Tag Archives: Baxter

010.036

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“You really can’t leave?”

Eva shook her head. Taking one step forward, she fell through the asphalt as if it were nothing more than an illusion and splashed into the waters of Hell. Zoe blinked, glancing left and right to try to find out where she went. Eva took a step back before her professor could panic, she moved back onto the island proper.

Which only caused Zoe to jump back with a slight gasp. Closing her eyes momentarily as she let out a short sigh, she said, “You aren’t just blinking away and back, right?”

“I don’t know why I would do that.”

Zoe just shrugged. “That’s what it looked like from my perspective. I haven’t forgotten how you disappeared when we very first met each other.”

The shrug made Zoe’s shoulders rise and fall. Shrugs tended to do that. However, the motion made Eva’s eyes follow her profile down to her missing arm. Eva had seen it before. Obviously. She had formed a cap of her own blood around the end to keep Zoe from bleeding out. Doctors or Zoe herself had managed to remove the blood, but they hadn’t replaced it with a proper arm.

Eva couldn’t say why. She wasn’t a medical professional. Though it had looked like a clean cut, maybe it had been damaged too much. Maybe the wound was cursed. Maybe reattaching an arm wasn’t as easy as slapping the two ends together with some thread and super glue.

Since Zoe hadn’t brought it up, neither had Eva. If she had a more normal set of arms, Eva might have considered chopping off one of her own the way Arachne had done for her. Unfortunately, Eva didn’t really have any arms. Unless Zoe had a bloodstone hidden in her chest somewhere, Eva really doubted that her arms would work properly for anyone but her. They would just make a mess.

Which brought up another problem. She had turned her heart into a bloodstone. While nothing had gone poorly so far, that wouldn’t be the case indefinitely. She needed to find a way out of her entrapment within approximately three months. If she couldn’t make another bloodstone, she would probably die. Her absent heart was regenerating, she could tell that much, but not as quickly as she would have liked. Void had apparently accepted her as a demon, so death wouldn’t be permanent, but it would be annoying. Her choice was to either get to Florida and find some thugs, or to start asking for human sacrifices.

For some reason, she doubted that the latter would go over well with many people she knew.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Catherine would likely have no qualms about finding her someone to turn into a bloodstone. However, she would likely be far less discerning of individuals to be sacrificed. Eva would probably end up with someone a bit too innocent for her liking.

Another possibility was to simply locate her dagger. Which didn’t sound like it would be too hard so long as it wasn’t lost to the void of Hell. Unfortunately, she wasn’t exactly in a position to wander around and search for it. Everyone else was busy with their own things in the aftermath of everything that went down.

Alternatively, she could figure out how to create the everlasting bloodstones herself. Which probably wasn’t something she could get done in a mere three months. It was true that she had never sat down and just dedicated three months to researching bloodstones, but she still doubted her ability to do so. That was assuming that she were left alone for three months.

Despite everyone being busy with their own things, Eva had a strange feeling that she would be kept busy. If not with Zoe, Devon, and Catherine, then with the demon hunters that would undoubtedly be arriving now that all the demons and people were gone. Their arrival was almost assured, the question was whether they would search around for any demonic books and beacons or if they would simply try to torch the entire town.

However, Eva doubted that any of them would be quite as tenacious as the hunters she had already killed. And if they stepped onto her domain to attack her, they would find the very world set against them.

Maybe she wouldn’t need to visit Florida for bloodstones after all.

“None of the other remnants have…” She trailed off, glancing around Eva’s domain. “Have done anything like this yet. We need to figure out a method to counteract and dissolve them.”

“I thought Devon said that he would work on that?”

“So he said,” Zoe nearly spat. Apparently, she still didn’t like Devon even though he had closed off the portal to Life, cutting off the flow of enigmas. “It is merely something to keep in mind.”

“I hope he doesn’t come up with a solution that would cancel out my domain,” Eva said, more as musing to herself than to Zoe.

“You are one thing, but imagine if one of those remnants connects to Willie’s domain.”

“Then he would be trapped in his own as I am, unable to properly interact with the outside world?”

“You’re willing to take the chance that a far more experienced demon than yourself will not be able to escape?” Zoe shook her head. “I’m sorry, but that isn’t a chance that I can take. If we can’t be discerning, cutting off all of Hell would be for the best.”

Eva harrumphed, feeling a tinge of mild annoyance even though she fully understood Zoe’s fears. Clasping her hands behind her back, she started heading away from the edge of her domain and towards the center. Towards the buildings that had all been partially destroyed by whatever—the obelisk, apparently; it had been out in the real world as well as her domain before the two connected. Which made Eva wonder if anyone would have been able to see her had she stood right up against it for long enough. Of course, the buildings weren’t still destroyed. Or maybe they were, but they didn’t look it.

Since everything around was within Eva’s domain, she had control over it all. A simple thought restored the destroyed portions of the buildings back to their working state. Shattered glass was whisked away, turned into the sand of her beach. Which then formed back into smooth panes of glass to fill the vacant holes where windows had once been. Brickwork mended itself much the same way. Even the mildly damaged ovens inside the pizza place had all been fixed up.

