Tag Archives: Arachne

010.015

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Eva paced back and forth, trudging through a section of cold damp ground with every step. After ensuring that hunters weren’t going to jump out of the woodwork and attack her or the ritual circle, she had set to clearing away the dome of snow. The snow was all gone. She had even cleared it enough to allow a decent path outside the ward. Yet the melted snow had to go somewhere. With the winter-chilled ground hard and cold, it turned the dirt to a freezing mud all too quickly.

In fact, the mud was getting stuck between Eva’s toes. With Arachne’s legs, she didn’t need shoes most of the time. That didn’t stop her regret over not having a spare pair on hand. A nice set of rain boots would have at least kept the dirt out. But nothing to do about it now.

The ritual circle had been undamaged during the fight. Miraculously. Really, despite her complaints about the mud, Eva had to give her thanks to the snowfall. The dome of snow over the ritual circle had probably protected it better than anything else. Even though someone could simply walk through the snow curtain with little resistance, the hunter had been at least somewhat fearful of what might have been inside. Had the snow not fallen, the hunter and nun would have likely walked right out on the ritual circle itself. Then Eva would have had to fight on the circle itself. Considering the damage done to the small battlefield, it would be a wonder if anything survived of the circle.

Either that, or the hunter would have simply destroyed it before Eva had arrived. Without the curtain, they would have seen it and decided that they didn’t like massive ritual circles being constructed by demons. To be fair, Eva might not be too thrilled about finding ritual circles constructed by demons she didn’t know too. So there might be some perspective bias.

But the hunter probably wouldn’t have sought her out and politely asked what the ritual was for whereas Eva might have, depending on various circumstances.

Clasping her hands behind her back, Eva paused her pacing, staring down at their captured nun. She was awake. She had been for a while, actually. Her heart rate was off the charts and she kept twitching. But she hadn’t moved more than that. Her eyes were closed—not counting her third eye. She hadn’t even tugged at the hardened blood bindings around her wrists and ankles.

Eva, after Genoa and Zoe had arrived and been fully informed of what had happened, had teleported out to the prison and retrieved her dagger. At this point, she really didn’t care if her bloodstones or use of blood magic was caught on camera. Eva enjoyed attending Brakket Academy. When it wasn’t under attack, that was–which seemed to happen more often than it should. Before Zoe and Wayne popped into her life, it had just been her, Arachne, and Devon. Arachne wasn’t even around half of the time. Devon would run odd jobs for cash or favors to get on with day to day life while carrying out his research. Occasionally, Eva would be invited to help him with those jobs. If he thought they were simple enough.

It wasn’t a bad life. Eva could certainly think up worse ways to spend the years.

But it had been lonesome. Devon had been her only constant companion. Back then, she had been convinced that he was a fairly powerful mage as well. Someone to look up to. Now, having met more mages than just him, Eva wouldn’t call him powerful. Knowledgeable, without a doubt. Not powerful. Even had he been magically superior, his personality would be the same. Devon was a lousy conversationalist.

In that light, Eva much preferred being around the school. Juliana, Shalise, Irene, Shelby, Jordan, and so on and so forth. All were fun to talk to and to be around; even if she didn’t speak with half of them half as much as she should. Even the professors were fun to speak with. And that included those who weren’t Zoe or Wayne. Just having a different perspective about nearly everything was fun. Once in a while, anyway.

There came a point where there was something just a little more important than all of that. At the moment, the ritual circle seemed to be just that something. True, the eye-patched hunter would have made much of Eva’s blood magic worthless simply by freezing the blood. But maybe, just maybe had she been willing to carry her dagger around, she could have kept up her shield long enough to torch a hole through the hunter’s heart.

So if she got kicked out of school—or even had to go on the run because of various murders she had committed in the name of blood magic—she was willing to risk it at the moment. All in the name of security. And maybe, just maybe, a chance that this ritual circle would save the mortal realm as well as her patron Power. Or what might someday be her patron Power.

She actually wasn’t sure what she was to Void at the moment. From her… experiment with Ylva, she hadn’t been sucked down to Hell when she had died like normal demons did. Perhaps even after Devon signed off her treatment as complete, she would still be unwanted. If that happened… Unwanted by Death and by Hell, she might just have to wander the Earth perpetually. Which wouldn’t be so bad. If she couldn’t be considered a demon, there wouldn’t be anyone or anything to stop her from summoning up Arachne or Catherine or anyone else should she wish.

Well, actually, that doll had tried to assault her for a similar transgression. Apparently she was almost demon enough to register with the Keeper’s dolls. Or had been, at the very least. Maybe they would take her off the list. Maybe they would keep trying to hunt her for all eternity should she do anything wrong again.

But, at the moment, none of that mattered. Perhaps someday.

For now, Eva turned away from the nun. She could ask about the hunter. Where they had been based out of or how they had learned about the ritual circle despite Srey not having detected anyone watching them in quite a while. But really, it didn’t matter. The hunter would have moved on. Eva couldn’t believe that the hunter would be foolish enough to actually go back to their home—or whatever it was—after realizing that her companion had been captured. As for how they had found the ritual circle… that wouldn’t matter either. They had already found it. Eva didn’t have anything else she needed to keep secret for the moment.

So she focused on the two approaching people, wondering just what they were arguing about.

“Are you sure that you’ve double-checked it enough? You barely gave your pictures a glance. What if something was damaged the night before? A stray shot could have gone flying and skidded across the ground or otherwise crashed into an existing line. You didn’t even compare it to the original sketches.”

“Perhaps it is difficult for a human to understand my mental capacity. I haven’t looked at the blueprints since the night I received them.” Catherine tapped the side of her head. “Memorized. It has the added benefit of not messing up if a page is lost or maliciously modified.”

Zoe sighed, pressing a finger to her forehead. “That’s… great, I guess. But you still only glanced at the pictures you just took.”

“How long do I need to stare at them before you’re satisfied?” Catherine pulled out her cellphone, tapped it twice, and stared. “There. Three full seconds. There are exactly zero more errors in this segment than there were five minutes ago.”

“Look,” Zoe said, voice strained. “I’m just trying to make sure that nothing is going to go wrong. A ritual circle this big, it’s hard to keep track of every single thing.”

“Which is why Eva asked a genius like me to keep the circle in check.” Catherine puffed out her chest as far as it would go, tilting her head up in pride.

Something that had Zoe sighing again. She turned to face Eva, brushing a frazzled lock of hair back behind her ear. “Are we sure we’re ready? Delaying wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Eva shook her head. “Genoa has finished turning the ritual circle to marble. So it’s a bit stronger. But if that hunter finds something else on par with the Elysium Order’s sky laser beam, it might not survive. Though that was probably thanks to this nun,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at the ‘unconscious’ nun. “So she might not have anything else.”

“But we can’t take that chance,” Zoe finished with a defeated slump of her shoulders.

“Exactly. That earthquake this morning… I worried for a moment that we were in for another day of constant shaking. I would prefer to avoid anything more.” Eva stepped around her, moving slightly closer to the ritual circle. “Besides, everyone’s here already.”

Six humans, six demons, Vektul, Arachne, and Eva. On the demon side of things, Eva had the usual suspects present. Catherine was right in front of Eva, of course. Saija, Srey, and Lucy were talking among themselves not too far away. Though Lucy was less talking and more squirming her tentacles into the grooves of the ritual circle, spreading herself out. It was a good thing that the marble was strong enough to not be easily disturbed. She could probably still break it if she tried, but her actions were closer to those of a curious cat than anything harmful. Rounding out the demons, Eva had asked Sebastian and Neuro to join in. She hadn’t picked them for any real reason other than that Eva had spent a few more minutes with them relative to the rest of the demons around Brakket because of the tournament.

For the humans, Zoe and Genoa were around with the latter still inspecting her work around the ritual circle. Apart from them, Shalise and Irene were standing not far from Saija’s group.

Juliana was around as well. Eva didn’t want to tell her not to show up, but she would rather have her outside the circle if she had to be here. So far, Zagan hadn’t done anything. He might not in the end. But if Eva were Zagan and she wanted to screw up the ritual, she would do it after everyone was already in place and starting the summoning. Unfortunately, Eva didn’t really have anyone else to fill Juliana’s spot.

She could probably find another human around. Then she ran into the problem of explaining to Genoa why Juliana shouldn’t be part of the ritual.

Luckily, Shelby and Jordan were around. Irene had brought along her sister and Jordan naturally followed. So they had enough people. They just needed a good reason to swap Juliana out for Shelby. Which was probably what Juliana was doing off on her own with a thoughtful expression on her face. Though, privately, Eva doubted that Juliana needed to protest too much. If she wanted to step away for any reason, her mother would probably let her in the interest of keeping her safe.

Which was something odd. Eva would have expected Zoe to protest having any children involved. But, by the looks of things, she was far too worried about the ritual circle itself to consider the students. Eva wasn’t complaining. She knew the students better than the adults; they were easier to convince too.

Eva clapped her hands together, pulling everyone’s attention back to her. “Let’s get this started.”

“What about the nun?”

Turning back with a slight frown, Eva shrugged. “As long as your anti-magic wards work properly, might as well just leave her here. Afterwards…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. The nun’s breath hitched despite her still pretending to be asleep. Something that Zoe might have noticed had she been sharpening her senses, but her eyes didn’t even narrow in the slightest. So Eva pretended not to notice as well. “We can decide then. Maybe toss her to Ylva. Maybe dump her on the front porch of some Elysium Order cathedral. I doubt her actions are sanctioned by the Order given her attire.”

If the nun actually tried something, well, there was a reason why Eva had used Arachne’s blood as bindings. Should she decide to, the nun would explode just as the male hunter had.

“In the meantime, Catherine, could you get the demons all set in their spots? Zoe, the humans?”

“And you?”

“Perhaps I’ll wake up our friend here and ensure she understands her position. Then I’ll head out and take my spot with Arachne and Vektul.”

Catherine turned and headed off without another word. Zoe, on the other hand, lingered behind, looking like she wanted to say something else. But she left after staring at Eva’s back for a moment, heading to follow Catherine.

Stepping forwards past Serena—who was wearing a thick coat, snow goggles, and more clothing than Eva owned—Eva squatted down just on the other side of the line drawn in the dirt. The marker Zoe had drawn to show where the edge of her wards was. The line wasn’t actually part of the wards. It wasn’t like shackles where the lines would be part of the spell. Within the line, use of magic should be suppressed, teleportation blocked, and there should be some invisible walls keeping the nun from simply wandering out.

Of course, Eva didn’t trust it half as far as she could actually construct such a complicated ward. That was why the nun had her hands and feet coated in blood.

“So,” Eva said, not bothering to actually let the nun know that she knew that the nun was awake. “Here’s the thing. You moving out of the little circle drawn around here will cause your hands and legs to explode. If you feel the need to test this, go ahead. I don’t particularly care.”

Eva stood up and started towards the ritual circle when the nun didn’t move, only for her to sit up and prop herself up on her elbow once Eva’s back had turned.

“What are you doing, abomination? What is all this?”

“Just trying to save the world,” Eva said with a slight sigh as she walked away.

She did pause and offer a slight nod towards Serena. “Keep an eye on her, just in case.”

Which is exactly what Serena had been doing since she arrived. It was overcast out, but not so overcast that she could take off her outfit. Were it not for that, Eva imagined that Serena would have been shooting a death glare at the nun. Perhaps a literal death glare given her abilities.

But Eva didn’t stick around. If the nun was going to sit around calling her an abomination, she didn’t really have much interest in conversing with her. Sure, she might be an abomination. That was why she had to be at the center of the ritual circle. She was some bridge between the mortal realm and Hell. Just because it was true didn’t mean she wanted to further entertain the nun.

Arachne also had some special spot in the ritual. Vektul as well. Eva could understand Vektul having his own slot. Nobody seemed to be able to name what kind of demon he was. Combined with the vacant feeling Eva got from him, Eva had a suspicion that he was a specially designed demon. Something Void had created specifically to act as a vessel with Void filling that vacancy.

Eva was far less certain of Arachne and why she had her own spot. Once upon a time, she had been a human. Perhaps she was a secondary bridge. But that had been a long time ago. Arachne was fully demon these days, as far as Eva could tell. Maybe not the best demon with how she couldn’t create void metal or teleport—or perform any other magic for that matter—but still a demon in essence.

Had they had more time, Eva might have asked Catherine to further investigate exactly how Arachne’s circle interacted with the rest of the ritual. Unfortunately, they just didn’t have the time.

A few quick blinks carried Eva right to the center of the circle. Right to where Arachne and Vektul were waiting. They weren’t in their spots just yet, instead gathered around the very center. Vektul wasn’t even standing. He had been sitting down right up until Eva blinked in, at which point he decided to lay flat on his back and just stare at the sky.

A nice overcast sky today. The snow had stopped falling since Eva cleared away the dome, but it looked like it could start up at any time. They were getting started well before evening started to darken the sky. The clouds still had it fairly dark for the time of day. Naturally, the violet streaks marred the otherwise normal clouds.

“We’re about ready,” Eva said. “I’ve asked before, but you’re sure we’re not missing anything?”

“The ritual circle is complete. We have the requisite demons and humans. The timing was slower than I had expected, but only small portions of Hell have been drawn through thus far. Nothing catastrophic.”

