Tag Archives: Clement

008.024

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Eva dropped out of the sky, seething with her fists clenched tight as she grit her teeth together. Her final blink had carried her over the makeshift wall of the Brakket dormitory plaza.

The first thing she noticed were the arachnid legs scattered about. Arachne’s dismembered legs. Perhaps the source of the disturbing feeling.

Or so Eva thought until she spotted the rest of the demon, the hunter, and the doll.

The hunter’s curved sword was buried in Arachne’s stomach.

Blood boiled the moment Eva saw Arachne’s state. Time stood perfectly still as Eva’s brain screeched to a halt.

Arachne’s eyes were wide. As wide as they could be with the way her facial carapace worked. Her body was half twisted, as if she had tried to avoid the blade only to miss it by just a few inches.

Her carapace was cracked. Black liquid oozed from the wound. It dripped along the length of the sword, staining the edge black. When it hit the emerald encrusted hand guard, the blood flowed over the gemstones until it reached the very lowest point.

From where it dropped down onto the ground, creating tiny splashes as it pooled on the glassed-over surface.

The pool expanded slowly. Blood seeped from the ground, filling the area around the fighters’ feet. It spread outwards, the circle growing to cover more of the plaza with blood. More than could possibly have seeped from Arachne’s wounds. Even with her severed legs, her body simply couldn’t hold so much blood.

Arachne had her mouth open in apparent shock.

But only for a moment.

As Eva watched, Arachne’s mouth curled into a vicious grin.

Time snapped back into place, reality resettling as Eva let out a short breath.

Arachne was still alive. For the moment, at least. No portal had opened to ferry her back to Hell.

Hands snapping forward, Arachne clamped down on the hilt of the sword, locking it in place and preventing the hunter from pulling it out.

He only tried for a moment longer before releasing the sword.

The doll forced him into a retreat. With his sword stuck in Arachne, there was nothing aside from his armor to protect him from the doll’s blade. He was obviously not willing to take the chance his armor could handle the blow.

He slid backwards, just barely ducking his head under the doll’s sword. His head came back up.

And he caught sight of Eva.

She couldn’t see his eyes. The visor of his helmet was nothing more than a thin slit. Even were she closer, she would have trouble seeing what lay behind it. Yet him noticing Eva was plain to see.

He stilled ever so slightly, angling his helmet further towards her.

Eva broke into a run. She could have blinked across the battlefield, but she was still forming a plan in her mind. Without his sword, the hunter would be far less deadly. Though, given how prepared he and his partner were, Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of traps or secondary weapons.

She was half hoping that he would pull out something else before she got to him. Preferably with enough time for her to react.

One thing was certain, this hunter was not leaving alive.

The other hunter had escaped, barring the suicide theory. It didn’t bother Eva that much. She had been able to confirm that the hunter was crippled. More importantly, they had gotten a hold of the idol. So long as it wasn’t a trap, Eva likely had Juliana to thank for that acquisition. She had been the one to knock over the hunter’s chair, putting her farther away from the idol and making sure she couldn’t teleport away with it.

Without the idol, creating a large ritual circle would be significantly easier.

But seeing what this hunter had done to Arachne… for that alone, he would pay.

Eva did note the blood around the hunter was freezing. White frost started close to him. It spread out in an almost perfect circle up to a few feet away from him.

At first, she considered the notion that the other hunter had come back. While a possibility, there was a far more likely explanation.

His armor had been enchanted to freeze liquids that came too close. The other hunter had never been actively protecting him. She had merely been watching from a distance, perhaps looking for another opportunity to crack the sky.

It hadn’t frozen Arachne’s blood as it dripped down his sword, but perhaps there hadn’t been time. In her momentary shock, the moment had felt like it had taken forever when, in reality, the entire interaction between the hunter, Arachne, and the doll had passed by in an instant.

Eva moved close enough for her feet to touch the black liquid. It didn’t splash or even ripple where her feet came down. Rather, it moved to the sides, allowing her to reach the dry ground beneath.

Despite not having touched her dagger into the liquid, it moved.

Which gave Eva an idea.

She called on the blood, willing a small orb to move up to her hand just as if she were manipulating regular blood.

The black liquid answered her call.

Eva let out a small chuckle as she ran, calling up more and more to surround her in a nearly opaque whirlwind of blood. Of course, with the hunter still able to freeze it, it wouldn’t do that much good. Perhaps she could bury him, but that could give him time to think of a way out.

She would much rather just tear out his throat and be done with it.

The blood twisting around Eva drew in close. It ran along her skin and her carapace. With a thought, she formed it into sharp claws extending from her hands. As soon as the blood was in place, she solidified it into razor-sharp crystal claws.

If the hunter was going to freeze it anyway, she would act first. Better yet, if her theory was correct and the hunter was only freezing liquids, she would still have enough control over her solidified crystals to explode them should any shards make it through his armor.

Eva called up the blood around her feet. It was nice that it wanted to give her a decent grip on the regular ground instead of the likely slick surface caused by the blood. However, that wasn’t what Eva wanted at the moment.

The last—and first—time she had tried this had been during her first trip to Hell. She had stood on liquid blood, using it as a step-ladder to get over a wall. The blood had only been able to act as a platform because of her will holding it together.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t been thinking much at the time. The reaction had been mostly fear driven.

The sounds the Keeper made as he moved, the pain, and being blind had all made the situation somewhat hectic at the time.

Just before she reached the hunter, Eva pushed off the ground. A jump with Arachne’s legs could carry her straight over the hunter with no problems.

The hunter pulled a dagger from his armor, slicing it through the air right in Eva’s path.

Still in the air, Eva kicked. The blood on her feet acted as a solid platform for a mere instant. The strength behind her kick ricocheted her at a right angle. With the hunter turning to slash at her old position, it put Eva right behind him.

Eva wasted no time. There was a small seam near his waist. Larger gaps in his armor just under his armpits and the backs of his knees.

She swiped at the easy to reach spot first. With his arms raised to attack Eva, it was almost like he was offering himself to her.

