Hands clasped behind her back, Eva walked around the completed ritual circle. Arachne followed along at her side, as usual, and Zoe had joined in as well. Catherine flew overhead, snapping pictures of the entire thing. They had a few changes to make that Catherine pointed out as errors. After her final check, the circle would be ready.
Ready. An odd thought. They would summon Void. Void would fix the sky. Maybe send Life back into its natural dormancy. And then who knew what? It was an odd feeling. She had been working on the ritual circle since Vektul had arrived at Brakket. Given that it was now the end of December, that had been several months ago. And she had known about the problem since long before that.
With it all over, maybe she could just go back to attending school like a normal person. She doubted it. Things entirely unrelated to Powers had been interfering with her school life from the start. She had no reason to believe that they would stop anytime soon.
Then there was the hunter. Eva hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her since she had kidnapped Juliana. Of course, they had been careful. Nobody went anywhere alone. Not even Zoe or Wayne, as far as Eva knew. When leaving the school, they almost always left with each other. Though, since both were capable of long-distance teleportation, Zoe was able to safely get to the prison without Wayne on occasion. According to Juliana, Genoa had asked a few of her old colleagues to patrol around the city on the lookout for the hunter as well as any enigmas that managed to slip by Brakket security.
Which, as it turned out, happened at least once already. Another stealthy enigma escaped from one of the remnants of Hell from a deceased enigma. Thankfully, Genoa’s friends had gotten the memo to not kill more of them. Capture and containment using Catherine and Devon’s containment scheme from the prison.
If the mage-knights had found anything about the hunter, nobody had said a word to Eva. She had a feeling that they hadn’t been looking all that hard, given the enigma problem. But Genoa wouldn’t have kept quiet about something like that given her daughter’s kidnapping, so they had to be looking out for something.
Unfortunately, they had their work cut out for them. Even discounting the darkened blotches of Hell-land, enigmas kept popping up. Ever since Juliana had summoned Zagan, there had been periodic ‘enigma-falls’ every few days.
“Lynn thinks that the more enigmas on Earth, the faster Hell will be pulled into the mortal realm. Exponentially, with the darkened spots, but even on their own, they’re acting as some sort of anchor. The demonic ones even more so.”
“So I heard.”
Eva blinked. She hadn’t realized that Zoe had spoken with Lynn. Not that it really mattered to her. It just meant that Zoe had gone out to the prison without Eva. She was perfectly welcome to do so, as Eva had mentioned in the past.
“I’m not sure what Anderson is going to do when there are too many enigmas for wherever he is keeping them, but we could try transferring them back to Hell. In fact, we should try. Otherwise, things could get overwhelming.”
Zoe didn’t say a word. She stayed moving alongside Eva and Arachne. So Eva didn’t say anything in response, choosing to stare at the ground and ensure she didn’t accidentally scuff up the grooves in the earth.
“Where your enigma disappeared, the street still hasn’t gone back to normal.”
Eva nodded. “I tried collapsing it like I did with the domain in my dormitory room. Just like Ylva told me. However, it didn’t work. Not sure what else to do about it except maybe ask Catherine and Ylva if they have any ideas. I doubt it though. Catherine has been busy examining this ritual circle. Ylva… sort of does her own thing these days.”
Nel was concerned. That much was clear. Ylva, not so much. When Eva had spoken to her while figuring out where the other remnants of Hell were located, she had merely commented that Eva had the situation well in hand before walking off. Luckily, Nel had been paying attention to the remnants’ locations.
“Let’s not be completely pessimistic,” Zoe said. “We can kill the nondemonic ones without issue. It helps keep containment troubles down.”
“You never know when one will have consumed a demon that was similar enough in appearance to where you can’t tell the difference.”
Eva, Arachne, and all th e other demons should be able to tell the difference regardless of what they looked like. Even if it was subtle, the demonic enigmas still felt demonic enough. But she remained silent on that subject, offering Zoe nothing more than a slight nod of her head. No sense mentioning it. The enigmas would likely just adapt and hide themselves.
If she had to go out and capture more enigmas, the whistle had proven that it worked well enough that she could probably lead them all the way to the prison. A pied piper of enigmas.
Hopefully it wouldn’t be required. The only reason she had gone after the enigma had been because she didn’t want to leave it running around on its own. Enigmas that could turn invisible, or otherwise hide their presence, would presumably be rare in the grand scheme of things.
And, provided all went well, the ritual would stop them completely. Her attentions were best spent on it.
Now that it was finished, they just needed the go-ahead from Zoe and Catherine. The all-clear regarding possible errors. Eva doubted that they would have time to do a full investigation of the circle and its nuances.
Speaking of which… “Any new input on the ritual circle?”
This time, Zoe let out a long sigh. “Not particularly. I showed the sketches to Wayne, but I think it made his head spin more than anything. Even with my specialization, so much is unrecognizable. Rituals just aren’t used enough these days to give me enough familiarity with it.” She fell silent, staring at the ground for a few moments. “Has Catherine said anything?”
Eva glanced up to where the succubus was flying around overhead. She was taking a lot longer to snap her pictures than she had the first night. She was also using an actual camera rather than her cellphone.