“Catastrophic. Right. Well, hopefully this doesn’t wind up catastrophic.” Turning to Arachne, Eva said, “You ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Arachne said with only a slight growl. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Not like we have much choice,” Eva said as she stared around the circle. Everyone moved about, though none were moving all that fast. Catherine and Zoe distributed them evenly around the circle, demon then human then demon again and so on. Shelby stood on her own in one of the slots, looking somewhat nervous. At the same time, Juliana was standing over near the nun and Serena, staring at her with narrowed eyes.

Eva found herself blinking in surprise. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised. Everyone was where they should be. There was something odd about Juliana being off to the side, but not odd enough for her to worry about.

So with a shrug, she turned back to the two demons around her. “Should the two of you get into your spots?”

“To start the ritual,” Vektul started, rolling over onto his stomach before pushing himself to a sitting position on his knees, “just channel a little of your magic into the very center point. As soon as you do, you’ll feel a drain. Everyone will feel a drain. The ritual will handle the rest, drawing on everyone’s magic to power itself. I would advise against actively pushing your own magic into the ritual once it starts.”

“Alright. Sounds easy enough.”

Finally finding his feet, Vektul stretched back, staring at the sky for just a moment before dropping his eyes to meet Eva’s gaze. He didn’t actually say anything. Instead, he spun around on his heel and walked a few dozen feet to his circle.

“Just be careful,” Arachne said as she stalked off in the opposite direction.

Eva performed a quick turn-around as Arachne stalked off to her position, noting everyone in their place. Catherine lifted up a hand to give her a thumbs up. Most everyone else looked somewhere between nervous and resigned. With Arachne coming to a stop, Eva oriented herself to face Vektul. Two little marks inside her circle were in the rough shape of feet—her feet—so she couldn’t really choose to face anywhere else.

Of the people she could see in front of her, Zoe stood morose, shoulders slumped. Irene could barely keep standing because of the shaking she was doing. Saija shivered as well, though it seemed to be more from anticipation judging by the smile on her face.

With a shake of her head, Eva bent over and touched the tip of her finger into a narrow groove and pressed just a slight amount of magic into the ritual circle.

The concentric circles connected by labyrinthine lines that surrounded Eva started to light up. At first, it was a pale red. Almost pink. As the glow spread outwards to encompass the entire ritual circle, the lines deepened until they were the brilliant red of demonic eyes. The second the light touched the outside edges of the ritual circle, Eva felt it. Just like Vektul had said. There was a drain. A sudden lethargy that almost had her yawning.

Where she had a slight headache growing—nothing that could compare to her anemia induced headaches after using too much blood—the others were having far more adverse reactions. None of the humans remained standing for longer than a few seconds with the exception of Genoa. Even she collapsed to her knees after another dozen seconds.

Saija actually took a step towards Irene, excitement gone from her face.

Vektul whirled around, pointing a finger. “Do not move,” he shouted, voice booming much like Ylva’s. “She is not being harmed. But you must not move.

Faltering, Saija stumbled backwards into her spot. Almost as if Vektul’s voice alone had knocked her back.

A howling wind kicked up. Rather than a chill from the cool winter air, Eva actually felt beads of sweat form on her back. The air was hot. Like a summer in Florida while stuck in her abandoned hospital without any air-cooling runes. Considering Eva’s usual enjoyment of hotter-than-normal temperatures, she hoped that something that was hot even for her wasn’t going to hurt the humans around.

Though she didn’t get much of a chance to consider their comfort.

The clouds overhead swirled around like the eye of a hurricane with the very center over Eva. Only, instead of the expected blue sky, the eye of the storm revealed nothing but pitch black.

To most people, the night sky was about the darkest thing they had ever seen. But that wasn’t true at all. The night sky was filled with lights. Stars, galaxies, satellites, planets, all reflected some light. Not much light in many cases. Even galaxies were relatively tiny when viewed from Earth.

The sky above her now had none of that. It was as dark as the sky over her domain in Hell. More, it was expanding, sucking away the light from the clouds around it. The black of the void stretched downwards, blotting out the trees.

Soon enough, the only thing that Eva could see was the ritual circle, illuminated only by the bright red light emanating from the lines. The forest beyond was gone as far as she could tell. Nothing but darkness stretched into eternity.

Looking around as much as she could without moving her feet and risking being yelled at by Vektul, Eva started frowning.

The entire circle wasn’t actually lit up. Only about half of it. It wasn’t straight half split down the middle, but some lines had glowing red lights while other lines looked just as they had before the ritual started. Eva couldn’t be sure if that had been so since the start or if they had dimmed afterwards, she hadn’t been paying enough attention to the floor, being focused on the dark dome overhead.

But now, she did note that the lines and circles surrounding Vektul were obviously dim. Twisting her body, Arachne’s circle was exactly the opposite. Everything burned a brilliant red.

Everything except Arachne’s eight red eyes. Each one of them was as dark as the sky.

Mini Author Note: I almost went back through every chapter and removed or altered mentions of Juliana participating in the ritual to imply that Shelby had always been the one supposed to be in her spot. Just to really mess with people’s minds. Unfortunately, any future readers would possibly get confused so decided not to in the end.

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010.014

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Eva honestly wasn’t sure what was going on. Supposedly, two people were fighting her. In reality, the nun hadn’t hit her once. The white fire of the Elysium Order burned through the forest. Another burst of flames would spread out and around the ground anytime Eva and Arachne got out of sight. But that was about the only thing the nun was doing.

A good amount of lightning had come close. Relatively. Never quite close enough to even burn off hairs on her arms. Arachne’s dodging and Eva tossing fireballs to distract the nun let them avoid a lot of it, but she hadn’t hit even once. To be clear, Eva wasn’t complaining. It was just that she had expected Arachne’s large bulk to be hit at least once. Perhaps more than that.

Eva blinked forward just in time to avoid an icicle from her front and a spinning battle-axe made of white light from her rear.

She wasn’t really sure what was up with the battle-axes. Other nuns had conjured them up in the past, but she hadn’t ever seen one put to effective use. Even right now, throwing the battle-axe had a huge wind-up. Eva could see the nun pull back her arm to toss it well in advance. And then it moved slowly. Well, slowly compared to lightning. Had it been a real axe made of metal, it probably would have been going a lot slower.

Though, watching it sink halfway into a tree, Eva couldn’t deny its effectiveness. Had it hit her in the back, it probably would have gone straight through her body. Yet not a single axe had hit her either.

Which was perfectly okay in Eva’s book.

She had enough on her plate with the constant barrage of ice.

The hunter moved too fast. She was probably killing herself. Every time she moved, her body took a second to catch up to her armor. Her organs slammed against her insides because of their inertia. Unfortunately, she wasn’t killing herself fast enough for Eva’s tastes.

Pulling up her hand, a burst of fire rushed forwards and enveloped another spiked ball of ice. The second her flames touched it, it exploded. Shards and spikes of ice darted through the burning air. Blood orbs orbiting around her hands twisted into small shields that covered her body for a bare instant before returning to orbiting her arms. Just long enough to catch the ice.

She only had three vials of blood. Not a single droplet had moved far from her body. The flames burning up and down her arms kept the drops from freezing, but she had tried to attack this hunter in the past with her blood. It had never once worked.

So shields it was. She had already been hit by one exploding spike ball. Never again if she could help it.

With no danger for the second, Eva took stock of her situation. So far, nobody had actually breached the snow dome. Which was perhaps the best news of the night. If all went well, the hunter and nun would be driven off—or killed—without either actually finding out what was beneath the snow. Maybe she shouldn’t melt it all away. It only needed to stay safe for another day. Just long enough for Catherine to finish checking, Genoa to finish shoring it up against earthquakes, and Eva to finish gathering people.

The second she was in the clear, Eva would be accelerating that day as much as possible.

The nun was off behind Eva somewhere, posturing for another attack. A direct hit with an exploding fireball usually sent her running for a half-minute. But the hunter…

The last ice ball had come from ahead, but Eva couldn’t see her circulatory system. She was too far out. And had likely moved again. A blink’s distance off to the side, Arachne slowly rotated around, staring into the darkness.

“Arachne!” Eva called out as Arachne pressed her large body flat against the ground. As flat as it could go, anyway.

A massive boulder made of ice, almost as big as Arachne, skimmed over the spider-demon’s bulbous carapace. It actually cracked chitin along the top curve. The very second it cleared her body, Arachne sprung straight upwards, letting a second boulder roll underneath. As she fell back to the ground, the armored hunter leaped out of the darkness.

A tarnished gauntlet connected with Arachne’s face.

Eva charged, blinking once she got a little speed built up. Her shoulder slammed into the stomach of the hunter. She had to clench down a shout. In rushing at her, Eva had intended to tackle the hunter away. Despite her powerful legs, she was still a relatively light girl. The heavy armor had so much mass behind it that it barely budged.

Her shoulder wasn’t so lucky. It tried to continue forwards and carry the hunter, but instead snapped hard. Jumping back, Eva’s arm hung limp at her side.

It wasn’t a complete loss. She did disrupt the hunter’s follow-up on Arachne. While Arachne had been dazed by the punch, and some of her facial carapace had cracked, she was still alive and had repositioned to be ready for the hunter.

Clenching her teeth, Eva hesitated. Her blink had carried her a good way across the forest. However, the nun was creeping up behind her again. Though she hadn’t hit yet, Eva didn’t want to take the chance that she would manage to get in a lucky strike. If she took a hit in a bad spot, she could wind up like Arachne had back in the Elysium Order’s cathedral.

Apparently picking up on her hesitation, the hunter charged straight into her, moving fast enough that she might as well have blinked into Eva’s arms.

Eva’s shield snapped around her in an instant, keeping her insides from being pulped by a blow hard enough to send cracks through the translucent bubble. A decent chunk of her reserve blood vanished into the aether to absorb the damage.

Kicking a knee up and bringing her fist down, Eva caught the hunter’s outstretched arm. The armor cracked. Barely. Hairline fractures ran through it. However, the arm beneath didn’t even notice Eva’s attack. In fact, speed-stepping around the place probably hurt the hunter more than Eva did while trying to break her arm.

And her hand, still touching the metal, was burning. Not just her own thaumaturgical flames, which didn’t seem to have much effect on the armor. Faint wisps of gray smoke curled up into the cold air from where her carapace connected with the metal armor. A dull pain started up in Eva’s hands, slowly mounting.

But Eva held on. Just for a moment longer, Eva held on despite her melting carapace.

Staring the hunter in the eye, Eva grinned. The second she flashed her sharp teeth, Eva blinked to the other side of the hunter. A spinning battle-axe made of white light struck square in the hunter’s chest, digging into the armor.

Eva clicked her tongue. The axe didn’t penetrate far enough. The hunter’s armor had just enough empty space between her chest and the metal. In fact, watching as the hunter turned around, the axe’s blade only made a tiny hole in the armor. As it disappeared into motes of light, Eva found a hole the size of her little finger. Nothing more.

“What does it take to break your armor?” Eva shouted even as she blinked away from another charge.

“A lot more than a demon could come up with,” the hunter said with a snarl just before she disappeared back into the forest, leaving an explosion of ice in her wake that had Eva shielding her eyes from stray shards.

For the other hunter, who had used a similar suit of armor, Eva had plunged crystallized daggers made of demon blood into his armpits. Exploding those had killed him and broken apart his armor. She could try the same thing here, but the hunter wasn’t giving her much opportunity. Not only that, this hunter’s armor was far more bulky than the other one. Her suit wrapped around her with no obvious weak points. The back of her knees, her elbows, her shoulders, her hips and legs, all of it was protected in some manner or other.

Against anyone else, Eva would have just left her blood in its liquid state. It could seep through the cracks and seams of the armor where she could then detonate it. Unfortunately, the hunter would just freeze the blood before it could get close.

Eva built up a massive fireball. One the size of her head. Perhaps larger. The semi-plasma membrane vibrated and rippled as she made it more and more unstable. With a frustrated grunt, she launched it off towards the nun. The explosion that followed completely shattered her shield and threw her back against a tree. A shock wave rippled through the forest, shaking snow from the surrounding trees.

She had to reactivate her shield as the falling clumps of snow turned into razor sharp icicles. The hunter was really on the ball, using every little thing that happened to her advantage. Even though they both knew that the icicles wouldn’t be much of a threat, it still forced Eva to react and it consumed a small portion of her blood. Just a little more attrition on Eva’s side whereas she was gaining nothing.

But that was how most of her fights seemed to go. She needed to get in a single good hit. Like the other hunter, a single mistake ended up with him in pieces. Theoretically, other people could end her in a single hit as well, but Eva was confident enough in her abilities that she wasn’t too worried.

Worried about being one-shot, that was. She was still being slowly worn down. Had she had her dagger, she could have replenished her blood. But it would have only been a temporary measure, she would just wind up lightheaded if the battle went on too much longer. Blood just wasn’t all that useful against the hunter.

Her phone vibrated as dozen balls of ice exploded in the air around Arachne. The carapace was strong enough to ward off a few shards of ice, but it still sent Arachne into a rage, swiping at the air. Unfortunately, a second volley of ice crashed down around Eva.

Someone had received her message. No time to check right now.

Hopefully it was Juliana. If she could just make all of Eva’s enemies disappear, that would be great. It would probably have unintended consequences though. Juliana might accidentally make all the other schools disappear—their students at the very least—or maybe even several students of Brakket Academy who didn’t like Eva all that much.

But she could surely figure out something.

On the other hand, Genoa might be the better option. If Genoa was rushing over to the ritual circle right now, she would probably bring along a few of the other mage-knights that were wandering around the city. Between Eva, Arachne, Genoa, and a number of other fighters, it shouldn’t be difficult to crush the nun and the hunter. They wouldn’t have to worry about any finicky oddities with Zagan’s magic or Juliana revealing herself to her mother.