Her fixing everything didn’t make the people come back, however. Zoe had said that most of the city had been evacuated entirely when the obelisk lit up with only a handful holding out and weathering the metaphorical storm.

“What’s going to happen to Brakket?”

“The academy or the city?” Zoe asked as she walked a step behind Eva.

They weren’t really walking anywhere in particular. There was nowhere to go aside from around the sandy dunes that made up her domain. Eva had considered turning it all into asphalt and cement to match the street and the sidewalk, but found she liked knowing exactly where her domain ended. Had she still had Arachne’s legs and hands, she probably would have done so in an instant. Sand was coarse and rough. It had a strange property where it managed to get in all the nooks and crannies of anything it touched which tended to cause an unpleasant sensation everywhere.

So long as she kept her current limbs solid, sand didn’t bother her much anymore.

“Both,” Eva eventually said.

“Not sure about either in the long term. For now, Anderson made a deal with Nod Complex. They will house and instruct Brakket’s displaced students for the remainder of the year. The remainder of the tournament will be held out in the Nevada desert near their school.”

“That’s still continuing? Don’t you need to be down there to commentate or whatever your job was?”

Zoe gave a wan smile behind Eva’s back. “I’ve been replaced. With Nod being the new hosts, they wanted one of their own people doing the commentating. Likely for the same reason Anderson wanted the tournament and mundane news networks around Brakket in the first place; publicity and money.

“As for the tournament itself, it is still going, though enthusiasm for it has drastically dropped off since the ‘terrorist attack’ on Brakket Academy.”

Eva blinked. Stopping her aimless wandering, she turned to face Zoe. “The what?”

“Brakket Academy’s official position and statements on the New Year’s events are that they were attacks carried out by degenerates and isolationists, designed to drive a wedge between mundane and magical communities. Everything in the sky was an illusion and the monsters were just that, monsters. Released to inspire terror.”

Scratching at her head, Eva lifted an eyebrow. “He knows what actually happened?”

“Wayne and I told him mostly everything.”

“Huh. If I were Anderson and I wanted good publicity, I would have claimed that Brakket Academy, its students and professors, defused a potentially world ending threat.”

Eva sank down into a seat that appeared beneath her, gesturing for Zoe to join her in her own seat. Teacups and a pot of tea molded themselves out of sand on a table between them. A good host offered refreshments, right? And she was technically a host.

Zoe seemed to mull over her thoughts while partaking of the tea, not responding to Eva right away. Eventually, she set her teacup down on the table and folded her hands in her lap. “I think it was a bigger picture situation. Brakket Academy may have received some praise and prestige, but it would have introduced the concept of literal apocalypses into the minds of mundanes who had only just become fully aware of the magical world.”

“He was concerned about panic.”

“Indeed. We spoke afterwards. While I believe it is unlikely, an extreme he mentioned was that mundanes would attempt to completely eradicate magic through killing or destroying magical people, creatures, and items in the hopes that if there was no magic, there wouldn’t be any world-ending situations.”

“A flawed reasoning,” Eva said immediately. “As soon as mundanes tried any offensive action against mages, everyone would go into hiding. It would be quite literally impossible to kill everyone. That’s not even going into the fact that other planes of existence exist and they would have no access to them. The whole spat between Void and Life would have happened regardless of whether mortals knew of their existence or not.”

“You know that and I know that, but frightened people are far harder to convince. Already people are using the incident here to stir up fear mongering and to rally support for actions against mages; mandatory registration, a cataloging of all known magical creatures, restricted sales of wands and other foci, and so on and so forth. That’s not even mentioning more violent actions. There haven’t been any large incidents yet, but…” She shook her head with a long sigh. “I have a feeling that it is only a matter of time.”

Eva leaned back in her chair. That sounded incredibly annoying. While it probably wouldn’t come to pass anytime soon simply because of the red tape involved, Eva would definitely end up on the wrong side of the law should it pass. Solely due to blood magic, entirely discounting the fact that she was a demon. Because she was a demon, however, she was far less dependent on society. She didn’t need sleep, food, or even a focus. Avoiding government registrations wouldn’t be difficult. No different from her living off the grid as she had been between her prison here and the abandoned hospital in Florida.

Thinking about the hospital in Florida had Eva frowning. Not because she missed the place. It was kind of a dump in retrospect. The women’s ward at the prison was far more habitable. Rather, thinking about it had her thinking about Florida in general and her time there with Devon and Arachne.

Though it had been a week and several days, she had still heard nothing from the spider-demon. No sign that Arachne had returned. No word from Void either, not since the ritual. Even before her domain got merged with the real world, it hadn’t said a word to her despite the occasional questions or comments that she shouted out to nothingness.

“I heard a little from Catherine,” Eva said, mostly to distract herself from her thoughts of Arachne. “Shalise is alright, right?”

Zoe nodded her head in the affirmative. “I was still at the circle, but I heard afterwards that she was found confused and apparently couldn’t recall how she arrived in the infirmary, but otherwise unharmed. She’s currently at Nod Complex, finishing her schooling.”

