Tag Archives: Catherine

010.026

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Kneel.

Across the entire ritual circle, everyone reacted in some way or another. Well, everyone except for Saija. Being passed out apparently afforded her some protection against Eva’s command.

Zoe, being already on her knees, didn’t react much either. Her head bowed down. Not to the point where it hit the floor, but just a nod. Which was perfectly fine with Eva. She had no desire to cause the woman any further pain.

The two most affected were Catherine and Srey. Both hit the ground hard enough that they would have made Eva wince had she not been focusing on their other guest. It was a good thing that they were demons; a human would have cracked their kneecaps. Hopefully Catherine would forgive her considering the circumstances.

As for the charging hunter, she fell to the ground in a heap. Yet, Eva wasn’t sure she had actually tried to kneel. Her momentum was at fault. The command had disrupted her legs just enough, just a twitch, that she hadn’t been able to place one foot in front of the other. With all the force of her charge, she soon started rolling across the floor.

Eva didn’t have time to stand around and admire the work of her command.

While the hunter pushed herself up, her arm burrowed into the ground.

Eva threw herself to the side, just in time to avoid the arm coming up just in front of her. As she flew through the air, ten little orbs of blood formed from her fingers. She flung them out, seemingly at random.

Seemingly.

While the hunter had to roll to one side and immediately froze five of the blood spheres, leaving a portion of her arm behind as a parasitic worm—which Eva immediately started flinging more blood at—two orbs scattered to the winds. The final three landed almost right on top of Zoe. Eva hoped the professor would get a clue and dip the stub of her arm into the conveniently bowl-shaped puddle. She couldn’t spare the thought to actually direct it around while her own blood was hurtling back towards her as razor-sharp spears of ice, but she would be able to harden it to prevent a total bleed out.

As for the icicles racing at her, Eva snapped her fingers. A shower of snow rained down around her while she advanced on the hunter.

A little trick. The hunter only froze liquid. So by turning the core of the orbs of blood crystalline, she retained full control. It might not have been wise, blowing her secret so soon, but the look on the hunters face made it worth it.

Oh yes. She was going to enjoy this. Her catharsis in beating down the hunter had yet to be satisfied. She had to be quick though, and couldn’t be careless. Rage and minor feelings of immortality had led to her defeat before. She could have easily ended it then had she simply torn out the hunter’s throat. If she got the opportunity, she had to take it.

The hunter didn’t stay stunned for long. In fact, she had already started moving before her expression fully solidified into shock.

Eva flicked her arm to one side, extending a blade of crystalline blood out just in time to catch the hunter’s curved sword. She didn’t stay in a blade-lock for long. A slight shift of her footwork and a liquefaction of her own blade sent the hunter’s sword harmlessly through the air.

She froze the droplets of blood, of course. Fast enough that she had probably enchanted her sword—or her person—with some liquid freezing spell. Not fast enough to catch her sword.

Which left Eva to thrust forward with her now shortened blade of blood.

The hunter didn’t even change her expression as an inch-deep gap appeared in the muscle of her human arm—should she even have that much muscle after being bed-bound for half a year? Her arm simply twisted, angling her blade and thrusting upwards in a move that Eva had to dodge by blinking behind.

Dodging put enough space between her and the hunter that Eva felt safe enough to split her attention for a half second.

Zoe, displaying perhaps the natural human reaction to a puddle of blood next to them, had not dipped her arm into it. So Eva did it for her. The black pool lurched out, wrapping around her arm. Zoe let out a slight yelp of surprise, then one of pain as Eva pinched and crimped the end of her arm with the rapidly crystallizing blood.

A clipped chuckle forced Eva to turn back to the hunter.

Who had her eyes locked on Zoe and her arm already in motion, stretching out towards the professor.

Eva nearly blinked inside Zoe in her frantic haste to get to her. Far less gently than she should have, Eva shoved Zoe out of the way.

“Tele–” was as far as she got before the hunter’s hand wrapped around her.

Contrary to what she had expected, the fist did not toss her clear to the opposite side of the ritual circle. She jolted back from the initial strike only to suffer whiplash as the fingers closed around her and pulled her straight back to the waiting hunter.

Waiting with a blade set to pierce through Eva’s rapidly approaching stomach, that was.

Eva blinked out of the hunter’s grip just in time to avoid getting yet another hole in her. She reappeared just behind the hunter, turning her arms into razor-sharp claws.

The hunter didn’t give her a chance to strike. Spinning her blade around into a reverse grip, she thrust backwards with a mad cry of rage. Eva backed away just enough. The tip of the blade actually nicked a tiny cut in her chest.

Before dying, Eva hadn’t been concerned in the slightest about being stabbed, skewered, or otherwise injured. She had marched towards the hunter relentlessly. Which had allowed her to get close enough to knock the hunter down and punch a few teeth out.

Accepting no injuries this time around, she was finding it difficult to strike back.

Thankfully, Zoe had understood Eva’s interrupted order. With the hand of blackened fingernails, she used the hunter’s distraction to pull her wand from her pocket. In a strange set of prioritization, she vanished her severed arm and all the pieces of her damaged dagger into her holding space before teleporting herself, disappearing mere instants before the hunter’s extended arm could reach her a second time.

Crying out a shout of frustration, the hunter whirled to face Eva.

They danced around for a time. Blade slashed here. Blood exploded there. Fist extended. Claws raked. The liquid in her arms and legs kept forming tiny ice crystals, only to be rebuffed by the constant fire magic that Eva poured into herself. Annoying but necessary. If she had had more time, she might have tried to draw some heating runes into herself. Or simply try to cast some passive heating aura to counteract the hunter’s freezing aura. But either option would have taken just too much concentration during their back and forth.

Five full minutes of neither of them gaining a distinct advantage passed before Eva finally grew fed up. She wasn’t doing anything. Nothing lasting, at least. It was only a small consolation that the hunter hadn’t hurt her either. She wasn’t making any progress in killing the hunter, which meant that the hunter was winning. The more time wasted, the higher chance that Devon finished his ritual and decided to ignore Eva’s request to wait.