Something that had nearly happened just the other day.

“Eva!”

Eva didn’t hesitate. She blinked straight forwards twice and once to the side, putting a tree between herself and her two foes. Her thoughts had distracted her, so if Arachne had seen something she hadn’t, it was better to trust her right away than to dillydally and get hit by something.

Another rumble shook snow from the trees, though only a few light flakes that hadn’t fallen earlier. Not enough to form up into anything dangerous.

Peeking around the tree, the area Eva had just been standing in was barren. No snow remained behind. The grass right where she had been had folded flat against the ground, leaning outwards. Even the needles on the pine trees had fallen to the ground in droves.

Something had hit. She was glad she hadn’t been in the way.

Not only had it knocked the needles from the branches and blown away the snow, but it disrupted the curtain of snow. An avalanche started, pouring down the smooth edge of the ward and piling up taller than Eva. None of it made it inside the ward and onto the ritual circle. At least not from what Eva could see. A large window of air opened up, allowing a sliver of moonlight into the dome.

The armored hunter stood in front of the piled snow, illuminated in the moonlight. She didn’t so much as glance behind her towards the dome. Instead, she focused directly at Eva.

Even though her eyes were on Eva, she still managed to kick off the ground into a flip as Arachne skittered towards her.

She didn’t make it far. Arachne’s arm snapped forwards. A razor thin thread gleamed in the moonlight as a small coiled rope of her webbing looped around the hunter’s armored ankle. A slight tug ripped her out of her flip, slamming the hunter face-first into the ground. Arachne moved on top of her in an instant.

The hunter rolled on her back, avoiding three of Arachne’s legs as they came down where she had been lying and letting them dig deep into the ground. As soon as Arachne started pulling back her legs, the hunter rolled back, using her roll to add momentum to her fist. Her gauntlet connected with the midpoint of Arachne’s leg. A burst of smoke exploded from where she connected.

Arachne’s leg stayed stuck in the ground while the rest of her backed up a few steps.

Eva growled, clutching at her limp arm. The hunter snapped the thread around her foot just as easily as she had snapped Arachne’s leg. Before she could get up, Eva blinked right on top of her. Her good arm’s flaming fist was already coming down on the hunter’s helmet before she had fully rematerialized. The helmet had only a dozen tiny holes around the mouth area and one thin slit at the eye line, but that was enough.

The yellow flames coating her hand erupted into a sticky burning tar, filling the holes as Eva’s fist actually dented the metal. Faint chuckles of laughter made it through the rushing sound of her fire. Eva’s fingers and knuckles burned, but she ignored it, upping the intensity of her flames. “Just die already.”

A boot in Eva’s stomach sent her flipping through the air, straight into Arachne’s waiting arms.

Rather than a single red eye dimly glowing beneath the slit in the visor, the entire helmet radiated a bright red light. Heat haze surrounded her head, distorting the air. The still falling snow turned to steam before even touching the hot metal. Even still, the hunter didn’t move to remove the helmet. Given her laughter, it had probably been protected against the heat somehow.

Black blood leaked from the cracks in Arachne’s face, dripping down onto Eva. Had she been struck by that second punch earlier, she could very well have died then and there. Eva grit her teeth and clenched her fist.

A part of her expected the landscape to once again turn bloody. However, aside from the area where the snow had been blown away, everything remained a smooth and snowy white. The previous times, she had been in a poor emotional state. Arachne had been stabbed through with a sword designed to kill demons. But this time, Eva wasn’t even all that mad. Annoyed maybe.

Tired might be a better word. Exhausted. Sick to death of this hunter popping out of the woodworks to hound her and those around her.

Eva blinked forward. Magic built up in her arms, intensifying her flames until the yellow and red turned nearly as white hot as the Elysium Order’s flames. The hunter raised her fists, ice crystals leaking off into the air like mist.

But Eva blinked straight behind her. Just as the hunter started to turn, Eva blinked back.

She placed her hand on the hunter’s chest. Right where the nun’s axe had split a tiny hole. As before, Eva flared her flames as much as she could. With the hunter half-turned, Eva pressed her down, forcing her flat on her back. Tar-like fire exploded around the hole as they crashed to the ground, sticking to the armor, the ground, and everything nearby. Eva shrugged off and ignored the fire that hit her, not even devoting the slightest thought to extinguishing it. Her concentration stayed focused on forcing as much fire as she could into the tiny hole in the hunter’s armor.

This time, the hunter didn’t laugh. She squirmed as screams rattled around inside her helmet. Actual screams. Not the giggles of last time.

Unfortunately, it was still just a tiny hole. Larger than a pinhole, but not enough to force her flames in at any reasonable rate. Through Eva’s sense of blood, she could roughly see the damage she was causing. It was like a blowtorch held a few inches away from her chest. Not that Eva had ever tortured someone with a blowtorch, but it was what she imagined. Whatever underarmor the hunter wore—maybe just a plain shirt—had burned away in seconds. Her skin turned to charcoal, but only just above her sternum. The skin was perfectly normal just an inch in any direction.

But the longer her hand was over the hole, the more the char spread.

Arachne had moved up, using her webbing to keep the hunter’s arms and legs from kicking Eva off a second time.

But the nun was still creeping around the perimeter. Eva put up a shield around the hunter, Arachne, and herself, blocking a bolt of lightning. She didn’t look up. She didn’t take her hand off the hunter’s chest.

Her shield wouldn’t hold up for long. The nun’s lightning hit far harder and depleted her reserves of blood far faster than even twenty of the hunter’s punches.

“Eva…”

“I know.” A second bolt just about destroyed her shield. “I just–”

A third bolt consumed the last of her blood. Eva finally pulled back her flames, jumping out of the way before a fourth bolt could hit.

It was a shame. The hunter was still alive. Obviously in pain, but Eva’s blowtorch hadn’t managed to cut straight through her body. A little longer and she might have burned into her arteries around her heart. Genoa might have survived a similar thing, but Genoa had Eva there to force her blood to circulate.

The armored hunter vanished the moment Eva stepped away. A slight sulfurous scent trailed behind in her wake.

Clenching her sharp teeth, Eva whirled around to face the nun.

Only to find Zoe coming out of the shadows behind her. She moved in close and slow while the nun was focused on Eva. The nun didn’t even realize anyone was close until Zoe’s dagger was pressed up against her throat. Then, she only had a bare instant to widen her eyes before a bright flash of light sparked from Zoe’s dagger.

The nun collapsed to the ground, convulsing. By the time the arcs of electricity quit dancing across her body, she was thoroughly unconscious.

Eva sighed, letting her flames die out as she clutched at her broken shoulder. Most of her clothes had burned off once again. “We need to get an anti-teleportation ward set up before the nun wakes up.”

Unlike Eva, Zoe didn’t let her guard drop even the slightest. Her eyes scanned the battlefield, searching for any other attackers. “That’s a nun?” she asked after a moment. “What about the other one?”

“Gone. Injured again. She’ll probably be back.” Eva turned, looking at the mostly domed ritual circle. “We need to do this. Fast. Today. I don’t know if the hunter saw what was inside, but she knows that something is here.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.013

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Eva’s eyes snapped open. A little tingle in the back of her mind, subtle but enough to wake her up. She hadn’t actually been sleeping. Not completely. Lying in bed with her eyes closed wasn’t the same thing as total unconsciousness. Sleeping was something she hardly did these days. She kept it up if for no other reason than the boredom of the nights while everyone else was asleep.

A small part of her wondered how the other demons handled it. Catherine probably stayed up all night, either working on her rituals or playing video games—human gamers rarely went to sleep apparently. Even if they did, the internet was a global thing. Somebody around the world would be awake and ready to lose to her.

Saija, and most of the demon students at Brakket, spent most nights in their rooms. Sometimes they would get together and talk in each others’ rooms. Maybe they were becoming friends with one another—though in that demonic sort of way where they didn’t really care about anyone else. Saija, Eva noted, would sometimes spend the night across the hallway. Irene and Shelby’s room. Unless Shelby skipped out and went to a friend’s room, Eva doubted that Saija was doing anything other than sleeping in the unoccupied bed. It still had her wondering about their relationship. Most days when Saija did sleep in their room, Irene wound up looking like she hadn’t slept a wink.

Which, again, was probably because Saija didn’t sleep and instead did something similar to what Arachne was doing right this moment.

Arachne usually slept in the same bed as Eva. Though, like Eva, she didn’t sleep. Unlike Eva, she didn’t close her eyes when she rested. Her eyes were constantly open. They were usually locked onto Eva, but occasionally wandered. Usually if she heard a noise. Anything from the creaks of the building settling to birds chirping outside could draw her attention. Though her focus was almost always back on Eva within seconds.

If Saija acted like that, even from a bed away, Eva could easily understand why Irene might not get much sleep. Eva had once found Arachne’s behavior somewhat creepy. Now it was simply expected. Maybe somewhat endearing as well.

“Something wrong?” Arachne whispered into Eva’s ear.

“The ritual circle. Somebody is there. They tripped a ward.”

“Not someone we know?”

“Could be. Wayne, Ylva, Nel, even Devon should he have caught wind that we were actually building Catherine’s ‘proposed’ project, though I doubt he would head out there. But…” she paused, glancing over to the clock on the end table between her and Shalise’s bed. “At four o’clock?”

Eva sighed. She didn’t want to get out of bed. The earthquakes had finally subsided once the sun set. Until then and for a good time after, she had been out on the ritual circle with the others, helping to keep it intact. To say that her day had been exhausting would be putting it lightly.

In the end, Genoa had come out and helped to harden most of it on Zoe’s request. She couldn’t quite wave a hand and fix everything. Apparently all the designs and lines interfered too much. She didn’t want to destroy their work in a great upheaval. So she went around, slowly transmuting most of the ritual circle into an almost marble-like material. It gave way with the earthquakes but was tough enough to walk on without worry of making odd marks all over the place. While she did so, Juliana and Irene kept the rest of the circle intact.

How happy she was, Eva could hardly say. Genoa hadn’t said more than three words before getting to work. She had looked like she was concentrating so Eva hadn’t wanted to disturb her.

But she had helped out. Her changes weren’t finished, but she got a good quarter of the entire circle transformed.

“We better check it out,” Eva said, swinging her legs over the edge of her bed.

Arachne grumbled as she flopped over, letting a few spare legs from her back that had been wrapped around Eva pick her up, as if she were too lazy to use her regular legs. As she pulled herself to a standing position, Eva took a moment to look over her. Specifically her chest. Her legs had all mostly healed over the last month or so. The smooth black carapace that covered her entire body might look a little thin over her newly formed legs, but they were functional. She hadn’t complained at all about pain or not being able to move them properly.

Though she might not complain at all if only because of her pride.

But her chest wasn’t quite the same. Her insides looked fine. Mostly. Good enough that Eva’s sense of blood could only detect faint scarring over her stomach and a few other organs that had been carved in two. It might look different with her own eyes, but she couldn’t really see with her carapace in the way. And her carapace was what had Eva worried the most. There was a thin almost white line running from between her breasts down to her navel. Right where the sword’s blade had touched her. Eva wasn’t sure why it was more damaged than the rest of her body. Maybe because the plates of chitin that covered the front of her body were more complex, interlocking with each other to allow her the flexibility a predator would need. The thin line on her carapace was discolored and slightly raised like a scar might be.

Given how long it had been, the line might just be a permanent scar on her carapace. Perhaps in a calmer time after they had killed all the hunters and eliminated the threat of Life and its enigmas, they could try tearing away the surrounding carapace and letting it all regrow from scratch. That would probably fix the problem.

Despite her groan as she stood up, Arachne gave Eva a smile. “We waking the mortals?” she asked in a near silent whisper.

Eva turned her head to Shalise and Juliana’s bed. Shalise definitely not. As for Juliana… She would be helpful if this was more than a false alarm; however, her bed was empty. Juliana was out at her family’s home once again. “Shalise would be slow moving, slow to wake, and I’m not sure how helpful she would be in an emergency. We’ve spent enough time just getting out of bed.” Eva started moving towards the door, but Arachne stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“She,” Arachne said, pointing a long finger at Juliana’s empty bed, “has Zagan in her head. Call her. If we do run into trouble–”

“Then Zagan’s presence is a great reason for both bringing her along and leaving her behind. Sure, he might help us. But he might hinder us for his own amusement. Juliana already admitted that she doesn’t have full control over his power. He takes it away at will. I doubt that’s all he can do.”

“He should want to preserve the circle as well.”

“Should, no guarantee.”

“You don’t think he is dedicated to Void?”

Eva rolled her neck, letting a few cricks snap themselves out from the stiffness of her half-sleep. With a nod of her head, she gestured towards the door. She waited to speak again until they were halfway down the hall. “I think Zagan is dedicated to himself. And I think he is very bored. Very bored. You have to weigh his boredom against how loyal he is to his creator. This situation with the Powers is probably something that hasn’t ever happened before and hopefully will never happen again. He might find it just interesting enough to sabotage our efforts.”

“He didn’t do anything earlier when the girl was assisting in keeping the circle together.”

“True. But that could have been a whim. Or sabotaging it could be a whim. We couldn’t really help her being there. The circle would have been destroyed from the earthquakes had we not brought Genoa and Juliana in. The best we can do is limit exposure.”