The crystallized claws extending out from her regular hands barely skimmed the surface of one of his pauldrons. Before Eva even realized what had happened, the hunter had vanished.

Without the expected impact and the unfamiliar weight on her hands, Eva stumbled forwards. Her foot hit against the ground.

In trying to dig her foot into the ground to catch her stumble, her foot slid out from under her. Eva did the splits as she fell to the ground.

She grit her teeth, letting out a slight hiss of pain.

Ice crystals coated her feet. The blood had stayed liquid long enough for her to pull off her aerial trick, but it had frozen soon after. Combined with the already frozen ground, her footing was in a precarious spot.

Eva rolled along the ice, avoiding a dagger in her back thanks only to a moment of forewarning from her blood sense.

He didn’t stick around for long. Somehow, someway, he noticed the doll sprinting up behind him. Her blade sailed clean through the air as the hunter moved to escape.

“Thanks,” Eva said as she climbed back to her feet. She made sure to brush off the lingering ice before planting her feet down again.

A quick glance behind her showed Arachne still around. She wasn’t moving much, just lying on the ground while holding tight to the hunter’s sword. That she hadn’t been drawn into a portal to Hell filled Eva with relief. If she had survived this long after being skewered, Arachne would live.

So long as she kept the hunter from finishing the job.

The doll twitched her head ever so slightly in Eva’s direction. “This… human is a troublesome opponent. He doesn’t move like a human.”

“Fighting is taking its toll on him,” Eva said, swinging her head back around to face the hunter full-on.

He was just standing there, panting for breath. He gripped his dagger tight in his hand.

For all the similarities between wards and enchantments, Eva couldn’t actually tell if it was magical or not. His sword gave off a feeling of revulsion that made Eva want to avoid it. But his dagger looked utterly normal to her eyes.

The bones in his body were slightly misaligned. Especially down in his legs. Were he to take off his boots, he would probably need a cast for several weeks. There were a couple of spots that looked as if they had broken clean through. He was held up thanks only to the rigid armor he wore.

Of course, Eva fully intended to help him avoid such a dismal fate.

“I don’t think he was meant to be in such a prolonged battle. So long as we keep him from escaping, he will wear down until he makes a mistake.”

“I would prefer if this ended sooner. I do have other business I must attend.”

Like standing around, frozen in indecision?

Eva almost spoke her thoughts, but the doll had moved before she could open her mouth.

Rather than follow after only to find that the hunter had moved before she got there, Eva waited. There was almost no chance that he would attempt to engage with the doll using only the dagger. Either he would reveal some other trick from up his sleeve or he would be forced to move.

If he didn’t… well, no need for Eva to get involved in that case.

The second before the doll reached the hunter, he vanished. As Eva expected.

He was dashing back towards the web wall in a straight beeline.

Straight to his sword and Arachne.

Eva blinked towards him with a snarl. Three rapid blinks to disguise her intentions. One to his left, one to his right, and finally one right in his path. Eva kicked off some of the slowly freezing blood to dodge a downward slash of his knife. On her way, she raked the jagged tips of her claws across his armor.

It wasn’t the weak points. Her claws scraped across his chest and arms, shedding thousands of tiny shards into the air. A few even got caught in his armor.

She blinked just a short distance away before he could properly retaliate, clapping her hands together even before she had fully rematerialized. Eva made sure to target only the crystalline shards. Normally, when she clapped her hands, she obliterated any blood that wasn’t near her body. That usually covered any attacks she had thrown. A few special cases, such as when she amputated her legs, required more precise targeting.

In this case, such indiscretion could be bad. She had considered just detonating the entire battlefield. But who knew how much debris would fly around. Not to mention the problem of Arachne. The spider-demon was lying right in the middle of the deepest puddle. Theoretically, she could try only exploding the pooled blood around him.

Theoretically, she could accidentally explode it all.

Not to mention the fact that he froze the blood around him. That would give him enough of a buffer that his armor could probably take any residual impact from the still-liquid blood.

Loud snaps accompanied the clap of her hands. Pockmarks dotted his breastplate and arm guards. A few of the holes even started bleeding, especially those around his arms. Not much red liquid dripped out of the holes. But Eva could still see it. It dripped down his arms, pooling inside his armor.

More important were the holes. Openings for a second, deeper attack.

The hunter had to break off his charge for the sword. Eva’s interception bought time for the doll to close the distance. Again, the hunter chose to retreat rather than meet her blade. He moved quick enough that Eva couldn’t follow. Somewhere to the side.

Eva heard a soft groan just behind her. She started to turn.

Only to feel the cold edge of a blade against her throat.

“Stop her,” the hunter hissed with wet words. Though her back was to him, she could clearly see blood splatter against the inside of his helmet. “And you get to live,” he added after taking in a labor-filled lungful of air.

Her first thought was to simply blink away. She could. She had just before been blinking around him, so he didn’t have any sort of mobile anti-teleportation wards about him.

In front of Eva, the doll was approaching. Not with the speed that she normally used, but walking. The heels of her leather boots made slight ripples in the sea of black blood as she moved. Her sword was held downwards in a single hand with her arm stretched at a slight angle to keep the tip from touching the ground or the liquid.

Her eyes stared forwards with a certain coldness that Eva might have otherwise ascribed to only Ylva. Only, they lacked the dead milky grey of Ylva’s eyes, being a vibrant silver instead.

For some reason, staring into those eyes, Eva got the distinct impression that the doll wouldn’t hesitate to run her through to reach the hunter. It would probably resolve her indecision as well.

More to the point of the hunter’s request, Eva doubted she would be able to stop the doll. At least, not without fighting. Fighting the doll didn’t seem like it was the smartest idea.

So Eva just stood still. She spent a moment, listening to the heavy breathing of the hunter behind her. Each breath came in strained and sounded as if he were gargling blood with every exhale.

It was a wonder he was even standing.

“Tell her to stand down,” he hissed into Eva’s ear as he dug his blade deeper into her throat. It was still not quite cutting. He held it at just the right angle to where most of the pressure came from the flat of the blade rather than the edge.