Something Eva was expecting to happen.

Not only was she wasting time, she wasn’t even getting that cathartic release in the process by pummeling the hunter into pulp.

Something had to change.

Kneel.”

The hunter stumbled again. Just a slight stumble. Something so small that Eva might not have noticed it had she not been looking for it. Unlike last time, she did not fall to the ground in a heap of tangled limbs.

Instead, she looked up with some cross between a mad grin and a hate-filled scowl. “You tried that trick already,” she shouted as both Catherine and Srey returned to their knees. “It won’t work again!”

Eva clenched her teeth together hard enough that they might have broken had they not been demonic in nature. She didn’t really understand what she was doing when she shouted like that, but it seemed to work on all the other demons and it was similar to the thing that Ylva had done a handful of times in the past—which had never been resisted by Ylva’s subjects as far as Eva knew. Was it simply a matter of willpower? If Ylva were here, she would probably be able to force the hunter to get on the ground and lick her toes and make the hunter like it as well.

Which was another point in Eva’s growing frustration with the situation. Srey and Catherine were still the only two here. Besides the passed out Saija. Srey hadn’t even thrown a punch. Catherine had looked fancy while dancing away from the hunter, but she hadn’t been able to attack back. Eva hadn’t seen any evidence that Catherine had tried, but she was assuming that the succubus’ enthrallment wasn’t working either. Perhaps if they had ended up doing one more of her treatments, she would have been able to properly fight back against a foe of this caliber.

But Eva had expected someone to arrive and help out. Genoa maybe. Juliana or even Wayne were good alternates. Even just some random security guards or demons from around Brakket Academy. Yes, they had enigmas attacking the school—as evidenced by the one she had nearly crushed while jumping out of the dormitory window—but Zoe had disappeared five minutes ago. Eva assumed that she disappeared to the infirmary where everyone else should be. Even if she had passed out immediately after appearing, someone should have noticed her missing arm and gone to investigate!

Fuming, Eva stood stock still with her arms bent from the strain of tense muscles against bone. At least for as far as bone and muscles went before turning to liquid blood.

The hunter’s corrupted arm extended after her once again. She didn’t wince as it grasped around her, squeezing her tight. Neither did she care if it were drawing her into the hunter or pushing her far away. The moment the fingers clasped around her torso, Eva sprung into motion.

Her limbs of blood whipped around, losing their human shape as their ends turned to sharp spears of crystal. The sharp spears did as sharp spears were wont to do and pierced straight into the limb. They twisted, drilling into the arm as deep as they could go.

The hand tried to release Eva as it drew back to the hunter. Its fingers splayed out wide. With Eva connected to her arms and legs, she stayed pressed up against the hand.

Eva stopped her drills of blood. She was getting closer to the hunter and had no doubts that a sword would be waiting for her if she did not get off.

However, she wasn’t done yet. The four spears split apart into a hundred needle-thin strands. Each strand burrowed through the arm. Some took the path of least resistance and swam straight through existing veins of blood, blocking the entire vein as they moved. Others pressed through dense muscle. They didn’t make it as far up the arm as the vein needles did, but as the arm compressed down, they still ended up burrowing further than they should have.

Eva cut her arms and legs off at the skin of the arm, almost falling to the ground out of the open hands until she blinked forwards. She returned to existence behind the hunter once again. It was the point safest from the sword.

Not, however, safest from the shards of ice that the hunter filled the air with the second she disappeared. She didn’t fling them at Eva. They simply hung in the air.

One shard wound up in Eva’s stomach. A thin slit right through her stomach lining, leaking into the rest of her chest. A few other tiny blades caused other lacerations. Nothing life threatening. At least, nothing in her brain. For everything else, Eva merely redirected some of her own blood to patch up her injuries.

As she did so, she snapped her newly formed fingers together.

A muffled thump came from the hunter’s arm. Veins burst, sending violet blood everywhere; like a series of gopher tunnels blown up by ignited gas with strips of flesh replacing the dirt. Smoke started to leak from across the entire arm, all the way up to just before the eyeball at the shoulder. The veins were only evidence of superficial wounds, however.

The real damage was inside.

A few tendrils of Eva’s blood had wrapped around the bone. Though much thicker and… stretchier than even a thigh bone, it didn’t hold up to her blood magic. She had concentrated a decent amount of blood right around the elbow in the hopes of completely blowing off the lower half of her arm as well.

Unfortunately, it looked like she would have to settle for it hanging limp at the hunter’s side.

The screaming hunter, Eva realized as she took a few steps backwards. Just enough to dodge a swing of the sword. The swing crashed hard into the ground, lacking the modicum of elegance and control that the hunter had displayed so far. It hit so hard that the blade’s tip actually snapped.

The hunter dropped the rest of the sword. In a momentary flash, a thin rapier appeared in her already thrusting hand.

Eva’s step back took her just barely out of range. It still scraped against her bare chest, but not enough to puncture her skin.

Cold ice jutted off the tip of the blade before Eva could take another step. The ice pressed into her chest, driving straight through her lung and heart before reaching the other side.

The hunter put on a victorious grin, even laughing. “Come back again. I dare you.

Eva grasped at the rapier with her hands, leaving a trail of slime-like blood as she staggered back, gasping. Something that only had the hunter laughing harder.

Absolutely insane, that one. Was it the loss of her partner or had she been that mad before? Eva couldn’t say. Soon, it wouldn’t even matter.

Behind the hunter, Catherine and Srey both moved forwards at the sight of Eva being stabbed. Eva wasn’t sure what they were going to do. They hadn’t done anything so far. But they hardly mattered anymore either.

Looking down, Eva watched as the spike of ice came out of her chest. The nearly transparent crystal had its entire tip stained black. Blood sprayed from the hole, splattering against the ground.

She watched it fall with a wide grin on her face.

