inverted as everything else. “Can’t you just do that to the entire city at once?”

“Probably. Zagan’s power is finicky though. I don’t want to accidentally kill everyone by messing up.”

“That’s a possibility?”

“Well, yes. Kind of. Zagan listed off a few limitations when he first was showing me how to use his power. One of which was that I cannot directly kill someone. However, turning these enigmas inside out doesn’t directly kill them. They die because they’re inside out.” She paused and scowled at herself. “Or maybe it is directly killing them, but it works on them anyway since enigmas don’t die like normal things. I’ve never actually tried it on a non-enigma.”

“Good. Don’t.”

“Of course not. But that’s a perfect example of how it could be finicky.”

“But if–” Genoa cut herself off as a few rhythmic beeps came from her pocket. Her cellphone. And the default ring tone as well, meaning it wasn’t Zoe, Eva, or anyone else she had programmed in. “Hello?”

“Is this Genoa?” came the rough yet familiar voice.

“Devon?”

“Why does everyone know who I am?”

“We’ve met. I lived at the prison for a few months just a year ago. How could–” Genoa shook her head. “Never mind. Did you need something?”

“You come… highly recommended in the ritual construction industry,” he said, somehow managing to sound extraordinarily sarcastic without changing his gruff tone in the slightest. “I need you back at the Brakket Academy building.”

“I can’t–”

For the second time in half as many minutes, Genoa cut herself off. This time, it wasn’t because of some minor distraction in her pocket. Nor was it because a horde of enigmas had descended on her and Juliana—her daughter took care of everything that came near without any intervention needed on Genoa’s part—but it was because of the sky.

All the clocks said that it should be night-time. Given how early night came in the winter, it should really be pitch black out. Yet there was this ever-present light around everything. Not strong enough to cast any hard shadows around, yet bright enough that no one needed to worry about seeing. Eerie, but not too unusual given that eye overhead, the light it put off, and how bright the edges of the portal were.

If she had thought it was bright before, it was nothing compared to now. The edges of the portal hurt to look at. They turned a brilliant golden-yellow, though the interior remained much the same. Like a perfect solar eclipse. Though that only lasted for a few moments.

Great meteors, completely unlike those that had been falling as teardrops, streaked across the sky, crashing into the eyeball hard enough that Genoa could actually hear it as distant thunder.

“What is that?” she snapped simultaneously to her daughter and to the man over the phone. One had been keeping secrets from her for a long while and might have a clue. The other called just in time to be too convenient.

“Eva’s signal, I presume,” Devon said with a slight grunt, answering before Genoa’s daughter could even open her mouth. His tone hadn’t changed in the slightest. Or, if it had, it sounded bored. “Which means I need you here now. I don’t know if this is a temporary window of opportunity or not.”

Genoa glanced down at her daughter. They were in the very center of the city. Not the farthest possible distance, but Brakket had been built on one edge of the city. A fifteen minute walk, at least. She could blink with her daughter, but that would still take more time than blinking without her.

Her eyes drifted over one of the inverted carcasses and she found herself putting on the same mournful smile that her daughter had on just a few minutes ago.

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Good enough,” Devon said just before the line went dead.

Looking back to her daughter, Genoa put on a confident smile that she didn’t quite feel. “That was a signal from Eva,” she said, pointing a finger overhead.

“I don’t know anything about that. Giant fireballs in the sky were never–”

“No time to talk. I’m heading back to the academy. Can I trust you to stay safe out here?”

“Of course. I told you, I’ll be fine on my own.”

Genoa closed her eyes for just a moment. Juliana was so young and already trying to be independent. Independent with all that demonic magic, at that. When Erich had cut ties with the family, it had been… expected, frankly. The second he graduated, he disappeared. Even before then, he had been distant. Largely Genoa’s fault.

But this wasn’t the same. Juliana wasn’t cutting ties. Independence and abandonment were two entirely separate things.

Genoa would still watch over her. At least until she graduated.

If only to ensure she did not use the demon’s power in the wrong manner.

“Good,” Genoa said, blinking away in an instant before Juliana could respond.