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Eva turned towards the lobby door and immediately started frowning. Heavy flakes of snow fell out on the other side of the windows, building up a fair amount in front of the door. Opening the door, it was all the way up to her knees. Not only was the snow annoying on its own, but the ward probably had a buildup of snow again. She had added a heating element to clear off the other snow, but it wasn’t a very hot heating element. Just enough to melt the snow with the help of the sun. Here in the cold of night, it probably wouldn’t work half as well.

“Zagan’s presence around the school doesn’t concern you?”

That was actually something that Eva was mildly concerned about. Only mildly, however. She was still relying on the fact that she was one of those new things that Zagan was interested in. A brand new type of demon that he wasn’t interested in messing with.

So she was safe. That didn’t necessarily mean that Arachne or Shalise were safe. But so far, nothing had happened so she wasn’t too worried.

Besides, he had already wandered around the school and taught a class without having Juliana act as a buffer between him and the world. Nothing terrible had happened to the students then.

She shook her head. “Anyway, let’s get moving.” Taking off in a sprint, she headed straight for the school. A quick series of blinks took her to the roof. Because it was snowing, she thought she might be able to see the snow dome out in the Infinite Courtyard—her previous fix to clear away the last dome had been entirely temporary. But she couldn’t see anything but treetops. Which didn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a snow dome out there. The way the Infinite Courtyard worked was strange.

She could follow the edge of the Brakket Academy building around the top with her eyes. So long as she started at her feet and looped around, she could see the opposite roof. However, if she started at her feet and tried to look straight out to the opposite roof, all she ended up with was trees. Trees as far as she could see.

It really screwed with Eva’s head. Like one of those optical illusions where the cylindrical trident led into a two-pronged fork.

Shaking her head, Eva continued on her way. From the roof, it was a quick hop down into the Infinite Courtyard. She landed knee-deep in snow. It took up a good amount of willpower to keep from igniting her legs and just melting it all away. Or even melting it in other ways.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was that snow made a long path showing exactly where she was going. The previous snowfall, she had taken great pains to avoid leaving a trail. Even then, she wasn’t entirely certain that she had succeeded. Especially once other people started heading over there to work on the circle. They had been far less careful than Eva.

Today, her and Arachne’s footsteps would be the only evidence that either of them were heading out there. And since it was still snowing, their footsteps would fill in and become far less clear. If they were visible at all.

Unfortunately, even running at full speed, it still took several minutes to get out far enough to see the dome.

And there was a dome. Just like last time, one large dome stretched just above the treetops to encompass the entire ritual site. Before even trying to enter it, she blinked around the perimeter. A solid sheet of snow wrapped the entire way around. She wasn’t sure for how long it had been snowing. But it had probably started shortly after she went to bed judging by how deep it was. Which meant that there was probably nobody inside. Not unless they were water mages and had patched up the hole in the snow seamlessly.

Of course, she had only done a quick check. One with poor lighting as well. She could have created a light, but that would have just been a signal to anyone nearby that she was out there.

But the fact that the dome was unbroken was good news. She wasn’t sure how, but someone had probably noticed the dome from afar, got curious, and came to investigate. Nothing malicious. They hadn’t actually made it inside the dome, but her wards extended a short distance outwards from the perimeter. Someone could have simply passed close by. If it was a student, she could scare them away. Professors or other adults would be harder to get rid of. Still possible.

In fact, mundanes from the news organization would probably be the worst people to have around. She didn’t want to scare or even intimidate one of them. Not even incidentally. Word would undoubtedly get out. She might spark riots against demons or Brakket or even the magical world as a whole.

So far things had been peaceful. Peace was much more constructive than chaos at the moment. It let her go about her own projects without needing to worry about anything.

Well, anything save for whatever tripped her detection wards.

She finished her circuit around the dome and blinked back to where Arachne was coming up. Her legs were strong. They let her move much faster than anything her size had a right to move. However, they were still slower than chained blinking. She might have been able to keep up in an open field, but the dense woods kept Arachne from sprinting in a straight line. Eva managed to get all the way around before Arachne actually made it to the ritual circle.

“See anything?”

Eva shook her head. “Nope. Didn’t sense anyone on the inside with my blood sense either. Could be they ran away. A student might have seen it, got scared of something or other—maybe just some noises out in the woods—and took off.”

Yawning, she glanced back to the dome. Despite the early hours, she should probably melt away the snow. If only to prevent same thing from happening once dawn hit. Also to make it more difficult to find again. The giant snow dome was stupidly obvious from anywhere nearby.

She turned towards it, raising her hand to melt herself a little doorway.

Only to spin straight around and fire off a wave of fire into the woods behind her. The brilliant yellow flames licked around a tree, turning its bark into charred carbon and completely missing Eva’s target.

“Arachne!” she shouted out as she dove to one side, missing a silver icicle by a hair’s length—and her hair still wasn’t all that long at the moment. The deep snow cushioned her fall for only a second before it turned into sharp icy needles. The trees and stars above her started to vanish from her sight as a sarcophagus of ice formed around her. Curling her fist, she shattered the still thin ice with her bare hands. A blink upwards and over got her out of the frozen trap.

Arachne was moving even before her shout, performing something resembling a back flip through the air while expanding her body into its full form. She landed on all eight legs. Towering over the snow, she started charging towards where the icicle had come from.

Eva blinked on top of her bulbous behind just in time to knock away another icicle. One that had been coming from a straight right angle from where Arachne was running. Sharp needle-like legs tapped into tree after tree as Arachne turned, using the trees like an inclined curve in a roadway. Each one exploded in a flurry of bark and wood from the force of her impacts.

“There,” Eva said, pointing slightly off to one side. As she did so, a ball of fire started growing at the tip of her finger. After Arachne took three more steps, it was built up enough to be the size of a small volleyball. And it was far too unstable to hold on to.

Rather than launch it forwards, she swung her arm and fired it behind them, catching a woman with an eye implanted in her chest by surprise. Eva didn’t immediately recognize the nun so she probably wasn’t friendly.

The fireball struck the nun’s shimmering shield and immediately detonated. The shield cracked but didn’t shatter. Despite that, the nun still stumbled backwards, tripping over her own two feet in an effort to get away.

Oddly enough, she wasn’t wearing the habit typical of the Elysium Order. From the brief glance Eva had from the light of the exploding fireball, the nun looked like she was wearing jeans and a heavy coat.

So not Elysium Order then. Not unless Ylva had taken away the Elysium Order’s habits. But jeans weren’t really her style. If she were in charge of their outfitting, it probably would have been long robes similar to Nel’s. Another rogue nun then? Chris had mentioned a few names that Eva hadn’t recognized. Perhaps this was one of them.

Maybe, if she captured the nun and air mailed her to the Elysium Order, she could get a little heat off her back. Though Ylva was supposedly handling that. Best to have a backup plan in any case.

A consideration for later.

Eva gripped down on Arachne’s shoulders as she twisted around to avoid another ball of ice. She barely caught a glimpse of its spiky shape before it whizzed over her shoulder. A half second later, her back erupted in a burst of pain as the ball exploded.

“Eva!”

“I’m fine,” she said through clenched teeth. “She’s straight to the right. Into the forest. It’s that other hunter, she keeps running away when you get close. Like the other armored hunter, she isn’t teleporting, just sprinting.”

“Call in help.”

Eva blinked, not quite sure that she had heard Arachne correctly. Yet she didn’t argue. Trusting Arachne to dodge enough of their enemy’s fire, she whipped out her cellphone and sent out a group text to Juliana, Genoa, Zoe, and Catherine. Just a short message saying that a demon hunter and a nun were at the ritual circle. She didn’t have enough time for anything else.

Slipping her phone back into her jacket pocket, Eva narrowed her eyes as she glanced into the darkness.

A single glowing red eye stared back.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.012

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“Hank Hanson here at Brakket City coming to you with another live report. A series of earthquakes have torn through the city over the past few days. Today has had a few particularly bad ones. I have been in talks with Alexander Anderson, acting dean here at Brakket Academy. He does not believe that they are magically instigated; however, he has assured me that he has people investigating the possibility.”

The camera drone pulled back, moving away from Hank’s award-winning smile to display an overview of the city. The Rickenbacker dormitory building that he was standing in front of shrank down along with him as the drone-mounted camera turned to face the rest of the city. Like most broadcasts from Brakket—of which there was at least one a day, oftentimes more if anything interesting was happing, which seemed to include nearly everything to the mundane viewers—the city streets were relatively deserted. Not completely empty, but desolate compared to somewhere like New York City.

“However, over the last few days during these earthquakes, I’ve noticed something about this city. Take a look.” He paused for a moment to let the camera continue sweeping over the city. “Now, I know you only have my word to go off at the moment, but a couple of these quakes weren’t anything to scoff at. Yet the city is silent. No police sirens, no ambulances or firetrucks. No fires, even. None of the buildings have collapsed. People are going about their daily lives only worrying about the quakes as far as keeping their balance goes.

“Most everything in the town is magically warded in some way or another. People here simply don’t have to worry about some natural disasters.”

With one last sweep over the area, the camera changed. Unlike before, it wasn’t a drone flying away but an abrupt perspective switch back to Hank’s face, though his surroundings had changed. He was no longer standing out in front of the Rickenbacker. Rather, he was inside it. One of the many side rooms for students to study in.

“Now, I’ve got a special treat for our viewers today. A few members of the latest event’s winning school have agreed to have a little sit down interview.”

Hank finally took his eyes off the camera and glanced to his side as the view panned out. Hank sat on one side of the screen while two students sat to his right. The farthest looked entirely human. A young girl. One of the contestants from the first event. There was no need to look further than the swirling green eyes to tell that the other student was not human. It was the bird-like flying demon. Just as in the event, he wore a pressed blue suit with little golden triangles on his lapels and for buttons.

“Neuro, why don’t we start with you? Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to attend Brakket Academy.”

An open-mouthed smile drew across his face, leaving just the tips of his sharp teeth visible. “I enjoy unraveling mysteries,” he said. “So when Anderson summoned me and asked if I wished to attend a mortal school, I agreed. There aren’t many mysteries in Hell, you see. I figured I would have better luck around here.”

“And you are a demon then.”

“There aren’t many mortals living in Hell,” Neuro said, grin widening ever so slightly. “Even fewer who get summoned.”

“Has being a demon caused problems with your schoolmates or anyone else?”

“Among my classmates or the school staff? Not at all,” Neuro said with confidence. “There have been the occasional demon hunters. For the most part, everyone has been indifferent if not welcoming.”

“Demon hunters,” Hank said, “I haven’t heard about them.”

“People who think that all demons are out to destroy humanity just because we have indefinite lifespans and cannot be permanently killed. Sure, some of us may be less than friendly towards others, but I think you’ll find that the case in humans as well.”

Neuro sat back in his seat, crossing his legs as he clasped his hands together in his lap. “Why, just the other day, I happened across an internet article filled with unresolved murders. Now, I could regale you with stories of how many of those murders I have since solved, but my point wasn’t about how talented I am—which is extremely—but the murders themselves. There are plenty more murders, and other crimes, that humans commit every day. Why would a lone demon doing the same be any different? But let us not focus on the negative. I am sure your viewers have many questions about… well, many things.” His tone came out almost snide towards the end.

But Hank apparently didn’t notice. He nodded his head and said, “Certainly. Why don’t we start with a bit about demons as a whole. Are there collective opinions on humanity?”

“Our lifespans might warp our perspective of mortals ever so slightly, but most of us can be perfectly copacet–”

Whatever the demon was going to say was lost to the airwaves as a boot slammed through the television.

Riley Cole jumped back in her seat, nearly falling off her chair. Despite the size and weight of Gertrude’s armor, she hadn’t heard her stand up and cross the room. Either that or she had moved so fast that the sound of her moving and the sound of electronics cracking had been indistinguishable. Either one was a valid option. Gertrude had been hard at work cramming as many enchantments as possible into her armor. Almost to the exclusion of everything else.

At times, Riley wondered if she even noticed the earthquakes that had been going on. Though she had definitely noticed today based on her insistence that they watch the news.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like she had enjoyed Hank’s interview segment all that much.

Gertrude stood in front of the smoking wreckage, heaving in and out like she had just run a marathon. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she stared down at the sparks dancing over the shattered liquid crystal display. Riley couldn’t say that she knew how Gertrude’s armor worked, but she was capable of walking around. And apparently perfectly able to fight with a student. Some of her current hyperventilation might be out of anger, but not all of it.

Riley had a niggling suspicion that Gertrude wouldn’t be able to hold out in any extended confrontation regardless of the armor’s strength or the number of enchantments.

Which, combined with Gertrude’s increasing hostility towards quite literally everything around her, had Riley feeling like she was definitely on the losing side. It was one thing to hold up ideals, but it was another entirely to throw away her life pointlessly.

She needed to get out. Sooner rather than later.

“Those fools don’t know what they’re dealing with,” she said, seething as she started pacing back and forth. “Trying to normalize demons? They’re going to doom everyone.”

Riley started to sigh only to cut herself short as Gertrude whipped her head over to stare with her one eye. They were supposed to be allies. Every once in a while, Riley got the distinct feeling that they were not. Yet another reason to disappear. She honestly didn’t know how her old partner put up with it. The more time she spent with Gertrude, the more convinced Riley became that Gertrude was legitimately insane. Or overly obsessed. Some of that might have to do with her losing Clement. Grief did strange things to people.

Of course, she had thought Gertrude was off-base on their first meeting.