“Not yet,” Eva eventually said, looking back to Zoe. “But she is still correcting errors. If she thought there was a major issue with the circle, I imagine she would stop us before we had even finished the last segment.”
“Maybe,” Zoe said slowly, glancing up as well. “I worry that, as a demon, she is a bit too close to this—or rather, she trusts in her patron Power too much. If there was a problem with it, she might not say right away. Or she might trust her Power to know what it is doing and not look too deeply into oddities.”
“Something I’ve considered,” Eva said slowly. “But we don’t have many other options. We’ve got to do something about…” She trailed off, waving her hand vaguely at the sky. “And I see no reason to distrust the circle itself. If some random demon had come up to me and started blathering on about summoning a Power to Earth, I would have laughed in their face. And then would probably have had to kill them because they would have attacked me for laughing. But Arachne had said that Vektul was coming long before he showed up. Nothing we have done hasn’t aligned with what she said we would be doing.”
Zoe pressed her lips together, glancing at Arachne out of the corner of her eye. “So you’ve said before.”
Eva just shrugged. She trusted Arachne. It didn’t really matter if Zoe didn’t. But their conversation went on pause for the moment as Catherine swooped down at such a speed that angling herself upwards sent her into a back flip. Her wings folded back behind her while she was upside down but she still managed to finish the flip to land on her feet facing Zoe, Eva, and Arachne.
“Give me three days,” she said, hips swaying as she sauntered up to Eva. “Tonight I am running a ritual on myself using a few of the demons from around Brakket. Over the course of the next two days, I will run over every image and ensure that the ritual circle matches the original designs.”
Eva held up a hand. “Hold up, you’re doing a treatment ritual tonight?”
Catherine blinked, slightly tilting her head to one side. “Did I not tell you? I decided to run one ritual with a few random demons. Sorry Eva, you’re not invited to this one just yet. I definitely want to do another with you, but after your next treatment.” She chuckled and waved her hand in front of her face. “Just for a little bit of new blood, you know? Wouldn’t want to stagnate.”
Eva stiffened slightly as the succubus slunk over, wrapping an arm around Eva’s shoulders. Catherine had been in an absolutely insufferable mood immediately following her previous treatment. But between her back flip, her showy movements, and actually touching Eva, she was probably going to be even worse after this one. It would probably still be a good idea to stop by and watch, but Eva might do some Catherine avoiding for the foreseeable future. As much as possible given the ritual project anyway.
“But anyway, provided I don’t find any major issues, everything should be good to go by New Year’s Day.”
New Year’s Day. The day before when Devon wanted to run Eva’s treatment ritual. Would everything be resolved by then? Devon might have to deal with some delays. Something Eva wasn’t too keen on herself. Her latest treatment had already been delayed for so long. All in the name of letting her body stabilize after such rapid and large alterations. Something she felt was entirely unnecessary.
Her body felt fine. She hadn’t collapsed, had anything go wrong, or otherwise keeled over dead. Well, except that one time. But that didn’t count; Ylva had been the one to kill her, after all. As for acclimatizing to her body, there wasn’t much to acclimatize to. She still had the same number of limbs. What were likely horns were still just nubs on her forehead that were mostly hidden by her hair, short as it was. The things on her back that might have been wings were, like her horns, just nubs. And that was assuming that they were even wings and not just her unfamiliarity with her own backside and shoulder blades.
It wasn’t like Devon had run an x-ray on her to see for certain.
Of course, there were probably all kinds of metaphysical issues to worry about. Things she had barely paid attention to. Things that Devon would concern himself with in terms of research. Had she been a bit older—or perhaps simply wiser—when Devon had first proposed the treatments, she might have done her own research to find out exactly what she was getting herself into. Now that ship had sailed. It was a bit too late to concern herself with that. Her body wasn’t human and, based on her test with Ylva, neither was her soul.
But he had delayed her treatment for a few months now. Even if summoning a Power to Earth disrupted their plans for a while, it would surely be fine. Devon wasn’t the kind of person to wait until the last available moment. At least not with regards to her treatment.
He might be a little upset that she had gone ahead with the ritual circle. Based on their short conversation the other day, he didn’t sound all that enthused with it. But Eva had a plan for that. If Devon decided that Eva was simply too much trouble or too dangerous to work with, she could probably convince Catherine to finish her treatments. Catherine might insist that she wasn’t friends with Eva, but there had to be some mutual respect.
Shrugging Catherine’s arm off from her shoulders, Eva took a few quick steps away. “Alright,” Eva said. “I’ll make sure we have the requisite humans and demons before then.”
“Make sure they are pure humans and pure demons. No nuns and no humans with bound demons. I don’t think it should matter, but let’s not push our luck.”
“Had already been planning on it.” Vektul had said that they needed humans and demons. Not partials either way.
Though, now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Vektul in a while. He was still around. At least, she was mostly certain that she had seen him wandering the hallways at school, sitting in his room—using Eva’s blood sight—or eating meals at lunch. But he hadn’t really been there.
