Tag Archives: Cole

010.016

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Staring into Arachne’s vacant black eyes frosted over Eva’s heart.

Arachne’s eyes absorbed light. There was no shiny gloss, no light from within. It was like staring into the back of her skull if she had no brain or other organs behind her carapace. Her mouth hung open, slack. No wide grin filled with pearly teeth, no displeased frown. Just a vacant stare.

“Arachne,” Eva said, voice barely audible even to herself in the roaring winds around the ritual circle. She turned slowly, no longer standing with her body half twisted. Vektul shouted something at her and someone else was screaming, but she barely heard them. “Arachne!”

The spider-demon failed to react. Her eyes didn’t light up. Her jaw remained slack.

The red lines on the floor of the ritual circle flashed a bright white for just a moment before the red glow rose into the air. A laser show started swirling around Eva. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off Arachne to properly stare at the patterns. Even when boiling sweat beaded up on her skin, she didn’t take her eyes off Arachne.

Watching Arachne completely fail to react to anything around her had Eva feeling queasy. Her vision swam, jittering around. Which was probably not something caused by the effects of the ritual.

Before even starting, she had suspected things about the ritual. Vektul being a vessel for Void being one. With herself in the center point, however, Eva had entertained the idea that she might be a vessel. Or, failing that, have something happen to her. Hopefully something temporary.

But Arachne?

Eva tried to move forwards, to reach out and grab Arachne’s shoulders to shake her back to her senses. Her foot caught. It stuck flat to the ground. Even with her legs being what they were, she couldn’t lift her foot.

She finally tore her eyes from Arachne to find out just what had caught her foot.

At first, nothing looked wrong. She didn’t wear shoes, so her feet were always the shiny black of Arachne’s chitin. It took her a moment to realize that the shiny black covering her legs was not chitin. A thick layer of fluid blood ran over her feet, pooling on the ground. Not a single drop actually left the ring she was standing within. As Eva continued to stare in a daze, she realized that the blood was spreading, seeping from her pores. It coated over the fabric of her normally gray skirt, turning it as shiny and smooth as her legs while leaving it free to whip about in the winds.

Before long, it had spread up over her chest, arms, and even her neck and head.

Despite all the blood covering her, a quick check showed that none of it was hers. Eva’s body had just as much blood in it as it normally did. Minus what she had spent to bind the nun that had attacked. Which meant that it was happening again. Not to the same degree as when Arachne had been stabbed by the hunter’s sword. That had turned a fairly sizable section of the plaza between the dormitories into a pool of blood.

This was far less widespread. More subdued. But then, Eva’s emotions were more subdued as well. She wasn’t the blazing demon of vengeance that she had felt like while fighting the armored hunter.

Now aware of what was wrong, Eva tried to move forward again. Except her foot still didn’t move. The blood locked it in place. All despite the liquid flowing and running up and down her body. It wasn’t like she had hardened it into a solid crystal.

A quick mental command spread the blood away from her body. It obeyed immediately, just as if she had touched it to her dagger. But as it moved from her body and into the rest of the circle, it vanished. Evaporated. More bled from her skin—even from her carapace, which lacked pores of any kind. Commanding it only a short distance away didn’t work either. The second her command was carried out, it stretched back long tendrils that latched onto her body. From there, it pulled back into one contiguous mass that spread over her.

Eva just about tried obliterating the entire mass with a clap of her hands when she realized just how foolish she was being.

She could teleport.

A simple teleport would leave the sticky mass of blood behind. Even if more leaked from her skin, it wouldn’t matter. She would have moved.

Eva blinked, aiming straight for Arachne.

Only to find herself right where she started, still encased in blood. It wasn’t like the few times when she had tried to teleport while wards were up. There was no metaphorical brick wall that she slammed her head into. Just a disappear and reappear similar to when she was first learning how to blink.

She tried again and a third time to the same result.

As she failed over and over again, the laser show above the circle whipped around. One of the beams of light struck Arachne dead in the back. Arachne stumbled forwards, almost toppling straight to the ground. Her catching herself before falling bubbled up hope in Eva’s heart.

Until she realized that Arachne had not caught herself.

Another two of the red lasers struck her in either shoulder, propping Arachne up. A third pressed into her lolling head, right between her eight eyes. It tipped her head back until she was looking straight up into the void.

A thin tendril of the darkness stretched down in a funnel shape directly above Arachne. It reached down with the lethargy of frozen honey. Eva didn’t even notice it at first. Not until it crossed over some of the red beams of light that were still flying about overhead. The black funnel against the black sky was simply impossible to distinguish without the light for contrast.

The funnel dipped low enough to brush against Arachne’s slack lips. There was an almost intelligent hesitation behind its movements before it dove straight into her mouth. Her carapace cracked immediately. Thin lines spread out from her lips across her face in a spider web pattern. No blood dripped from the cracks. Not to Eva’s sight nor to her sense of blood. But a dark fog churned and billowed beneath the chitinous shards.

Cracks continued to spread, not stopping at her face. Each of the many tendrils hanging off the back of her head bulged before cracking and releasing the dark clouds. Her neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, breasts, navel, legs, and feet quickly followed as the carapace failed to contain the onrushing darkness.

As the darkness forced its way into her body, it started to vanish from around the ritual circle. A dark curtain drew up slow and steady. Bright light peeked through the thin empty space at the very horizon. Hints of the surrounding forest, the base of trees and some brush, still remained outside their bubble of darkness. Though the curtain rose so slowly that only a hand-span of space had moved at the edge of the ring, the funnel into Arachne’s mouth was picking up speed.

Her body couldn’t contain the onrushing darkness. More and more cracks in her carapace appeared as her body started to grow in size. Smoke flowed from the cracks—enough to almost completely obscure Arachne’s actual body. But Eva could still hear every snap of the exoskeleton above the roaring wind.

The smoke flowed down to her dangling feet where, in some kind of cruel mirror of Eva’s blood, it pooled around the ground before thinning out and disappearing into the rest of the air.

Arachne had always been tall. Even while in her most humanoid form, she towered over everyone. Well, everyone human. Ylva had her beat by almost a head and a half. But not for long. Despite the weird angle the beams of light held her at, Eva could see her growing. And not just taller. Her feet, even obscured by smoke, were half-again as large as they had been. The rest of her was scaling to match. The cracked tips of her fingers occasionally came into sight through the fog of smoke. They weren’t so thin and needle-like anymore.