“So, what’s the plan?” Riley asked when Gertrude said nothing. “We going to go crash their interview?”

“There are Guild mage-knights crawling over the city along with the security force. One or two and I wouldn’t be concerned about them in the slightest. But even I can become overwhelmed.”

And overconfident, Riley thought, keeping her expression steady.

“Are those creatures still appearing around?”

“There were a few. Your goggles have trouble seeing them through walls. Some of them, anyway. Others show up bright and clear just as demons do. Because of that, I don’t have an accurate count.”

“We need to isolate priority targets. Or find them already isolated.”

“And what about the thing in the Infinite Courtyard?”

“Too busy to work on a proper scrying method. She’s protecting against scrying. I can see all the demons wandering around the field but what are they doing?”

She turned away to pace back and forth, no longer staring at Riley. The lack of her stare came as a great relief. Riley finally felt the tension drop in her shoulders. Still, she didn’t sigh or make any other noise. Doing so might grab Gertrude’s attention once again.

“We’ll have to get close to see. Whatever they’re plotting out there, it can’t be good for humanity.”

“Getting close?” Riley said, trying to keep any expression of reluctance from appearing on her face. “If it is protected half as well as her fortress, we’ll need a team of ward breakers just to get near.”

“I am capable of breaking any wards a demon can erect.”

Though she didn’t care to break into that fortress, apparently. Who knew what they were doing inside there. Especially when all the demons had been teleporting in and out of there on a daily basis for the past week or so. Gertrude would say that they were up to something nefarious. Riley wasn’t too sure if that was true. The succubus certainly moved around a whole lot, but the two other permanent demons almost looked like prisoners with how little they moved around. Eva and Arachne slept more often than not after casually speaking with the other residents.

Which fit with the reports from the inquisitors that attacked shortly after the augur went missing. Though they didn’t explore the entire compound, their augurs only spotted residential dwellings.

Comparatively, Riley was actually worried about whatever they were doing in the Infinite Courtyard. They went there too frequently for it to be nothing. Neither did they look like they were simply sparring with one another, though occasionally one of the humans and Arachne would fight after moving a distance away from the main area.

Really, that thing was the only reason she was still hanging around Gertrude and hadn’t just run off to hide from her and the Elysium Order.

“No. We have left it alone for too long. Go. Scout it out. When no one is there, we will discover exactly what they are plotting.”

Riley stood with a repressed sigh.

— — —

“I still think it is too early.”

Eva shook her head, watching Zoe as the worried professor struggled to retain her balance with the Earth shifting beneath her feet. This quake was particularly bad. It took several minutes for it to finally subside. Even Eva had to grab on to Arachne—who had a few extra legs giving her stability—to keep her balance. Above, the sky shifted and warped.

So far, nothing had fallen. Nothing that Eva had seen anyway. Of course, her eyes weren’t on the sky.

They were on the scene before her.

The ritual circle. Irene was the only one working to keep it intact. And she was working major overtime. The two members of the Elysium Order she had recruited were gone, along with Nel and Ylva. So they wouldn’t be around to help even if Eva hadn’t fired them.

Yet every quake jumped a notch in intensity. And they just kept coming. Since Eva had been woken up early in the morning by the dormitory building shaking, there had been roughly one earthquake every hour. It was getting to the point where she was one more quake away from calling in Juliana. And if Genoa came, all the better.

Which had Eva biting her lip.

Zoe had spoken with Genoa. Immediately after Genoa had been attacked by an enigma as well. Something that had Eva marching through the town, playing the pied piper with Sawyer’s whistle in an attempt to gather up as many stray enigmas as she could find. Which, as it turned out, had been exactly zero. No enigmas had come to her call. Whether that meant that there weren’t any enigmas at all or if they had simply ignored her whistle, Eva couldn’t say. She was hoping for the former.

However, after today’s batch of earthquakes, she should probably try again. She might be able to get a nice little horde following her through town. And, if she planned ahead well enough, she could probably set up a wood chipper and just lead them all into it. Enigmas couldn’t die permanently, but she would like to see how long it took them to cause trouble when turned to fleshy sawdust.

She might have to filter out any enigmas with demonic characteristics. She was pretty sure that demonic enigmas were the cause of the current earthquakes. Specifically the one that had attacked Genoa.

“You said you dumped the body out by the highway? The enigma that attacked Genoa, that is.”

“By the highway implies we just drove off the side of the road. It was a bit farther than that, but essentially yes. Though it wasn’t dead until shortly after we left. Or rather, Genoa killed it. With a boulder. That she launched from the side of her car while she was driving away.”

“And a portal opened, it fell in while some of Hell came through?”

“After convincing her to turn around, I took pictures,” she said as she pulled out her cellphone. After tapping a few times, she handed it over to Eva. A large, panoramic photo covered the screen. One that Eva had to tap and drag around to see the entire thing.

Sagebrush, dirt, and grass covered half of the landscape. Nothing too unusual. It looked like any segment of the highway in Montana. Any segment that Eva had seen, anyway. But dragging the image over, all that abruptly went away. The sand-colored dirt cut off in a hard line. Black flagstones surrounded a tall pillar made of similar black stones. Eva couldn’t tell exactly how tall, but it dwarfed the surrounding sagebrush by quite a bit. Since sagebrush had a tendency to grow anywhere from waist to shoulder height, the tower was probably about as tall as a two-story building.

Tapping two fingers to the screen and gently—so as to not scratch the glass—pulling them apart, Eva zoomed in on the top.

“Is that lava pouring off?”

“It only lasted for a few seconds after the landscape fully materialized. I think its source was cut off. Between Genoa and myself, we managed to contain the small fires that sprung up as well.”

“Huh.” There were all the mentions of fire and brimstone Hells in mortal fiction, but that wasn’t true for the most part. Some demon had obviously taken a liking to the tales. Assuming, of course, that these areas were chunks of domains and not just random corruption leaking through.

“We thoroughly investigated the tower. Nothing living came through with the structure. Anderson has been notified, though I don’t know if he has dedicated any guards to watching it yet.”

“If any enigmas fell from the sky, the guards are probably running around worrying about that at the moment. Which is exactly why it isn’t too early for the ritual.”

Eva started to wave towards Irene, intending to pull her over for a small discussion. But she was focused on the ground, staring unblinking as she looked for any lines that weren’t aligned properly. Her wand was pointed at the ground. Every couple of seconds, she would wave it around before continuing to walk along the lines.

Even with Irene’s efforts, she would still need Catherine to do another flyby.

“I hope these earthquakes stop. Trying to do the ritual with them going on probably won’t turn out all that well.”

“They have been getting less intense. But…”

“But if they do pick up again, the ritual might be impossible. And then what?” Eva shook her head. “No. We should do this as soon as we can. Before the option is taken entirely from us.”

Zoe brought her fingers up and started massaging just above her eyebrow. “We still don’t know how this ritual circle works. You said that you’re supposed to be at the center point. I mean, I know of the concept of an enticement, but it seems unnecessarily dangerous. The bridge between humans and demons? Arachne should fit that as well. Why shouldn’t she be in the center?”

Eva frowned. Zoe might mean well, trying to keep her out of danger. However, she was implying that Arachne wasn’t as important as she was. Which might be true for Zoe. But Eva didn’t want to see her harmed.

Besides, if something did go wrong and the ritual killed her, then she wouldn’t truly die. Her experiment with Ylva showed that nobody wanted her soul at the moment. Death’s minions had left it alone while Void hadn’t opened a portal to draw her into Hell. So her body and soul might be separated for a time, but that should be temporary. Either she would figure out how to get back into her body or someone else would put her back. Ylva, possibly.

Arachne actually stepped forward before Eva could respond. “I haven’t been human in a long time. Any qualities as a ‘bridge’ I might have once possessed have long been missing.”

“Still–”

“But I agree with you.”

Eva blinked and stared up at Arachne, wondering just what she was talking about.

“Eva at the center is unsettling. Other demons,” she said with a mild glance towards Saija, “might trust their Power implicitly. I do not.” Her carapace curled back into an open-mouthed frown as she turned to Eva. “It would be best for Devon to find some other human to start treatment on and then use them instead.”

“Woah, wait,” Zoe said, stepping forwards. “You can’t just drag some innocent person into this.”

“Why not?”

“Because… they deserve to go about their lives without being sacrificed in some ritual.”

Arachne took a few steps closer, leaning slightly into Zoe’s personal space. “And Eva doesn’t deserve that?”

Zoe bit the edge of her lip for just a moment before opening her mouth.

Before their little argument could go any further, Eva stepped between them, holding up her hands palm out towards the two. With Arachne, she actually placed her hand on her chest, giving her a light nudge away from Zoe.

“Nobody said anything about sacrifices,” Eva said. “You’re both blowing this out of proportion.”

“We’re summoning a Power,” Zoe said, voice flat. She stared for just a moment before wincing. “I don’t think I’ve admitted it aloud until just now. We might be insane. Collectively.”

“Well, we’re not summoning anything with these earthquakes.” Eva turned back, watching Irene and the rest of the ritual circle. “Soon.”

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Author’s Note: So, previous chapter I mentioned I was going to see the eclipse. I figured I would make a small note saying ‘meh’ on this chapter. Instead I ended up writing about two thousand words about my day instead of putting my time towards Void Domain, Ziz, Clone, or any of my other projects. I’ve never written any kind of blog-style thing before and it probably isn’t as interesting as I thought it was when I wrote it, but here it is anyway: Eclipse Thoughts.


010.010

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Hands clasped behind her back, Eva walked around the completed ritual circle. Arachne followed along at her side, as usual, and Zoe had joined in as well. Catherine flew overhead, snapping pictures of the entire thing. They had a few changes to make that Catherine pointed out as errors. After her final check, the circle would be ready.

Ready. An odd thought. They would summon Void. Void would fix the sky. Maybe send Life back into its natural dormancy. And then who knew what? It was an odd feeling. She had been working on the ritual circle since Vektul had arrived at Brakket. Given that it was now the end of December, that had been several months ago. And she had known about the problem since long before that.

With it all over, maybe she could just go back to attending school like a normal person. She doubted it. Things entirely unrelated to Powers had been interfering with her school life from the start. She had no reason to believe that they would stop anytime soon.

Then there was the hunter. Eva hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her since she had kidnapped Juliana. Of course, they had been careful. Nobody went anywhere alone. Not even Zoe or Wayne, as far as Eva knew. When leaving the school, they almost always left with each other. Though, since both were capable of long-distance teleportation, Zoe was able to safely get to the prison without Wayne on occasion. According to Juliana, Genoa had asked a few of her old colleagues to patrol around the city on the lookout for the hunter as well as any enigmas that managed to slip by Brakket security.

Which, as it turned out, happened at least once already. Another stealthy enigma escaped from one of the remnants of Hell from a deceased enigma. Thankfully, Genoa’s friends had gotten the memo to not kill more of them. Instead, they focused on capture and containment using Catherine and Devon’s containment scheme from the prison.

If the mage-knights had found anything about the hunter, nobody had said a word to Eva. She had a feeling that they hadn’t been looking all that hard, given the enigma problem. But Genoa wouldn’t have kept quiet about something like that given her daughter’s kidnapping, so they had to be looking out for something.

Unfortunately, they had their work cut out for them. Even discounting the darkened blotches of Hell-land, enigmas kept popping up. Ever since Juliana had summoned Zagan, there had been periodic ‘enigma-falls’ every few days.

“Lynn thinks that the more enigmas on Earth, the faster Hell will be pulled into the mortal realm. Exponentially, with the darkened spots, but even on their own, they’re acting as some sort of anchor. The demonic ones even more so.”

“So I heard.”

Eva blinked. She hadn’t realized that Zoe had spoken with Lynn. Not that it really mattered to her. It just meant that Zoe had gone out to the prison without Eva. She was perfectly welcome to do so, as Eva had mentioned in the past.

“I’m not sure what Anderson is going to do when there are too many enigmas for wherever he is keeping them, but we could try transferring them back to Hell. In fact, we should try. Otherwise, things could get overwhelming.”

Zoe didn’t say a word. She stayed moving alongside Eva and Arachne. So Eva didn’t say anything in response, choosing to stare at the ground and ensure she didn’t accidentally scuff up the grooves in the earth.

“Where your enigma disappeared, the street still hasn’t gone back to normal.”

Eva nodded. “I tried collapsing it like I did with the domain in my dormitory room. Just like Ylva told me. However, it didn’t work. Not sure what else to do about it except maybe ask Catherine and Ylva if they have any ideas. I doubt it though. Catherine has been busy examining this ritual circle. Ylva… sort of does her own thing these days.”

Nel was concerned. That much was clear. Ylva, not so much. When Eva had spoken to her while figuring out where the other remnants of Hell were located, she had merely commented that Eva had the situation well in hand before walking off. Luckily, Nel had been paying attention to the remnants’ locations.

“Let’s not be completely pessimistic,” Zoe said. “We can kill the nondemonic ones without issue. It helps keep containment troubles down.”

“You never know when one will have consumed a demon that was similar enough in appearance to where you can’t tell the difference.”

Eva, Arachne, and all the other demons should be able to tell the difference regardless of what they looked like. Even if it was subtle, the demonic enigmas still felt demonic enough. But she remained silent on that subject, offering Zoe nothing more than a slight nod of her head. No sense mentioning it. The enigmas would likely just adapt and hide themselves.

If she had to go out and capture more enigmas, the whistle had proven that it worked well enough that she could probably lead them all the way to the prison. A pied piper of enigmas.