Two minutes, as it turned out, had been an overstatement in the extreme. Genoa finished blinking into the academy’s lobby a mere thirty seconds after she left.

— — —

Devon stared at the ground. The lightshow growing more and more intense over his head did nothing to distract him.

His design had gone from an inconceivable null in his mind before realizing what had happened to plans in his head to a full sketch in less than six hours. In all his life, he couldn’t recall having made a ritual circle in such a short amount of time. From design to construction, his rituals normally took several weeks at minimum while he went over all possible variables.

To say he was mildly nervous about this current construct would be putting it lightly. Not that he would allow a hint of his feelings to show on his face. Even having it looked over by Catherine in the few minutes it took for the earth mage to arrive did little to assuage his concerns.

He merely watched the earth mage work with a critical eye, pointing out every inconsistency no matter how small. From the depth of one line in comparison to another, the shape of a circle that wasn’t quite circular, an ellipse that was too circular, Devon corrected everything. Everything had to be perfect. Every last little thing, every single tiny microscopic little thing had to go according to his plan.

The earth mage grew more and more impatient with every passing correction. For the life of him, Devon couldn’t figure out why. Did she want the Earth to implode thanks to a crooked line?

Devon gave a sad shake of his head as the woman stepped away from the stone platform.

“Adequate,” he said.

“Adequate,” Genoa repeated in a flat tone of voice. “You rush me over here, making me leave my daughter in the middle of a city infested with those enigma things, and you spend ten minutes micromanaging my casting for adequacy.”

“Yes.” Was that truly hard to understand?

Before the woman could shout at him, which she had obviously been about to do, Catherine cleared her throat. “It’s finished. What now?”

“You remain here,” Devon said. “The ritual is simple enough to activate with an influx of magic. I assume you are capable. I’ll send your phone a message when it is time to activate it.” He paused, turning back to the earth mage. “Despite your performance, we have two more to complete.”

“Two more? Two more with you sitting around pointing out minor scratches in the stone?” She gave a most unladylike groan. “Even Eva’s massive ritual circle didn’t have this many minute details that needed correction.”

“Yes,” he said with a deeper than normal scowl, turning towards Catherine at the mention of Eva’s ritual. “And we can see how well that turned out.” He paused for a moment to point a finger at the raging inferno above the planet. “Can’t we?”

Nobody answered, giving Devon cause to smirk. Foolish Eva. And foolish Catherine. In fact, near everyone was a complete and utter fool, but especially those who had been involved in that ritual project.

“Stay here,” Devon repeated to Catherine. He leaned down and dropped a tiny portion of green flames right in the very center of the ritual. A marker for later. “And you,” he said to Genoa, “come with me. I assume you can blink.”

He knew she could. He had seen her appear in the lobby. So, without waiting for her to confirm her abilities, he stepped away. Slowly at first, to ensure that she knew where he was headed. Once they got going in a straight line, he started stepping as easily as walking. She managed to keep up, surprisingly enough.

The second point for the ritual was roughly half the distance between Brakket City and the prison. The center of the distortion overhead should be in the middle between this unconstructed circle and the one in front of Brakket Academy. Flaring a small bit of green flame in his hand, he followed the top of the flame as it leaned one way or the other until his movements brought him to a point where the tip was straight upwards.

“Here,” he said. “The ritual needs to be rotated exactly sixty degrees.” With a wave of his hand, the green flame lashed out in a thin line. “The central layline should align with this flame.”

With that, he stepped back. The woman scowled for a moment, but eventually got to work.

As it turned out, she was faster than last time. She made about as many errors, but fixed them with less complaining. Leaving the same marker of fire in the center of the ritual circle, Devon started blinking off towards the third spot.

While Genoa got to work, he double-checked his calculations. It was one of the things he actually enjoyed about modern technology. The whole reason he had even purchased a cellphone after watching Eva and her friends use them. They were amazing calculation aids for rituals. Catherine had taken it to an art form with how she drew out the rituals on the phones themselves. Devon still stuck with paper for the most part. His fingers weren’t quite so dexterous as the succubus’.