Even if he did twist his arm, Eva doubted it would be that troublesome to deal with. Small cuts could be healed in an instant. Even deeper gouges could be repaired or at least contained with assistance from her dagger.

In contrast to his already fast heartbeats increasing in speed, Eva was the epitome of calm.

She had a plan.

She just needed a few more seconds.

It would be nice if the doll would hurry up.

To be fair to the doll, her languid approach might possibly be an attempt to give Eva the time to escape. Eva wasn’t sure if the doll would or even could think along those lines, but the only other option was that she was moving for intimidation purposes.

Smelling the rancid stink of sweat pouring out of the hunter’s armor, Eva doubted that he needed anything more to intimidate him.

Tapping her leg, Eva gave the slightest jerk of her head towards the hunter. Just moving her neck a fraction of a hair in the hopes that the doll might hurry up.

While she could escape, as she had already considered, doing so would just continue the chicken chase around the arena.

The doll apparently got the message or got tired of waiting. She kicked off the ground, sending a wave of black blood high into the air as she rocketed forwards.

Eva felt the hunter tense through his armor. She wasn’t sure if he tensed to run or to slice her throat.

Shedding the larger portion of her crystalline claws to avoid jabbing herself in the face, Eva snapped her regular claws up to the hunter’s arm. She clamped down, holding his arm, and the rest of him, in place.

The dagger he had half stuck into her neck didn’t even factor into her concerns.

She was too busy watching the doll.

Three more steps, Eva thought. Two.

Once the doll raised her sword to strike, Eva released the hunter and blinked away.

A clang of metal on metal echoed across the battlefield.

Eva wasted no time, she turned and blinked straight back behind the hunter.

The hunter had both arms in the air. One still held his dagger, dripping with Eva’s blood. The other crossed his dagger, using both his armor and the blade to catch the doll’s sword. Despite stopping the doll’s blade, his own dagger had been half buried into his arm.

Bending her wrists, Eva moved the remainder of the crystallized blood into place. A single spike on the end of each arm. She pulled back and jammed both straight into the hunter’s armpits and pulled away, leaving the spikes in place.

He let out a cry. Knees buckling and arms weakening, it wouldn’t be long before the doll beheaded him.

Eva didn’t give her the opportunity.

Blinking away, Eva clapped her hands as she moved. She didn’t even turn to face the hunter when her hands touched.

A spray of warm liquid hit her back.

She waited for just a moment as more blood rained down, joining with the black demon blood.

Eva let out a long sigh before finally turning around.

The doll stood to one side, covered in red with her sword angled downwards at her side. Eva half expected her to be caught in the blast. If she had, oops. But obviously the explosion hadn’t harmed a hair on her head. Aside from the red, she looked as pristine as she had when Eva first saw her.

As for the hunter…

His legs were still there.

Some of his torso as well. Everything from ribcage and up was simply gone. His armor had split apart like a soda can that had been left in the freezer. One of his arms was lying a good distance away, sticking out of the black blood. Scanning the area, Eva couldn’t see the other.

Or a head, for that matter.

Despite the lack of head, Eva felt quite confident in proclaiming him deceased. The jury was still deliberating over Sawyer, but this man had not been a necromancer.

In fact, now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure that she had seen him cast a single spell.

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Eva just about sat down for a rest. She did take a quick moment to patch up the hole in her neck before she remembered something.

“Arachne,” she hissed to herself as she whirled around.

The spider-demon was still lying on the ground. Still grasping the sword. Still on Earth.

Still alive.

Eva blinked over.

Arachne was staring up at the sky with her teeth set in a grimace. The moment Eva stepped over her, that grimace turned to a smile.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said before the spider-demon could try to speak. “I’ll take you to the nurse right away.”

That smile immediately slipped back into a grimace.

Just as Eva was reaching out to pull the sword from Arachne’s stomach, she felt another blade against her neck.

“We have yet to resolve our dispute.”

Eva closed her eyes as she drew in a deep breath. She was really getting sick of having blades at her throat.

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008.023

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Arachne hissed through her teeth. Another of her legs was lying on the ground. Attacking with them had definitely been the right choice. Arms, and the hands attached to them, were just too valuable. Especially while she was weaving webs.

It hurt to lose them. When Eva had amputated her legs, she had taken several anesthetics to numb herself to the pain. Arachne hadn’t. And frankly, it hadn’t hurt much at all. The following weeks she had spent regrowing her legs had been more annoying than any kind of suffering.

But the hunter’s sword was odd. It cleaved cleanly through her limbs as if they weren’t even there. The human phrase would be ‘like a hot knife through a stick of butter.’ Worse than that, it reminded Arachne of being hit with lightning from the Elysium Order’s nuns. Not so much the time her face had been exploded—she hadn’t felt much from that incident—but she had been hit with it enough otherwise to remember its feeling.

That feeling of it crawling through her, eating away at even her demonic regeneration.

But still, better to lose a leg than lose an arm.

Though, that didn’t mean that the legs were infinitely disposable.

There were only the six on her back plus her two primary legs in her human form. Well, there had been six plus two. At the moment, there were only the two left.

The hunter was getting desperate. With the way the doll moved and hounded him, he had been largely ineffective in doing anything.

Except for when he sliced off her legs.

Really, that was more Arachne’s fault than anything. She didn’t have to put herself in danger. He would hack his way through the makeshift walls penning him in and escape. Arachne could just let him go instead of intercepting him.

But Eva was out there.

Seeing Eva stand up and walk into the dormitory had been a relief. Feeling her leave towards the city had been a shock. Arachne wanted nothing more than to chase after her. Her Eva could be walking into more danger.

Let’s be honest with myself, Arachne thought as she watched the hunter duck under the doll’s sword only to find himself punted across the plaza by the golem’s fist. Eva is definitely heading into danger.

That was just how Eva worked.

Arachne narrowed her eyes as the hunter crashed into Brakket Academy’s brand new fountain, mostly destroying it. The doll jumped high into the air, dropping down with her blade pointed straight at the ground.