Hopefully it wouldn’t be required. The only reason she had gone after the enigma had been because she didn’t want to leave it running around on its own. Enigmas that could turn invisible, or otherwise hide their presence, would presumably be rare in the grand scheme of things.

And, provided all went well, the ritual would stop them completely. Her attentions were best spent on it.

Now that it was finished, they just needed the go-ahead from Zoe and Catherine. The all-clear regarding possible errors. Eva doubted that they would have time to do a full investigation of the circle and its nuances.

Speaking of which… “Any new input on the ritual circle?”

This time, Zoe let out a long sigh. “Not particularly. I showed the sketches to Wayne, but I think it made his head spin more than anything. Even with my specialization, so much is unrecognizable. Rituals just aren’t used enough these days to give me enough familiarity with it.” She fell silent, staring at the ground for a few moments. “Has Catherine said anything?”

Eva glanced up to where the succubus was flying around overhead. She was taking a lot longer to snap her pictures than she had the first night. She was also using an actual camera rather than her cellphone.

“Not yet,” Eva eventually said, looking back to Zoe. “But she is still correcting errors. If she thought there was a major issue with the circle, I imagine she would have stopped us before we had even finished the last segment.”

“Maybe,” Zoe said slowly, glancing up as well. “I worry that, as a demon, she is a bit too close to this—or rather, she trusts in her patron Power too much. If there was a problem with it, she might not say right away. Or she might trust her Power to know what it is doing and not look too deeply into oddities.”

“Something I’ve considered,” Eva said slowly. “But we don’t have many other options. We’ve got to do something about…” She trailed off, waving her hand vaguely at the sky. “And I see no reason to distrust the circle itself. If some random demon had come up to me and started blathering on about summoning a Power to Earth, I would have laughed in their face. And then would probably have had to kill them because they would have attacked me for laughing. But Arachne had said that Vektul was coming long before he showed up. Nothing we have done hasn’t aligned with what she said we would be doing.”

Zoe pressed her lips together, glancing at Arachne out of the corner of her eye. “So you’ve said before.”

Eva just shrugged. She trusted Arachne. It didn’t really matter if Zoe didn’t. But their conversation went on pause for the moment as Catherine swooped down at such a speed that angling herself upwards sent her into a back flip. Her wings folded back behind her while she was upside down but she still managed to finish the flip to land on her feet facing Zoe, Eva, and Arachne.

“Give me three days,” she said, hips swaying as she sauntered up to Eva. “Tonight I am running a ritual on myself using a few of the demons from around Brakket. Over the course of the next two days, I will run over every image and ensure that the ritual circle matches the original designs.”

Eva held up a hand. “Hold up, you’re doing a treatment ritual tonight?”

Catherine blinked, slightly tilting her head to one side. “Did I not tell you? I decided to run one ritual with a few random demons. Sorry Eva, you’re not invited to this one just yet. I definitely want to do another with you, but after your next treatment.” She chuckled and waved her hand in front of her face. “Just for a little bit of new blood, you know? Wouldn’t want to stagnate.”

Eva stiffened slightly as the succubus slunk over, wrapping an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Catherine had been in an absolutely insufferable mood immediately following her previous treatment. But between her back flip, her showy movements, and actually touching Eva, she was probably going to be even worse after this one. It would probably still be a good idea to stop by and watch, but Eva might do some Catherine avoiding for the foreseeable future. As much as possible given the ritual project anyway.

“But anyway, provided I don’t find any major issues, everything should be good to go by New Year’s Day.”

New Year’s Day. The day before Devon wanted to run Eva’s treatment ritual. Would everything be resolved by then? Devon might have to deal with some delays. Something Eva wasn’t too keen on herself. Her latest treatment had already been delayed for so long. All in the name of letting her body stabilize after such rapid and large alterations. Something she felt was entirely unnecessary.

Her body felt fine. She hadn’t collapsed, had anything go wrong, or otherwise keeled over dead. Well, except that one time. But that didn’t count; Ylva had been the one to kill her, after all. As for acclimatizing to her body, there wasn’t much to acclimatize to. She still had the same number of limbs. What were likely horns were still just nubs on her forehead that were mostly hidden by her hair, short as it was. The things on her back that might have been wings were, like her horns, just nubs. And that was assuming that they were even wings and not just her unfamiliarity with her own backside and shoulder blades.

It wasn’t like Devon had run an x-ray on her to see for certain.

Of course, there were probably all kinds of metaphysical issues to worry about. Things she had barely paid attention to. Things that Devon would concern himself with in terms of research. Had she been a bit older—or perhaps simply wiser—when Devon had first proposed the treatments, she might have done her own research to find out exactly what she was getting herself into. Now that ship had sailed. It was a bit too late to concern herself with that. Her body wasn’t human and, based on her test with Ylva, neither was her soul.

But he had delayed her treatment for a few months now. Even if summoning a Power to Earth disrupted their plans for a while, it would surely be fine. Devon wasn’t the kind of person to wait until the last available moment. At least not with regards to her treatment.

He might be a little upset that she had gone ahead with the ritual circle. Based on their short conversation the other day, he didn’t sound all that enthused with it. But Eva had a plan for that. If Devon decided that Eva was simply too much trouble or too dangerous to work with, she could probably convince Catherine to finish her treatments. Catherine might insist that she wasn’t friends with Eva, but there had to be some mutual respect.

Shrugging Catherine’s arm off from her shoulders, Eva took a few quick steps away. “Alright,” Eva said. “I’ll make sure we have the requisite humans and demons before then.”

“Make sure they are pure humans and pure demons. No nuns and no humans with bound demons. I don’t think it should matter, but let’s not push our luck.”

“Had already been planning on it.” Vektul had said that they needed humans and demons. Not partials either way.

Though, now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Vektul in a while. He was still around. At least, she was mostly certain that she had seen him—sometimes with her eyes, sometimes using her blood sight—wandering the hallways at school, sitting in his room or eating meals at lunch. But he hadn’t really been there.

“If you send me a copy of the pictures you just took,” Zoe said, “I’ll get started comparing them to the plans. Although, I’ve been considering telling Genoa about the ritual. She might actually have more insight than Wayne. Mage-knights frequently travel around ancient sites where rituals have taken place…” She trailed off with a slight shrug, glancing at Eva.

Eva sighed. Figures that the moment she told one person about it, everybody would end up knowing. She waved a hand. “Maybe try to leave Carlos out of the initial discussion? Genoa is fairly easygoing. Carlos hates me.”

— — —

Everyone always said that hard work paid off. Juliana wasn’t so certain she agreed. Hard work hardly meant anything to her since she had been kidnapped. Currently, she could look at an unfinished piece of homework and finish it with a thought. She could go even more mundane if she wanted. Shoelaces instantly tied themselves at her command. Or rather, they didn’t tie themselves. They simply were tied. As if they had been tied all along.

Some people might argue that studying to summon demons in the first place or her experiences in Hell and with kidnappers had been hard work enough. She wasn’t so sure that she agreed with those imaginary people she had conjured up within her own mind to act as a foil. Bad experiences didn’t mean that she had actually put work into something. They just meant that she had bad luck. Or had brought things down upon herself, which was probably a whole lot more true than a simple failure in luck.

Especially when Zagan’s ability was so strong. Juliana wasn’t sure what levels of hard work should be rewarded with such an ability, but it certainly wasn’t something she should have been able to achieve in her sixteen years of existence. She could almost understand how Zagan could act as he did—barely caring about anything and constantly seeking something to amuse himself.

She had tried to make the purple streaks in the sky go away. Glancing out her window, it obviously hadn’t worked. Some things trumped his power. The Powers, apparently. But smaller things?

Juliana was almost certain that she could kill the hunter without ever seeing her or even knowing her name. Just a thought in the back of her head combined with a little will and she might find herself stuck in the center of the sun. After all, she was currently not in the center of the sun and the opposite of not being in the sun was being in it.

The biggest hangup was that she wasn’t sure if she should. Morally. The mage-knights wandering around would likely prioritize killing the hunter over capturing her. At this point, she had done enough to warrant such a reaction. Attacking schools really was not a good way to get people to like her.

But just wishing her dead and having it happen? That seemed wrong. Besides, Zagan would probably like her to fight rather than simply wish her problems way. And if she failed to amuse him, he had already said that he would tear his way out of her chest.

So far, Juliana had not tried to use it on a person. Except the vampire. And she wasn’t sure that her using it on the vampire had actually worked. Nothing had happened. He hadn’t stormed up to Eva and demanded to know what she had done to him. But that could simply be because nothing had gone against his desires so far. So long as he had no reason to try to tell people about the ritual circle, he shouldn’t encounter any mental blocks keeping him from talking. And that was assuming that he didn’t just drop dead or something worse if he tried to tell people. Doing something like that was brand new to Juliana. It was one of the main reasons she hadn’t tried to use it on other people.

That and she hadn’t had Zagan’s help in trying to stop the vampire from talking. Since the night she had been kidnapped, he hadn’t said a word. He was still there. She could still use his magic. He just wasn’t talking. Juliana imagined him sitting on a couch in the back of her mind, watching like her eyes were televisions with a bucket of popcorn in his hands.

Which only served to make Juliana nervous. He wanted entertainment but all she was doing was sitting around, trying to avoid giving her parents reasons to lock her up in the basement for her own safety. Maybe he found amusement in that. Surely it wouldn’t last.

Really, she just wished that something interesting would happen. Something to ensure just a little excitement, even if it were only temporary.

A knock at the front door broke Juliana out of her reverie. Not many people stopped by their home. It was located out in the boondocks of Brakket City. Eva and everyone else she knew would have sent a message if she had been coming over.

But both of her parents were home. If she hadn’t gotten a message, it wouldn’t be for her. That wasn’t to say that she wasn’t curious. She stood, opened the door to her room, and leaned against the frame.

By the sound of the heavier footsteps, Juliana’s mother had been the one to get up and open the door.

“Zoe,” Genoa said as the door creaked open. “You took long–”

Her mother’s voice clipped short as a tremor ran through their house. Paint on the walls cracked. Small flakes wafted down to the floor. The door to Juliana’s room just about knocked her upside the head as it swung shut. Only a quick jump into the hall kept her from being crushed.

She didn’t stop with her jump. She kept going, half sprinting down the stairs. That shake wasn’t an earthquake. Something had slammed into the house. Her mother was in trouble.

Sliding down the stairs, she skidded to a stop just in front of the main entryway.

Her mother was lying on her back, looking like she had half of the door embedded in her chest. Juliana only stared for a second before she blinked. Between her eyes closing and reopening, the door was back in its proper place. Her mother was still on her back, but it was like she had never been injured otherwise.

It hadn’t even been a conscious decision on Juliana’s part. She might have thought that Zagan had done it had she not known how altruistic he was. Which was to say, not altruistic in the slightest.

Juliana just about ran up to her mother to ensure that she was alright.

A growl from just inside the doorway stopped her cold.

She only got a second to stare at the humanoid form before its skin fell to the ground in long strips. Its muscles fell from its bones before the entire thing collapsed into a puddle of violet blood. Organs no longer attached to each other, it fell forwards into a disorganized pile of bones.

A queasy feeling rose up in Juliana’s stomach as she stared at what had once been a living creature. The spots in her vision grew until she collapsed into her mother’s arms.

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010.009

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At least two enigmas had landed in the city. Nothing had come close to Eva’s ritual circle. Brakket security had cleaned them up—disabling them and moving them to a containment ward that Anderson had set up within the zoo. Since they couldn’t be permanently killed, they needed to be kept from regenerating and running rampant. Of course, that was all his job. Eva concerned herself with nothing more than a quick run-through of the city.

She was pleased to have found nothing especially concerning. The faint presence that felt almost like a demon was still around. Eva had spent a good quarter of an hour trying to sniff it out. At this point, she was almost convinced that it had consumed an invisible demon. Or something else that could hide well.

Perhaps more concerning was the fact that nobody had seen it. She had mentioned it to Anderson right after the first earthquake, but since then, nobody called up his hotline to freak out about a monster eating everything. The people of Brakket City were all accounted for. No one had come forth complaining about themselves or their loved ones being eaten.

That other demon hunter was somewhere around. Perhaps she had done something. Eva was hoping that she had gotten herself eaten, though she doubted that she would be quite so lucky.

Spinning the thin whistle in her hand, Eva walked down another street. One towards the center of Brakket City, not far from the main school supply shopping section where all the shops for school uniforms and books were located. Snow on the sidewalk melted before her feet, ensuring she neither slipped nor accidentally stepped in the cold ice. To other people, seeing a demon melt snow before her might be somewhat alarming. However, it was just some simple thaumaturgy. No demonic shenanigans going on in the slightest.

“It’s slightly stronger here.”

“Slightly,” Eva said, glancing at Arachne out of the corner of her eye, “is an understatement.”

With nothing better to do with the immediate future, they had decided to try to locate the enigma once again. Having one running around, even if it wasn’t doing anything, couldn’t be good. It could be building its own ritual circle to bring over Life for all Eva knew. She doubted it, but the possibility existed that it wouldn’t be acting in the best interest of humans or demons.

To that end, Eva had finally decided to use the whistle. She had spent a good fifteen minutes scrubbing it clean. There really was no excuse not to try it at this point. Still, she wanted to use it as little as possible. She and Arachne were out searching for where the enigma-demon felt strongest for exactly that reason. Hopefully the whistle would work on it. Sawyer had only had what Eva deemed to be standard enigmas with him. His hadn’t consumed demons or vampires or anything else as far as she could tell. Not until after the attack on his ritual, anyway.