Eva tried to blink forwards again. She tried to move. Thrashing around strained her muscles and bones, but she continued trying. She tried to send the blood away, to obliterate it, to clear it away from her feet and knees just enough for her to move, to harden it with joints that would allow her to move, to do anything that would allow her to move closer to Arachne. To perhaps offer her friend some comfort if she could not stop the darkness.

But it was all for naught. She stayed where she was despite her best attempts otherwise. Even a full teleport to the gate room back in the Rickenbacker dormitory building failed to do anything other than leave her rooted in place. There was enough blood coating her that she couldn’t even turn her head to look away any longer.

The others weren’t faring well anymore. The humans hadn’t been anyway, but now, even the demons were being brought to their knees. A few, Catherine and Genoa notably, had managed to partially resist. Catherine was still on her feet, the one exception to those kneeling around Eva, though Eva could see the effort she was putting into staying that way. Her eyes danced over every little thing, trying to take in the sight of the ritual. Eva couldn’t actually see Genoa with her own eyes. However, she could sense the blood rushing to her muscles as she strained against whatever force was keeping everyone pressed against the ground. Everyone with the exception of Eva, Vektul, Catherine, and Arachne.

With Arachne being forced to consume and contain the black void and Eva being coated in blood, entirely unable to move, she wouldn’t say that they had been spared. Vektul, maybe. He stood perfectly still just as he had been when Eva had still faced him. Unable to turn to look at him, he could be covered in blood as she was.

Eva doubted it. Blood was her thing.

Still, he may have been immobilized using some other method. If he needed it. Of everyone present, he was the one who ordered Saija to stand still. He wouldn’t move on his own.

Juliana was out of range, being out of the circle. She, Serena, and the nun were likely the only ones who could move properly. Assuming the entire world wasn’t kneeling at the moment, which, now that Eva thought about it, was a very real possibility. Yet Juliana had Zagan inside her. Unless he had taken away her power, she should be able to do something.

Eva actually hoped she wouldn’t. At this point, interrupting the ritual could be disastrous. Maybe she could make it so that it had never happened, but there was no guarantee that everything would be alright. Void had to put Arachne back to her proper state. If Juliana stopped the ritual, Arachne could wind up a broken mess. Or worse. And then, it was doubtful that anybody would be willing to try the ritual a second time. Not with what had happened, everybody being forced to the ground and Arachne being torn apart. Maybe Juliana could modify everyone’s memory. Frankly, Eva would need her own memory modified in order to try again.

Which had Eva wondering if they had tried before. Juliana had looked fairly solemn as she walked off to stand by the nun. Just how powerful were Zagan’s abilities? Could she snap her fingers and reset the entire day back to the beginning? Eva couldn’t even imagine the kind of cosmological problems that would pose. It would essentially have to reset the entire universe.

But her delirious mind was likely overthinking a problem that might have a much simpler solution.

The curtain continued up the dome of the ritual circle, further revealing the surrounding landscape. With it, Eva could hear clashing and clanging in the background rising up and over the still howling wind.

— — —

Juliana bit her lip as the ritual circle vanished. It wasn’t gone gone. She could stare straight ahead and see the massive black hemisphere where there had once been a snowy white dome. But if she looked to the forest to the side and swept her gaze across where it had once been, she saw nothing but forest.

Presumably, that was supposed to happen. Nobody had been panicking anyway. Well, mostly nobody. Irene and a few of the others had fallen over and Saija got herself yelled at. But Vektul had said that they weren’t actually being hurt.

So she took up the solemn duty of guarding their prisoner with Serena. Eva hadn’t wanted to take the time to dump the nun off at the prison. For a good reason, admittedly. They needed to get the ritual going as soon as possible for fear of the hunter coming back and ruining everything.

Which was a very real possibility. Time was dragging on. She sat with her back against a tree, keeping both the ritual and the nun in sight. Once the black bubble touched down, she started to check her phone every so often. Since she bit her lip, it had been nearly four hours.

Someone should have asked Vektul just how long the ritual was supposed to take. Her nervousness at her mother and friends being involved had vanished entirely, replaced by boredom. It wasn’t that she wasn’t worried about them. There was simply a limit to how long she could stand around pacing while biting her nails.

“How can you take part in this monstrosity?”

“Oh shut up.”

Serena tried to add something. An agreement, by the tone of it, but it was hard to make out with how muffled her words were.

There was one person around who could alleviate her boredom—who was capable of conversation, anyway. Unfortunately, Juliana severely doubted that they would have any kind of proper discussion. So far, every word out of her mouth had been scathing annoyances about the company Juliana kept. None of which made Juliana all that inclined to respond.

In fact, now that she was thinking about it…

Juliana drew on a thin tendril of Zagan’s magic. Just a slight alteration to the fabric of reality that would keep the nun from being able to speak. To be more accurate, Juliana just wished that the nun’s open mouth became incapable of opening. Closed, in other words.

And the world complied to her wishes.

In the blink of an eye, the nun’s mouth melted away and left her with smooth skin between her chin and nose. She looked like some telepathic alien from a far off galaxy. Something the nun immediately noticed. Her breathing grew intense, heaving in and out until she was hyperventilating through her nose. Her hands were bound together by Eva’s obsidian-like blood bindings, but her fingers were still free. She brought them up to where her mouth used to be and started feeling around. The feeling quickly became more frenzied, almost digging her nails into her mouth.

Despite it being exactly what Juliana had imagined when she thought to get rid of the nun’s mouth, it was somewhat disturbing. Both the lack of the nun’s mouth and the frantic clawing at her smooth skin made Juliana avert her eyes. Serena didn’t—Juliana couldn’t actually see her eyes behind the dark visor of her ski goggles, but her head was angled in that direction. After a few moments of listening to the muffled screams coming from the mouthless woman, her discomfort grew to a breaking point. It might have been a bit of an overreaction.

Maybe she was more nervous than bored. She wouldn’t normally have jumped to such a mutilation. Even if it wasn’t actually hurting the nun, there was a point where cruel and unusual just became too cruel and too unusual. The poor nun had no mouth yet obviously needed to scream.

“Alright,” she said as she pulled on another tendril of Zagan’s magic, undoing her curse. “Just don’t talk to me. Okay?”

The nun’s lips faded back into being. The second they lost their translucent shimmer, the nun sucked in a deep gasp of air.

Juliana winced in advance, preparing for the scream.

Only it never came. Juliana squinted her eye open, watching the nun.