Eva snapped her fingers. The blood coating the icicle and the slimy blood—just thick enough to avoid triggering the freezing aura—exploded. Metal and ice went flying, cutting off the hunter’s maniacal laughter.

The heart was merely a means of transporting blood around her body. What need had she of such a redundant organ. She had served as a heart for Genoa once. Obviously she could do a better job with her own blood that she had complete and total control over. Some of the injury, she simply healed. Blood plugged up the rest while she ensured that her liquid blood kept flowing within her veins.

“I heard a story about a man who could summon an infinite number of swords,” she said slowly as a small dagger appeared in the hunter’s hand. The same dagger that had sent her to Hell not so long ago. “I wonder how many you have left.”

She screamed, pointing the dagger at Eva more like a wand than a bladed weapon. Eva blinked just in time to avoid an explosion at its tip.

A narrow chunk of the ritual circle turned to slag where the dagger had been aimed. The very rock turned bright red. Some parts melted entirely.

It had Eva thinking that maybe she had deserved to die the first time around. She hadn’t exactly been cognizant of what her body had absorbed last time.

With the hunter’s large arm being nothing more than dead weight, Eva half jumped, half blinked to the woman’s side. But she didn’t stay there. Eva blinked away, intentionally leaving a portion of herself behind.

A snap of her fingers detonated the hanging arms and legs, sending the hunter sprawling over the ground from the force. The dagger skidded across the surface of the stone ritual circle.

Right to Eva.

She stepped on the blade, coating the entire thing in a thick layer of blood. Before she could snap her fingers, the hunter, still lying on the ground, opened her hand wide.

The dagger reappeared between her fingertips.

Still coated in blood.

Blood and viscera—mostly red but with a slight purple hue—exploded at the stump of the hunter’s arm. She screamed out. Nothing articulate. Just random noise of pain, anger, and hatred.

Eva didn’t give her a chance to teleport or come up with any other plan. Blinking right on top of the hunter, she thrust her foot into the half-human, half-enigma maw, filling it with blood.

She didn’t even back away before snapping her fingers.

One moment, the wide eyes of the hunter were staring up at Eva.

The next moment, the wide eyes of the hunter were flying across the ritual circle with no skull to contain them.

Eva stared down at the headless corpse, panting for breath. Maybe having a lung damaged was a slight issue. But only slight. She could manage. Humans—or demons—had two lungs for a reason. She stared, looking for any sign of motion. With the mutation on its back and arm, Eva wasn’t going to take any chances.

Even though it hadn’t moved in the short time it took Catherine and Srey to finish walking up to her, Eva started stuffing the entire body with blood. Especially around the massive eye and the already damaged arm.

“You’re looking a little shorter.”

Eva glared up at Catherine without stopping the blood filling. Her glare apparently came intense enough that both demons took a step back.

Though the succubus might have a point. Eva had used up enormous quantities of blood throughout that fight. Especially in her final few attacks; leaving behind most of her arms and legs and the spears of blood that disabled the hunter’s arm should have run her blood supply completely dry. If her legs were only a few inches shorter because of it, she wasn’t about to complain.

She just about complained about the lack of assistance she had received during the fight, but thought better of it.

“The enigma I brought with me,” Eva said, pointing a vague hand towards the edge of the ritual circle. “Drag it over to the middle, just next to the avatar.”

“You have a plan?”

Eva grinned. She could taste a little blood on her sharp teeth, though couldn’t say exactly where it had come from. “Oh yes,” she said. “We’re going to shove this lobotomized hunk of flesh back into Life’s skull. Or whatever passes as one for Powers.”

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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 –>


010.022

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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 –>


010.020

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva, hands clasped behind her back, patrolled along the edge of the ritual circle. More specifically, she paced back and forth in front of the demon hunter and the nun. While the nun had her back pressed against the tree, staring up at the eye through the portals with a slack jaw, the hunter was face-down in the dirt with her mouth slightly to one side. Just enough to endlessly spew nonsensical threats at everyone who walked by.

Thankfully, Zoe had stopped by and stilled the air around her head, keeping the sound from escaping. A small part of Eva hoped that the stilled air would mean stale air and eventually toxic air when the oxygen ran out. However, Zoe was far too experienced and too careful to make a mistake like that.

Killing her might be for the best. It wouldn’t be difficult. She could use her wings—which, for the moment, had receded back into the blood coating her body—her feet, her hands, her fire, or her blood. And among all those, there were plenty of subsets. Her hands, for example, could crush her windpipe, tear out her throat, tear out her heart, twist her head around backwards, crush her head, tear open her mouth and jaw, break every bone in her body, and so on and so forth.

Eva had a sinking suspicion that Zoe would be none too pleased with her should she murder a helpless captive. Even if that helpless captive was the worst person Eva had ever met outside of Sawyer.

By Juliana’s testimony, neither of them had interfered with the ritual at all. The hunter had been lying face down pretty much since the moment she showed up. The nun hadn’t taken her eyes off the sky once the portals opened. Something Eva had been telling the others to avoid doing.

“Stop that,” Eva said, clicking her fingers in front of Irene’s face. Some people had to be reminded more often than others.

Irene blinked twice before shaking her head. “Sorry,” she said as she glanced between Eva and Saija. “I was just… what was I doing?”

“Staring. Get on your feet. It’s too easy to look up while lying down on your back. And that goes for the rest of you as well,” Eva said to pretty much everyone who wasn’t Zoe, Genoa, or a demon.

Fluttering her eyes shut, Irene heaved out a great sigh. “Is it fine to lie down if I’m not looking at anything? I don’t think I could get up if I tried. My arms and legs feel like someone has strapped hundred pound weights on them.”

“Maybe just a little nap?” Shalise said with a yawn, rolling over onto her side. Apparently nobody cared in the slightest that they were lying on dirt. It wasn’t even nice and grassy since Eva and Juliana had cleared out most of the vegetation before starting on the circle. In fact, it was still a little muddy from the snow Eva had melted not too long before.

But at least she wasn’t staring at the sky anymore.

