Tag Archives: Baxter

010.027

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

How times had changed.

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

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

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

Literally.

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

Something that had absolutely nothing to do with Devon whatsoever.

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

Then who would be around to save the day?

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

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

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

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

No sign for the school’s infirmary.

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

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

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

Naturally, Devon headed to the nearer door.

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

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

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

“Are you injured?”

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody did.

“Sir–”

“Wait.”

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

“You’re Genoa?”

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

Ah, he thought. Apparently I know her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re doing it again?”

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

“So diluting it then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another ritual?”

“Actually no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you need me here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

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

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

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

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

But this time, Eva did something a little different.

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

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

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010.025

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Eva left Devon behind to finish his ritual design and to continue managing the defense of the prison. There wasn’t much to defend. Devon himself and whatever research notes he might have had lying around. Eva didn’t think that the enigmas would be too interested in a bunch of notebooks and papers, but who knew with them.

As for Eva, she didn’t think that she had left anything irreplaceable around. Most important things were over at the dormitory. Which, if she was being honest, was probably under attack as well. Brakket Security should be able to deal with enigmas. With the help of the teachers, students, and the demons who Eva hadn’t recruited, they should be fine.

Still, it was a good thing that there wasn’t much here. Her women’s ward had been half demolished. Presumably by enigmas. Eva didn’t know how that had happened, but it had explained why she had returned to the mortal realm outside the walls of the prison to find her beacon shoved down an enigma’s throat.

There was always the chance that the dormitory wasn’t under attack. The enigmas’ interest in her prison might be more an interest in her prisoner than anything else, or so Devon had suggested.

Eva threw open the door to the cell block and walked straight into a mass of violet blood and organs.

The demonic enigma that they had originally captured had been strapped to a table within its cell. A bar, perhaps cut from another cell door, held open its ribcage. Almost every organ had been removed from the cavity. Most were scattered around the room on various tables. An eye and a tongue each had their own jars.

Walking into the cell and around to its head, Eva nudged it with a finger. It didn’t react. Not even a little twitch.

Shooting a glance to the nun following behind her, Eva said, “I would have expected this from Sawyer. Not you.”

Lynn Cross glared at Eva without the slightest hint of shame. “These things have something to do with necromantic magic. I’ve seen enough necromancers while they work.”

“Is this one of those ‘he who fights monsters’ and ‘if you gaze into the abyss’ things?”

“I am not turning into a necromancer,” she said as her eyes briefly filled with white fire. After making sure that Eva had been good and glared at for a few seconds, a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “I’m going to kill them. Permanently.”

That made Eva raise an eyebrow. From what she saw of Sawyer, he had tried and failed to kill one. Though, admittedly, she didn’t know how hard he had tried. But Ylva had failed as well. Lynn had much better motivation to find a proper way to kill them than Sawyer—simply on account of her not being an omnicidal jerk—but if a mini god of Death couldn’t manage, how could she?

“You’ve found a way then?” Eva said, asking despite her disbelief.

“Well, no.” Her shoulders drooped for just a moment before her confidence returned. “But I’m close. I can feel it. This one is the key,” she said, tapping the operating table with a latex gloved finger.

Which was another difference between her and Sawyer. She actually had proper standards for hygiene. Eva knew without a doubt that she could watch Lynn all day and she would never drop chunks of rotten flesh into her macaroni noodles and then eat them.

“Unfortunately, I need this one. And I can’t let you kill it. I need it alive.”

Thankfully, it was still alive. Even torn apart as it was, Eva could see its heart beating outside its chest. She didn’t even need her sense of blood. Her own eyes were enough.

“But I’m so close. With the proper applications of necromancy combined with holy magic, and maybe a tiny hint of demonic corruption, I should be able to kill these things to the point where we can bury them in a deep hole and never have to worry about them again. Their bodies will decompose properly.”

“And that’s great. You keep working on that. Just do it without this particular one.” Eva thumbed over her shoulder to the wall. “Summoning works again. I think. Devon should be able to summon you a demon you can feed to those things in the other room. But if I don’t take this one, we’re going to have problems a whole lot more serious than a few dozen enigmas that we have to imprison for eternity.”

Lynn just about protested again. Eva held up a hand to stall her. Arguing further was pointless. So she swallowed her sigh and put on a somber expression.

“Besides, Lynn, you should be with Shalise.”

All traces of good humor vanished from the nun’s face. Her countenance became stone-like and ridged. “Shalise?”

“She’s in the Brakket infirmary. When everything started, she was injured. It was–”

A gust of icy wind nearly knocked Eva off her feet. She hadn’t even finished her explanation before Lynn disappeared. Which was roughly what she had expected. Unfortunately, Lynn would likely find out that Shalise had been with Eva when she got injured. In fact, Eva had asked her to come to the ritual in the first place. Eva hadn’t wanted to bring the subject up, but time was short. Later on, Lynn would probably come after her with a vengeance.

Oh well. She would deal with it when it came.

Turning back to the demonic enigma, Eva frowned. She needed it. Probably more of it than an empty shell of skin at that. Some gashes in the crown of its skull had probably been made by Lynn. If Eva hadn’t arrived, she might have tried taking out its brain as well.

With light steps around the room, she plucked a stomach off a table. Eva hadn’t ever held a stomach on its own despite having cut open a number of people in the past. Her form of magic focused on blood. Hearts were really the only relevant organ in that regard. The few rituals that involved bone marrow never really appealed to her.

That presented a slight problem. She hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about putting the body back together. Trying to mentally put the organs back into place like a puzzle using her own internals as a template didn’t quite work out. There were lungs, but they had several connectors that she didn’t have. It wasn’t human.

Shrugging, Eva just dropped the stomach into the chest. She moved around to pick up one of the lungs and dropped it in as well. The other lung flew over her shoulder and into the cavity as she moved on to the heart. Being a special organ to her, Eva stared at it for a few moments.

It looked just like a human heart. For her, that would be easy to reconnect.

But was there really a need?

Eventually, she shrugged again and just dropped it in.

Around the room, Eva continued tossing everything like the body was a cauldron and she needed to make a stew. Teeth, a gallbladder, a regular bladder, the kidneys, more teeth stored separately for some reason, a uterus, several feet of intestine, and so on until she finally reached the jars with the eye and the tongue.

Jars in hand, she turned around and stared at the mound of organs. It all wasn’t quite fitting in properly. Eva took a moment to shove the organs around. She tucked the organs in as best as she was able, pressing them down into the waist and up near the neck as far as they would go. It wasn’t perfect, but close enough.

She dropped the eyes and tongue into the chest, jars and all.

Curling her fingers around the metal pipe holding the ribcage open, Eva yanked it, watching as the bone snapped shut like the jaws of life.

The body didn’t heal. Neither did it wake—for which Eva was grateful; she didn’t want to carry it around while it was trying to attack her or escape. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure if the chest would stay shut despite the force with which it closed. Eva planned to put the body through the works.

It might not hold.

Reaching out her hand, Eva dragged the tip of her finger from the start of its autopsy cut at its navel to the mid-point of its chest. From there, the incision split into a ‘Y’ shape. Rather than use her other hand or make two passes, her hand simply stretched and extended.

A trail of blood flowed from her fingers. Black crystalline blood sealed the gap in the enigma’s chest as Eva hardened it.

She didn’t actually have fingers anymore. Not as far as she could tell, and Eva could tell pretty far. Her sense of blood showed absolutely nothing but blood roughly an inch below her elbow. The same was true for her legs, though at a much higher point around her hips.

Arachne had been destroyed so thoroughly that Eva had been willing to do anything to help bring her back. For the past two years, she had been carrying around a decently sized chunk of Arachne every day. Eva had given up her arms and legs without complaint or hesitation.

She hadn’t known that she would be receiving new even better limbs in return. Void never mentioned anything like that while they were speaking.

Or perhaps Void hadn’t done anything. Her skin wasn’t like an amputee’s arm where it wrapped around the wound. Both legs and arms were open wounds, as if she had taken a razor-sharp blade and sliced straight through them only moments ago. For all she knew, she had been bleeding out everywhere yet subconsciously holding it together using her innate ability to control demonic blood.

It was just how she had woken up.