Her mouth was open like she had been about to scream, but had frozen with her eyes wide, staring behind Juliana.

Juliana didn’t bother to ask what the nun was staring at. She leaped forwards, past the nun and into a tumbling roll as her liquid metal armor built itself up around her. Just in time to protect her from a shower of dirt that had flown high into the air after a resounding crash behind her.

Spinning around, Juliana didn’t find herself surprised in the slightest at the armored hunter. She obviously hadn’t had the chance to repair her armor after her battle with Eva. Her breastplate was blackened and charred with a thin hole right in the very center.

Serena obviously had not moved in time despite being a vampire and supposedly having better reflexes. Too busy staring at the nun, probably. She had been knocked away by whatever the hunter had done and was bent over a tree branch a fair distance away.

Rising from a half-crouch with her fist pressed into a crater on the ground, the hunter brought herself to her full height. She turned. Lifting her fist, she took a step towards the dark wall around the ritual circle.

“No!” She drew on a tendril of Zagan’s power.

But the woman’s fist connected with the bubble before Juliana could work out how to properly oppose the woman.

As it turned out, she needn’t have bothered. The woman’s fist sunk in up to her wrist only for her to be thrown back. She flew through the air right up until she hit a tree.

Hitting the tree didn’t do much to stop the hunter. She crashed straight through the thick wood, sending splinters of bark, pine needles, and wood up into the air. A second and third tree exploded beneath her momentum before a fourth finally held together enough to bring the woman to a stop. The same tree that Serena had ended up hanging off.

The impact knocked Serena off, sending her a few feet down to the ground where she rolled for a moment before coming to a stop. Her motion didn’t cease, however. She clasped an arm over her chest. Part of her coat had torn from rubbing against the tree branch. She placed her arm over to keep the overcast sun from making its way inside.

Juliana doubted she would get much help from that corner.

“It’s a Po–”

Using the tendril of magic she already had wrapped around her fingers, she undid her undoing of taking away the nun’s ability to speak. Juliana didn’t need the hunter to have some wand that worked on Powers back at their hideout.

Though, with Zagan’s power, she could probably do something about it without any difficulty.

In fact…

At the moment, the hunter could hurt her. But tugging on Zagan’s power again, Juliana twisted reality. The hunter shouldn’t be able to touch her at all. So long as she had done it right, that was.

Even if the hunter could still hurt her, she had experience healing herself using Zagan’s power. And, better yet, it didn’t look like the hunter could really hurt the ritual circle.

Juliana breathed out a small sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about that.

The very second relief crossed her mind, Juliana—armor and all—just about tumbled over as a rush of wind kicked up from around the ritual circle. A tiny sliver of the darkness had lifted up, rising to just a hair’s breadth away from the ground. Gales of wind rushed out from underneath at a constant rate, forcing Juliana to shield the thin eye slit in her helmet with her arm just to fail at keeping her eyes from drying out.

A bright red light leaked out from the crack, making everything look far more bloody than it was.

In the gale of the wind, the nun was faring far worse than Juliana. Huddled up in a fetal position, the winds tore at her increasingly ragged clothes.

On the other hand, the hunter didn’t seem affected at all. Somehow, despite being thrown through three trees, she managed to move forwards, marching closer and closer to the ritual site.

Gritting her teeth, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. If the ritual wasn’t finished yet, she would just have to keep the woman at bay herself.

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010.015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the nun?”

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

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

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

“And you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright. Sounds easy enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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010.014

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

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

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

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

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

Which was perfectly okay in Eva’s book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tarnished gauntlet connected with Arachne’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she could surely figure out something.

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

Something that had nearly happened just the other day.

“Eva!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eva…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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010.013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not someone we know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should, no guarantee.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, anything save for whatever tripped her detection wards.

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

“See anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A consideration for later.

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

“Eva!”

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

“Call in help.”

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

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

A single glowing red eye stared back.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are a demon then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to get out. Sooner rather than later.

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

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

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

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

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

And overconfident, Riley thought, keeping her expression steady.

“Are those creatures still appearing around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riley stood with a repressed sigh.

— — —

“I still think it is too early.”

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

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

They were on the scene before her.

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

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

Which had Eva biting her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that lava pouring off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have been getting less intense. But…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Still–”

“But I agree with you.”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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


009.021

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva slid to a stop on the sidewalk a few roads away from where they found Juliana’s cellphone. She waited just long enough for Arachne to catch up.

“I feel it too,” Arachne said before Eva could ask. “Or rather, I no longer feel him.”

“Just checking to make sure I wasn’t broken,” Eva said with a slight nod of her head. “Think he got banished again?”

Arachne’s tongue ran across the edges of her carapace around her mouth, wetting them slightly. “It would be awfully embarrassing if he did. Not that I would say so to his face.”

“What is it?” Genoa asked the second she blinked next to Eva. Her heart was beating slightly faster than normal and her breath came a bit heavier, but overall, she was doing alright. Much better than she had when the hunters attacked the other week. “Why did you stop?”

“Zagan disappeared again.”

“What does that mean?” she said with a frown. When Arachne didn’t respond and Eva shrugged her shoulders, that frown only deepened. “You still haven’t explained why you thought he might be with Juliana in the first place.”

“Nobody has seen him in months. Then he shows up now?” Eva gave her a pointed look. “I believe in coincidences but this seems a bit suspicious. But we were close, no sense not checking out… Is that smoke?”

At her question, both of her companions turned to look down the street. A plume of black smoke billowed above the neighborhood, lit by an orange ball of fire against the evening sky somewhere just beyond the nearest row of houses. Even if it wasn’t in the same direction that Zagan had been, it still would be worth checking out.

Genoa started blinking first. She moved away well before Eva could even suggest they move on. The former mage-knight was probably experienced enough to avoid the traps that were bound to be littering the area. Still, Eva wouldn’t have minded the opportunity to reiterate a warning first.

“Come on,” Eva said to Arachne. “And keep your eyes open. Martina is dead. Zagan might not be as friendly as he once was.”

“He used to be friendly at some point? Must have missed it.”

Eva blinked after Genoa without dignifying Arachne with a proper response.

As soon as she made it to a nearby roof, Eva set her mind and magic to quelling the flames. Her expertise with fire magic generally lent itself to exploding things rather than calming them, but she had enough practice to be at least marginally effective. Genoa, standing next to her, helped out as well. When she landed on the roof, Arachne did not help out. She stood and stared. Not that Eva was going to complain about someone watching her back.