The hunter managed to roll out of the way, dodging the attack just as he had the last four times the doll tried to get the drop on him.

It was enough to make Arachne wonder if the doll couldn’t learn properly. If he could dodge it three times, a fourth was probably not going to help. A fifth certainly not. She might eventually get lucky, but Arachne might be dead of old age by then. And Arachne didn’t even age.

The hunter continued his roll for a short distance before snapping up to his feet and charging the webbing separating him from the rest of the city.

And that was another reason Arachne couldn’t leave to help Eva. He was getting desperate to escape. Perhaps he had noticed Eva leaving as well and wanted to stop her from doing whatever she set out to accomplish.

That was something Arachne could never allow.

Glancing down at her severed leg, Arachne picked it up.

Not to mention, he is really pissing me off.

The tip of her leg was still sharp. This one had been severed at the first joint, leaving it looking more like the top of a spear than anything else.

Pulling back her arm, Arachne threw the leg at the hunter. She didn’t expect it to do much damage. His armor could stop the doll’s sword from slicing all the way through.

But the hunter did stop hacking at the webbing long enough to slice at the flying limb.

He backed away from the webbing almost immediately. The doll was still digging her sword out of the fountain, but Genoa’s golem was moving into position.

With two quick steps, he made it to the doorway of the Rickenbacker dormitory building.

Genoa’s golem crumbled to a mound of lifeless earth.

At first, Arachne thought that Genoa was fleeing, running away like a coward before the hunter could reach her.

A wall rose from the ground in front of the Rickenbacker. A smooth sheet of stone stretched high up, rising even higher than the roof of the building.

Arachne grit her teeth. The stupid woman should have just done that in the first place instead of creating the small pillars that Arachne used to web in the plaza. It would have been far more effective.

The reason why quickly became clear.

The golem was down. A fact that did not escape the notice of the hunter. Getting obviously desperate, he charged straight back towards the section of the web he had just been hacking away at. A section Arachne hadn’t had a chance to repair.

Golem down. The doll was still busy for another few seconds.

Too long. He could be gone by the time the doll got into the fray again.

Arachne grit her teeth and charged. Spare legs or not, he would not be making it to Eva.

— — —

Eva landed right on the edge of the roof, almost falling backwards onto the minefield of wards.

A barrier from a set of shackles that she had landed on saved her. It caught her, acting like a wall to lean against. Juliana wasn’t stopped by the barrier. She went straight through. It was a bit disorienting to have the weight on her shoulders not be stopped by the wall that Eva hit, but the situation quickly resolved itself as Eva shoved off the barrier.

At the same time, she slung Juliana around, dropping her onto the rooftop. Eva hadn’t intended to drop her, but the sensation of being off-balance combined with Juliana’s weight had her moving not quite how she wanted.

“Shackles,” Eva said.

Though her words were unneeded. Eva was kept from interacting with the shackles and the rest of the roof by the barrier. Juliana wasn’t. The moment she hit the ground, her flailing hands disturbed the chalk enough to break the shackles.

And a good thing too.

Eva needed the mobility.

She gripped Juliana’s hand and pulled, dragging both of them out of the way of an icy boulder crashing down right where the shackle had been.

After making sure that Juliana was actually on her feet this time, Eva ignited her hands and started tossing fireballs. It didn’t matter that the hunter intercepted every single one with a flurry of snow. So long as she was busy defending herself, she couldn’t conjure up giant balls of ice.

Eva let out a sharp hiss of pain as something tore into her side. Just because the hunter couldn’t conjure boulders didn’t mean that she couldn’t slip in an icicle.

She realized in an instant what had happened. Eva hadn’t see it coming. When her fireballs hit the hunter’s snowballs, they exploded in a burst of steam, snow, and flames. The icicles came straight through, leaving her with very little time to react.

Worse, Eva couldn’t take cues from the hunter’s body language. Now that Eva was closer, she could clearly see that the hunter wasn’t moving in the slightest.

She had something around her neck, encrusted with gemstones. Some kind of focus, probably. But she barely moved her neck. Her arms hadn’t moved. Her legs were just as still, bent in her chair at a slight angle. It would have been an awkward position to sit in. Eva doubted that she could feel it.

The holes in her back were still there. Someone had tried to stitch her skin up, but they hadn’t fixed up the actual punctures in her spine.

Really, it was amazing that she could cast at all. Eva didn’t need a focus. Her entire body, being mostly demonic, acted as a focus. But even though the woman clearly had a demon’s eye, Eva doubted that would allow her to cast spells with no focus.

Devon had a tentacle for an arm and still used his rings on his other hand.

If Zoe were here, Eva might consider asking her how foci worked with severe nerve damage and how magic flowed through the body. But she wasn’t. Eva didn’t know where she was. Maybe Wayne had teleported her back to her house only for them to get caught up in whoever was attacking Ylva.

Also, probably not a good idea to have idle conversations while fighting.

The fact of the matter was that the hunter was casting spells and she was doing it without moving. The hows and whys just didn’t matter.

Of course, being close enough to see into her body through her blood gave Eva hope. The hunter was undoubtedly paralyzed from the neck down. At least.

To the hunter’s side was a small table. Atop it sat the corrupted idol, the one Nel believed to be the cause of the sky cracking effect.

Eva jumped to the side, avoiding an array of icicles while launching a few more fireballs of her own. None of her fireballs were the big explosive kinds. The hunter would likely see them coming from miles away. Even in her debilitated state. Eva didn’t want explosions being somehow rebounded on her.

Juliana was finally getting her bearings. Only a few seconds had passed since they landed on the roof, so Eva couldn’t blame her too much for being a little stunned. Especially with the dropping and dragging. The icicles pinging off her armor probably didn’t help much either.

But once she finally got to work, she didn’t waste much time in becoming effective.

The rooftop gravel around the hunter exploded. Her chair tipped straight backwards as rock flew up into the sky.

Eva didn’t waste the opportunity. They might not get another one.

She charged forward. There were no wards on this roof to get in her way. Juliana had handily taken care of all the shackles with her explosion. Nothing was in her way.