Catherine’s hands made it look much easier than it actually was when he had tried it.

But for now, he merely checked the trigonometry he had already mentally calculated. Perfect. Of course it was. The angles should all be correct. Some of the positioning was guesswork. He didn’t have an exact location for the boundaries of the tear, but he had included a little leeway in his ritual design.

The second Genoa finished the ritual to his standards, Devon turned away. “Stay here. We will be coordinating with Catherine to start all three circles at the same time.” He stepped away, only to return one step later. “You do know how to initiate a ritual circle, do you not?”

“Of course I do,” the increasingly irritable woman snapped at him. She started to say something else, but Devon didn’t really care how much she was annoyed with his attitude, so he stepped away again.

The moment he returned to the second ritual circle, he whipped out his phone and sent off a few short messages. One to each of his helpers. A mere note asking for confirmation of their readiness. In less than ten seconds, he had received a response from each. So he sent out one more message.

Giving them only two seconds to read it, he knelt down and activated his ritual with a burst of magic.

Three beams of violet light crashed into each other in the middle of the air. Two of which came from far enough away that he couldn’t see their sources. Where they met, a three-sided pyramid formed. One made of pure magic. It twisted in the air, aiming a single point downwards, touching each of the three beams with just the tip, and three points outwards.

From each of the three points, a much thicker beam fired off, crashing into the sky. Or rather, the edge of the portal.

The first rotation carried all three beams in a full circle. It took nearly ten minutes.

The second rotation only took a little over nine minutes and forty seconds.

The third rotation went shorter than that.

The pyramid spun around. Each pass went faster and faster. As it completed passes, the portal overhead shrank. It was barely noticeable after the first few, but by the time ten rotations had been completed, it was impossible to not notice.

Trails of smoke accumulated in the air where the portal made contact with the regular sky. It was… probably harmless. Devon wouldn’t want to breathe it, but he didn’t see why anyone else would be worried.

Devon watched as the pyramid spun faster and faster. Until he couldn’t even tell the difference between the three separate beams. They left such a trail of light behind that it looked like a single cone. Eventually, that cone narrowed down to a thin beam of light.

A pulse of magic formed into a ring that exploded across the sky. Clouds, both natural and the smoke left behind from the tear, rippled as it sliced through them.

But that only lasted a moment.

The pyramid between the three ritual circles underwent a rapid unplanned deconstruction, filling the air with motes of violet colored magic. All of which dissipated into nothingness. Plants bent as an invisible shockwave crashed over them. Devon threw himself to the ground as the air cracked over the top of his body.

He remained still for a minute, ensuring that there wouldn’t be any follow-up blasts. None came. With everything settled down, he got back to his feet and looked around. The sky was whole and unbroken once again, clear of any violet shimmering or massive eyeballs. Though it wasn’t exactly clear. A dark cloud of smoke hung overhead.

Devon gave a faint nod of approval to no one in particular. A job well done if he said so himself. He turned away, stepping rapidly back towards the prison. He had some wards of his own to set up. Defenses—for that ritual wouldn’t have eliminated the enigmas still present on Earth—and possibly something to purify the local air.

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010.027

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Devon strode into the Brakket Academy main lobby area with two demons in tow. Once upon a time, doing something so brazen would have gotten him killed without a doubt. Who in their right mind would ever allow a demon summoner and demons into a school?

How times had changed.

His weren’t even the only demons he had spotted around the school. He had spotted a capra demon disguised as a student turning one of the many enigmas into minced meat just outside the entrance to the school. A few nearby human guards hadn’t even batted an eye as Devon passed by. Apparently, so long as he wasn’t a tentacled monster, he was perfectly welcome. Either that or Eva had told them that he would be coming.

The guards hadn’t batted an eye at the capra demon either, so they must have been at least somewhat attuned to the idea of demons running around. Though their faces might have looked a little green when they glanced towards the ground up remains of the enigma. Devon didn’t know what kind of weak stomached guards this school was hiring, but he had thought that they would be able to manage a little viscera.