“Saija, keep an eye on them. If any of them start staring at the eye, clap your hands in front of their faces.”

“Me?” Saija said, looking up. Her forehead had been touching her knees as she sat on the ground with her arms around her legs. Though better off than the humans, even the demons were looking drained.

“Do you see someone else with your name around? I thought not,” Eva said before Saija could actually start looking. “Actually…”

Turning around to face the makeshift prison, Eva walked over to where Juliana had made a chair for herself. She was the only one of the younger humans who wasn’t dying of lethargy. Though the dirt coating her pant legs, hands, and forehead meant that even she hadn’t been able to escape being forced to kneel to the avatars.

“Did you figure anything out yet?” Juliana asked. Her foot thumped against the ground in a nervous tremor. Something that Eva wouldn’t have normally associated with Juliana.

But Eva chose to ignore it, shaking her head instead and gesturing off towards the ritual circle. “Ten minutes, Catherine said. We’re nearing the hour mark and she’s still pacing around. Has Zagan said anything?”

Juliana sent her hair flipping about as she shook her head back and forth. “Not a word. Although I do feel inordinately amused with the whole situation even though I’m pretty sure I don’t feel amused.”

“Well I hope all this buys you some excitement. But I have a favor to ask. Could you–” Eva cut herself off as a thought occurred to her. “I was going to ask if you could blot out the sky. Temporarily of course. Just something to get everyone to stop staring. But there might be a more important thing to spend your time on.

“I would have thought that this ritual would have drawn some attention. Nobody has shown up, not yet at least—which actually has me somewhat worried about what is going on outside the Infinite Courtyard. I would have expected Devon to notice and run over here. Though he might be too cowardly. Redford, Anderson, and all the mage-knights running around town aren’t here for some reason.”

Juliana’s foot ceased its tapping. Straightening her back, she looked right in Eva’s eyes. “You think something has happened in town? My dad…”

“I don’t think anything. It was merely a side comment. I’m more worried that someone will show up and try to stop us from finishing this whole mess.” Especially Devon. “I don’t suppose you can make this place impossible to find? For those who aren’t already here, of course.”

“That would cut off help if we need it.”

“I would assume that you could undo whatever you do.”

Falling silent, Juliana brought a thumb to her mouth and started nibbling on her nail. “I mean, I could try.”

“Just don’t accidentally make us unable to find it. Or remove it from existence. Or alter the ritual circle. Or perhaps any of thousands of possible bad things.”

“You’re sure doing wonders to fill me with confidence.”

“That’s my job,” Eva said with a grin. She didn’t really feel much like smiling, but acting as if nothing was wrong was probably best for morale. Especially if things really were going sour outside the Infinite Courtyard.

Now that Juliana had brought it up, there almost had to be something going on outside. Surely people would have noticed the ritual going on. All the lightning bolts and the massive black dome. It should have been nearly impossible not to see it even with the strange way space interacted with the courtyard. The portals and the massive eye overhead were probably even more obvious, but with the violet streaks having stretched over the entire city and even beyond for a ways, they might not associate that with the Infinite Courtyard and the ritual circle within.

Unless, like the nun, everyone had started staring at it and had been unable to stop. Who knew what that might do to them. The nun had yet to go insane or start mutating into a blob of tentacles and enigmas, though she also had yet to break eye contact. Eva, and pretty much everyone else around, had looked at the eye at least once or twice. Some for longer than others. So far, nobody was exhibiting odd mannerisms.

After staring at it non-stop for several hours, who knew what might change. Maybe nothing. Maybe they would all become zombies. That was why Eva had been going around stopping people from looking.

All that was something other people would deal with or she would deal with later. For now, she turned towards the approaching Catherine and Zoe. Their inspection of the circle had apparently finished. Finally.

“Just think about it. It might not be a priority at all. Maybe no one noticed,” Eva said to Juliana. The weird way the Infinite Courtyard functioned made that a perfectly valid possibility. How did a lightning bolt strike any specific spot while all the space had been compressed into the size of a larger room?

Shaking her head, she left Juliana to her thoughts and blinked towards Catherine, closing the distance. She wound up not far from the still smoking remains of the Avatar of Void. Particles of smoke drifted off into the air and disappeared from sight. Yet it never shrank in size. If Void was still inhabiting it, Eva might not be so surprised. Without any Power generating the body, she had half expected it to disperse and leave at least something of Arachne behind.

Finding herself gritting her teeth, Eva turned away. She turned just in time to catch Zoe relaxing slightly from a tense posture. Not once had Eva seen Zoe sheathe her dagger. Frankly, Eva didn’t blame her. Walking around near what had once been Vektul would have unnerved her as well.

Catherine, on the other hand, didn’t look nearly so tense. Her posture remained its usual drawn back and proper. But the way she walked… Her timid steps actually had Eva double-checking that she really was Catherine. Especially as she approached Eva. She grew more and more subdued. Her shoulders remained up, but every step was smaller than the last.

She stopped cold a fair distance away from Eva. Zoe continued for another few steps before realizing that Catherine hadn’t moved and stopped.

Eva blinked across the short distance away from the avatar. “Any ideas?” she asked, getting right to the point. “Was it my fault?”

“Possibly.”

“Only possibly?” That was better than definitely being the cause of the apocalypse. “I had assumed that I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything that would break the ritual,” Eva said with a thumb over her shoulder towards the avatar.

“That is the thing. You shouldn’t have been able to break it. Your spikes of blood shouldn’t have interacted with any other part of the ritual.”

“Then what–”

“But this ritual is so huge—it covers so much physical space that I can’t say for certain that something isn’t being affected by your blood. There may be some mirrored symmetry that was broken or your blood is acting as a siphon for some branch of magic that I’m overlooking. Given Void’s words before everything went wrong—I believe he said ‘perfect’—I’m going to assume that you did it.”

“Unless,” Zoe said, “this is all part of the plan.”