Not even a wall of ice sprouting from the ground would stop her.

Eva vaulted it, hopping over to the other side with only her hands grazing across the top.

She landed on the other side and purposefully fell to her knees. Between her knees, she pinned the hunter down.

Just in the off-chance that the hunter was feigning her paralysis.

Eva drew back her fist and brought it down, bashing out a few of the hunter’s teeth. She had to keep the hunter as disoriented as possible to avoid becoming an icicle pincushion.

For just a moment, she paused. Eva almost said something incredibly silly. ‘That was for Martina,‘ or something similar. But it was too embarrassing. In the end, Eva just shook her head and punched the hunter a second time.

As she drew her hand back again, Eva opened her fist. She clawed her hand, preparing to tear the hunter’s throat out.

But paused again.

Though a few of her teeth were missing, the hunter was smiling.

Eva felt a chill run down her spine. She had missed something. Some trap. Some weapon.

Juliana!

Had she still had hairs on her neck, they would be standing on end. Eva blinked away from the hunter. The ice wall was still just behind her. It had grown for a few moments more after Eva had vaulted it, but it wasn’t much of an obstacle when she could blink straight up.

Landing on the top, Eva was overjoyed to see Juliana standing right where she had been. Her first thought had been that something had happened to Juliana. That not being the case did not mean that everything was fine. She could hear a light crackling somewhere in the air.

Eva jumped from the top of the ice wall. As she moved, her vials of Arachne’s blood exploded, releasing their contents. The blood swirled around behind her. She landed on Juliana, tackling her to the ground. The blood formed into three overlapping shields around the two of them.

The outermost shield collapsed almost instantly. The second followed, lasting a few seconds longer than the first before succumbing to the heat.

Eva never got to find out how the third shield would have fared. A lurch in her stomach and a lack of building beneath her had Eva falling straight downwards.

She lay still for a moment. Powdered brick and sawdust clouded the area, making breathing unpleasant.

On a brighter note, while the heat was still around, it wasn’t scorching her. In fact, it was at the point where it was almost a pleasant heat.

For her.

Juliana was… not screaming. However, she wasn’t sounding as if she were enjoying a nice vacation on the beach either. Muffled moans and groans escaped from the vents in her helmet.

“Are you alright?”

At her words, Juliana just gave a loud groan. A louder groan.

“Right,” Eva said, taking her eyes off Juliana to look around. Just because she wasn’t dead now didn’t mean that the hunter had expended all of her traps.

While there was evidence of more shackles having been drawn on the walls and what was left of the ceiling of the building they had fallen into, it was all damaged beyond a working state. Probably meant to hinder or trap Eva if she chose to get to the roof from street level instead of hopping across the neighboring buildings. It certainly wasn’t meant to operate after destroying half the building.

It wasn’t hard to imagine what happened. The hunter had obviously been channeling magic into the false idol during their fight. She made another of those sky cracks.

And, unless she had been intending to commit suicide, she was likely still alive somewhere.

“Juliana, I’m leaving for just a moment,” Eva said, turning away.

She had to find out what happened to the hunter and whether or not they were still in immediate danger. Before moving, she did glance down at the obviously in-pain girl. Through her sense of blood, Eva could see no immediate problems. She wasn’t bleeding out or even hemorrhaging blood internally.

“Try not to die. Your mother would kill me.”

“Me too,” she said after drawing in a labored breath. “She threatened me with necromancy.”

Eva smiled for just a moment. It disappeared as she turned away again.

The building had survived the attack for the most part. Half of the roof had collapsed. A good portion of the debris was glassed over similar to the bricks in the Brakket dormitory plaza. The edge of the roof looked to be relatively stable. Mostly because of the brick wall beneath it. It hadn’t collapsed and it wasn’t swaying. Even if Eva’s weight disturbed it enough to cause the whole wall to come tumbling down, the building’s roof was only three stories high.

She would survive a fall.

Eva blinked up to the top and froze again.

She hadn’t been able to see the top of the intact portion of the roof from below. It was a solid sheet of glass. No evidence of the ice wall remained. No chair. Not even splinters of the table. Even the neighboring buildings had their roofs half glassed. A good portion of the wards on them had failed entirely. At least, Eva could detect nothing from them.

Because the roof was a smooth surface, it didn’t take long to find one thing that had survived the destruction.

A simple idol. A statue of a woman in tears, holding her hands up to her face. It was small enough for Eva to carry. About the size of an extra-large water bottle.

But there was no way she was going to touch it.

There was a zero percent chance that it was not a trap in some way or form. The hunter might have teleported away after being knocked down. She might have actually gone through with the suicidal route and vaporized herself in her own attack. But no matter what, she wouldn’t leave behind a weapon of such a magnitude. Even if she assumed that Eva had perished in the attack, there were still other enemies of the hunters around.

And yet, Eva couldn’t leave it where it was. The hunter was gone at the moment, but leaving it behind to rejoin the fight against the armored hunter would let somebody else collect it.

Eva grit her teeth. She had accomplished her objective. The hunter wouldn’t be bombarding them with the idol anymore.

Unless it was a fake. That was also a possibility.

But for the moment, she was going to both assume that it was real and that the hunter had retreated.

Glancing back down into the building to make sure that Juliana hadn’t been attacked while Eva had been distracted, Eva found her to be sitting upright. Which she took as a good sign.

“How are you?” Eva called down.

“Achy. I could use a massage.”

“Just be glad you didn’t get boiled alive in that armor.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“I need you to come up here and encase something in a solid block of metal. Can you do that?”

“Probably.” Juliana slowly got to her feet. There were a few choked off grunts of pain as she moved. Most of them happened as she tried to straighten out her back. Once on her feet, she placed her hands on her hips and arched her back.

The pops were audible even from where Eva was standing.

“The stairs,” she said once she finished stretching and had a moment to look around, “I think they’re gone.”

Eva jumped off the edge of the roof, touching down next to Juliana. “Don’t worry. I can carry you.”