“What do you think? Is this the best we’re going to get?”

Arachne shrugged her shoulders. “We could try a few more streets. I don’t know that much will change. It’s too hard to tell.”

Eva glanced around. There was a small pizza place on their street, not one that she had ever been to. Peeking through their windows, they looked busy enough. It was probably the only pizza place in Brakket, so that shouldn’t be too unexpected. A few of the employees did stop and look out the windows when she got too close, but none looked particularly alarmed at her presence—possibly thanks to the event, which they had undoubtedly watched. She just waved and continued walking until she was out of sight.

Both buildings next to it had been boarded over. She couldn’t see anyone inside either while using her sense of blood. One looked to have been boarded up relatively recently. The boards were newer looking and the sign of a printing company stood out in faded letters above the door. Eva couldn’t tell what the other had been. The wooden barricades looked rotted and worn to the point where it was doubtful whether it kept much of the weather on the outside.

The opposite side of the street was much the same. Half the buildings had closed down while others had found something that the city’s low population still needed and couldn’t get elsewhere.

Walking up to one of the abandoned buildings, Eva coiled the muscles in her legs and jumped. Springing off the ground brought her to a nice and easy stop just at the edge of the single story building. She stood right on the ledge with the tips of her toes hanging off over the sidewalk.

Arachne didn’t leap up in a single bound. She jumped, dug her right hand and right leg into the brickwork of the building, and used that as a platform to launch herself the rest of the way to the roof. Her injuries were mostly healed now, so Eva wasn’t entirely certain why she did it like that. But, upon arriving at the top, she gave Eva a short nod and said nothing more.

So Eva just shrugged and let it go. If she wasn’t feeling quite well enough to jump to the roof, Eva would keep an eye on her when trouble inevitably started.

Spinning the whistle between her fingers again, Eva stopped it with the mouth of the whistle pointing at her. The height of the building, while not an extreme height, should help carry the sound through the air. The surrounding buildings wouldn’t block it.

“If you see the creature run towards populated buildings, try to save the people as much as you can. Also try to corral it towards one of the uninhabited buildings.”

“Perhaps we should do this at night? After these people have gone home?”

With a shocked blink, Eva opened her mouth and held up a finger. But she ended up snapping her mouth shut. She didn’t really have a good response to that. Though she did stare at Arachne with narrowed eyes. She made a decent point about the safety of others? Humans at that? What had happened to her Arachne.

After a moment of thought, she shrugged.

“I was hoping to meet up with Catherine before too long. Zoe as well. Perhaps get their help to finalize as much of the ritual as possible. But…”

Eva knelt down. She carved a small wide-area sleep runic array into the ledge. A single drop of her blood went into the exclusion zone and, with a poke of her finger into Arachne’s leg, Arachne ended up excluded as well. If the sleeping had worked on the other enigma, it should work on this one. Sure, it would put all the humans in the area to sleep. Theoretically, one of the pizza guys could wind up falling into an oven or cracking a head on a counter, but she was close enough that she should be able to get to them before they could come to too much harm. A few stitches into their eyebrow would be much safer than potentially being eaten by an enigma.

She didn’t power it right away, however. The array was fine just sitting and waiting. If she ended up putting the enigma to sleep before blowing the whistle, it would just stay hidden, unable to hear the sound.

Everything ready, she stood and placed the whistle on the edge of her lips.

No sound actually passed through the thin tube of bone. Nothing more than the rush of air, anyway. No high-pitched whine that people normally associate with whistles. Which wasn’t much of a surprise. Eva had heard, or rather seen Sawyer use the whistle. The biggest problem was that the whistle lacked any immediate feedback. For all she knew, the whistle had been damaged at some point. Either when she had grabbed it away initially, in Hell, or even when she had been cleaning it not so long ago.

So she just crouched own and waited, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. She kept an extra watch on the humans in the few occupied buildings around her. Just in case the enigma had sneaked down into their storage cellars or broom cupboards. While she hoped it would come straight to her, there was always the possibility that it would attack people on the way.

To Eva’s side, Arachne twitched. Just a small thing. Her fingers curled unnaturally. It had been a few seconds since she had blown the whistle, so it probably wasn’t that.

“Something wrong?” Eva asked, glancing up to see her friend’s face.

“You don’t feel it? It’s moving.”

Eva blinked and concentrated. She had been too focused on her sense of blood and the humans around. As soon as she focused on the faint sensation of the demonic enigma, she realized just what Arachne was talking about. The sensation was moving. Like a pressure wave after a particularly large firework. Nothing world changing, but enough to notice.

“So the whistle did work then. Good.”

“Perhaps. Be on your guard. The necromancer may have done something to the enigma in his company to keep them loyal and merely used the whistle as a call.”

“I know,” Eva said, holding her hands over the rune array, preparing to activate it the moment she saw the enigma. “What do you think this is for?”

Arachne let out a low growl. “Just be ready. It worked on one. That doesn’t mean it will work on others. These things… unnerve me.”

“Me too.” Though, as with the other demonic enigma, Eva wasn’t getting an unsettling feeling in her stomach. Perhaps things would change once it got closer. She was hoping it didn’t.

Another oddity, one she only realized as she was thinking about how the enigmas normally felt, was that not once had her captured enigma done the high-pitched whine into cannon boom attack. It hadn’t even tried as far as she could tell. She would have to ask Catherine to confirm. If it had eaten something that ended up changing whatever mechanism of its body produced that sound, it might become an imperative to feed that something to any other enigmas they ran across. Working around them with a constant headache would be nearly impossible.

Eva’s head snapped to the side, staring up the street she and Arachne had been walking up. She had thought that she saw something. Just a shadow in the corner of her eye. Yet staring down the street, Eva couldn’t see anything except the pizza place’s returning delivery truck. Which, at its languid pace, wasn’t nearly concerning enough to get her to look. Not on its own anyway.

The driver exited the beat-up car, grabbed some bag with the pizza company’s logo, and headed inside the building while being entirely unaware of Eva and Arachne’s presence. The shadows beneath the car remained still. No creatures crawled out from underneath.

A bristle against the hairs on Eva’s neck had her standing and whirling around.

Again, nothing was there. Just plain white snow, even on the flat roof, unbroken by footsteps.

“Arachne?”

The spider-demon had spun around as well, though more in reaction to Eva’s turn than anything else.

“I don’t see anything.”

Eva took a step forward, farther away from the edge. She brushed her foot over the snow, melting it away while keeping an eye out for any inconsistency in the melting. “Could it be illusions of some sort?”

“Would it be able to use any abilities it gained from eating demons? The other one flopped about, barely able to utilize its wings.”

“But it did manage. Even if it was bad at it.” Eva shook her head. Turning back to the rune array, she brought the whistle up to her lips. “Just keep an eye out. I’m going to try calling it again.”

The second she blew on the bone whistle, she heard it. A high-pitched whir coming from the street below. She didn’t get a chance to clasp her hands over her ears before the inevitable explosion crashed through her skull. Glass exploded up and down the street. The car’s side windows instantly turned to little diamonds of glass while the larger windows of the shops spider-webbed before they fell out of their frames.

Leaning over the roof while clasping her ears in case of a second blast, Eva spotted the enigma. More animal-like than the one she had captured, this one still had its rounded mouth filled with sharp teeth. Unlike the other, it was lacking all the tentacles on its back. She only had a moment to really look at it. Its eyes met hers. As soon as they did, it took off running, fading out and blending in with the snowy sidewalk.

“Arachne!” she called out as she slammed her magic into the runic array.

She didn’t need to give out any further orders. Arachne jumped from her perch, nearly flying out as she chased after the enigma. Its six legs left a clear trail in the snow even though it visually blended in. Staring at Arachne and the footprints, Eva realized that it was well within her sight range yet she couldn’t sense any of its blood. Which meant that it wasn’t merely invisible, but blocking most perception as well.

Still, Eva was hoping her runes would work out. Rather than chase after it herself, she brought the whistle back up to her lips and blew again. It slid to a stop, leaving a long streak in the snow.

Arachne slammed into the enigma, not quite able to stop in time. The enigma turned fully visible the moment she did. Its wide mouth snapped at Arachne, but missed by a few inches. It opened its mouth for a better shot, but Eva blew down on the whistle before it could try again.

Its head snapped over to stare at Eva.

The whistle worked, apparently. She didn’t know if it would eventually grow tired of looking towards her when she used it, but for the time being, the enigma was forced to look at her every time she used it. Just letting out a low, continuous stream of air through the whistle had it moving back closer. It didn’t even resist Arachne as she got back on her feet and started tying up the enigma.

She stood up, only replacing the whistle in her pocket once Arachne gave her a thumbs up. The enigma’s eyes didn’t droop in the slightest. Eva might have worried that she had drawn out the runes wrong, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Humans in all the occupied buildings around her had passed out. Even with the adrenaline from all the windows shattering, they hadn’t been able to resist the call of the sandman.

None looked like they were in immediate danger, but Eva used her feet to scratch away the runes anyway. It would take a few minutes, but they should wake up before the pizza ovens burned down the buildings.

Stepping off the roof, Eva landed just in front of the enigma. It didn’t try to snap at her, but it did start up another whine. Eva kicked it in the jaw before it could finish the noise.

“We should just kill it,” Arachne said, pressing down on its back with her leg. “If the succubus wants to perform experiments on it, it should revive later, right?”

“That could take weeks.”

“Better than it getting loose during transit. I’d rather not have my back half eaten.”

Eva hummed for a moment, scratching at her chin. They already had the one enigma safely in containment. Same with the separated tentacles, if they needed them for some reason. This one had scales instead of fur or leathery skin. Catherine or Lynn might want to figure out what it ate to gain those. Lynn could still take blood for whatever she was using it for. Which was really something she should check in on. So far, Eva had been assuming that Lynn would report anything important when she discovered something. But it had been quite some time since Eva had spoken with the former nun.

However, that was for later. For the moment… Eva stared at the enigma. With the whistle, it escaping probably wasn’t much of an issue. Judging by how it twisted back to stare at Eva despite its attempt to escape, it wouldn’t be able to resist more calls. But Arachne was right. It could take a chunk out of her before Eva could react.

“Do it.”

“With pleasure.” Arachne lifted her foot off the enigma’s back. She held it for just a moment before dropping down on the base of the enigma’s neck. Not quite severing it, but violet blood did splatter around as the bones of its neck pulped. The rest of the body immediately went still. And yet, despite the definitely severed spinal cord, its heart still pumped blood.

“Well, let’s pick it up and–”

Eva cut herself off, jumping back and away from the fallen enigma. Arachne did the same.

A wide portal, black as night, opened up beneath the enigma. Unlike normal demons, the enigma did not immediately fall inside. Violet bled into the black portal. It shimmered, much like the sky overhead. Only once all black had turned colors did the enigma sink into the portal. Even then, it was a hesitant sink. Normal demons fell in like a stone in water. The enigma sank like the portal was filled with tar.

After finally disappearing beneath the surface, the violet portal hung around just long enough for Eva to worry that it would stay open permanently. It did eventually collapse in on itself.

The violet shimmers faded away into nothingness.

But the street wasn’t back to normal. The portal was gone, but it left a dark splotch of land left behind.

“That was an enigma, right?”

“As far as I could tell.”

Eva knelt down, touching just the tip of her finger to the darkness. The moment she did, she felt a certain familiarity. Like being back within her domain in Hell. As a quick experiment, she tried forming a single metal bar from her prison, just like how she built the alternate women’s ward.

Her fingers wrapped around cold metal almost as soon as the thought crossed her mind. She withdrew her hand, pulling a narrow bar of rusted iron from the darkness. Exactly like what she might find in one of the cell blocks at her prison.

A scowl crossed her features. “This must be what Nel meant.” She had never followed up on the augur’s message about enigmas leaving things behind. If it had been important, she figured that Nel would follow up on her own. Obviously she couldn’t trust the nun to do that much.

“Do you suppose this is Life’s plan?” Arachne said. She leaned down next to Eva, but kept her hands well clear of the dark splotch. “We kill enigmas, they leave some of Hell behind. It seems like it would take forever to bring all of Hell through.”

“Seems like it would take forever to get meaningful results.” The entire spot of distorted terrain covered less than a five foot circle. It wasn’t a perfect circle at that, somewhat elongated. Perhaps using the outside edge of the enigma’s body to determine its radius.

“Powers are different beings. They don’t think like we do. I doubt they experience time like we do either. Still, if other things can come through this at will…”

“Then we kill more, which makes more, which means more and more things will come through.”

“It might not take as long as we think.”

Eva stood, backing away from the dark area. “Let’s see if Anderson will set up a few guards—guards impressed with orders to not kill the enigmas—around this and ones Nel and Ylva made. Then… we need to finish the ritual circle. Immediately.”

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010.008

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Eva froze, staring at the creature. It scampered off to hide the moment she snapped her head over, but she continued staring. The thing had spoken. Words—her name—had come out of its mouth.

“I thought you couldn’t get it to talk,” Eva said without taking her eyes off the thing.

“It didn’t do anything but growl and slobber when I tried speaking with it.” Catherine leaned forward, nearly touching the bars of the cell with her face.

“That was my name, right?”

“I doubt it actually knows the context of what it said. I’ve said Eva once or twice during our conversation. Devon has as well, right? I probably said your name while trying to get it to speak as well. Like a parrot, it is merely repeating what it heard. Eva has been a fairly common word around it. Likely when you first captured it as well. Arachne or Zoe probably said your name.”