Regardless of how it had happened, it worked perfectly for now. If she needed her fingers hard and rigid, she could make her fingers hard and rigid. If she needed to split her hand in two to reach two sides of the demonic enigma’s chest, she could split her hand in two.

In fact, she didn’t even need to have hands. If the situation called for it, she could have tentacles just like Devon had on his one arm.

There had to be some odd demonic magic going on similar to what had happened during the ritual or in the past while fighting the armored hunter. Her bloody limbs could stretch out and expand for quite a distance while increasing their concentration of blood so that they didn’t thin out. But blood generation had been happening around her before ‘dying.’ It wasn’t anything Void had done. At least not recently. That one time when her treatment ritual had been interrupted with a Hell portal might have had something to do with it, but that was entirely unrelated to giving up Arachne’s limbs.

It had her slightly worried that her limbs were going to disappear after the current high-stress situation ended. But she could deal with that when it happened.

For now, she needed to get back to the ritual circle before anything bad happened. The hunter was still there. Probably the nun as well. Though Eva hadn’t seen the latter fight before she had died. Maybe she had been hit by a lightning bolt as well and didn’t take to it as well as the hunter had.

Whatever the case, Eva grabbed hold of the freshly sealed up enigma, slung it over her shoulder, built up her magic, and teleported straight to the gate circle in the Rickenbacker. The burning squeezing tube of nightmares and flesh didn’t bother Eva in the slightest anymore. Her temporary companion on the other hand… well, there was a reason she had sealed up the wound.

The once smooth flesh of the enigma sizzled and smoked as they emerged from the teleport. All its fur had burnt off completely. But it was otherwise whole. And that was all that mattered. Eva threw open the window in her dormitory room. The hallways might have students or security and Eva didn’t care to meet either, so she jumped out from the window with the enigma slung over her shoulder.

And just about landed on another enigma gnawing on the brickwork.

A wave of her hand encased it in blood. A snap of her fingers—she could snap again!—destroyed the thing enough that it wouldn’t be a problem in the near future.

With that finished, she started running.

A part of her wanted to stop by the infirmary and ensure that everyone was alright. There just wasn’t any time. Zoe and Catherine, and the others, were still at the ritual circle with that insane hunter. Besides, Lynn was at the infirmary. Eva didn’t exactly want to die again before her job was finished.

She jumped to the roof just to avoid all possibility of running into Lynn. Normally, it would have been somewhat difficult with someone slung over one shoulder. Maybe a shorter wall like the one at the prison, but Brakket Academy was a two-story building for most of the way around—three story at the far end.

But Eva could cheat. Her right arm was looped around the enigma twice over, locking it in place. At the peak of her jump, she stretched out her left arm until she grabbed the edge of the roof. From there, it was as simple as reeling herself in while walking up the wall.

Jumping down into the Infinite Courtyard on the other side of the wall was actually more complicated. She had noticed while jumping from the wall at her prison that her legs nearly gave out beneath her. Whatever they were, they were not Arachne’s legs. If she jumped from the top, she would probably splat on the ground and have to rebuild her legs. Except if they got too contaminated by dirt, she wouldn’t be able to control the blood any longer.

So Eva wrapped her left arm around the lip of the roof and simply rappelled down.

She took off running through the snow. Which was another uncomfortable part of her new body. The cold never agreed with her. It never had, and she doubted that it ever would. Now more than ever, she could feel her legs freezing over just from contact with the snow. It took an expenditure of magic and concentration to cast some warming spells around her body. None of which held together all that well on her liquid feet. The spells just slid off.

Magic resistance? Eva didn’t know. Void hadn’t exactly handed her an instruction manual—if it was his doing and not her own blood magic.

Halfway to the ritual circle, Eva stopped. She could sense Lucy nearby, but not far enough to actually be at the site. And there was something else.

Eva shifted slightly and started to run again. Tree after tree whizzed past Eva as she nearly flew towards the feeling. As she closed the distance, she started to hear something squelching. A grinding twisting writhing of wet limbs slapping against wet limbs.

“Lucy!” Eva shouted out as she skidded to a stop between two trees.

A mass of tentacles fought against another mass of tentacles. Teeth, eyeballs, and tentacles as thick as trees crashed against the much smoother more thread-like tentacles of Lucy. Neither was giving up ground. Lucy’s tentacles squeezed and crushed, destroying the thicker tentacles.

But the thicker tentacles were winning. Their mouths chewed off the thinner tentacles in droves.

Eva dropped the enigma without worrying about the possibility of giving it brain damage and rushed forwards. She snapped out an arm of blood, coating the larger tentacles as best she could with the liquid. In some places, she hardened it, in others, she stretched it. All in the name of separating the two monsters.

Only, as she continued, she realized something.

There was only one being before her.

Lucy’s tentacles merged into the larger trunk-like tentacles, and the larger tentacles were all connected to the bulk of Lucy’s mass. They were spreading.

Eva didn’t hesitate. She snapped her fingers together, detonating the tentacles she had covered at their base, as close to Lucy’s natural tentacles as possible.

As the viscera careened through the air, she spotted it. A little worm-like leech identical to the one that had been left behind after she had been shoved by the hunter’s massive arm.

Eva jumped after it, reaching out her arms to grab hold of it before it could escape and cause more harm. The blood that touched it hardened, forming into a solid sphere of blood. It had escaped from her initial detonation of Lucy’s limbs, but it wouldn’t escape now. The other one had died and so would this one.

Snapping her fingers, Eva turned back to Lucy. “Are you alrigh–”

A hole in the bloody snow opened wide. The half of the mass that was Lucy fell within, traveling down to Hell. Only a few bits and pieces remained, most of which were larger chunks of the corrupted portion of her body.

Eva stared for just a moment, feeling a sinking in her chest as she stared at the spot where the portal had disappeared. Somehow, she didn’t think that Lucy would be so lucky as to be sent back by Void as fast as it had sent her back.

Shaking her head, Eva got a move on. She couldn’t sit around moping all day unless she wanted to say goodbye to all of her friends like that. As she walked back to the demonic enigma, she coated each of the scattered chunks of corrupted flesh with blood. She didn’t exactly have time to deal with it all, but at the same time, she probably wouldn’t find this exact spot of land again. Leaving any sizable chunks behind could allow Life to do who knew what.

Snapping her fingers as she scooped up the enigma, Eva took one last look around the blood-splattered trees before taking off running once again. It hadn’t lasted long, but stopping even for a short time could cost her.

Eva reached the ritual circle before long and stopped right at the edge, staring.

There weren’t many left. Srey looked mostly unharmed as he stood next to the brain. Saija, not so much. She was collapsed in a heap towards the far end. Life—or the hunter—hadn’t corrupted her with the little worm thing and she wasn’t being pulled into a Hell portal, but she wasn’t moving either.

Aside from them, it was just Catherine and Zoe.

Eva’s eyes widened as she looked at Zoe. Her teeth ground together as she narrowed her eyes.

One of Zoe’s hands, blackened and scarred with red streaks up to her elbow, clutched tight against her other arm just below the shoulder.

She didn’t have much below that. The mangled remains of her arm littered the ground not far from where she had collapsed to her knees. Her little silver dagger was split in two, along with several of that arm’s severed fingers.

Catherine held the full attention of the hunter, dancing backwards in her full demonic form while avoiding strike after strike from the enraged hunter. But she didn’t hold the hunter’s attention for long. A sharp shift in her dance forced the hunter’s gaze to cross over Eva.

A swing from the hunter’s sword died as she stared. “No, no, no, no no no no! NO! I KILLED YOU!

Eva chucked the enigma’s body to the ground, once again not caring for its health in the slightest. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she strode forward, eyes flicking between Zoe and the hunter.

A wound like that could easily cause her to bleed out in minutes. She needed to get close enough to stop the bleeding. A cap of blood over the arm should work temporarily. Maybe shoving some of her demon blood up Zoe’s arm could help replenish some of that which she had lost. Demon limbs could be grafted to humans, so why not blood.

But the hunter was already charging at Eva.

She wished that Catherine could have waited an extra minute before shifting the hunter’s attention. But watching the succubus—a demon that personified beauty and grace—heave and pant for breath now that the hunter was leaving her alone… she might not have been able to dance for much longer.