She could sense a few wards around, but nothing in the immediate area. Down towards the building, in and around it.

Inside the building, Eva sensed something else. A familiar circulatory system. Hers was the only one around that Eva could sense. Immediate company excluded. No hunter around. No other innocents, though this was towards the outskirts of Brakket and, as such, wasn’t wholly unexpected.

“Juliana is inside the basement,” Eva said, raising her voice to be heard over the rush of flames and cracking wood. “As far as I can tell, she isn’t injured. There is some blood around the room she is in. Quite a lot, in fact. I don’t see any cuts on Juliana though.”

“Where in the basement?”

“She’s beneath that section,” she said, pointing out the corner of the house closest to them.

“Right.”

As soon as she spoke, the earth moved. A full room worth of dirt pressed to the fence line, building up into a miniature mountain. The revealed basement all looked like a bunch of rough rocks all packed together with some mortar. The rocks quickly followed the dirt as the wall exploded outwards.

Genoa blinked down into the pit before the dust had even cleared. Eva lost her visual sight of her but followed along with her sense of blood, watching as Genoa charged in, took in the scene for a split second, scooped up her daughter into her arms, and charged back out. She didn’t blink away while holding Juliana, but she did leap using the earth to springboard her back up to the roof Eva and Arachne were on.

Juliana coughed and hacked as she rubbed at her eyes. “In case–” She sputtered out a cough. “In case you were wondering. The opposite of a little fire is not no fire. It’s actually a lot of fire.”

Despite her apparent choking problem, her clothes were pristine other than a little soot and rubble, but that could have very easily been Genoa’s fault when she burst into the room. Though her clothes were intact, her armor was gone entirely. Her slightly baggy clothing that normally hid the metal skin hung off her like she was wearing hand-me-downs from a much heavier sibling.

“Are you alright?” Genoa said, voice unnaturally laden with tension. “You’re not injured?”

“I’m fine, mom. Just a little kidnapping. Nothing I haven’t been through before.”

“Don’t you dare joke about such things,” Genoa said as she pulled Juliana into a tight hug. Tight enough that if she hadn’t been injured before, she probably would be walking away with a bruise or two.

Hanging half over her mother’s shoulder, Juliana’s hands wound up pinned to her sides. She finally blinked her eyes.

Arachne actually took a step back. Eva didn’t, but she did narrow her eyes. While Genoa’s back was still turned, Eva lifted her finger up to her own eyes. Then she pointed at Juliana. ‘Your eyes are gold,’ she mouthed.

Juliana visibly stiffened. Enough for her mother to notice. Pulling back, Juliana pinched her eyes shut again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just dust in my eyes,” she said, blinking her eyes open again. This time, they were back to her usual blue.

Which just had Eva narrowing her eyes further. But she kept her mouth shut. Juliana obviously didn’t want her mother to know about her eyes. And it had to be Juliana still. There was no chance in Hell Zagan would act like that. Of course, that didn’t mean that Zagan was actually gone.

“Did you see the hunter?” Juliana asked before anyone else could say anything. “It was the same hunter. The one from the roof last month. She was stomping around threatening me not too long ago, but I think she left when she lit the house on fire.”

“We didn’t see anything. Nobody is around except the four of us.”

“Srey hasn’t said anything recently, has he?”

Eva shook her head as Genoa asked, “Srey?”

“A demon that can detect people watching him with hostile intent.”

“Ah, I see.” Genoa kept her tight grip around Juliana’s shoulders, but did move slightly so as to not completely crush her in a hug. “It could have been an attack of opportunity. They saw Juliana walking around alone and thought to get revenge for her foiled attack and partner.”

“She said she would let me go after killing Eva. I didn’t believe her.”

“Good instincts,” Genoa said with a firm nod of her head. “Though I don’t know if I approve of you starting a fire to attempt to get out. If we hadn’t shown up–”

“I didn’t start it. She did.”

All the tension that had mostly left Genoa came rushing back in a flood. Her back stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the surrounding area.

“I think she ran off though,” Juliana said, voice soft. It dipped even quieter as she continued. “After I summoned a demon.”

Despite the nearly silent whisper, Genoa’s eyes snapped to her daughter. “You what?”

“It’s okay! I’m okay. Nothing bad happened.”

Genoa’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. It only lasted for a moment before she sighed. “We should leave this place. This hunter has already proven willing to use long-range bombardment magic. We don’t want to be sitting around when she decides to again.”

Eva just about opened her mouth to say that she had the metal encased idol in her possession back at the prison. A single look into Genoa’s eyes told her that she did not want to draw any attention to herself. The Rivas matriarch was not in the mood.

Apparently missing the memo, Juliana let out a soft sigh.

“Don’t think you’ve gotten out of talking about you summoning demons, young lady. After what happened before… I just… I don’t… Your father will be wanting to have words as well. Come on.”

“Yes mother,” Juliana said, head hanging.

For just a moment, Eva watched them hop off the roof and back to street level. She didn’t move to follow. Or do much of anything that might draw attention to herself. As the still smoldering house collapsed in on itself behind her, Eva just took a moment to be happy that she didn’t have parents to disappoint. Or, at least, no parent she cared about disappointing.

In fact, sticking around and searching through the rubble to find Ylva’s ring was starting to look appealing. Juliana would be yelled at for the next several hours if the look on Genoa’s face was anything to go by. Sitting around in the general vicinity would both be a waste of time and the antithesis to fun. With Arachne at her side, they should easily be able to take care of a crippled hunter if she dared to return.

But, at the same time, that hunter had managed to kidnap Juliana. And, according to Juliana, that crippled hunter had been stomping around.

Which meant that Eva should really find out more before throwing herself into danger. And then there was Zagan’s presence and Juliana’s eyes. She might be less willing to talk while her mother was around, but Eva needed to know.

With a sigh, she started following. Though she made sure to keep her distance. Eva pulled out her cellphone as she moved. Zoe would probably appreciate knowing that Juliana was safe for the time being.

— — —

Riley Cole dropped her binoculars with a sigh.

She hadn’t signed up for kidnapping human children. Even if they were friends with the abomination. It was a concept that lent itself to the more drastic tactics that demon hunters occasionally employed. Gertrude failed to use this child, so what would she do next time? Try to take the whole school hostage?

Riley wouldn’t put it past her. The woman was insane. She had thought as much when they had first met, but then Clement had been around. Riley couldn’t be sure whether he had kept Gertrude’s insanity in check or if his death had been the trigger for her becoming so unhinged, but either way, Riley wanted out.