They would never have survived at Devon’s old school.

Literally.

Tenebris Artes would have eaten them up and spat them out as nothing more than bones. The students—who, around Brakket, were all hiding indoors save for one or two that had worked up the courage to help fight enigmas—as well. In fact, Tenebris Artes had closed down after only a year of him attending.

Something that had absolutely nothing to do with Devon whatsoever.

Times changed. Society became more comfortable for the inhabitants with every passing year. More comfort meant less daily hardships to whip the kids into shape. They would go on to join proper society and hopefully get whipped into shape. But the ever increasing comfort would just mean that one day—maybe not this generation, maybe not even the next, but one day, the pampered children would be the real world.

Then who would be around to save the day?

Fate always had a trial or two up her sleeve. When would the trial become too much for the ignorant masses. There wouldn’t always be a curmudgeonous old demonologist around to save the day.

In fact, he wouldn’t have been around to save the day were it not for that blasted research subject of his. Maybe next time Fate would just leave him alone.

Ah well. Saving the world one last time wasn’t so bad. At least this time he hadn’t been attacked by anything other than enigmas. Those could be summarily dealt with by his demons with him hardly lifting a finger. The waxy ruax handled almost every one. He only had to blast one with infernal flames once, and that was only because the ruax had been distracted by a good six or seven of the beasts.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure exactly where to go. Glass windows separated a secretary’s desk and the main offices from the rest of the open lobby. The hallway went left and right with only room numbers listed in each direction. Straight ahead, the large glass windows opened up into that disaster waiting to happen of an expanded space ward.

No sign for the school’s infirmary.

“Come with me,” he said, more for the benefit of the carnivean than the ruax. One was under his direct control. The other only should be.

Leaving behind the lobby, he headed towards the offices. There had to be someone there and someone there had to know the way to the infirmary.

He walked right up to the vacant secretary’s desk and peered over at an all too tiny building map hanging up behind it. It took him five minutes of searching before he realized that he was standing right next to the infirmary. The room had two doors, one in the hallway just around the corner and one in the office itself.

Naturally, Devon headed to the nearer door.

He slid it open to find a gaggle of people running every which way. Adults ran around between the makeshift beds. In their arms, they carried trays filled with a haphazard arrangement of potions, surgical implements, common medicine products, and clean cloth bandages. Both adults and children filled the floorspace of nearly the entire room, lying on blankets and pads. Most of the beds’ occupants were injured in some manner or other. A band of bandages wrapped around one man’s eye and head, one woman was missing an arm, someone else looked like he had a bite taken out of his leg. A few people were working on that last one, performing some sort of surgery.

In other words, a typical medical facility during an emergency. Nothing notable to see.

He took one step into the room only to find his path blocked by a young girl with an eye patch and a red eye. A few scars tugged at her lips as she started speaking.

“Are you injured?”

Devon leaned slightly closer to the woman. Nurse Post, her name tag said with a little heart in place of the ‘o’. The blood smeared over it and much of her white outfit did not help play up the kind and welcoming school nurse that she had been trying to go for.

Red eyes were not a common human trait, though they did happen on occasion. Usually a faint red accompanied by albinism. Her hair wasn’t the normal white, but she must have dyed it. He couldn’t detect any sign of her being a demon.

Her eyes flicked to the two demons behind him. Neither of which she reacted to in the slightest before turning her gaze back to Devon.

“Sir?”

“No,” Devon said, leaning back. “I’m looking–”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, sir. If you aren’t here to help and are not injured, you’ll only be in the way. If you’re looking for a patient, the office across the hall has a list of everyone who was brought in as of an hour ago,” she said, gesturing directly behind Devon.

Devon’s lip curled into a scowl. He stepped straight to the other side of the woman and continued walking, leaving her momentarily confused.

“Sir,” she said once she realized that he had got behind her. “You’re wasting valuable time that we could be using to save these people.”

“Yes, and I’m trying to save the entire world,” he grumbled, reaching the center of the room. It must have been magically expanded as well. He had walked far more than what it would have taken to go around to the opposite door.