Juliana immediately took a step backwards. Holding up her hands in front of her, she said, “I don’t think–”

“No time to argue,” Eva said, grabbing one of Juliana’s outstretched arms. She used the arm to help heft Juliana up into a fireman’s carry. “Don’t worry. It’s a higher jump than last time, but not as far horizontally.”

“Eva, I don’t–”

“Too late.”

Eva jumped back up to the roof. This time, she didn’t land right on the edge where the brick wall turned into the roof. It wasn’t a very wide landing spot. With a squirming person on her back throwing off her center of balance, Eva wasn’t feeling too confident balancing on a thin beam.

Especially with how she had nearly fallen off the roof the first time, only saved by the shackles.

The glassed over part of the roof that was still intact had looked stable enough.

Eva’s carapace-covered feet touched down on the smooth surface. She immediately froze.

Cracks spread out from where she landed. A spiderweb of lines appeared in the glass, accompanied by high-pitched snaps.

Holding her breath, Eva waited. She didn’t think that falling through the roof would kill her. Or Juliana, for that matter—though she had been banged around a lot, she was well protected within her suit of armor—but it could cause more of the roof to collapse on top of them after they fell through.

The cracking stopped shortly after Eva landed. She let out her breath in a sigh of relief.

“Let’s be careful where we step,” Eva said as she gingerly set Juliana down.

Juliana didn’t move from where Eva set her. “This doesn’t look very safe.”

“Probably not. The sooner you encase that thing in metal, the sooner we can both…”

Eva trailed off. There was something. Something in the air. A feeling she had not felt for some time.

And a feeling she had only felt once before.

Confusion settled in as Eva tried to puzzle out just what was causing the disgusting sensation in her stomach.

“Eva?” Juliana said, voice full of concern. She glanced this way and that as if she was expecting an ambush. “Are you alright?”

Waving her hand, Eva closed her eyes. The feeling wasn’t around them. It was coming from the direction of the school. Not a danger to them. No ambush to be worried about.

At least, not one from the sensation she was feeling. There was still the possibility that the hunter was still around.

“I’m alright,” Eva said, snapping her eyes open. “But someone else isn’t.”

“What–”

Eva was gone. Blinking away as fast as she could.

The feeling was something she had felt before. Right before her first real encounter with the hunters.

When Daru was being tortured. Given that Daru hadn’t ever turned up again, he had probably died as well.

Someone, some demon was in a serious state of injury back towards the school.

Clenching her teeth together, Eva felt her rage burning.

Only one demon had been in direct danger. Only one demon had been fighting with the other hunter.

“Arachne,” she hissed. “I’m not letting you die again.”

— — —

Juliana watched as Eva disappeared, leaving her all alone on the roof. At least the hunter was gone. And the thing Eva pointed out…

Thinning the metal armor on her legs gave her plenty to work with. She set to covering the disturbing little idol with metal. After a few moments, she had a shiny smooth tube. It looked like something that would be launched out of the main guns of a battleship. Except much smaller.

With that done, she tried nudging it with her foot.

Nothing happened.

She picked up the encased idol. Just in time for a small portion of the roof to crack and fall into the rest of the building.

I really need to get down from here, Juliana thought as a few more cracks spread across the top.

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008.014

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“Alright! Let’s move!” Eva shouted out over the somewhat smoldering field. Arachne was a short distance away, clearing out a few tumbleweeds. Vektul and Srey were both near each other and, as such, near Eva as well.

As soon as Arachne heard the shout, she dropped her tumbleweed to the ground and started running towards Eva without hesitation.

As she ran, Eva took the time to extinguish her lingering flames. While she wanted to burn down a good portion of the area, she didn’t want to start an uncontrollable forest fire. Or field fire, as the case was. Taking the time to do so wasn’t that big of a deal either. It didn’t take long and, more importantly, Eva doubted that they would be attacked. At least not immediately.

They only just started watching.

“We don’t want to run into them on our way out,” Eva said, turning towards Srey. “Which direction are they in?”

“There are actually two separate ones. Both started looking at us around the same time. Not exactly. Maybe a minute or two difference.” He pointed a hand towards the direction of the prison. Perhaps slightly to one side. “There and over there,” he said as he swung the hand. It didn’t actually move all that far. Still in the direction of the prison, but on the other side.

“How far?”

“Not very. Not right on top of us, obviously, but maybe five minutes of walking out.”

“Both of them?”

He gave a curt nod of his head.

“Great.”

“Is it?” Vektul cocked his head to one side, almost pressing an ear to his shoulder. “Friends of yours?”

“No. Great as in: Great, they’re setting up to ambush us on our way back to the prison.”

“Oh.” His head snapped back to a straight position as his smile spread across his face. “Great!” he said sounding perfectly genuine about being happy.

Eva turned away from him, ignoring his antics for the moment. “You hear that?” she asked as Arachne ran up to her side.

“Ambush? Are we running into it? Maybe going around and flanking one of the groups?”

“If they can hear us as well as see us,” Eva said with a glance at a shrugging Srey, “they’ll know we’re coming. There are twelve demons back at Brakket. I’d rather not have us get picked off in small groups. Best to avoid them for now and try to fight as a larger group.”

“Might not be so easy,” Srey said. “I think it is safe to say that they can hear us. Both sources started moving as soon as you said to avoid them. Or maybe as soon as you said not to get picked off in small groups. Either way, they’re coming closer.”

“While still scrying on us?”

Most methods of scrying that Eva knew about required the scryer to sit in one spot. Away from her altar and incense, Nel could only get what were essentially still images. The methods she had used to test her anti-scrying packets also needed someone to sit around still pools of water. Moving the water would disturb it and break the scrying effect.

Srey’s nod at her question was somewhat disturbing, though not wholly unexpected. Eva didn’t know every method of scrying after all. They might not be scrying at all. All she knew was that they were being observed by someone who did not wish them well.

“Right. Arachne, we’re moving. Follow me. Srey, Vektul, stick close.”

Eva took off in a run. Away from the hunters and away from her prison as well.

She could teleport away with Arachne so long as they hadn’t set up any wards. It was doubtful that they had. Srey would have said something the moment that he noticed any observations. Without observations, they couldn’t have known to set up wards.