It wasn’t like she was a stranger to killing innocents. The Elysium Order was far more familiar with the concept than anyone would like to admit. But undead were different. Undead spread like the plague. Zombies, vampires, mummies, all of it, they were contagious. Regular humans often had to be put down before they succumbed to whatever disease they had come in contact with.

Demons weren’t.

A year ago, Riley had been on fire. High on adrenaline and furious at the attack on her home, she had been ready to march out and seek vengeance. But now, that fire had died off.

In fact, watching the broadcasts from the school, Riley was wondering if demons were such a big deal at all. They acted like children. Menacing children with far stronger powers than most adults, but still children. The vampire from the other school was a far more grievous offense. The way he stared at the other students put Riley on the edge of her nerves. She couldn’t believe that the Elysium Order hadn’t sent a smaller chapter to covertly kill him.

Maybe they were waiting for the end of the event. Killing him right in the middle would not make them look good, especially while he was apparently playing nice. So long as he did continue to repress his baser instincts, they would probably leave him be for the time being. It wouldn’t surprise her if there was a small chapter waiting in the shadows just in case he did choose to spread his disease.

Gertrude didn’t see things the same way. The television program hadn’t even progressed to the actual event this evening before Gertrude had stormed off, mumbling under her breath about all the things wrong with the world. Then, less than ten minutes later, she had called Riley up.

Riley had known that something would go wrong before even answering.

When Clement had been alive, it had been impossible to get the time of day from either one of them. Now Gertrude had her phone on speed dial.

Which only added to Riley’s desire to not be a part of her mad schemes anymore.

But she didn’t have anywhere else to go. The Elysium Order would likely excommunicate her if she tried to go back. Gertrude was just insane enough that she would probably try hunting her down too.

So Riley sat in the second floor of their little hideout, waiting for Gertrude to return and start ranting and raving about how she had been this close to ending demonic oppression and tyranny once and for all.

Sure enough, it took less than five minutes after the abomination and her friends left for Gertrude to teleport elsewhere into the building. Floorboards creaked under the stomping of her heavy armor as she made her way through the house. A fairly fierce creaking. The wood holding the house together had not been meant to take the strain of such a weight. Gertrude had already accidentally put two holes in the floor.

Riley sensed a few more appearing by the end of the night.

But it really couldn’t be helped. Gertrude could barely move without the armor.

“What happened?” Riley asked as soon as the door opened. Getting the first word in let her control the pace of the conversation. Somewhat.

“The little bint summoned a demon,” Gertrude growled as she stalked over to the window. She snatched the binoculars from Riley’s lap and peered out the window. All despite her own assessment that her watching triggered the observant demon’s danger sense. That was half the reason Riley was even there, apparently.

With another sigh, Riley asked a question she knew she probably shouldn’t. “I would have thought you would be able to ward against demons.”

Another low growl escaped Gertrude’s throat. “I wanted demons to come. Warding them off, even warding summoning might have tipped them off. I needed them to come to her rescue. But not everything had been set up.”

Her armor clad hands steadily tightened their grip on the binoculars as she spoke, right up until the point where one of the lenses exploded in a shattering of glass. Gertrude clenched her teeth and tossed the binoculars into the corner of the room. They punched a small hole into the drywall while black plastic and glass littered the corner of the room.

“Too soon, nun, they came too soon. It was that demon she summoned. Whatever it was, it acted like a beacon to the others. She probably didn’t even need to let it out of the shackles before sending it back, just keep it out for a few seconds for the others to notice.”

“Probably?”

“I couldn’t find the stairs.”

“Couldn’t find–”

“It was that demon. It did something. Illusions or something. I couldn’t break through the floor either. By the time I made a few scratches into the floorboards, the others were showing up.”

“Sounds like a sturdier place than ours,” Riley mumbled, more to herself than Gertrude.

The armored woman heard anyway if her narrowed eyes were any indicator. She turned from the window, staring into the space behind Riley. “Just be ready. We’re going to move against them soon. In fact, this little step back might just work to our advantage.”

Riley waited, but Gertrude didn’t bother elaborating. She did start chuckling. A fairly unpleasant chuckle. The tone set Riley’s nerves on end.

Really, she didn’t see what was so funny. Before tonight’s impromptu and failed operation, Gertrude had been lying low. Her enemies thought her to be crippled. If they even thought she was around at all. Now they had laid out half their cards and she was still expecting to win?

Riley really needed to get away before she found herself killed simply because of association.

But for the time being, she just smiled and pretended she wasn’t looking for opportunities to run away. She had thought Gertrude to be insane before. Watching her laugh while staring off into space only confirmed that thought. Riley did not want her supposed ally to lash out at her.

— — —

“And Faultline has lost all of their crystals to Brakket!” Hank shouted from the edge of his chair. “This puts Brakket firmly in the lead.”

“We still have plenty of time left,” Zoe said. “Though Faultline has a much greater difference to make up than the other schools.”

“Right you are Zoe. Let’s take a look at– Our commercial break!” he corrected as a voice came over his ear piece. “Our editors are hard at work preparing a few highlights from that last battle. We’ll look in on what they have for us once we come back.”

As soon as the camera switched over to the commercials, Zoe stood. “I will be back before the break ends,” she said, not waiting for a response before heading off stage.

Nothing bad had happened so far. The demons all freezing at the same time could be nothing to worry about.

Zoe worried anyway.

She pulled out her cellphone. Two messages. Roughly fifteen minutes apart from each other. She read the latter one first, hoping for the most up to date information.

Don’t worry. Problem resolved.

Well that… was good news. Probably. She quickly switched over to the first message.

Juliana missing. Kidnapped? Looks like a fight went down. Genoa, Arachne, and I are on the case.

Zoe stood, staring at the message with a frown. Kidnapped? But problem resolved fifteen minutes later? You have to tell me more than this, Eva, Zoe thought as she typed out a message. And what were the demons staring at?

“Miss Baxter?”

Zoe jolted, glancing up to one of the station’s interns. She blinked. It took her a moment to realize why he was standing there in the first place. “Sorry. Commercial ending?”

“Hank can carry the program for a few minutes if you need more time.”

Shaking her head, Zoe smiled. “Oh no. I’m alright to continue. The problem I was worried about has been resolved. Apparently.”