“Which we didn’t see any evidence for.” Catherine narrowed her eyes as she glanced towards Zoe. It only lasted a moment before she turned back to Eva. As she turned, her eyes dipped down to the ground. For whatever reason, she avoided looking right at the avatar. “By all evidence, this ritual has fallen into a stasis.”

“So how do we resume?”

Zoe turned back to face Vektul. “The simplest thing to try would be removing your blood and having Genoa smooth over the platform. Get everyone back into their positions and then channel your magic into the center point.”

“But…”

Eva had to whip her head around to stare at Catherine. They were acting like twins, complimenting each other’s points.

“That may not be for the best. If we resume this second portion of the ritual, Void may not–”

Catherine took a ginger step to one side, spreading her feet for stability as Zoe toppled to the ground. Eva, without the slightest thought, touched the tips of her wings to the ground to protect against the sudden earthquake.

“I think we’ve run out of time,” Eva said as she reached out a hand to help Zoe back to her feet.

The second Eva’s hand met with Zoe’s, a flash illuminated her face. Like someone had just taken a picture behind Eva’s shoulder. A moment later, a boom of thunder echoed across the smooth ritual circle. Eva whirled around towards where she had heard it come from.

Only to not spot anything amiss.

The others were all shaken—earthquakes tended to have that effect on people—and even the nun was looking around. But no enigmas. No mass of flesh growing nearby. No alien trees sprouting.

“Where did that lightning hit? Did anyone see?”

“Somewhere over the trees,” Catherine said, eyes locked on the horizon. “Can’t say how close it was. I only saw the flash.”

“Great.” If something hadn’t been going on outside before, there definitely was something now. Luckily, an earthquake had accompanied it. Like the nun, anyone stuck staring at the sky might have been shaken out of their trance. They should all be able to defend themselves from whatever might have happened.

“I’ll get rid of the blood,” Eva said. “Catherine, get everyone back to their spots. Zoe, grab Genoa and have her smooth over the area.”

Biting her lip, Zoe said, “We’re resuming it just like that? There might be better methods.”

“We could sit around asking what ifs all day. What if it’s the wrong move, what if there is a better way, what if the ritual can’t be resumed. But that thing is watching us,” Eva said, pointing a finger upwards without glancing up herself. Zoe started to look before catching herself while Catherine still had her eyes locked on Eva. “The real question–” she had to pause for a moment as the ground gave a light tremble. “The real question, did all this start up coincidentally or because it saw us talking about restarting the ritual?”

Eva glanced back and forth between the two, wondering if either would say anything. Another bolt of lightning crashed down. This time it was in the direction Eva was already facing. She could only see the highest point, way up by the portals. The rest of it came down behind the treetops far off in the distance.

“It would have been dangerous no matter how or what we tried,” Catherine said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Zoe shook her head. “Restarting interrupted rituals is always dangerous. Something like this… I can’t even imagine the possible consequences. If there is some pocket of magic that hasn’t dissipated, the whole thing could explode the moment we activate it again.”

“And if we don’t, the opened portal will overwhelm us with monsters. Then who is going to save the world? It might be a bad idea, but doing nothing or waiting is almost assuredly a worse one. I agree with Eva.” Catherine spread her wings and took off, banking slightly to curve around the avatar as she flew towards the gathered humans and demons.

“Juliana might be able to help protect against something like that,” Eva mumbled. She hadn’t been talking to Zoe, but the professor narrowed her eyes.

“And what is Juliana going to do?”

Suppressing a wince, Eva casually crossed her arms and feigned a moment of deep thought. “No idea,” she said, stepping around Zoe. “Just get everything ready. But look on the bright side. If the ritual does explode, then I guess we won’t have to worry about Life being corrupted.”

“That’s another thing we haven’t discussed… Eva!” she called out.

But Eva was already marching towards the Life avatar. “No time for discussion,” Eva called out over her shoulder. “If one of those lightning bolts hits around here or the earthquakes break apart the ritual circle, we could be in serious trouble. The avatar isn’t shooting them out of the sky anymore.”

Much like Arachne, Eva couldn’t imagine that there was any part of Vektul left within. Though the hulking mass of flesh definitely had veins, arteries, and blood pumping through them. It didn’t look like any kind of creature that Eva had ever seen. She couldn’t even find a brain within.

Considering the idea that the entire thing was supposedly a segment of a brain, that might make sense. It still didn’t look like any brain Eva had ever seen. Even knowing that it was only a part, it was utterly alien. The avatar had been using a metaphor, so perhaps expecting it to make any sense was asking too much of the mass of flesh.

The real question was in the tentacles. How much brain was in them? Would it matter if she sheared them all off? They presented a clear danger to herself and everyone involved in the ritual. Especially those closer to the Life side of the circle. It would probably just grow more, of course. A few chopped off now could mean a great deal less hassle later. Especially the few long ones that had been reaching out towards Eva. The few that had caused most of the problems in the first place.

Well, Void wanted to lobotomize the thing. Chopping off a few tendrils couldn’t hurt more.

With that thought in mind, Eva set to work, slicing away at the meat of anything that wasn’t a part of the main mass. Soon enough, she wound up with a fair pile of tentacles. Eyes covered some. Others were tipped in razor-sharp maws. All of them were in desperate need of immediate disposal.

Without the flames from the avatar, she wasn’t entirely certain how to go about that. Her own fire wouldn’t be sufficient. There was almost no doubt about that. Just shoving them off to the side probably wouldn’t be healthy once the ritual started up again. Right now they were inert. The blood wasn’t even pumping through the main body, let alone the tentacles. Yet Eva wouldn’t bet a penny that they would stay that way.

Eva shaped her blood into wings once again, bringing the sharp points of blood together. Slowly pulling them apart, she stretched a long thin strand of liquid blood out. The strand expanded and grew as she started wrapping up one of the tentacles. Like a spider cocooning prey. No matter how much blood she coated it with, the blood coating Eva never lessened. In fact, she wasn’t entirely certain that it was coating her anymore. Looking at herself through her blood sight, she couldn’t detect the thin layer of skin beneath the blood except around her hands and legs.