Eva needed to get close enough to Zoe, just long enough to drop off a little blood. Then she needed to escape before the hunter decided to strike at another, far easier target.

“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” Eva shouted back to the charging hunter. “But first… Kneel.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.024

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Zoe stared at the spot where the portal had been. She had been too slow. Nothing of Hell remained behind, just the smooth marble-like stone that made up the majority of the ritual circle. Not even blood remained within the portal’s boundaries. Everything that was Eva was gone.

A second portal had opened to swallow her legs—or what was left of them—though Zoe hadn’t paid that portal so much attention. She had been focused solely on Eva’s wide red eyes.

She had been too slow.

Zoe knelt, hand on the ground as if to ensure that the stone truly was solid. Somewhere behind her the hunter let out a series of maniacal cackles.

“Thought she could ignore my enchanted weapons, did she?” the hunter said between laughs. “If she comes back again, I’ll send her right back to Hell where that bitch belongs!”

Slowly, Zoe stood and turned to face the hunter.

“Or better yet, I’ll kill every last one of you bastards. Everyone with the capacity to summon that demon.

The woman started to laugh again. She didn’t quite finish. A series of tendrils wrapped around the hunter’s bloated arm, squeezing it. When the arm didn’t immediately burst into bloody pulp, Lucy swung her tentacles up and around, carrying the hunter through the air until she slammed down on the ground head first. Considering Zoe had seen Lucy tear apart Sawyer’s demon-human hybrids and had heard of her peeling an enigma apart like an orange, she couldn’t help but gape at the lack of damage on the hunter’s bloated arm.

Upside down with her head half buried in the stone, the hunter pressed her arm to the ground. Half a moment later, it came out from under Lucy’s main mass and carried her at an angle towards the forest. The tentacles still wrapped around the hunter snapped like rubber bands from the force. Without being connected to Lucy, the tentacles that didn’t fly off into the distance fell to the ground around the hunter, limp and languid.

The arm wasn’t even bruised. Because of its haphazard colorization, it was difficult to tell for certain, but there were no distinct markings around where Lucy had grabbed on and the rest of the arm.

“Any ideas?”

Zoe jumped slightly, having missed Catherine’s approach. When she did not immediately answer—mostly because she didn’t have an answer—Catherine gave her a wan smile.

“Don’t bother fretting about Eva,” Catherine said as if she were telling a joke. “That portal means Void has accepted her as a demon. She’ll be back eventually. It might be a decade or two, but any demon will return. In the meantime, I doubt you could say the same should that hunter get her hands on you.”

“Can we even kill that thing?” Zoe said. A certain weight rested on her shoulders as she stared at the monster before her. The hunter had finished tossing Lucy and was now digging her head out of the stone. It took a bit more effort than Zoe would have expected of someone with an arm like she had, but eventually, she popped her head out. “You saw what Lucy tried to do. She got away without a scratch.”

“Could be worse. We could have to deal with the nun at the same time. I,” Catherine paused to lick her lips, “had a few words with her. She won’t be interfering.”

Tumorous growths covered half the hunter’s face. She had no hair on that side of her head. Yet even her human side looked completely unharmed as the hunter scanned the area for the nearest target, settling for Saija.

Who noticed, gave a slight yelp, and immediately turned tail to fly away.

“Besides, does it matter?” Catherine said. “We have to stop her. I have no intentions of returning to Hell just yet. And if you need more motivation than my own pleasures, she apparently means to kill most of the people around the school if only to prevent Eva from coming back. ‘Everyone with the capacity to summon Eva.'”

Zoe pulled out her cellphone, intending to call in everyone she knew. Genoa, Wayne, Nel and Ylva, even Devon if he bothered to check his messages. But the hunter, even though she was focused on Saija, noticed the very instant she wrapped her fingers around the cold plastic. The massive eye in her shoulder swiveled to stare at Zoe.

She didn’t hesitate for a moment. A thaumaturgical lightning bolt crackled over her head as she dove for the ground. The hunter didn’t stop there. Another three bolts struck the ground in Zoe’s wake as she rolled along the stone.

A fourth bolt never came. Saija had swung back around and was pelting the hunter with her own fairly weak balls of fire. The hunter had stopped to shield her face with her oversized hand.

Seizing the opportunity, Zoe swiped her thumb across the screen, unlocking the phone. She had only just tapped the text messenger app when the hunter fired off another lightning bolt. The hunter wound up with a few scorch marks on the side of her face, but her lightning bolt struck true.

Zoe cried out as her phone went flying from her hands, clattering across the ritual circle while leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Her fingernails had either turned to blackened char or had completely exploded off her fingers. She honestly couldn’t tell which while cradling her hand against her chest. Bright red branching scars were already forming up to her elbow. Thankfully, her elbow had been touching the ground. Had it not, the electricity might have run through her entire body to get out.

Proper air mages carefully directed their lightning strikes even after the bolt hit. Magic could suppress the electricity just as easily as it created it. Drilling that into the minds of students was enforced so heavily that it typically became an ingrained habit.

Obviously, the hunter had skipped those lessons.

The hunter turned her attention back to Saija, shooting her out of the sky with a single spear of ice conjured from the tip of her rapier—the latest sword she had summoned. The icicle tore straight through Saija’s leathery wing. A second and third icicle punched too many holes in the succubus’ wings.

Saija crashed down in a heap.

“Succubi aren’t fighters,” Catherine said, completely unnecessarily. “Neither is Srey.”

The only other demon that hadn’t been either killed or knocked away stood even farther away than Zoe and Catherine. Srey had barely moved when the hunter had first appeared. If he really couldn’t fight, Zoe supposed it was better that way. Otherwise he would simply get in the way. Or get killed needlessly. Zoe might have suggested that he run to find help.

Without Eva, Sebastian, Neuro, and Lucy around, the hunter would undoubtedly notice his running.

Apparently taking a cue from Zoe, Srey pulled out his own phone while the hunter was distracted with Saija. Like Zoe, the hunter didn’t stay distracted for long.

She turned, launching three bolts of lightning from her shoulder and a barrage of icicles from her rapier. Srey didn’t stand a chance. He managed to dodge the first bolt and a few icicles, but one clipped his leg. He fell to the ground under everything else that the hunter threw at him.

No portal opened up, but Srey didn’t move.

“We need help,” Zoe said, standing even as she clutched her scarred hand to her chest.

“I’d use my cell, but I rather like my fingernails where they are,” Catherine said with a certain callousness that did not fit the situation.

Of course, if Catherine died, she would come back. She wasn’t in mortal peril, just in peril over losing access to the mortal realm. Temporarily. Fear meant nothing to her. Not in the same sense that Zoe felt.

In more ways than one.

It wasn’t just her life that Zoe worried about losing—though that was a big part of it—but the thought of what might happen if the hunter did kill everyone here. The hunter would likely move on to Genoa and ambush her in a moment of trouble or rest. With Genoa out of the way, who knew where the hunter would stop. Mage-knights might try to stop her. Other demons might as well. But would they be able to?

Zoe didn’t intend to leave it up to them. In her left hand—her off hand—she curled her fingers tightly around her dagger.

“If you see an opportunity to escape, or even some cover to pull out your phone, send a message to everyone we know.”

With that, Zoe took a deep breath and sprung into action.

— — —

Devon sat with narrowed eyes, feeling more like a traffic director than a researcher of things beyond the average humans’ comprehension. At no point in his life could he have imagined how monotonous fending off an attack might be. An attack from a Power, no less. He had his feet propped up on a table with a heavy leather tome on his lap.

A glowing violet light made its way across a map on the table.

“To the left,” he shouted out. The waxy ruax moved to obey his order.

One of Eva’s enigmas—or something close enough to it—climbed over the prison wall and came face to face with the wax demon. Already standing in place, the ruax made eye contact.

Devon could only imagine the headache the thing felt. Or rather, he could imagine it if he bothered to empathize with the creatures. He didn’t find suffering all that productive and chose to ignore the wailing screeches as the thing curled up on itself. Finding a solution to this mess was a far better use of his time.