The stagehand looked like he wanted to say something more, but Zoe moved back to her seat, offered a nod to Hank, and folded her hands across her lap just in time for the commercial break to end.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.031

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Shalise jumped to her feet, ready for another attack. Lynn was at her side in an instant.

It was somewhat off-putting. Lynn’s lightning and fire was far more effective at dealing with the enigmas than anything Shalise could put out. Sure, her muscles were strong and afforded her a certain level of toughness that she would otherwise lack, but not a single one of the creatures had actually made it within grappling range since Eva had brought along Lynn.

She shouldn’t be complaining, but Lynn just looked so exhausted. Dealing with the constant attacks kept her from having a proper sleep schedule.

This time, however, both women sagged in relief as they spotted just who it was approaching the alternate women’s ward.

Zoe and Eva were walking slowly, carrying something heavy between the two of them.

“She actually got it,” Lynn mused under her breath. “I half expected to never see her again.”

Shalise gave Lynn a frown, but didn’t respond. She threw open the door to the women’s ward and ran out across the closed trap doors to see if she could help out in any way. They were carrying her salvation, supposedly.

Salvation? You were not complaining while using me to escape from the prison.

Shaking her head with a frown, Shalise shot a mental glare at Prax. She was fairly certain that she had been complaining. Even before he had taken over her body.

That was entirely unintentional. I did not intend for us to become stuck this way.

“Sounds like you’re complaining about what might get us unstuck.”

There was an uncomfortable shift in the back of her mind. Between Zagan and the dolls, he started. Whatever he was going to say vanished with a spike of annoyance.

“Well, I can’t stay here. Even with Lynn here, those things will eventually kill me. Then you’ll be stuck dealing with Zagan and the dolls anyway.”

Brushing off the resignation from Prax, Shalise raised her voice to more conversational levels. “Is that the obelisk? Do you need help?”

“Just hold the door and show us where to put it.”

Eva’s words came out quick and strained, so Shalise wasn’t about to argue. She ran up to the door and kept it from swinging shut on them while Lynn directed them to the circle she had drawn.

“Set it down here,” Lynn said. “The corner needs to point towards the center of the circle.”

Zoe and Eva complied without complaint. Once the obelisk was in place, they both heaved out great sighs of relief. Eva collapsed into the couch that had been shoved against the far wall while Zoe just leaned against its armrests, sheathing her dagger as she panted.

Pathetic. Prax’s amusement was almost palpable. We could have lifted that with one hand.

“Shalise,” Lynn said, “strip down while I get everything set up.”

Feeling the heat in her face, Shalise almost protested. Zoe and Eva were still at the couch, now talking softly to one another while Zoe pointed at the ritual circle. Lynn had already moved on to the backpack that Eva had slung on the floor. She pulled a white feather out of the bag and placed it carefully within a small circle at the side of the larger circle.

No one was paying attention to her.

I am paying attention.

“Don’t be a creep,” Shalise hissed as she pulled off her shirt.

Despite his words, Shalise couldn’t feel a hint of interest towards herself from Prax. It was just him being annoying again. A way of protesting his imprisonment within her body without angering her too much.

Maybe he wanted her to summon him once they got out.

That wouldn’t happen, though Juliana had offered to summon him back at the prison. If Shalise never interacted with him again, she wouldn’t be too upset.

But he hadn’t been that bad. He did get both herself and Juliana out of the prison safely and with their souls intact.

And the conflicting combination of anxiety and eagerness towards the ritual had Shalise feeling just a little pity for him.

He would be back in his own body, but had Zagan and the dolls to worry about, as he had just mentioned a short while ago.

Setting her folded clothes neatly to the side of the room, Shalise sat at the edge of the circle, trying and failing to cover herself as much as possible.

Why bother? Everyone in this room has seen you in various states of undress.

“Not this undressed.”

Mortal sensibilities, he scoffed.

Shalise kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to encourage his antics. He was just as nervous as she was, but his way of relieving that tension did not agree with her.

“Center of the circle, Shal. Remain standing and face me.”

After jumping slightly at being addressed, Shalise stepped into the circle. She moved to her spot, making certain that she didn’t scuff any of the markings on the floor.

Facing Lynn meant facing the door. Her back was to the obelisk.

An assortment of items lay out in an array around her. Sigils and markings were covering the floor, all designed to direct the magic in certain patterns, to make them flow through the objects, and all sorts of things that Shalise didn’t pretend to understand.

Both Eva and Zoe moved to stand near Lynn at the front of the circle, though Lynn moved back as soon as they came near.

Taking a bag of white powder in her hands, Lynn moved around to the obelisk behind Shalise.

Craning her neck to see, Shalise watched as Lynn opened the top of the obelisk and started pouring the powder inside.

As she did, the markings and sigils on the obelisk started to glow. It was a pale, white light that sent a shiver of disgust through her body.

Once full, Lynn replaced the cap of the obelisk and returned to the head of the circle.

“We’re going to start now,” she said. “Try to remain standing. Everything will be alright.”

Shalise took a deep breath, nodding.

As she nodded, she caught sight of her shadow. The light of the obelisk filled most of the room, so it wasn’t unusual that she would have a shadow.

But the shadow looked like Prax. She could see his hooves, his horns, and his muscles. Concerning, as Shalise’s arms were currently her own. No Prax’s muscles bulging through her skin. It was also far taller than it should have been, given the angle of the light.

Glancing up, Shalise frowned.

Neither Sister Cross nor Zoe had any shadow to speak of, as if the light was passing straight through them.

“Huh,” Eva said, back turned to Shalise to look at her own shadow.

Things sprouted off the back of Eva’s shadow. Like oddly angled wings made of bones. Except they couldn’t be bones. They were far too fluid. Liquid dripped off the tips of the bones to rejoin the mass of shadow making up the rest of Eva’s body.

There was more to the shadow. Shalise couldn’t see it very well. Eva’s body stood in the way to obscure most of it.

Without a word or glance at the others, Eva walked out the door and disappeared around the side of the women’s ward. Shalise didn’t see her pass by the window, so either she was walking straight out or she had chosen to rest against the wall.

Zoe started to follow, but appeared to change her mind as she set her eyes on Shalise.

Lynn took a step back. She looked over the circle, double checking everything for the hundredth time. Once satisfied, her eyes lit up like they did anytime she used her powers. She started chanting.

Shalise didn’t recognize the words. They weren’t English. Probably–

Latin, Prax confirmed. She could feel an air of dread coming from the back of her mind. I do not think that either of us are going to enjoy this.