Under other circumstances, she might have found herself concerned about that fact. She liked having skin. Arachne’s carapace was nearly impervious and protected powerful muscles, but her skin was more comfortable. Sitting in a chair or even lying on a bed just wasn’t quite the same anymore with Arachne’s legs.

And yet, she found herself oddly calm about the suit of blood. Maybe it was just whatever had been making her head fuzzy during the ritual. Maybe she just didn’t think properly anymore.

Either way, she had finished her task. Ten tentacles taped to the tip. More blood was weaved out from the ends of her wings and crushed the tentacles into a sphere of blood. Holding the sphere by two points of her wings high above the ritual circle, Eva clapped her hands.

She winced away from the flash of light. Entirely unnecessarily, as it turned out. She had expected an explosion of blood and viscera. None came. Peeking open her eyes, dust scattered to the winds. There wasn’t anything else left.

“That worked out better than expected,” Eva mused to herself.

“Did you have to use those things coming off your back?”

Eva turned with a half shrug to face Zoe and Genoa. “Probably not. But they give me range and I didn’t really want to get close to the tentacles.”

“Are we going to talk about them? Or why you look like you do?”

“So other people can see me,” Eva said with a note of false surprise in her voice. “I was beginning to wonder. Nobody else said anything.”

“You’re probably intimidating them.”

“Even Genoa?” Eva said, glancing in the mage-knight’s direction.

“I figured it was some demon thing,” Genoa said as she approached just behind Zoe. “Strange things happen and you learn to start ignoring them. If you weren’t bothered by it, I wasn’t going to be.”

Zoe just sighed. “Everyone’s ready. Are we sure about this?”

“Not at all,” Eva said as she pointed towards Vektul. “Those holes need to be smoothed over, Genoa. Once that’s done…”

It would be time to start up the ritual again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.019

<– Back | Index | Next –>

A final bolt of lightning hit the blob of flesh that had taken the place of Vektul. With it came perhaps the loudest sound that Eva had ever heard. A constant roar of thunder for several seconds until it finally faded to a faint buzzing.

Rather than merely vanishing into aether as normal lightning bolts did, this one persisted. It burned brighter and brighter. Eva wasn’t quite willing to glance away. Vektul’s mass appeared to have fallen into some sort of torpor, but Eva wouldn’t count on it staying that way.

To keep her eyes from burning out of her skull, Eva stretched a few thin layers of blood over her eyes. The black blood acted somewhat like sunglasses. Which really didn’t do much while staring at something that was as bright as the sun. A few more layers darkened the surrounding ritual circle to the point where Eva could barely see anything at all.

But she could still see. Especially all the light from the lightning.

And the lightning just wasn’t stopping.

Prior to the lightning, Vektul’s flesh had been what one expected of flesh. By appearance, it had a leathery texture and brownish color. But as the lightning continued, bright purple veins started to bulge out around the massive tumor.

Eva wasn’t sure what it was with all the glowing. First all the beams of light from the ritual circle. Then Void’s skeletal fiery light glowing from within his smoky body. And now this blob of flesh that was likely Life itself—or a hair on Life’s head, to use the avatar of Void’s example. That wasn’t even going into all the other glowing things, such as demon eyes.

Life and Void were the things most glowing in the local area. Aside from the ritual circle itself, that was. Eva did not want to be between the two of them. The very second the ritual circle’s light died off, she fully intended to blink to the edges of the circle.

So long as she wasn’t stuck in place once again. If that happened…

But still, she had yet to feel any inclination to bow despite Life being a being of presumably equal power to Void. In fact, she found her temper heating up as she stared at the mass of flesh that had once been Vektul. It didn’t even have arms or legs anymore. Just a series of writhing tentacles—most of which Eva had pruned off. Had it not been attacking Void, so much could have been avoided. Not only would Arachne not have had a Power shoved into her carapace, but Juliana and Shalise probably would never have been stuck in Hell. Zagan only dropped them in there because he had been trying to figure out what had been going on.

Which was Life’s fault.

It felt weird, being an enemy of Life. She was sure that if she said as much out loud, everyone would look at her funny.

Eva clenched her fists.

Frankly, she doubted that she would care at this point. What a world she lived in when Life was the villain and demons were the good guys. Probably. So long as Void actually gave Arachne back.

Otherwise she might consider looking into ritual circles to summon another Power to punch the lights out of Void if she couldn’t manage it herself.

Eva’s musing came to an end along with the light from the final bolt of lightning. Its brightness waned to a barely visible level. With a light popping noise, it vanished from existence. The faint buzzing that had been constant for who knew how long disappeared along with it, leaving the ritual circle in absolute silence once again.

She waited. When the first ritual had finished, this had been the moment when Arachne’s smoky body had taken on its fiery countenance. However, Vektul was already glowing bright purple. His tentacles, those Eva hadn’t sliced off and tossed into the great inferno raging overhead, lay flat on the ground. They weren’t even twitching.

Something had to happen soon. The air was thick with tension. And also the unpleasant scent of burned flesh, but that probably wasn’t part of the ritual so much as it had to do with the flames and the lightning. Eva felt safe in ignoring it with little more than a wrinkle of her nose.

But even waiting a few moments, the blob hadn’t made a move. The ritual circle was still glowing and the eye overhead was still staring down through the violet-hued portals. So perhaps it wasn’t quite over yet. But Eva expected something to happen.

Another buzzing started up. Low buzzing. The sound was low and loud enough that Eva could actually feel the vibrations inside her chest. It took a moment to realize that the noise was growling. And it was coming from behind her.

Glancing over her shoulder at the avatar of Void, Eva watched for a moment as it cut off the breath of lightning and fire with a slight cough. It waited as well without stopping the low hum. For a few moments, it did nothing more than stare up at the portals, locking eyes with the sole eye.

“Is it finished?” Eva called out.

