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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