“Juliana’s with her as well, I assume,” Eva said to herself. She had been somewhat hoping that someone would be around to talk to. One of her friends, maybe someone willing to live inside the domain if only to keep her company for the time being while she figured out how to get out of her domain.

Watching Zoe go silent with her lips tightly pressed together made Eva a little uneasy.

“Zoe?”

“Nobody knows where Juliana is,” she said, voice far more terse than it had been just a few moments ago.

“What do you mean, nobody knows? Nel should–”

Zoe shook her head. “She can’t see anything but darkness when she tries to look for Juliana. Though I don’t know how much she had actually tried; Nel and Ylva have been busy running the Elysium Order. Genoa found a note on Juliana’s bed three days after everything that simply stated that Juliana was off in search of adventure, not to worry, and that she would check in from time to time.”

“Just like that?” Eva asked with raised eyebrows, to which Zoe gave a shallow nod. It must have been Zagan. Or related to Zagan at least. According to Juliana, he hadn’t spoken once since the night she summoned him. Something that had Juliana constantly worried about their agreement. Maybe he had said something or maybe she had simply let her paranoia get the better of her.

Either way, Juliana would probably be fine. With Zagan’s power, Eva couldn’t imagine her dying anytime soon. She had probably used Zagan’s power to keep Nel from locating her in the first place. Unless she got it into her head that she couldn’t use Zagan’s power in some attempt to amuse him.

Worrying wouldn’t help, but Eva couldn’t help but worry. A little.

“Nel isn’t the only way to locate someone. Since we know her name and face, we could send a haunter after her. Of course, if she doesn’t want to be found, I doubt anything we do will work.”

“Genoa and Carlos are running themselves ragged,” Zoe said with a sigh. “I’m sure they would try just about anything up to and including summoning a demon.”

“She has the most powerful demon I’ve ever met with her. They shouldn’t worry too much.”

“That might be exactly why they worry. I–” A light beeping from Zoe’s pocket cut her off. She blinked twice, apparently trying to reach for her phone with her missing arm before remembering that she had put her phone in the opposite pocket. “Phones didn’t work in Ylva’s domain,” she said idly as she pulled the phone out.

“I don’t think this place is connected in the same way that Ylva’s domain was. Or even the bit of my domain that was in my dorm room. It was a remnant of killing an enigma, forced onto the world. Catherine was freaking out about it when she realized.”

“Doesn’t that make Hell and Void vulnerable?”

Eva shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think Life is in any position to capitalize on it though.”

Humming a thoughtful hum for a moment, Zoe glanced down at her phone and read through a message. “It’s Wayne,” she said. “He still hasn’t been able to find Serena.”

“Serena is missing too?” Eva said with a frown, leaning forward. “I meant to thank her for intervening with Life’s tentacles. I know her suit got all torn up during the ritual. Hopefully she’s alright.”

“Me too. Despite how Wayne acts, I’m sure he’s concerned as well.”

“Nel can’t locate her either?”

Zoe blinked, tearing her eyes from her phone to look at Eva. “I don’t think Nel has anything of hers to focus on.”

“Ask. We took a road trip together. You know how paranoid Nel is. I’m willing to bet that she snatched a strand of hair that got stuck to the seat just in case she ever needed to use it.”

After taking a long sip of tea, Zoe nodded her head. “I’ll mention it to Wayne. Thank you for the tea,” she said, standing up. “There is still much work to be done, but I should be going. I’ll stop by tomorrow to check in on you. Is there anything you need that I should bring by?”

Eva stood as well. As she did, the tea set in front of them turned into a four-poster bed, an ornate marble bathtub filled with water, and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. “I think I’ll be fine.”

“Then–”

“But, there is one thing I wouldn’t mind if you took with you.” Eva held out a hand, palm down with her fingers curled together. Despite holding her hand out towards Zoe’s only remaining hand, Zoe still started to reach forwards with her severed arm before catching herself. An unintelligible curse escaped her lips as she switched arms, pocketing her phone in the process.

“Can I actually take things you create out of your domain?”

“Not sure. We could try. But this is a bit different, more of a gift for myself than anything.” Eva opened her hand, letting a small black sphere drop onto Zoe’s palm. A red streak shone brightly on one side.

Zoe turned it around, staring at it for a moment before looking up to meet Eva’s eyes. “Your beacon?”

“I consumed my old one to get back after I died. Honestly, I don’t know if this will work. Things are,” she paused to glance around her domain, “a little strange. No harm in trying though. If you just carry it out of here, I can try escaping.”

Zoe rolled it between her fingers for a moment before clasping her hand around it. “I can do that. Might as well see.”

Eva watched, waiting, expecting something to happen as Zoe walked away and crossed the threshold of sand and asphalt. When nothing did, Zoe held up the beacon to show that she still had it before tossing it down the street. It rolled to a stop a short distance outside her domain’s boundaries.

Closing her eyes, Eva prepared to teleport to her beacon.

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010.032

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

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

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

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, she got a reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

Something to work on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

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

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

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

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

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

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

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

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

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

Better to be safe than sorry.

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010.029

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

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

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sister Cole?”

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

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

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

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

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

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

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

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

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

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

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

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

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

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

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

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

Which it promptly did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I hate you.”

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