Only then did the thing finally break its contact with the eye. It turned its burning gaze onto Eva and stared.

Eva didn’t flinch. She met its eyes and glared back. The thing had taken over Arachne and she wasn’t about to give it any power over her by acting frightened. If anything, the Life avatar was far more intimidating. It had actually tried attacking her.

You still stand despite being in the presence of two of us?

Is it finished?

The light between its teeth dimmed. Maybe it was like grinding its teeth together. Did it even have proper emotions like anger? Or annoyance for that matter. Eva hoped not. It might decide that she wasn’t needed for this ritual after all if she kept ordering it around.

But Eva couldn’t help it. She wanted this whole thing done with. To get Arachne back. For everything to go back to normal. It was odd. She had known about Life for a good while now. Yet she hadn’t cared nearly so much until the ritual had actually started. She knew that it was important to see it through properly.

Eva found it difficult to care about Life at the moment. Especially while it wasn’t even attacking her. Maybe later. The big blob of flesh didn’t look too threatening anyway. In that aspect, Void had definitely made Arachne into a much more threatening avatar than Life had done to Vektul. Flesh tended to burn, tear, rip, rend, disintegrate, fall apart, and generally just die when it came into contact with creative enough magic. Smoke didn’t.

Though maybe Zoe could have just whisked her wand and scattered Void to the winds.

Eva’s train of thought screeched to a halt as she shook her head. For some reason, her mind had been scattered. She kept going off on odd tangents entirely unrelated to anything relevant. It had been that way since the ritual began. Which, now that she was thinking about it, seemed suspicious.

Was the ritual itself affecting her mind? Did watching Arachne’s transformation cause some trauma that her mind was trying to gloss over by focusing on the little things? Or was it something else entirely?

With a second shake of her head, Eva clamped down on her thoughts. She was doing it again. Rather than think, she merely glared at the avatar of Void and waited for a response.

It took a while, but it eventually vibrated the air in its strangely elegant speech.

Not quite. Where what you see of me might be likened to a hair on your head, what you see of it might be a segment of your brain.

Eva frowned, glancing back towards the still mass of flesh. Poor Vektul. He had been turned into a brain. Or part of one. With how empty he had felt, Eva had to wonder if Void hadn’t created him specifically to act as the vessel.

“So you lobotomized it?” she said, turning her attention back to the avatar behind her. “Why was it fighting us earlier and not now?”

That may be an apt word for the situation. Lobotomized. Only temporarily, however. We are not yet finished. As for why it was attacking, it was because it recognized an attack. Now that this section has been separated from the main body, it will not stay that way for long. It will rapidly regrow this missing section. This reprieve will not last indefinitely.

“Of course not,” Eva said with only a slight grumble. “So how do we kill it?”

Kill? I do not believe the concept of death holds any meaning to this being.

“Powers can be killed,” Eva said, voice firm. Catherine had complained about the elves often enough for her to have gathered most of the story. With the death of their Power, they lost their unique magics and newly born elves were not immortal. Essentially, their identity as a people had been tied to their Power and they had lost everything with its death. Probably more than that as well.

Ah, but this isn’t just any of us. I know of no way to slaughter this menace, as much as I wish I could. The only being with that knowledge might be Death. And He isn’t telling.

“I hope your plan is a bit more involved than repeatedly summoning a portion of its brain until it decides to give up.”

The avatar laughed. Actually laughed. The very air around Eva chuckled along with it. Eva found the sound unsettling. Like riding a roller coaster—it was the feeling of her stomach dropping out from under her. Repeatedly. And constantly.

Though it did answer the question of whether or not the avatar had feelings. Maybe. Laughter could merely be something it had learned from watching demons and humans. Or it might be its way of expressing despair. Eva couldn’t say anything with any certainty. At least not beyond the growing unease in her chest. That was definitely there.

No, fool. Such a thing would not go over well. We have perhaps two more chances should this fail before summoning portions of its brain becomes only a minor irritation. The disgusting monstrosity that it is will adapt and find a way around the inconvenience of having no brain.

For just a moment, Eva wondered if the avatar was still speaking metaphorically. If so, a hair on Void’s head was quite intelligent. Also Void had a head. And hair.

I will corrupt it.

Tangents. Eva thought with a growl, barely managing to avoid slapping her own cheek. The avatar’s words registered a moment after.

“Corrupt it…”

Was that a good idea? To corrupt Life itself? Would that affect humans? Demons were alive. What would happen to them? The better question to ask was how much Life affected living things. People, humans and demons, were not enigmas. They didn’t go around mindlessly eating everything in their path. Usually. And when they did, they didn’t take on aspects of what they consumed.

Which meant that it was probably safe.

Right?

Eva didn’t get a chance to ponder any further. Behind her, one of the tentacles twitched. She whirled around with her great razor wings spread to their maximum wingspan. A thin beam of light stretched from some indefinite point overhead down to the highest tip of the… brain.

Ah, it’s trying to reconnect with its severed self before trying to regrow the segment. Perfect.

Perfect,” Eva repeated with a scoff as the tip of her wings struck the tentacle. Without the avatar spewing fire into the air, she didn’t have any way to permanently get rid of the thing. It wasn’t quite active yet, but she doubted it would be long. Instead, she broke off the tips of her wings into the ground, pinning it in place for the time being. With her endless supply of blood, reconstructing her wings wasn’t difficult in the slightest.

Hopefully the spikes of blood wouldn’t hurt the ritual. None were near any glowing lines, so it was probably safe.

Gritting her teeth, Eva severed another tentacle before it could become a problem and pinned it to the ground.

Eva had been about to turn over her shoulder and shout at the avatar to incinerate all the tentacles. She stopped the moment she caught sight of Void.

All the fiery glow had dimmed to barely embers. The mane of flames making up its hair had gone out, leaving just the smoke from the main body. Behind him, Eva could see the light from the ritual circle fading out around the edges. The bright violet grew faint pink before being extinguished entirely.