As dull as it was directing the ruax around, it could be worse. A flood of the things had cascaded over the walls of the prison some time ago. Eva’s wards had managed to explode a good number of them before the explosions stopped. The number of enigmas had likely drained her wards’ blood supply. They had bought him enough time to get the ruax out of solitary confinement for defense, so he supposed he should try to remember to thank her for that later on.

With the bulk having been taken out, he had plenty of time to go through his books.

Luckily, he had a vague idea on where to start looking. That damn succubus, who just so happened to be missing from the prison at the moment, had brought him designs for a ritual not that long ago. One he had dismissed as being foolish, idiotic, risky, impossible to accomplish, potentially apocalyptic, deadly, and, above all else, foolish. The succubus had dropped the subject and not brought it up again.

What a fool he was.

A demon like Catherine wouldn’t design a highly detailed ritual and then just drop it. All that work and research that would have gone into it, thrown away? Devon wouldn’t have dropped it. Why would he ever expect anything else to do the same?

He stared at the page of his tome, not quite reading the words. He was too busy trying to remember every scrap of information down to the tiniest detail that Catherine had brought to him. The circle had obviously been designed in two parts. Essentially two separate rituals contained within the same location, all mixed up together. The thought of succeeding at something like that without causing an unplanned chaotic demolition of the ritual circle was mind boggling. It had been one of the primary reasons he had scoffed at the idea.

The second reason was staring right at him. With a slight shudder, Devon kept his eyes firmly on the pages. Whatever was above him did not like him. He could feel that much.

Again, the map started glowing. Something else had actually made it inside the prison walls. Damn Eva and her damn prisoners. It was probably that prisoner they had that was drawing them all here. They sensed one of their own and decided to investigate.

What a pain.

“Between the cell blocks and whatever is left of the women’s ward,” he shouted out to the ruax. “And you,” he said, glancing towards the carnivean, “go find that woman. We’re going to need help in a few minutes. There are a number on their way.”

For once, the carnivean didn’t talk back, argue, or otherwise protest against his orders. The thin slits in its red eyes flicked towards the cell block holding their captured enigmas and that woman from the Elysium Order. With a nod of its head, it started running off, leaving the book it had been looking through behind.

Devon reached forwards and grabbed the book as his two demons took care of their duties. The ruax was still dominated. He hadn’t even tried letting it off its leash. Dominating a demon gave a small connection between the dominator and the dominee. Through that connection, Devon felt nothing but hatred directed at him. He didn’t care in the slightest about being hated. Emotions of others rarely affected him. But it was hatred to the point where there could be no cooperation between them regardless of the situation.

With that in mind, the carnivean was far more agreeable. He had mostly left it alone to help with research and occasionally called on it to fend off the monsters should the situation require.

Though, looking at the page in the book that it had been reading, Devon didn’t know why he bothered having the carnivean research. Analytic topology of locally euclidean metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds? What a fool! It was enough to make him chuckle despite the situation. In that respect, Devon actually wished for the company of Catherine. At least the succubus would have been able to tell the difference between infinite conformal symmetry in two-dimensional vector space splicing and the obvious critical exponents in cross-planar spectrum tear.

Ugh. Some people, he thought, mild humor dying as a sense of severe disdain grew towards the retreating carnivean. It looked like it would be up to him and him alone to save the day. Frankly, he had considered taking a vacation in Guam or somewhere else sufficiently far away. He wouldn’t have bothered trying to seal the gap if it weren’t for the fact that such a planar tear had the very real capacity to rip reality in two if it were left alone for too long.

Ah well. Imagining all life as he knew it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in his body exploding at the speed of light was a fairly good motivator to fix everything.

If he was remembering the papers Catherine had showed him properly, the first of the two rituals had been intended to open up a planar tear. The second as well. The first obviously had succeeded, as it had been directly tied to Hell. Whatever that was above him, it wasn’t Hell. His current theory was that the second ritual hadn’t terminated as expected. Likely due to a malformed ritual circle. A ritual that size was bound to have errors.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to recreate the entire ritual. Just the portion of it that would close the planar tear. Something that would be far simpler if she had left her notes and research anywhere he could find. He had already scoured the women’s ward from floor to ceiling—or its rubble, anyway. A good half of the first several enigmas that had assailed the prison complex had tried passing through it. Their exploding corpses damaged much of the structure. Unfortunately, Catherine hadn’t left anything useful behind that he had been able to find.

But all was not lost. Devon reached out to his sketch pad and drew a thin line around the seal of sorrows. A line that should force the magic to interact with any planar tears. Theoretically, someone could be doing an experiment on the moon with his waist half in a tear. When his circle activated, it would snap shut. Poor guy won’t know what hit him.

He paused his sketching for a moment as he glanced at the map. The mass of glowing dots outside the prison was winking out one by one. In some cases, several by several. It actually had him taking his feet off the desk to sit upright. His thumb rubbed against one of his ring foci as he watched whatever it was carve a path through the enigmas to the prison.

Sending both of his demons away might have been a mistake. Through the connection with the ruax, he called it to his side. But it would be a short time before it got near.

He stood and filled the air with infernal flames as the thing approached the wall.

An enigma made it up to the top first, tentacles thrashing in the air. It didn’t make it over. A bloody hand the size of the entire enigma grasped it by the tentacles and dragged it back down on the other side. From there, Devon couldn’t see what happened to it.

He could hear it cry out much like the ones the ruax had given aneurysms to. The cries cut short with a spray of violet blood up and over the wall like some kind of geyser.

The hand of blood reappeared once again, grasping the top of the wall. A tiny humanoid figure attached to it used it like a grappling hook to vault over the top.

Eva landed in the clearing near the former basketball court. The bloody hand attached to her arm shrunk down to the size and length of a normal human hand, though it remained liquid and bloody from her elbow down.

As she sprinted towards him, Devon considered attacking. There was something off about Eva. Something unnatural. More than usual. Her arms—and legs, now that he looked lower than her skirt—were coated in blood. But that wasn’t too surprising for her. She had always enjoyed blood magic. It was something else. Her red eyes were just too red. Too intense. Her long hair flowed in the wind.

Hair that she wasn’t supposed to have. Eva had hair barely an inch long. That was all that had grown back since she got it burned off. And now that he was actually looking at it, it looked oily.

Or bloody.

Before he could actually come to a decision on whether or not to attack, she stopped on the other side of the table.

He let his flames die out. She wasn’t attacking him and both the ruax and the carnivean were almost back to him. If she wanted to pretend like she had hair with blood, who was he to stop her.

Though her eyes still made him shift where he stood.

“Devon,” she said, those red eyes stared at him for a moment before flicking down to the table. “Is this going to close the portals?”

“They’re not portals. It’s a planar–” Devon clenched his mouth shut, grinding his teeth together as her eyes looked back to him. “Yes,” he eventually ground out. “But it isn’t ready just yet.”

“Good. Get it ready. Then find Genoa. She should be in the Brakket Academy infirmary. I don’t know how big this is going to be, but she’ll help you get it set up instantly. But do not start it before receiving my signal.

Devon faltered, falling back into his chair. The aberration he had created had the audacity to look sheepish with a hand tucked behind her head.

“Sorry,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean that. I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean it all ‘kneel before me foolish mortal.’ I just–”

“What happened to you?” Devon said, narrowing his eyes.

“Not entirely sure. Died, or came close enough to it. Beyond that…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. “But still, don’t activate this until I say so.” She tapped the sketch with a bloody finger. Devon just about yelled at her, but when she dropped her hands to her sides, not a single droplet of blood stained the paper.

“And why should I listen to you? If we leave this open–”

“I know, end of the world. The thing is, it might be the end of the world if we close it too early.” She pointed a finger straight overhead.

Against his better judgment, he followed it up to the massive eye overhead. The eye that had turned black and red and was crying out tears of corruption onto the Earth. He tore his eyes away before he could stare for any longer.

“A chunk of that thing’s brain is sitting around Brakket Academy and I have to shove it back inside its body before we close the portals. To do that,” she said, turning slightly to face the approaching demons and the nun. Her eyes twitched down to the blood-covered glove on the nun’s hand. “I’m going to need my prisoner. I hope you have been taking good care of it.”