The enigma pressed itself to the floor behind the twisted remains of the bed frame. The frame wasn’t doing much at all to hide the creature’s body. Only its face. But its two pointed ears, which had been lying flat against its skull, perked up and twitched every so often as Catherine spoke.

Eva spent several minutes attempting to coax the creature out of hiding. It didn’t speak once. None of her words to it seemed to do a single thing.

“If it was just repeating a common name, it would have said ‘the’ or ‘I’ or something else that we say far more often than my name,” Eva said with a deep frown.

“Perhaps it is that human thing.”

Eva finally took her eyes off the enigma—it wasn’t doing much of anything at the moment—and stared at Catherine. She had a slight sinking feeling in her stomach. “What human thing?”

Catherine grinned. “Human babies’ first words are often calling out to their parents. A similar thing could be occurring here.”

Shaking her head, Eva said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a proper response. Besides, if that were the case, its first word should have been Catherine.”

“Very funny.”

“Still, if it said a word, maybe it can say more. Maybe to the point where it will understand what it is saying and what is being said. Of course, you might have to teach it like a human. It will take time, effort, love, and care and nurturing.”

That wiped the smile right off Catherine’s face. Taking a few steps away from the cell, she paused with a shake of her head. “I believe this ‘communication’ experiment has run its course. No valuable data can be gained from continuing attempts to meaningfully interact. Lynn wanted to dissect it. I think I will tell her that she is free to do so.”

The tone Catherine spoke with had Eva wondering if she was serious or not. On one hand, the enigma probably didn’t have any answers to questions that she might ask. If the creature had only recently gained sapience—if it was even sapient now—then it probably wouldn’t be able to tell much of its goals, purpose, or its patron Power. On the other hand, it might be amusing to convince an enigma to fight against its creator.

Eva ran a finger over the whistle in her pocket. Depending on exactly how Sawyer’s whistle worked, it might not take much convincing. She had actually forgotten about it until a few minutes before going to check on the enigmas. Despite having them ready to be the perfect test subjects, Eva was a little hesitant to use it.

It looked like it had been carved out of bone. Knowing Sawyer, it had to be human bone. Anything less just wouldn’t fit with him. But she wasn’t hesitant because it was bone, rather because it had belonged to Sawyer. Eva couldn’t help but shudder. It was a whistle. That meant his lips had touched it. In fact, she had seen his lips on it.

Still, she might have to use it. If not on the hellhound-enigma, then on the one still lost in the city.

Leaving it in her pocket, Eva threw one last look at the still cowering enigma before following Catherine out of the cell block. The enigma was probably not going anywhere. If Devon thought his containment was close to failing, he would have stayed behind and fixed it up. However, Catherine was going somewhere and Eva still had a few things to discuss with her.

Only for Eva to nearly bump into Catherine as she stepped out the main door.

She only had a moment to realize that Catherine was staring up at the sky before actually bumping into her. Though it wasn’t Eva’s fault.

The ground shaking sent Eva straight into Catherine’s backside.

“Oh no,” Eva said, pushing herself away from Catherine to stare at the sky. “Not again.”

Catherine, having maintained perfect balance despite Eva, just turned her head back to the sky. “I didn’t see anything fall before you bumped into me.”

“Things could have fallen beforehand. Last time, there was a good hour between things falling and the earthquake. Call Nel,” Eva said, patting Catherine on the shoulder as she moved around her to get out of the cell block. “see if she found anything. I need to grab my dagger.”

She had promised herself, and Anderson a little, that she wouldn’t use blood magic while the other schools and cameras were around. However, there came a point where pragmatism won out over caution. If there were more enigmas running around, she didn’t want to come out unarmed. A few vials of blood and her dagger would make her feel much better. So long as she kept her dagger hidden, she could probably pass off the blood as some demon thing.

As for the whistle… well, if more did fall from the sky…

Eva really needed to put it through an acid bath. That would clean off any remnants of Sawyer. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the time or the acid.

Maybe she could coat her mouth with semi-solidified blood that she could just obliterate later on. Did it say something bad about her that she would rather have demon blood in her mouth than a whistle that might have lightly brushed against Sawyer’s lips a time or two? Probably not.

“Eva!” Arachne called out. Eva had barely made it halfway to the women’s ward before Arachne made it to her. She ran up, placing a hand on either of Eva’s shoulders. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Nothing happened here. Grabbing my dagger and some blood. Then we’re heading over to Brakket.”

The carapace making up Arachne’s mouth curled back into a teeth-baring grimace. “Must we?” she said, voice low. “You have no obligation to keep those humans safe. There are security guards and bounty hunters there. We have already captured one enigma for any testing we could possibly need. There is no reason to throw yourself into danger.”

Eva sighed. It was true. She didn’t need to do anything. Genoa would be keeping Juliana safe. Shalise as well. Irene had Saija constantly shadowing her and Jordan could take care of himself. And, as Arachne had said, Brakket had a security force. Apparently.

In that light, there might not be much of a reason to run.

“Except,” Eva said slowly, patting Arachne on the arm. “What happens if an enigma crash landed right on the ritual circle?”

Arachne’s grimace twisted even further. “I suppose we should take care of it.”

“At least check it out. And maybe nothing happened this time. Normal earthquakes do happen. This could just be an aftershock from the one the other day.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Not in the slightest!” Eva slipped around Arachne. “I’ll just be a moment. Check in with Catherine around the enigma cells. See if she got a hold of Nel.”

Blinking twice had Eva just in front of the women’s ward doors. She dashed inside, grabbed her dagger from its spot just next to the copper engraved plate that Juliana had gifted her, and ran back outside. Another few blinks and Eva found herself right next to Catherine and Arachne.

“Well?”

Catherine glanced over to Eva as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. Which, when Eva thought about it, was probably a good reason to wear clothes. If Catherine didn’t wear clothes everywhere and suddenly needed her phone, she would either have had to carry it everyone or go pick it up.

“Nel was out of town with Ylva. Not sure what they were doing. As such, she didn’t see anything fall. Which doesn’t mean that nothing fell. Once she gets back, she said that she will start scanning the streets of Brakket.”

“Well great,” Eva mumbled as she sent off a text message to Zoe. If nothing actually fell from the sky, there was no need to rush. Though, even if nothing had fallen, she should still check in with the ritual circle to ensure that the earthquake hadn’t damaged anything.

And, now that she was thinking about it, she should probably have Catherine retake pictures sometime.

“Arachne, we’re teleporting there. Shrink down, if you want to come. Catherine…” Eva trailed off, scratching the short hair on the back of her head. “Well, you can do whatever you want, I guess.”

“I’ll remain here. If more enigmas fell, I should ensure that those we have captured do not escape.”

With a nod of her head, Eva started building up magic within herself. Arachne climbed up her leg and perched at her shoulder. A moment later and both were hurling through the fleshy tunnel between Hell and Brakket Academy.

— — —

Zoe paced back and forth in Wayne’s office. She passed by the colorful jars of potions and ingredients that lined every available space on the walls without so much as glancing around. It wasn’t the first time she had entered his office. Most of the potions weren’t real potions anyway. Or if they were, they were so old that ingesting them would give someone quite the stomach ache at best. The potion bottles were purely decorative. A little fancy touch to his room to impress students and parents that entered.

Of course, anyone who actually knew Wayne would know that he wasn’t really the type to go for superfluous decorations. Zoe—while she had been much younger, just after Wayne landed his job as professor—had been the one to set it up for him. In all the years since, he had never bothered to change it.

In fact, it was about time she dusted again.

While she paced, Wayne sat hunched over his desk, staring at the top.

Wayne hadn’t said a word in quite some time. Not since she had dropped a pack of papers on his desk. With Catherine’s help, she had scaled down the ritual circle’s primary plans to fit on nine sheets of paper. A great deal of details had been lost, but Wayne wasn’t trained that heavily in ritual circles anyway. He might notice, but it was a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. If he really wanted to see a more detailed version, she didn’t have a problem showing him.

She hadn’t fully explained what the ritual did. The subject was hard enough to broach. For now, she had told him that it was designed to help close off the connection between Hell, Life’s domain, and Earth. Which, assuming it did what Eva said it would do, shouldn’t be too far from the truth.

But between the earthquake the other day and what it likely meant about just how impending an apocalypse was… Really, she– They all had known about it for nearly a year now. Compared with every other thing in her life, an impending apocalypse wasn’t quite something that she could quantify in her mind. Not even the Lansing Incident could compare. Zoe imagined it was similar for the others. It was too big.

As such, though she wouldn’t admit it to anyone save perhaps Wayne, Zoe was secretly glad that Eva had been doing something about it. Even if that something was creating a ritual circle of dubious intentions apparently designed by a Power.

Zoe bit the edge of her lip as she looked over to Wayne. He had no formal training in ritual circles and yet he had been staring at the papers for well over ten minutes. Testing the waters, she tried clearing her throat.

The creases on his brow smoothed over as he glanced up to meet Zoe’s eyes.

“You said that this ritual is supposed to be large?”

Nodding her head, Zoe approached the desk. She pointed out each of the small circles dotted around the ritual circle. “People are supposed to stand inside each one of these to help power the ritual circle. I’ve checked over it and each circle is designed in the same manner. Magic can pass from within the smaller circles out into the larger ritual, but not the reverse. Regardless of what the circle actually does, they should be safe.”

Wayne sighed with a shake of his head. “That you had to tell me that does not speak well for… anything, really.”

“I know.” Zoe hung her head, staring at the lines on the sheets of paper. “But I’ve yet to hear any better solutions. And after the earthquake the other day and everything involved with it, I’m worried we’ve got less time than anyone was thinking we had.”

“Do keep in mind that everything we know about this so-called apocalypse comes from a demon. Worse, Zagan. That… man did not sit well with me from the moment he showed up as a teacher.”

Zoe leaned back, crossing her arms. “Oh? Monsters raining from the sky is just a normal part of life then?” She frowned as she realized something. “I suppose that’s par for the course in my life.”

Wayne pressed his hands to his desk as he stood. He stood like that, back bent with his hands unmoving. “Look, Zoe,” he said, voice far softer than she had heard it in years. “I don’t know what you hoped to accomplish by bringing this to me. Obviously I’m not going to like it. But it isn’t something I can offer meaningful advice on. If you construct this, you should be exceedingly careful. Both about the circle and those you’re working with.”

Shifting slightly, Zoe pressed her lips together. The ritual circle was essentially complete. Or it had been the other day when Eva showed it to her. Assuming Eva had kept up work, it might even be finished. He didn’t need to help in the slightest. “I wanted you to know. To realize what I’m doing. So that you weren’t blindsided if you stumble across me building a ritual circle. And your help… well, any insights you can offer would be appreciated, but myself and Catherine–”

Wayne let out a loud scoff. “Sometimes I wish we had never found that girl.”

“Sometimes?”

“All the time. I tried to leave her behind, you know.”

“So you remind me every time something happens. Still, things would still have happened. Perhaps not in the way that they did, but there could still have been some impending Armageddon. We would just be ignorant of it. With that in mind, I’m glad we’re the ones to know about it. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

“And you’re so sure that this–” He put a finger down in the center of the printed papers, “–is right?”

“That’s what Catherine and I hope to find out. And before you scoff again, Catherine likely would have been around Brakket Academy with or without Eva’s presence. Dean Halsey was well on her way out and Martina well on her way in long before Eva’s first year. Zagan as well.”

“And that,” he grumbled, “is scoff-worthy on its own.”

Turning from his desk, he moved up to the shelves of flasks just behind his chair. He pulled off a tall bottle of amber liquid. Reaching behind the other bottles, he grabbed hold of two short glasses. He slid the papers over to make room for a glass in front of each of them.

Zoe raised an eyebrow. “You never accept my invitations to Tom’s bar. I thought you quit.”

“It’s just an occasional thing. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I like my head on straight more often than not these days. Every five minutes seems like something life threatening is going on. But it seems we never just have nice social nights anymore.”

Just as he started to pour, all the bottles, vials, and jars on the shelves started to rattle. Alcohol ran off his desk from where his pouring failed to connect with the glass. Zoe felt the ground shaking beneath her shoes. One bottle shook itself off a shelf, shattering against the floor of his office, before Wayne could reach over and place a hand on his tome.

As soon as he did, a semi-translucent barrier appeared over all the walls, keeping the glass trapped in place.

Wayne just sighed. “See. Like this. I try to relax for five minutes and now we’ve got another quake.”

Zoe jumped to her feet, feeling far less nonchalant than Wayne’s exasperated tone. Her first thought was to check her phone. Perhaps in her pacing and nervousness, she had missed messages from Eva, Nel, or Catherine. But there were no recent messages. No missed calls.

“Well,” Wayne said, moving to his feet with a certain sluggishness as the momentary tremor died off, “might as well go see what the damage is.”

“I hope it was just an aftershock from the quake the other day.”

“Yeah, hope hasn’t done much for us lately. If that was just a simple quake, I’ll drink the whole bottle at once,” he said, corking the opening. He set it down only for another slight tremor to send it rolling off his desk. There was plenty of time to catch it even if he wasn’t enhancing his thought processes. However, he just stood and stared, watching as it shattered against the ground. “I suppose that answers that question.”

Zoe just rolled her yes. “Come on. We need to make sure the students are safe. Then just hope that Brakket’s security team handled everything else.”

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