“What do–”

Shalise couldn’t get her question out before the pain started.

A tearing, ripping sensation pulled at her back. Prax’s dormant muscles spasmed. They grew under her skin, then shrank, then grew again. Every time, they seemed to be just a little less attached. Her natural muscles strained as they pulled against each other.

All the while, Shalise screamed. Like the rest of her body, her brain felt like it was being torn apart.

Prax’s screams faded in and out of the back of her mind. Unlike her, he needed no air to continue his screams. His vocal chords weren’t wearing and tearing from the stress. His screams came in a constant tone.

Shalise couldn’t say how long it lasted. She was fairly certain that her consciousness lapsed more than once, only to be brought back by the crescendo of pain.

It ended with a sudden thud and a hot, wet, and sticky sensation against her chest.

Shalise slumped forward. The ground was quickly approaching.

She stopped inches away as a pair of arms caught her and pulled her into a tight embrace.

“It’s alright,” Lynn’s voice came faint and distant. “Shal, you’re okay. It worked.”

Shalise blinked twice, trying to clear her mind of the lingering pain. She was pressed tight against Lynn’s body, her head resting on the older woman’s shoulder.

Behind her back, Prax–red skin, horns, bulking body and all–lay face down on the ground.

Eva stood over him, nudging him slightly with her foot while Zoe stood to the side with her dagger out. When Eva had reentered the room, Shalise couldn’t say. She had no idea how long that ritual had lasted. Her muscles screamed at her as if she had been running three marathons in a row, but it had only felt like a moment or two.

A splattering of red and black blood lay about between Shalise and Prax.

Seeing Prax, Shalise’s eyes felt heavy. She tried to keep them open. She wanted to stay awake.

After two more blinks, she found it too difficult to lift them again.

“We’ll let her rest for a few hours,” Lynn’s voice came, distant and quiet. “Then we can return.”

“Fine with me,” Eva said from even farther away. “Keep watching her and don’t worry. If any of the enigmas attack, I’ll deal with them.” A certain violence entered Eva’s voice, one that Shalise couldn’t recall hearing before. “I hope more of the enigmas attack.”

There was a sound not dissimilar to the cracking of knuckles.

“I could use a little cathartic release at the moment.”

Her voice trailed off into a deep silence as Shalise lost consciousness.

— — —

“It’s time.”

Nel jumped at Ylva’s words. She had been concentrating.

Sawyer was on the move. At least, she assumed that Sawyer was on the move.

It was just her luck that he would have noticed that his augur shield wasn’t working. After preparing the salt for Eva, she had immediately returned to watching him.

He had been in the middle of surgery on the little girl when Nel got to her altar. While the girl had torn off the violet-colored organ attached to his hand, there were still traces of it left. Veins, purpler than they should be on a person, bulged from his skin.

He didn’t seem to pay it much mind, choosing to focus on the surgery. In just a single half hour, he had done something that caused everything to go dark.

Likely by repairing whatever he had done with Nel’s eyes.

But all was not lost. After a few minutes of experimentation, Nel found them again. She couldn’t actually see them–anything within a few mile radius just vanished from her sight. But she could monitor that blotch of darkness. The edges of it moved around. Not much, it presumably moved as the little girl moved.

Still, it allowed Nel to track their general movements, if not their exact position.

Five days after Sawyer had repaired the girl, they had started moving north. Not quickly. They made frequent stops in areas that held tiny towns. Perhaps ones that were just large enough to have a motel or some other hostel.

After three days of travel, they had crossed the Nevada border into southern Idaho.

Nel had a feeling that she knew their final destination, even if they weren’t heading towards Brakket Academy in a straight line.

She had been hoping that Eva would be up to enact their revenge on Sawyer sometime before Ylva closed off her domain, but that didn’t seem to be all that likely anymore.

Nel glanced up at Lady Ylva and gave her a resigned nod.

“Shall I stay here? Or do you need me somewhere specific?”

Ylva stared. She didn’t blink or tilt her head to either side, she just stared in silence.

Anyone else might have missed it, but Nel knew her mannerisms well enough after a year and a half of being constantly in her presence.

Lady Ylva was confused.

“You wish to stay?”

Ice cold fear gripped Nel’s heart. This was it. She had allowed herself to grow complacent–comfortable even–as Lady Ylva’s aide.

Now she was being thrown away. Dismissed.

Killed?

Nel could feel her breath quickening.

No. Not killed. Sister Cross had tried to kill her. Discretely, true, but the evidence was plain to see from her position.

If Lady Ylva wanted her dead, she would be dead. There were no superiors to hold Lady Ylva accountable for the death of an augur. No one to complain about all the effort it took to replace an augur.

But Ylva was sending her back to Earth?

Nel wouldn’t miss it. She hadn’t stepped outside of Ylva’s domain more than three times in the past year and not a single one of those times had anything good happened. Generally, it was the exact opposite.

No. Nel wanted to stay.

Nel’s eyes flicked from Lady Ylva’s face to just over her shoulder.

Alicia stood a step behind Ylva, still wearing the dark robes that Nel wore. Her eyes were narrowed in Nel’s direction, but her face was otherwise impassive.

Had she been asked to stay in place of Nel? Or had she chosen to stay?

Was it a choice?

“I want to stay with you,” Nel blurted out.

Lady Ylva nodded. A faint smile touched just the very edges of her lips.

That had been the expected response? Or it was a test?

Nel sagged in her seat at the altar as the tension drained from her body. She spent a moment trying to get her hyperventilating under control.

“Very well,” Lady Ylva said, taking no apparent notice of Nel’s distress. “Gather everything that cannot be left behind. Join Us in the throne room after.”

Nel’s breath hitched in her throat. She glanced up with confusion in her eyes.

Lady Ylva had already turned. Her long platinum hair and low-cut dress swung in the air, trailing after her as she left the room.

Alicia shot a look before turning to follow. Nel wasn’t quite certain what to make of it. Amusement? Ire?

With every passing day, Nel found herself liking the other former nun less and less.

Maybe I misunderstood the question. She was suddenly extremely relieved that she hadn’t said that yes, she wanted to stay.

But she had been left with an order.

Nel did not have much. She came to Ylva with nothing but the tattered remains of her Elysium Order habit. Everything she had, everything she wore, everything she ate, all of it was provided by Lady Ylva.

Aside from a few spare changes of clothes, there was only one thing that she could think to take.

Her fetters.