Eva rubbed her hands together. Or mimed the action. Where her hands connected, the blood melded together to the point where Devon couldn’t tell one hand from the other. It was just a big ball of blood. A ball that couldn’t possibly have Arachne’s carapace hidden beneath.

“I do need it alive,” she said with a grin.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.023

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Huh.”

Eva stared down at the blade, even ignoring the startled shout from Zoe and the sudden movement from the demons who might as well have been statues up until now.

Normally—and her experience with blades so far in her life supported this fact—blades hurt when they jabbed through her. This one… didn’t. Not more than a slight pinch, anyway. In addition, Eva had killed people before. A number of them. Perhaps not as many as Sawyer, but she had killed enough. And she had killed enough of them through stealing their hearts. She knew very well the time to death once the heart had been damaged.

Demon or not quite, she shouldn’t be standing anymore. Even that was an understatement. Frankly, she should be lying on the floor with her soul detached from her body until someone like Void or Death got around to claiming it. Or until Ylva managed to shove it back into her body. Probably after her body had healed enough at that.

Even demons died when their hearts were destroyed.

And yet, here she was, standing. Her heart didn’t even look damaged to her sense of blood. It had a blade running straight through it without a doubt, but her heart just wrapped around the blade to accommodate it. Even when it twisted to one side and tore through her body right between where her ribs should have been, Eva felt nothing more than a scratch. Her heart, lung, blood vessels, and everything else in the way healed up near instantly. The flowing blood coating her body sealed as if it had never been torn.

“What does it take to kill you?

“A lot more than you can muster,” Eva said with the same unnatural calm and slight apathy that she had felt since the ritual had ended. Turning, Eva faced her assailant. “Why am I not surprised.”

The demon hunter stood before Eva in a very nude state. One hand clutched a thin metal blade about as long as Eva’s arm span. Her red eye blazed with unbridled fury. But the other side of her face, off-arm, back, and half of her chest…

“What–” Eva started.

What did you do to me?

The second she spoke, the hunter jumped back. A series of Lucy’s tentacles slammed into the ground right where she had been standing. Her landing wasn’t quite as steady as Eva felt it normally would have been. Probably because she wasn’t used to the weight of a massive arm or the violet-colored growths running up her back. Her shoulder wasn’t so much a shoulder as it was an eyeball staring right at Eva.

Perhaps a lightning bolt had struck her. Maybe a meteor landed on top of her.

Oddly enough, she didn’t actually have any tentacles. Not unless Eva counted her arm. While huge and bulky, it didn’t look all that danger–

Just DIE

Her arm snapped out towards Eva. Despite the relatively large space between them, it didn’t stop. It stretched out, catching Eva right in the chest. Blood splattered everywhere from the impact, but still nothing hurt. The fist was large enough to entirely wrap its fingers around Eva, which the hunter did without delay.

And it still didn’t stop.

Leaving a trail of blood, the hand carried Eva far across the ritual circle and even beyond. Right up until she hit a tree, splattering more blood everywhere around.

The arm snapped away the second she hit. Most of it must have returned to the hunter. The rest dropped to the ground as a little parasite-like worm with fingers for feelers.

It immediately started burrowing into the snowed over ground.

Eva, slightly stunned but entirely unharmed, stared at it as its tail wiggled around in the air. It dug deeper and deeper before Eva shook her head and came to her senses. She gripped its tail, tore it from the earth, let her blood flow around it, and tossed it back onto the ritual circle. Watching it futilely try to burrow through the stone, Eva grit her teeth as she felt an anger rise up inside her.

Aside from being a constant thorn in her side, the hunter hadn’t done much. Nothing permanent anyway. And yet, she had clearly been… infected. Unless all humans were going to turn out that way. Or all life in general. Regardless, she was the only one at the moment.

And that made her the perfect target. A Proxy of Life. The whole cause behind this mess. The reason Arachne been taken over by Void. Someone who not even Zoe would have qualms about Eva taking out her anger on.

Eva didn’t know if she could kill the hunter. It was infected by Life. Since the enigmas couldn’t die, maybe she couldn’t either.

But they could come pretty close.

She clapped her hands together, obliterating the worm. Only a few smatterings of unmoving blood and viscera remained behind. A burst of flames from Eva’s fingertips cleaned the remains from the stone platform.

Where did something go that couldn’t be killed when blown up and burned away to the point where there was nothing left? Hopefully nobody had been contaminating the entire mortal realm when they destroyed enigmas, or parts of them, thoroughly. But it was probably far too late to worry about that.

With a deep glower, Eva walked back across the ritual circle, past the still form of the Avatar of Life, and back to where the demons and Zoe had surrounded the hunter.

The hunter’s sword slid through Lucy’s tentacles as if they weren’t there. As Lucy recoiled with a gurgling hiss, the hunter continued her swipe, bringing her sword down on Neuro’s charge. The poor demon split straight in two as if he were made out of butter on a hot day. The glowing green of his twisted eyes faded and both halves disappeared into Hell portals before he even had a chance to hit the ground.

A small part of Eva wondered where she had got the sword. Juliana had stripped her of everything and vanished her gear to nowhere, as far as Eva could tell. There was a possibility that it had been a part of the package deal with her infection, but the sword seemed entirely too human. It was a straight silver sword with four little circles of brassy metal on the ends of the crossguard and the end of the hilt. Had Life provided it, Eva would have expected something a little more visceral. Like what had taken over the hunter’s arm, back, and face.

Which the hunter used again. She thrust her arm straight below her. Half a second later, it popped out of the ground directly underneath Sebastian. He tried to jump out of the way, but the thing grabbed his foot. As with Eva, it didn’t stop once it hit him. He disappeared up into the sky. Probably not quite high enough to pass through the portals—if such a thing were even possible.

The fall back down probably wouldn’t kill him, but Eva hoped he had the presence of mind to kill the little worm thing if there was one.

The hand drew back in an instant, leaving the vacant tunnel behind, and reformed into the same arm that had been at the hunter’s side before with no evidence of any additional mass. Not even the slightest flicker of surprise crossed the hunter’s face as she lashed out with her sword, barely missing Catherine’s wings. The arm must have included an instruction manual.

Eva, finally back close enough to act, moved right up to the hunter without heed for the blade. It hadn’t hurt her the first time. Sure enough, it struck her right where the neck met the shoulder and continued down and out the side of her stomach. Eva barely felt a pinch as her body sealed itself in the blade’s wake.

Without breaking her stride, Eva drew back a fist and punched forwards.

A disgustingly purple bruise spread across the hunter’s bare stomach far faster than any bruise Eva had ever seen. She wasn’t sure if that was because of her infestation or because her heart was beating about ten times faster than normal hearts during stressful situations. Either way, Eva didn’t much care. She took a certain satisfaction from watching the hunter’s face twist in pain.

Eva pulled back, ready to punch again. She should have created shards of blood sticking out of her knuckles, but she didn’t. Maybe later. For now, the hunter would be her punching bag.

Punching bags tended to work poorly while punctured.

But Eva didn’t make it. The hunter’s arm swung out in a wide sweep, smacking both her and Catherine as it grew. It didn’t pin them this time. It just knocked them back.

Eva flew uncontrollably through the air. Her own wings sprouted out from her back and formed a thin membrane of blood between the tips of the hard bone-like structure. Stretching them out, she caught the wind, slowing considerably. Her uncontrolled flight shifted to a far less turbulent glide.

A lightning bolt crackled out ahead, striking the hunter in the chest. A thankfully normal lightning bolt of thaumaturgical make, not one from another plane of existence.

For a moment, it seemed to have some effect. The hunter convulsed while clutching at her stomach. But the massive violet eye making up most of her shoulder snapped open and looked right at Eva.

Zoe’s bolt of lightning crashed straight into Eva. It hit her right between her breasts, sending blood exploding outwards from her back. One of her wings blew clean off. Without it, Eva crashed down onto the stone ritual circle, leaving a trail of blood as she skidded across the surface.

Eva went down but she didn’t stay down. Pushing herself up, she got a clear view of her own insides with her eyes rather than her sense of blood.