Still, while Eva could teleport, she wasn’t sure about Srey or Vektul. She couldn’t ask without giving information to the enemy so long as they were being observed. It was something that, in hindsight, she should have asked before.

Too late now.

Either they needed to escape without teleporting or they needed to get far enough away fast enough that they had a moment of privacy.

“Only one of the two are following us. The second is staying where it was. Still observing, but… wait, no. Whoever it is just stopped.”

“But the first observer is still following?”

“Matching pace. Not gaining any distance, but not losing it either.”

Eva didn’t stop running, but she did hum in thought for a few minutes.

“Shall we turn and fight?”

“No,” Eva said, glancing over at Arachne. “Not yet. We just need to distract them a little longer. The others should be almost finished by now. At least drawing them out here was a success.”

Vektul, still running, tilted his head to one side. He opened his mouth for just a moment before snapping it shut.

Eva’s glare ensured it stayed that way.

Whoever the demon hunters were, they probably knew that Eva had been lying just now. However, she didn’t need Vektul confirming it. If their pursuers got confused or worried about something happening back in town or back at the prison and left to check on it, all the better for them.

Unfortunately, even after running for another few minutes, Srey didn’t give any update about their observers.

They were still being chased.

To fight or to flee?

Eva slowed down, motioning for the others to follow her lead. She continued in the same direction. It was just at a walking pace.

“They’re keeping pace with us. No significant distance change as far as I can tell.”

“How far back?”

“Still about five minutes of walking at their current pace, were we to stop moving.”

“And direction?”

He raised an arm, pointing.

Eva bit her lip. The hunter was still between them and the prison.

What they were lacking at the moment was information. How were they being spied upon? Who? Someone she knew or some random hunter that showed up while tracking the new demons?

“Counter reconnaissance? Shall we go and see if we can’t catch a glimpse of them?”

“What happened to running… and, uh, distracting.”

Eva frowned at Srey, shaking her head. “If they are matching pace when they could easily catch up, they probably don’t want to fight.”

“You’re fooling yourself.”

Maybe so. Eva didn’t want to fight. She didn’t even want to spy on them. Getting too near to them would likely commit them to a fight. Worse, it would leave them open to that second observer circling around and flanking them.

There could even be more individuals or groups out there who weren’t actively spying but were in contact with the others.

At the same time, if they could spot their enemies, they could start planning around them…

“Actually. Wait,” Eva said as she pulled out her cellphone.

They might be able to see what she typed. If they did, it wouldn’t really matter. There wasn’t much they could do about it.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have Nel’s cellphone number. She wasn’t sure if Nel even had a cellphone.

Zoe. I need you to get to Nel as fast as possible. Have Nel scry on me. Then, have her search a short distance south until she sees any other groups of people.

With a tap of her thumb, Eva sent the text out to Zoe.

It would solve at least one problem. Namely, who their pursuer was. If Nel could continue watching them until they went back to wherever they had made their base, it would be possible to turn the tables. They could be more offensive.

Unfortunately, Zoe would be wondering what Eva and three demons were doing out in the middle of nowhere. She would have to explain that later on. Maybe the truth, maybe some excuse. That could be decided whenever she had to explain. Hopefully she would go on and ask Nel with haste and without complaint.

The return message came almost instantly with a light beep on Eva’s phone.

Please tell me that you aren’t out looking for demon hunters.

Well, that’s an easy enough request.

I am not out looking for demon hunters. Nel?

Setting up her altar. Also not happy about being woken up.

“Well tough for her,” Eva said aloud. She didn’t bother replying, though she kept her phone out and in her hands just in case Zoe sent a reply. “Any change in their distance, Srey?”

“No change in the last few minutes,” he said, glancing off in the direction of their watchers. “I don’t like this. What are they waiting for? We’re doing nothing interesting and they’re still watching us.”

Eva glanced over towards Arachne and Vektul. Arachne stood as a silent aegis over her, ready to protect Eva if need be. Her eyes were glued on the horizon of the rolling hilltops as if daring the hunters to crest the top. Hands curled at her sides, Arachne stood slightly hunched. Just enough to easily leap into motion at the first sign of trouble.

Vektul, on the other hand, stood far more lackadaisically. Like a bored student. Not a single muscle in his body was tense.

Though he was staring up at the sky with some intensity.

Following his gaze, Eva found herself frowning at the clear night sky. The sun had finally fallen below the horizon not long ago—just before they had started running—and the stars had come out in force. With no nearby lights of any kind and the moon a mere crescent, Eva could even see the milky arm of her galaxy against the stars.

But nothing more interesting than that.

“Something up there?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“It might not be a good idea to stand still,” he said without a hint of fear in his voice.

But something sent a chill up Eva’s spine. She glanced towards the sky again, staring at one particularly bright star directly overhead.

Something clicked. Eva didn’t argue with Vektul.

She immediately turned and blinked in the direction away from the observers. Arachne caught on quick, actually lifting Vektul off the ground and carrying him over her shoulder. Srey turned to mist and whisked off ahead of even Eva.

They cleared the area just in time for a white beam of magical light to crash down right where they had been standing. The cold of the night was chased away by the blistering heat of the beam.

“It’s that thing from the Elysium Order,” Eva hissed.

Not the most articulate response Eva could have come up with. Nobody else present had even been around for the inquisition’s attack on the prison. She had told Arachne in the time since, but Arachne hadn’t been nearby.

At the moment, she was too busy running away to explain more.

This was bad. The nuns hadn’t used the device—Nel had called it cracking the sky, if Eva remembered accurately—while Eva had been indoors. They didn’t have shelter out here. Nothing but fields, hills, and occasional trees. Nothing that would stop a magical weapon of that magnitude.

Eva’s cellphone started going crazy. A constant stream of beeps indicating messages gave way to an incoming call ring.

She slapped the phone to her ear without stopping running. “Zoe? Little busy here.”

“I-it’s Nel! There’s an armored man following you. I think he is reading out your location over a phone.”