More people were staring at him now. Lots of doctors or nurses that should be doing their job. He didn’t think he was all that special looking. His beard may be unkempt and his trench coat a little dusty, but his arm was safely hidden away in the sleeve.

Then again, most people in the room were not accompanied by two obviously inhuman demons. Maybe their stares were more directed towards the tentacle-headed thing and the animated wax statue that were following behind him.

“I didn’t ask you to follow me around,” he said in a low tone of voice. “Go about whatever it is you think is right.” Before she could protest further, he raised his voice to be heard above all the moaning and whining of the injured around him. “Which one of you is Genoa?”

Devon stared around the room, waiting and expecting someone to at least raise their hands if not come all the way up to him.

Nobody did.

“Sir–”

“Wait.”

The nurse tried to say something, but a second voice interrupted. Devon turned to find some woman walking up to him with frazzled hair, several bandaged wounds on every bit of bare skin, and an entirely missing arm. He stared at it for a moment before looking back to the woman’s face.

“You’re Genoa?”

“What? No… You can’t have– Never mind,” she said with a shake of her head. “It isn’t important right now, Devon.”

Ah, he thought. Apparently I know her.

“What is important is that Eva is out at the ritual circle–”

“Yeah, I know. It’s part of the plan to fix everything.”

“There’s a plan?” The woman let out a long sigh. She placed her one hand to her chest, though Devon couldn’t actually see the hand. Enough bandages covered it to make it look like a mummy’s mitten. “Oh thank goodness. But what do you need Genoa for?”

“Eva recommended her as a ritual construction specialist. Though,” Devon raised his voice slightly, “I’ll accept any able-bodied mage capable of large-scale earth manipulation.”

He looked around at all the bandaged people lying in beds or bleeding out or whatever injured people were wont to do with a slowly deepening scowl on his face. What was with these people? Not a single one looked like they could hold a wand let alone cast a few spells. What kind of mages got injured fighting these enigmas, let alone allowed the injures to send them to the medimagi. At least the woman in front of him was on her feet, if not clenching her wand between her teeth to fight back.

Though that kid in the corner looked to be just about the right age for experimentation. If he was dying, nobody would miss–

“Devon!” the woman hissed at him, bringing his attention back to the woman. “You are despicable.”

“I get that on occasion,” Devon grunted. “Where can I find an earth mage?”

“Genoa is out trying to clear away enigmas. She should have her cellphone with her. Hand me your phone and I’ll–” She cut herself off as she realized that she was holding out the stump of her arm. With a half-muttered curse, she swapped to her other hand only to realize her bandage predicament.

“Why don’t you tell me the number and I’ll make the call instead,” he said, pulling out his phone.

— — —

Eva lowered her arms as she stared up at the sky. Not at the eyeball, which was still looking down at the Earth and still crying those magmatic meteors that were probably filled with enigmas. She stared at the design for a new treatment circle. One for the demonic enigma and the chunk of brain.

It wasn’t that large. Certainly not as big as the circle that had been used to summon the two avatars. Perhaps as big as a large room. Even that size was only by necessity. The brain avatar was much too large for anything smaller.

The ritual was based on Devon’s work—and she definitely wondered how he would react to finding out that Void used his research—it should be just enough to get what she needed done. At least, that was what Void had said while the designs were being burned into her mind. Satisfied that everything in the design above her head had been copied into the real world correctly, Eva moved on to the next step.

Forming a long tube of blood, she jammed one end into the brain and one into the formerly furry arm of the enigma. This time, she did not stand in between the two subjects of the ritual. A second tube of crystallized blood led out from the other side of the brain, ready to drain into a large vase once the ritual got under way.

The succubus had been watching patiently and staring at the ritual circle that Eva had constructed. Only when she switched to the tubing did Catherine walk up to her.

“You’re doing it again?”

“Not quite,” Eva said as she turned back to Catherine. “Apparently, we overdid it earlier. Shoving the entirety of Void’s Avatar into this thing was not only unnecessary, but overly harmful to the Powers’ ecosystem of… power.”

“So diluting it then?”