Everything inside her chest was black and shiny. A familiar liquid. Her ribcage and sternum should have been shards of calcium coated with viscera. Instead, she found liquid blood racing to fill in the gaps. Her organs were much the same. The top of her lungs should have been distinct from her throat, stomach, and heart; all were normally slightly different colors. Not anymore. They regenerated rapidly in the same demonic blood as her ‘skin’ melded over until she couldn’t even tell that she had been hit.

Despite the awe in the change of her healing factor, Eva could really only think one thing as she stood up. Devon is going to be furious.

Oh well, he’s wanted a new test subject for a few years now. This might just be the excuse he needed to get off his ass and go find one. One who wasn’t a terminal child at any rate.

Eva could worry about him later. For now, she clenched her fists even as her dismembered wing flowed across the stone as a puddle. It touched her foot and flowed into her body. Within seconds, she had fully absorbed the wing and spat it out her back, fully formed.

Though she didn’t need it anymore. Her short gliding had carried her close enough that, after a blink and a short sprint, her fist connected with the hunter’s face. Eva’s momentum carried both of them down to the ground.

She wailed on the hunter’s face. Eva made no distinction between the human side and the more grotesque infected side. Blow after blow rained down until teeth started flying.

All the while, the hunter struck back. Or tried to. Eva pinned down her mutated arm using both of her wings. It was a struggle, but she had the high ground and the leverage. The sword barely registered as a threat to Eva. Not even when it entered her neck and exited out the other side.

A bright flash from the hunter’s normal hand made Eva hesitate. The straight sword had disappeared. In its place, a smaller dagger had appeared. The sword might have transformed. Eva doubted it. Transported seemed the more likely answer. Which made perfect sense. The hunter wouldn’t want her toys to be taken away like Arachne had done to the sword her partner had fought with.

Luckily, neither of the weapons gave off that sickly eerie feeling that the demon-slaying sword had emanated. If she could pull that sword out of thin air, then Eva would get worried. Until then…

Eva balled up her fist and broke the woman’s jaw.

As her fist connected, the hunter jabbed the shorter dagger into Eva’s side. Like before, she felt the slightest pinch. Only when a heat grew in her side did Eva pay any attention.

She tried to reach for the hunter’s hand.

A light flashed before she could.

When the bright spots in Eva’s eyes faded, she found herself halfway across the ritual circle, missing her lower half. Entirely missing. From her stomach downwards, there was nothing left. She had landed upright. Were she not intrinsically aware of her own body through her sense of blood, she might have thought that she had been sucked into a pitfall. Obviously that was not the case. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel much of anything, pain least of all. But something was wrong.

The ground around her shimmered. A thin red line split out across the ground where she had landed. It opened wide into a dark empty void with her at the center.

Eva lashed out with a startled cry, gripping the edge where the portal met stone. She could still fight. She was still alive. All she needed to do was find out where her legs had gone. If her body was working like she thought it was, touching them should reconnect her halves.

“Eva!” Zoe shouted. She sprinted towards the portal.

But the portal was not cooperative. It stretched open ever so slightly. Just enough for her fingers to lose their grip. For the ground under the tips of her wings to disappear.

With nothing to grab onto, she fell into the abyss. The sound of the hunter’s mad cackles chased after her.

And she fell.

And fell.

Downwards and deeper.

At some point, Eva lost track of herself. She couldn’t see anything with her own eyes; there was no light. Her sense of blood failed as well. Even trying to use her hands to feel herself didn’t do anything for her. She couldn’t even tell if her arms were moving. It felt as if her brain had been stuck in a jar, kept alive through magic or technology while leaving her completely isolated from everything. Her mouth didn’t work. Or if it did, she couldn’t hear or feel anything. Even the sensation of falling vanished before long.

She simply was.

How long that took, she couldn’t say. Her sense of time had gone out the window the moment she fell into the portal. The rate of her thoughts seemed slow and sluggish.

My my, come to visit so soon?

It was that voice again. Similar to the first times she had visited Hell, it pierced her mind and spoke directly to her very being. It skipped over the elegant and flowing sounds that Void had used while on Earth.

Frankly, Eva preferred this way. It was easier to understand.

Eva tried to talk but she just couldn’t speak. The sensation of isolation continued even now that she was being spoken to by her captor.

Captor? My dear, you perished.

I was fine, Eva thought. Thinking was the one thing left to her and, so long as Void could read her mind, she might as well think. Where is Arachne?

Arachne? Ah. The spider. I don’t believe that any of my creations have had to regenerate from dust before. It will be interesting to see if she can maintain a sense of self despite her pitiful state.

Eva couldn’t even grind her teeth together. As far as she could tell, she didn’t have teeth. Just a voice in her head.

Put her back together.

Look at you, ordering me around. Fascinating. Sadly, for you, I am still in the process of collecting enough of the spider’s remains to actually begin healing her. You have brought me a great deal, carried in your heart, but it is not enough.

Eva blinked. Or she would have had she been capable. It took her a moment to realize exactly what it was talking about. She had used her own body as part of the conduit for corrupting Life. The treatment ritual, her old one, always had needed blood and she hadn’t been sure that the Avatar of Void’s gaseous mist counted. Since her body had been a conduit, a good amount was still inside her. Or had been.

My legs, she thought with a sudden jolt of elation. And my arms. They were originally Arachne’s. If her limbs could get Arachne back to her, she would gladly sacrifice them. Though… had her legs even made it to Hell? Probably. Void should be able to drag them down here if not.

As she stewed in her consciousness, she felt something. A little something. Not much, just like a weight removed from her shoulders. If her shoulders even had meaning at the moment.

Hmm. This isn’t all that much.

Then send me back, bastard. I’ll tear open that cancerous sack of flesh and find every last bit of her.

That is not an option. I have only just begun clearing out the remnants of our enemy and those corrupted by its minions. Such a shame, so many of my creations lost permanently. But doing as you suggest may result in a relapse–

I do not care.

of the attacks. And with the portal already open in the mortal realm, it will likely not survive.

That… actually did sound like something she should care about. Earth was her home. And the home of everyone she cared about. Even demons, for the time being.

Worse, everyone she had left was still in the company of that infected hunter.

You have to send me back.

Perhaps in time. For now, you are mine.

I am no one’s. I might work with you, but Devon created me. Not you.

Ah yes, the mad warlock. I find myself curious about his end goals.

There is no time. My friends are in danger. And if that hunter decides to attack the avatar, as you said, Life will relapse. Send me back.

For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. There had been silence all throughout the conversation as Void wasn’t truly speaking. But the absence of his thoughts piercing her mind was all the more apparent without some noise.

Eva held her metaphorical breath. She couldn’t be sure whether the Power was trying to decide if she should be sent back or had abandoned her because she had attempted to order Void around. If she had been abandoned, she didn’t know what she could do. Every sensation save for her thought simply didn’t exist. She couldn’t even feel magic flowing through her mind as she tried to cast a spell. Blinking did nothing.

But she didn’t have to wait forever.

I agree that the situation could turn precarious should Life’s champion act against us. However, the planar gaps need to be sealed. Your haphazard corruption will work for an eon or two, but not if mortals have access to any higher being. Mortals are nosy and tend to disturb things that should be left well enough alone, as you are well aware.

So tell me what to do and Send. Me. Back.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.022

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Eva’s eyes snapped open to find the stone surface of the ritual circle, still glowing in a vibrant violet light. She wasn’t sure when she had closed her eyes. A deep rumbling in the ground beneath her feet had pulled her out of her torpor.

Seeing the ritual circle sent a jolt through Eva’s body. She couldn’t believe that she had fallen asleep.

Straining the muscles in her neck, she barely managed to look straight forwards. And her head ached every moment of the way. She only just got to see Catherine, Lucy, and Shelby standing on their spots before she couldn’t take it any more and let her head hang back down against her chest.

Not too much time could have passed. All three were standing. Mostly. Lucy’s lower half wasn’t a cohesive set of legs at the moment. More of a mountain made from tentacles that her upper body had perched upon. Catherine might not be the best metric for time passing either, being a demon. Eva wasn’t entirely sure about the stamina of a succubus. Maybe she would have collapsed from exhaustion eventually. However, Eva fully believed that Catherine had the stamina to remain standing for days.