And it didn’t stop at the edge. The color drained further inwards, starting slow but moving faster and faster. In seconds, the absence of light spread all the way up to Eva’s central position, leaving her with no light save for the evening rays of the sun.

“Was that supposed to happen?” Eva shouted. Maybe she actually had messed something up with the ritual circle.

Behind the hulking form of Void’s avatar, Genoa brought a foot up. Her movements weren’t quite steady. She wobbled a little as she put weight on her foot. Still, she managed to stand on her own two feet. It took a few more moments, but others started standing as well.

Shaking her head, Eva refocused on what had once been Vektul.

But it was no longer moving. The twitches in the tentacles stilled as it lay slumped into its own flesh. The beam of light vanished just as quickly as it had come. Eva watched it for a few moments, waiting to see if it was merely pretending. When stabbing its main mass with her wings elicited no response, Eva finally turned away.

Ignoring the slowly recovering humans and demons around the arena, Eva blinked out of her circle and right in front of Arachne. She was still the three-story-tall smoky Avatar of Void, but the last embers of what had been glowing within her had died down. Nothing but wispy black smog remained behind. Yet it still stood mostly upright on its hind legs, supported by the lower pair of arms. It hadn’t collapsed into a formless pile of smoke.

“Arachne,” she said, voice soft. Though she didn’t really wait for an answer. She had a feeling that she would have been waiting for a rather long time.

Before, Eva had been distracted. Between being locked in place, the ritual, Arachne, Vektul, and the avatars, one thing slipped her mind. She hadn’t actually checked Arachne with her blood sight. Not since the first part of the ritual had finished, at least. Now, closer and with her head not quite as foggy, Eva stared at the avatar.

There was nothing left of her friend. No blood. No brains. Nor any organs. As far as she could tell with her sense of blood, there wasn’t anything in front of her at all.

Stretching out with timid fingers, Eva raked her claws through the smoke and encountered no resistance. Were it not for her eyes, she wouldn’t know that the thing was there at all. It didn’t even have a smell despite its appearance. She supposed that it might have a taste, but she wasn’t about to try licking it.

“That was a pain in the… everywhere. Especially my knees and my back,” Genoa said, brushing some dirt from her knees with one hand. Her other held tight to her dagger as she eyed the mass of smoke that was the avatar. “What’s happened? Is it done with?”

Eva shook her head before glancing towards Genoa. She had seen the woman coming through her blood sight and hadn’t even blinked an eye at her sudden question. “I don’t think so. I think something went wrong.” Eva pointed a finger up without raising her gaze to meet the eye overhead. “The portals are still there.”

Genoa made to glance up, but Eva waved a hand in front of her face. “Don’t look at it. It creeps me out.”

Nodding her head and licking her lips, Genoa said, “We can’t leave things as they are.”

“I heartedly concur.” Turning, Eva homed in on the one person present who might be able to figure out exactly what had happened. Only for her to realize that none of the demons had moved. Zoe was moving around between the students, ensuring that they were all unharmed. Most of them were looking far more unsteady than Genoa. But the demons, besides having stood up, hadn’t budged in the slightest. All of them had their eyes locked on Eva.

Or the avatar. Probably the avatar. Standing right in front of it, it was a bit hard to tell. There wasn’t any reason for them to be staring at Eva. All of them had seen her plenty of times before. Aside from the blood coating her body and the wings sprouting from her back, Eva was fairly certain that she wasn’t doing anything odd.

Even Lucy, who Eva would have expected to be moving about and most irreverent of them all, was frozen in place.

Cupping her hands to her mouth, Eva called out, “Catherine, come–” She cut herself off with a slight throat-clearing cough. “Come here!”

The succubus burst into motion well before Eva had finished asking her to. None of the others had broken from their reverie, but that really wasn’t Eva’s problem at the moment. Eva just waited, tapping her foot with growing impatience while Catherine hurried over. The succubus wasn’t using her wings for some unfathomable reason despite having been clear across the ritual circle.

But eventually she made it, stopping just in front of Eva with a dazed look in her eyes—not quite looking at anything in particular. She snapped out of it soon enough. Her eyes snapped to the smoky visage of the dormant avatar for almost a full minute until Eva clicked the tips of her fingers against her chitin, spreading the blood away from her hand to do so. Locking eyes with Eva, she said, “Don’t… Just don’t do that again.”

“What, the ritual?”

“No. Just–” She ran her fingers through her hair, sending it swishing over one shoulder. “Your voice. Talk to me normally or don’t talk at all.”

Eva blinked, but slowly nodded her head. “Alright.” She wasn’t quite sure what she had done aside from cuping her mouth and shouting. Catherine looked a bit too unsettled to be concerned over a little yelling. Though with everything going on, Eva wouldn’t blame her for not wanting any more stress piled on. “I’ll try to keep that in mind. For now, what went wrong? It wasn’t those spikes of blood, was it?” she said with a vague gesture back towards Life’s avatar.

“I don’t think…” Catherine turned her head, moving back and forth between Void and Life. “They’re not moving.”

Genoa huffed. “Tell us something we don’t know.” She almost tipped her head upwards before a small shudder wracked her body. “Now that you’ve mentioned it, that thing is absurdly creepy. Figure out whatever, I need to check on Juliana.”

As she walked off, Eva turned back to Catherine. “Astounding observational skills aside, I was hoping for something a little more insightful.”

“I told you this was too soon. I hadn’t finished researching it. Zoe and I barely finished our corrections!” She let out a low growl as her eyes found the ground. “Give me ten minutes,” she said as she walked off, following one of the many lines of the ritual circle.

Eva first glanced to the unmoving Avatar of Life before sneaking a glance upwards. The eye overhead bulged over on one side with an overabundance of some putrid mass. She tore her gaze away before she could get caught staring at it.

One thing was certain, the portal was fully open and it was watching them. If it couldn’t reconnect with its severed chunk of brain, it would probably try regrowing the chunk. When that happened, with the portals opened wide…

“I hope we have ten minutes.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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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