“That’s a good way to put it.” Eva glared down at the demonic enigma. “We put some of that in and take some of the avatar out.” And some of Arachne as well. After taking a few steps back, Eva motioned for Catherine to do the same.

Srey had hardly moved from his initial position near the avatar until Eva physically dragged him away. Eva wasn’t sure what was up with him. Had he actually struck up some sort of friendship with Vektul and was in shock over what happened?

She supposed it didn’t really matter. So long as he didn’t screw with anything important, he could sit around in his vacuous state for all Eva cared.

“Alright. This shouldn’t take long,” Eva said as she pressed her magic into the hovering ritual circle of blood.

The effect started immediately. A faint glow emanated from the lines. The demonic enigma remained unconscious, but started writhing as blood started flowing through the tube. Or whatever filled enigmas’ veins. It didn’t work well with Eva’s blood magic and Devon had mentioned something about it only being superficially similar.

Clasping her hands behind her back, Eva started stalking around the circle. The avatar was as inert as it had been since she had finished the initial ritual. She needed to keep an eye on it. With her at least marginally reversing the process of corrupting it, it might become a little more active. But that wouldn’t be for at least a short amount of time.

No, Eva barely glanced at the large mass of the avatar as she walked past. She stopped in front of the little jar that she had set up to collect the excess essence that the ritual was now removing. The previous ritual hadn’t had the disposal tank despite all of Eva’s treatments requiring it. She was somewhat surprised that the avatar hadn’t exploded after realizing that she had forgotten that little detail. Devon had always warned her to not let him forget about it or she might explode.

Then again, that was Devon. He had probably just been grumping about it for the sake of having something to grumble about.

Everything looked like it was working properly. Black particles of dust and smoke trickled out of the tube and into the crystalline pot. The smoke, looking just like the smoke that made up Void’s avatar, didn’t settle into the bottom of the pot, choosing to swirl around in dark clouds.

Which had Eva wondering if she shouldn’t have put a proper top on it. Nothing was spilling out yet, so she wouldn’t do anything that might potentially interfere with the ritual until something actually went wrong.

“Now,” Eva said, “while this finishes, we need to prepare to send this hunk of flesh back to its master.”

“Another ritual?”

“Actually no.”

“No?” Catherine blinked, genuinely surprised. “You’re not going to toss it up there,” she said, pointing towards the portals overhead.

“My arms are a little stretchy at the moment.” As demonstration, she enlarged her hand until the fingers could wrap around her entire waist. “However, I think those portals are a bit higher than I could reach.”

“I’m sure we could work out some magical propulsion to launch it up there.”

“As amusing as a brain rocket ship would be, there’s already a plan in place. Something that should seal the deal and ensure that Life cannot recover. At least not anytime soon.”

“And is sealing the deal also going to seal the portals overhead?”

“Nope! Devon has actually been working on that. Though he’s supposed to be waiting for me to get rid of this avatar. If I finish, you might need to go tell him that he can start should he not clue in. I directed him to the infirmary.”

“Devon? I didn’t bring the ritual up with him after he dismissed it. You told him more? I thought he wanted no part of any of this,” she paused, frowning towards Eva for a moment. “Or perhaps I figured that he would tie you down in the solitary confinement building if he heard you were actually working on the ritual.”

“I’m sure he would have. Had he known.” Eva shot her a quick grin before double-checking on the status of the ritual. As she ensured that the swirling clouds of black smoke within the pot were not spilling out, she continued speaking. “Devon saw what was going on and developed a solution. All within the last few hours.” Or so Void had said before releasing Eva so that she could use her beacon to get back to Earth.

It took Catherine a few moments to respond. Her eyebrows knitted into a scowl as she thought. “Without knowing anything about what was going on?”

“Nothing more than what you told him and what he observed from the prison.”

Which only sent Catherine’s scowl deeper into fury. Eva had to wonder whether Catherine could have done the same. Probably. In the same amount of time? Maybe. Judging by her furrowed brow, she was rapidly trying to put together her own solution to sealing the portals overhead.