Shelby was the real metric. She was a human. Not even an athletic one at that. Standing in one place for hours on end was absolute hell on the feet. Possible, easily, but Eva imagined that she would be shifting her weight side to side every few seconds.

Though it was somewhat odd that she was standing. Most everyone had chosen to kneel before they had started up the ritual. Save for Genoa and Catherine.

Perhaps some time had passed.

The sky would be a much better metric, but it had been a struggle just to tilt her head back enough to see Shelby’s waist. She couldn’t tell from the lighting thanks to the light of the ritual circle. The violet drowned out all the surrounding light.

It took a moment for Eva to realize her stupidity.

Blood coated every inch of her body. Blood that she controlled. A simple thought had her head wrenching back to allow her a sight-line of the sky.

Had the muscles in her jaw not been slack already, she would have started gaping.

Obviously she wouldn’t be able to stare at the sky. The portals were still overhead, blocking her view with the giant eyeball of Life.

Gone were the lush forests brimming with life, rivers, and mountains. The core pupil—the portions she had originally thought had been a planet before realizing the wider scope—had darkened to an almost pitch black. Deep veins of red ran across the entire surface. Eva couldn’t say if it was molten lava, blood, or merely some mystical energy. Concentrated streams of magic, or the like.

One thing was certain. It pooled near the corners of the eye. As she watched it gather, a thick droplet fell, rushing straight towards the portals.

It passed through without resistance, becoming a flaming meteor at some point. The thing crashed down somewhere in the distance, bathing the surrounding land in light brighter than the day for a mere few seconds.

The light went out almost instantly. Juliana, perhaps. Or perhaps whatever fueled the flames simply exhausted itself. Burnt out or couldn’t exist in the mortal realm. Eva supposed it didn’t matter.

If one hit them, or even Brakket Academy, the city, or anywhere else around, it might matter a bit more.

In fact, it looked like a few had hit. The trees near the ritual circle had gone up in flames since she last looked. Extinguished now, but the damage had been done. Spires of charcoal dotted the edge of the circle.

Beneath the eye, her treatment ritual circle still hovered overhead. Which shouldn’t have happened. She had been holding up the blood through her own will. Passing out should have destroyed it. And probably the primary ritual circle at that when the falling blood splattered over it.

But it hadn’t. It clung to the air like a spiderweb between trees.

A dripping spiderweb made from oil, that was. The drips didn’t hit the ritual circle. One dropped from the treatment circle until it was about level with Eva’s head whereupon it darted straight towards her and splashed across her already blood-covered cheek.

The droplet didn’t stay there. Pretending gravity didn’t exist, it beaded up and rolled along her cheek until it reached the top of her head. There it clung for just a moment—apparently gravity was fine to ignore but surface tension wasn’t—before flinging off the top of her head to rejoin the treatment circle overhead.

It wasn’t just the one droplet. The treatment circle created a sort of black rain for a decent radius around Eva with a near constant leak of blood back up to the upper level. Like a leaky faucet. She wasn’t sure what it looked like from the outside, but Eva found it exceptionally eerie. Especially because she wasn’t controlling the blood. Not even subconsciously, as far as she could tell. Trying to hold the blood up and keep it from dripping failed as did attempting to stop it from rejoining with the treatment circle.

In retrospect, it was a good thing she hadn’t been able to stop it.

The treatment was still ongoing. Essence flowed through the tubes.

Eva forced her head to turn towards the Avatar of Void. The significantly smaller avatar.

It didn’t have much in the way of a head anymore. Or even an upper body. The tube she had sent out to take the place of the intravenous tubes used during her own treatment circle wafted back and forth. Smoke disappeared into the tube as it vacuumed it all up.

Watching it slowly disappear felt like a weight in her chest. The smoke, for all she knew, could be all that was left of Arachne. Her body ground to nothing but fine dust under the weight of a Power. Eva wasn’t concerned in the slightest that she was harming Void through her ritual. Even had it not told her that she would be entirely unable to hurt it, she doubted she would care.

In fact, it was almost disappointing that Void wasn’t inhabiting the body at the moment.

If it was, it just might be suffering as much as Life seemed to be.

Ignoring entirely whatever the eye above her was feeling, the Avatar of Life to her other side thrashed and flailed around without stopping. Tentacles waved through the air, impotently attempting to swipe away the treatment circle. The blood simply rippled, moving ever so slightly to avoid every attack. It should have disrupted the magic, but it didn’t. Eva could still feel stuff draining from her body. She wasn’t even sure it was blood anymore.

Speaking of which, the blood tube was another target of the tentacles. Unlike the treatment circle, which just avoided everything the avatar could do to it, the tube broke and shattered every few seconds. Between those breaks, it repaired itself. Every chunk, shard, and grain of dust returned to where it had been as if time itself was rewinding. It wasn’t. Eva could feel her magic pull it back into its original spot—without her input at that—but it looked that way.

More tentacles from the avatar scraped along the surface of the ritual circle, trying to pull itself away. The mass was simply too large. It didn’t budge for as long as Eva watched.

Maybe Life should get a clue and evolve some legs.

And, the mass itself had changed. Where it once had been fleshy in coloration with violet veins, it had mutated to a demonic blood shade of black with vibrant crimson highlights pulsing through it. The single beam of light extending from it to the eye overhead had darkened as well. Eva wasn’t sure how black light worked—given that this wasn’t the ultraviolet kind—but it pierced right into the largest concentration of red up on the massive eye beyond the portals.

Only the tentacles remained their old colors. And that was rapidly changing. It started with the violet veins. One tentacle at a time would turn its violet to red. Then the obsidian skin began creeping up towards the tips.

Frankly, she was surprised its hundreds of mouths weren’t screaming endlessly. Perhaps the gaping maws hadn’t been designed for that and were only capable of consuming. Neither were the mouths eating away at the stone ritual circle itself. Given what had happened to their captured enigma and how much it tried to eat its surroundings, that should have been the first thing it had tried.

Eva found herself somewhat nervous as she finally turned her attentions inwards. Frankly, she hadn’t even considered the possibility that she might die from exsanguinating herself. Sensing what little blood was left in her, that was a real possibility. It might be more surprising that she hadn’t keeled over dead already.

Something was running through her veins. She had a feeling she knew what. Her sense of blood picked it up. It acted like blood enough for her to see it, but only barely. Her heart had the highest concentration of it. A foggy mist of particles swirled around within her heart. Every few seconds, a speed far slower than normal, her heart would pump and the particles would explode through her body. Most of it wound up leaving her body through the tube that led towards Life.

The tips of Eva’s fingers twitched. Applying pressure, she found herself able to fully flex her hands. The process took more labor than normal, but it was an improvement over hanging limp.

The treatment must have been drawing to a close. That might have been what had woken her up in the first place.

Still, she was locked in place for a few minutes before she managed to crick her neck from side to side of her own accord. Another minute and she managed to roll her shoulders and pull back her wings, standing on her own two feet.

Raindrops of blood continued to fall around her, but not quite at the same rate that they had been when she first awoke. Where before it may have been something like a monsoon, now it was a light drizzle.

For the moment, Eva was content to merely watch the blood fall. The avatar wasn’t actually targeting her with its flailing. Though there were some streaks of violet blood splattered around Eva’s circle. Perhaps it had tried at one point and either Eva’s unconscious mind had protected her or Juliana had. One or the other. It was a good thing that none of the blood splatters had interfered with the primary ritual circle.

Her treatment circle probably would have continued, but who knew if anything more would have happened. When the ritual circle had failed earlier, both avatars fell dormant. She would have been treating the Life-less husk of the avatar and not the eye overhead along with it.

That hadn’t happened. So, for the moment at least, she was content. At least until she managed to regain enough control over her body to turn around.

More blood splatters littered the ritual circle. Most centered around the avatar. Most violet in color.

But not all.

A sizable, albeit thin splattering of blood glazed over a section of the ritual near where Shalise had been standing. Had being the key word. She wasn’t there anymore. Juliana had taken her spot. To the side, Genoa looked rather like she had been thrown into a laundry machine filled with rocks.

Just what happened while I was out? Where’s Shalise? She tried to shout out. All she got were a few squeaks. Though her jaw was working, her throat just wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, Eva narrowed her eyes at the avatar.