Most had containers already. Only the one she had most recently been using, Sawyer’s hand, was out of its jar. Nel wasted no time in sealing it up and dropping it into a bag.

She glanced around, ensuring she had everything. Several strands of hair, Sawyer’s hand, the little girl’s friend’s blood. She hesitated in taking the brass sphere that the devil had given her, but decided that throwing away a fetter wouldn’t do anyone any good, even one as disturbing as that.

And that was everything Nel could think to bring. She headed out to the main throne room.

Lady Ylva stood near the exit doors alongside Alicia and one of the professors.

It took a moment to understand the reason for the professor’s presence. Her apartment had been connected to Ylva’s domain as well.

“Ready,” Nel said as she ran up to the group.

“Let Us proceed,” Ylva said, moving to leave her domain.

The two former nuns and the professor all followed her out, with the professor watching Ylva like a hawk.

Once everyone was outside, Ylva gripped the handle of the door and swung it shut. She held on for just a moment longer than necessary.

“It is done.”

“That’s it?” Zoe asked, her voice carrying a hint of disbelief.

Ylva gestured one arm towards the door.

Accepting the wordless invitation, Zoe stepped up and opened the door once again.

Gone was the gigantic room, the pit, the throne, and the storm clouds overhead. What lay behind the door was indistinguishable from any other cell block in the compound.

“What do you intend to do now?” Zoe asked without taking her eyes off the interior of the building.

“The necromancer is still at large. We would stay near your presence until his termination.”

“Because of the ring,” Zoe said, thumbing the black band on her finger. With a slight jump in her stance, she tore her eyes from the cell block and stared at Ylva. “Juliana still has hers. She’s been gone all this time.”

“Juliana has had Our personal attention for a time,” Ylva said, holding up one placating hand. “For the time, We may send Ali to watch over her. It would be preferable were she to return.”

Alicia opened her mouth just a hair. She snapped it shut in an instant.

Nel didn’t much care. She was too busy staring into what used to be Ylva’s domain.

There was something that she had forgotten.

She could almost feel the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.

With a heavy heart, Nel wondered if she would ever see Lady Ylva’s bath again.

— — —

Embarrassed.

That was the only word that Riley Cole could think of to describe her situation.

Perhaps not her situation, but the situation of the Elysium Order.

They were an upstanding organization that hunted down the evils that lurked in the night. Anything that threatened human life or livelihood. Vampires, undead, zombies, liches, ghosts, ghouls, revenants, wights, wraiths, and even mummies. All fell in the name of protecting the living.

And yet, they had wound up a laughing stock. The inquisitors had been decimated. The few survivors claiming that a literal god of Death had stripped them of their powers. Scattered incidents around the country involving demons had further hampered their efforts to keep the living alive.

They had tried to keep the theft of the Obelisk of the Pure Moon quiet. The thieves had the gall to return it. When they did, they ensured that everyone in the area knew it was there.

Luckily, a stone obelisk with a handful of fireworks going off around it down the road from the cathedral had been passed off as a simple curiosity. No one who saw understood the significance of the obelisk.

Riley recognized the demon that had perished in the cathedral. As had a number of the Charon Chapter nuns. It had been standing on the roof overlooking their warehouse the night of the riot.

It all stemmed from here. Prioress Cross–Former Prioress Cross had antagonized the wrong people at Brakket City. They had spent far too much time around the city itself when they should have been hunting the necromancer. Their augur had been tied up spying on students rather than searching through caves, warehouses, and other necromancer haunts.

Given the demon infestation in the area, Riley could see the logic behind it.

But they were not demon hunters. They were undead hunters. Former Prioress Cross had failed to follow regulations. If she had truly been concerned about the demons, she should have put out the word for hunters to find. Otherwise, they should have stuck to hunting the necromancer and left the demons well enough alone.

Riley had lost more than one good friend to Cross’ madness.

The demons were the ones embarrassing the Elysium Order as a whole, now.

That could no longer stand.

“The tip was right. I would call this a ‘cursed city.'”

One of her companions–Riley restrained a sneer at thinking the word–had his head tilted towards the sky.

She couldn’t actually see his face. His entire body was encased in an armor that was, frankly, medieval. There was nothing to see of his face, the thin slit for his eyes was not wide enough to let any usable amounts of light inside. Faint clouds of mist curled off his armored back in the light breeze.

“We could have found this place on our own,” the woman at his side commented in a sing-song voice. She arched her back in a long stretch, jutting out an indecent chest as she moved. “This sky will be the talk of the nation if it isn’t already. I doubt that even the mundane news will leave it alone.”

Riley frowned. The woman had hardly glanced at the sky. Her sole eye had focused on the town below them and nothing else.

“Shall I cancel the payment?”

“Clement!” She slapped his armored side with her bare hand, not even wincing despite the loud noise it made. “If we don’t pay those who tip us, word gets out and we don’t get more tips. It’s bad for business!”

“I require no payment,” Riley said.

“Not you,” the woman snapped. Her head turned to face a single green eye in Riley’s direction.

Riley was somewhat glad that a simple black eye patch was covering the other side of her face. The sole eye had more than enough ridicule aimed in her direction.

“We only pay the first one to tip us.” Her sing-song voice took on a mocking tone. “Shouldn’t have sat on the information for a year.”

Riley started. That last word had come out harsh and throaty.

“You should leave,” the armored man said. “Gertrude and I can handle this. You’ll only get in the way.”

Narrowing her eye at the man, Riley said, “I’m not about to–”

“Let her stay,” she said, back in her sing-song voice. “She can watch.” Gertrude shoved one hand through her light red hair. Her green eye leveled back at Riley, cold and hard. “Someone has to show them how it’s done.”

Clement’s armor failed to make a single noise as he shifted where he stood. “Plan?”

“Investigate, poke, and prod. Find weaknesses, find domains, poke harder. Disconnect domains. Draw them out. And exterminate every last one of the bastards.” She looked up at the armored helmet with a disgusting smile on her face–it came to a sharp point in the center of her face with the corners drawing up far too high on her cheeks. “The usual.”

“Usually there are far less demons around.”

That already disgusting smile twisted into a too-wide grin.

I know.

Riley shivered as the two went back to staring over the edge of the cliff. The woman’s eye held a dangerous glint that forced her to take a step back. The two were absolutely insane. She had warned them about the devil and the death god.

And these two were excited. At least the woman was.

Taking up the armored man’s offer of leaving wasn’t looking like such a bad idea any longer.

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