Eva left the jar for a moment, moving back around to the opposite side. The demonic enigma was actually shriveling up. Its skin looked more like that of a raisin than a proper living being. Not even old people on their deathbeds looked quite so bad.

Was it because of all the organs she had stuffed inside without care or order? Or was it because it was an enigma and, while it wouldn’t die, it had far slower regeneration than demons did. How much blood had Arachne lost during Eva’s treatments? She must have regenerated at a rapid rate to keep from dying and being sucked into a Hell portal.

At the same time, she could still see blood traveling through the tube and into the avatar. Until it ran completely dry, Eva would try not to worry too much. Besides, the ritual was actually nearly finished. The demonic enigma still had a decent amount of blood left. It should be enough for another few minutes.

“Do you need me here?”

“I would prefer some help here. If something goes wrong, I’d like second opinions,” Eva said, turning towards Catherine. She paused as her line of sight passed by Srey who was facing Eva’s direction with his head bowed. Not really in respect. He kept rubbing his forehead like he had a headache. “I don’t think Srey would be up to helping much.”

She finished turning to Catherine and put on a wide grin. “You’ll just have to restrain your curiosity as to what Devon came up with. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll show you. Unless, of course, he thinks that this is all your mess since you were the one to show him the ritual.”

Catherine, straightening her back and looking down on Eva with half-lidded eyes, put on an evil smile. “I am not above throwing you under the bus, so to speak.”

“Do as you will,” Eva said, walking back to the jar. When the ritual finished, she wanted to watch and ensure that nothing went wrong on that front. “I don’t think Devon will get too upset with me. Not unless he decides that his experiment has transformed too much from his original plans.” As she said so, she glanced down at her hands. They weren’t so different from Arachne’s limbs. In fact, they were probably better. No outside demonic influence to mess with Devon’s plans. Just blood magic.

Demonic blood magic rather than bloodstone-based, but it functioned nearly the same as far as Eva could tell.

Magic draining from the circle pulled her attention back to the jar. The ritual was winding down. Only a little left. The avatar still hadn’t moved, so she didn’t even need to worry about that.

She watched the jar until the very last trickles of avatar essence dripped out from her blood tube. The moment the dripping finished and the ritual shut off, a Hell portal opened beneath the jar. The entire thing, essence and all, disappeared within.

A small sigh escaped her lips. Hopefully that was enough.

“What was that?”

“Oh nothing. More importantly, time to get rid of this thing.”

As she walked up to the avatar, she coated the demonic enigma with blood, ensuring that it couldn’t move in the slightest. She didn’t detonate the shriveled husk just yet. It might still have uses. If only for Lynn’s research. She just crystallized the blood around it.

“Alright,” Eva said, turning her hands into long blades twice the length of her arms. “So long as everything goes well, make sure that Devon starts his ritual.”

“What about you?”

Eva turned her head over her shoulder to grin at Catherine as she built up magic inside her for a teleport. “Well, I’ll stop by if I can.”

Without any further delay, she plunged her arms into the avatar.

“Was that supposed to do something?” Catherine asked after a moment of absolutely nothing happening.

“Just… hold on a second. This thing is gigantic. I’ve never teleported with something so big. Usually only another person-sized thing.” As she spoke, she felt her magic hit the threshold. Without any chance to resolve the moment of awkwardness, Eva and the avatar vanished into the infernal teleportation.

Just as usual, the tunnel of flesh and screams surrounded Eva, squeezing her and the avatar ever closer to the prison gate.

But this time, Eva did something a little different.

She let go. She pulled her hands back to her sides, separating her from the avatar. With a slight kick of her foot, she sent the egg-shaped blob of meat off into the walls of flesh. It tumbled, falling into pieces from the force of their speed until it finally vanished beneath and into the walls.

Unfortunately, Newton’s laws apparently worked within the semi-alternate dimension of the teleport tunnel. Eva spread the blood of her limbs out into wide parasols in an attempt to slow her steady glide in the opposite direction. It must have worked a little, but not enough. She barely got to watch the avatar be torn to shreds before she crashed into the opposite wall.

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