The slowly stilling avatar. Only the tentacles high up on its body, the ones swinging through the air, were still active. The tentacles that had been trying to drag it off the ritual circle had stilled entirely. Even the moving ones were growing slothful as they changed to a more demonic hue.

Scanning the horizon didn’t help much either. She could see the spot where Juliana had been waiting. Her empty chair. No sign of Shalise. Or Serena, for that matter. The prisoners might still be there, but both had been lower to the ground. She wouldn’t be able to see them all that easily.

Eva ground her teeth together as the drizzle of blood slowed to a stop. At the same time, the last uncorrupted tentacles turned and fell limp next to the mass of flesh. Her treatment ritual collapsed, raining down in jagged shards of solid blood. The shards that hit Eva immediately liquefied and joined with the rest of her body. Everything else sheared straight through the Avatar of Life, the stone ritual circle, and even the stubs of legs were all that remained of Void’s avatar. After being pierced, the stubs dispersed into the air, fading away into nothingness.

The intravenous tubes Eva had created started sucking themselves back towards her. Eva made sure to chop off the end of Life’s tube before it reached her. Even if it was bloated with more demon blood than whatever had been running through its veins before, she didn’t want any of it near her let alone inside her.

Without really meaning to alter them, her wings also melded down into her back. The significant volume of blood they represented didn’t actually seem to add to the rest of it all. She really didn’t know what to think of that, but at the same time, the entire day had been full of things she couldn’t explain. Even discounting the few parts she had known were going to happen.

At the very least, she was just glad it was over. The large portal was still open and meteors were still raining down every now and again, but surely that wouldn’t last. Unless there were another few scratches she needed to make to the ritual circle to activate a third phase. Without Vektul or Void, she wouldn’t know.

Looking towards Catherine, Eva got a hesitant thumbs up. Which was great as far as Eva was concerned. She took a few steps until she was out of the central ring. The moment her feet passed over the line, the violet light of the ritual circle died off. It started at the center, weaving around the entire area like someone erasing the lines of a drawn labyrinth. The thin beam of magic that stretched between the avatar and the eye in the sky faded away as well.

Soon enough, absolute silence descended on the darkened ritual circle.

All at once, as if by some unspoken signal, everyone started to converge on her. Or, every human, at least. None of the demons moved a single muscle. Not even a wiggle of a tentacle from Lucy. Odd, but not so odd. All of them had just seen a sliver of their Power corrupt another Power. A little awe was to be expected.

Because Eva headed straight for Juliana, the two of them met well before anyone else reached Eva. Poor Irene was on the exact opposite end of the circle and had actually started jogging to reach them.

Eva didn’t quite make it into conversational distance before she started speaking.

“Shalise?”

“Don’t worry,” Juliana said with haste, holding her hands in front of her. “She’s… alive.”

“You truly inspire confidence.”

“Oh it was horrible!” Shelby managed to reach them before anyone else thanks to her sprinting across the platform. “Her back! It was bent completely the wrong way! Oh go–” She didn’t quite finish what she was saying. She clasped her hands to her mouth. Retching noises escaped her throat as she turned away.

Eva turned a flat look back to Juliana.

“I fixed her back,” Juliana said as everyone else started to gather. “Probably. I think she’s in the infirmary at the moment. Just in case.”

“Confidence. The tremble in your words speaks volumes of your belief in yourself.”

“What did happen, Juliana?” Genoa’s voice came harsh and cold as she stepped up to the group with her arms crossed over her chest. Her foot tapped against the stone in just such a way that it sent small cracks through the ground.

Considering that it took Eva a fair amount of effort to embed her spiked blood into the ground, that was quite the feat.

“Later mom. It’s… a long story.” Juliana hung her head for just a moment as if ashamed. Eva wasn’t sure why. Summoning Zagan had probably saved everyone’s lives multiple times over today.

“For Shalise,” Juliana continued, “I was keeping an eye on our prisoners when I heard the scream. Without even thinking properly, I inverted her state of injury and, a moment later after confirming Shalise wasn’t broken, inverted her location. She had been not in the school infirmary. Now she is.” She paused again for just a moment as she bit her lip. “Probably. In fact, we should check on her.” Much like Shelby, she clasped a hand over her mouth. “I don’t remember if I was specific! What if she’s in every school infirmary? Is that even possible? There could be hundreds of Shalises out there, all equally confused!”

Juliana turned towards the school as if to run and check. A firm hand came down and crushed her shoulder in a vice grip. “Juliana Laura Rivas…” Genoa said. “I think we need to have a little talk. We can walk to your friend while you tell me everything.”

Hand still squeezing down on Juliana’s shoulder, Genoa started marching her daughter away from their little gathering. She paused for a moment and glanced back towards Eva. “It is done, is it not?”

To that, Eva could do nothing but shrug. “If there is more, I’ll call. Actually,” she paused for just a moment, looking around to all the gathered humans, “you should all go. I can’t imagine that this was a relaxing event. Go rest, sleep, take showers, eat, whatever you fancy. Take a break. We’ll figure out how to get everything back to normal soon enough,” she said with a vague gesture towards Zoe—who was absolutely not dismissed.

“Stick close to Genoa,” Zoe said, backing up Eva’s words. “Things might still be strange.” There was a slight pause as she glanced around. “And has anyone seen Serena?”

“Ah! She mumbled something about needing a drink before Shalise got hit,” Juliana said with only a mild shudder. Her feet shifted back and forth for a moment as she stole a glance at her mother. “I… uh… offered. But she declined. Something about not wanting to risk the sunlight by taking off her bundles of clothes.”

Brushing a hair out of her face, Zoe hummed to herself for a moment before mumbling. “She probably went to find Wayne then.” A little louder, she said, “Alright. Stick together and stay safe.”

With that, the humans left. All except for Irene who paused to steal a glance at the still unmoving Saija. Shelby came up and dragged Irene away by the arm once she noticed that her sister wasn’t following.

Eva just sighed as she turned towards the next most important person around, Zoe. Who rather looked like she wanted to run off and check on Shalise as well.

It was weird. Eva thought she should be more concerned about her friend. Instead, she just felt a bit numb. She had used up all of her care on Arachne earlier in the day. Not to mention the deep exhaustion and slight apathy Eva felt—or didn’t—that probably came from the ritual, Juliana probably worrying for nothing, and Lynn Cross likely knowing who to seek out to heal Shalise’s back if it was still broken. Everything would be fine.

“If you want to go see Shalise too, that’s fine with me. I’m sure Catherine and I can figure out what to do from here.”

“You’re not worried?”

“I trust Juliana.”

Zoe sighed. Her eyes never quite stopped on Eva for any length of time. They kept sliding off to stare at the unmoving avatar, the other humans, and even the demons—who had yet to move from their spots. “What about them?” she said, nodding towards the latter group. “Are they alright?”

Turning around in a full circle, Eva started frowning. Lucy, of all people, hadn’t even twitched. Even if none of them cared to join up and interact with the humans much, Catherine should have approached to discuss the ritual and how they should proceed. Saija wouldn’t even be part of that group. She and Irene were close. But even though Irene had obviously been staring at the succubus with a worried frown, the succubus hadn’t budged to follow the humans away.

Above all, every single one of them was staring.

As Eva turned, she met each of their eyes.

“Great.”

“That didn’t sound like the pleased kind of great…”

“No,” Eva said, turning back to her professor with a wan smile. “Notice where they’re staring?”

Zoe only took a moment to respond. She had probably realized sooner, but had to brush a lock of hair back behind her ear first. “What did you do?”

“Nothing more than you saw me do. Which is probably the problem. But we don’t have the luxury of standing around. Even dormant,” Eva said, pointing towards the sole remaining avatar, “I don’t want that on Earth and I don’t want the portals overhead remaining open.” With determination, she turned towards Catherine and made a ‘come hither’ gesture with her full hand.

“That is something I can agree–”

Zoe cut herself off with a hissing gasp. Eva started to turn only to feel a slight pinch in her chest. Looking down, she found a gleaming silver blade stretching out from her chest. Right where her heart was. Black blood ran down the fuller of the blade until it reached the tip where it dripped off, splattering against the stone floor.

“Huh.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


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.”

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