“Right. Thanks.” Nothing unexpected there. She had assumed that whoever was observing her was in contact with others. It was good to know that it was the armored man again. She wasn’t entirely sure how that helped at this exact moment, but so long as they got out of there, it could come in handy.

“There was another observer,” Eva said into the phone. “One that hasn’t been following us. If you look between us and the prison, there should be a large patch of scorched earth. Keep following it back towards the prison and you might see that observer, if they haven’t moved that is.”

In the mean time, Eva had to get her group out of here.

Preferably without revealing too many abilities, but with that sky cracking thing, Eva wasn’t about to discount anything.

“Vektul,” she said as they ran, holding the phone a short way away from her ear. Still close enough to hear if Nel had anything important to say. “Your portals. Can other people pass through them?”

She hadn’t wanted to ask while her pursuers could hear. With that Elysium Order beam, she didn’t have much of a choice.

“I suppose so,” he said, voice vibrating slightly with each of Arachne’s footsteps. “As long as I kept it open for others.”

Eva turned directions without responding. The others would follow her lead. Probably. If they kept running in a straight line, the hunters would be able to target them by just casting the sky cracking spell some distance ahead of them.

“Excellent. Open–”

“Eva,” Nel’s voice half-shouted over the phone.

Eva moved it closer to her ear before responding. “I’m here. What is it?”

“There’s some woman in a wheelchair. She’s sitting in front of… it’s like some sort of mockery of the Elysium Order’s idol. Twisted and evil. You must destroy it!”

“That’s nice Nel,” Eva said. “Tell me, does this woman have an eye patch? How about a few holes in her back?”

“Eye patch, yes. But she’s wearing clothes. Would the holes be in her clothes as well? I don’t see any.”

“Thanks Nel.” Eva disconnected the call. If something really important came up, she was sure that someone would call back soon.

New mission: Survive. That was always a priority, really. However, Eva really did not want to allow her enemies to possess a sky cracking idol.

“Vektul, can you portal us back to the field?”

“That might be too far away.”

“As close as you can then.”

Just as had happened back at the prison, a dark portal opened in the air in front of them. It started small before widening to a proper size.

Eva didn’t break her stride. She charged right into the portal and out the other side. Whether through clever portal placement by Vektul or simple luck, the ground was at the perfect height and incline to keep her from stumbling.

Less lucky was the addition of a new humanoid in range of her blood sense. Her demonic companions emerged from the portal behind her one by one. None of them concerned her.

Ahead and to the side, Eva found herself close enough to see one of their pursuers.

Not the woman.

A man clad in shiny metal armor stood at the crest of a hill only a quick blink away. The same man who had defeated Zagan at the start of summer.

Notably, his armor was not the same. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that large portions were missing. His arms and boots were clad in metal. One of his legs as well. His other leg and chest just had some kind of padded undergarment.

There was no surprise or shock in his posture. His heart rate remained steady as he drew his sword. A long, curved sword.

The same one that had torn up Zagan.

The vials of demon blood beneath Eva’s cloak exploded, releasing the liquid into the air. Two orbs formed into rings, flying off towards the hunter. Another two orbs formed up into a shield around Eva.

Her shield solidified just in time. The knight dashed forwards in the blink of an eye. His sword came down on the shield.

The blade bit into the membrane, piercing a portion of it, but stopping before it could cleave through Eva.

Both rings she had sent out passed the knight during his charge. She recalled them, but by the time they reached the knight’s back, he had already dashed away.

“Arachne!” Eva shouted, seeing his target a moment before he reached the demon.

She jumped backwards just a hair too late. One of her back legs fell to the ground even as her body flew backwards.

Eva’s shield, or what remained of it, collapsed into solidified daggers of blood as she blinked straight to the hunter. If they were hovering orbs, they wouldn’t blink with her. Daggers would.

And with much of his armor missing, he had plenty of soft spots for Eva to jam the daggers into.

Eva aimed for a particularly soft spot right around his armpit.

His body wasn’t there by the time her dagger reached her target. Somehow, he had managed to get behind her with his blade already swinging towards her neck.

Eva blinked again, not really aiming anywhere in particular. Just so long as she wound up far enough away from that sword.

Srey moved in to Eva’s vacancy, letting the sword pass harmlessly through his ethereal vapor form. The moment it was safe, he solidified.

When he did so, he wasn’t in the form that Eva had become accustomed to.

He looked humanoid, but his body looked like molten vapor. Dark plumes of smoke erupted from a white-hot mist that made up the solid portions of his body. He reached forwards, hands passing through the helmet of the hunter. He retracted his hands almost immediately in apparent pain.

But not before Eva heard a cough.

The hunter stumbled slightly as he coughed a second time.

Eva wasted no time. She didn’t know how long they might have even a slight advantage.

She blinked forward again, arm already posed to bring a dagger down into his shoulder.

He moved a gauntlet up, catching the solidified blood with the back of his hand. Shards split off. Some larger chunks dug into the metal. Other smaller bits sprayed around the area.

Eva clapped her hands together anyway, blinking away as she did so to avoid his raised sword.

His gauntlet protected him from the explosion. Partially. Most of the metal scattered around the area in tiny shards—shards that burned her skin anywhere they touched. She obviously hadn’t blinked far enough away.

But he was still in a worse state. Save for a few fingers, he no longer had a gauntlet on his off-hand. Unfortunately, save for a slight blemish, his actual arm was otherwise untouched.

He was still coughing. More frequently than before.

Before Eva could blink back in and offer him the other dagger, he disappeared.

Eva’s head whipped around as she searched for where he dashed off to this time.

Except, neither her eyes nor her sense of blood could find him anywhere nearby.

Eva pulled out her cellphone, speed dialing Nel before it even hit her ear.

The augur picked up the second the ring sounded.

“Talk to–”

“The eye patch woman is going to crack the sky again!”

“Vektul,” Eva shouted. “Portal to anywhere that isn’t here! Everyone else, get through it.”

It took only seconds for the demon to comply. Eva dashed into the portal alongside the others, chased by the white beam of light crashing down on their position.

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