“If you send me a copy of the pictures you just took,” Zoe said, “I’ll get started comparing them to the plans. Although, I’ve been considering telling Genoa about the ritual. She might actually have more insight than Wayne. Mage-knights frequently travel around ancient sites where rituals have taken place…” She trailed off with a slight shrug, glancing at Eva.
Eva sighed. Figures that the moment she told one person about it, everybody would end up knowing. She waved a hand. “Maybe try to leave Carlos out of the initial discussion? Genoa is fairly easygoing. Carlos hates me.”
— — —
Everyone always said that hard work paid off. Juliana wasn’t so certain she agreed. Hard work hardly meant anything to her since she had been kidnapped. Currently, she could look at an unfinished piece of homework and finish it with a thought. She could go even more mundane if she wanted. Shoelaces instantly tied themselves at her command. Or rather, they didn’t tie themselves. They simply were tied. As if they had been tied all along.
Some people might argue that studying to summon demons in the first place or her experiences in Hell and with kidnappers had been hard work enough. She wasn’t so sure that she agreed with those imaginary people she had conjured up within her own mind to act as a foil. Bad experiences didn’t mean that she had actually put work into something. They just meant that she had bad luck. Or had brought things down upon herself, which was probably a whole lot more true than a simple failure in luck.
Especially when Zagan’s ability was so strong. Juliana wasn’t sure what levels of hard work should be rewarded with such an ability, but it certainly wasn’t something she should have been able to achieve in her sixteen years of existence. She could almost understand how Zagan could act as he did—barely caring about anything and constantly seeking something to amuse himself.
She had tried to make the purple streaks in the sky go away. Glancing out her window, it obviously hadn’t worked. Some things trumped his power. The Powers, apparently. But smaller things?
Juliana was almost certain that she could kill the hunter without ever seeing her or even knowing her name. Just a thought in the back of her head combined with a little will and she might find herself stuck in the center of the sun. After all, she was currently not in the center of the sun and the opposite of not being in the sun was being in it.
The biggest hangup was that she wasn’t sure if she should. Morally. The mage-knights wandering around would likely prioritize killing the hunter over capturing her. At this point, she had done enough to warrant such a reaction. Attacking schools really was not a good way to get people to like her.
But just wishing her dead and having it happen? That seemed wrong. Besides, Zagan would probably like her to fight rather than simply wish her problems way. And if she failed to amuse him, he had already said that he would tear his way out of her chest.
So far, Juliana had not tried to use it on a person. Except the vampire. And she wasn’t sure that her using it on the vampire had actually worked. Nothing had happened. He hadn’t stormed up to Eva and demanded to know what she had done to him. But that could simply be because nothing had gone against his desires so far. So long as he had no reason to try to tell people about the ritual circle, he shouldn’t encounter any mental blocks keeping him from talking. And that was assuming that he didn’t just drop dead or something worse if he tried to tell people. Doing something like that was brand new to Juliana. It was one of the main reasons she hadn’t tried to use it on other people.
That and she hadn’t had Zagan’s help in trying to stop the vampire from talking. Since the night she had been kidnapped, he hadn’t said a word. He was still there. She could still use his magic. He just wasn’t talking. Juliana imagined him sitting on a couch in the back of her mind, watching like her eyes were televisions with a bucket of popcorn in his hands.
Which only served to make Juliana nervous. He wanted entertainment but all she was doing was sitting around, trying to avoid giving her parents reasons to lock her up in the basement for her own safety. Maybe he found amusement in that. Surely it wouldn’t last.
Really, she just wished that something interesting would happen. Something to ensure just a little excitement, even if it were only temporary.
A knock at the front door broke Juliana out of her reverie. Not many people stopped by their home. It was located out in the boondocks of Brakket City. Eva and everyone else she knew would have sent a message if she had been coming over.
But both of her parents were home. If she hadn’t gotten a message, it wouldn’t be for her. That wasn’t to say that she wasn’t curious. She stood, opened the door to her room, and leaned against the frame.
By the sound of the heavier footsteps, Juliana’s mother had been the one to get up and open the door.
“Zoe,” Genoa said as the door creaked open. “You took long–”
Her mother’s voice clipped short as a tremor ran through their house. Paint on the walls cracked. Small flakes wafted down to the floor. The door to Juliana’s room just about knocked her upside the head as it swung shut. Only a quick jump into the hall kept her from being crushed.
She didn’t stop with her jump. She kept going, half sprinting down the stairs. That shake wasn’t an earthquake. Something had slammed into the house. Her mother was in trouble.
Sliding down the stairs, she skidded to a stop just in front of the main entryway.
Her mother was lying on her back, looking like she had half of the door embedded in her chest. Juliana only stared for a second before she blinked. Between her eyes closing and reopening, the door was back in its proper place. Her mother was still on her back, but it was like she had never been injured otherwise.
It hadn’t even been a conscious decision on Juliana’s part. She might have thought that Zagan had done it had she not known how altruistic he was. Which was to say, not altruistic in the slightest.
Juliana just about ran up to her mother to ensure that she was alright.
A growl from just inside the doorway stopped her cold.
She only got a second to stare at the humanoid form before its skin fell to the ground in long strips. Its muscles fell from its bones before the entire thing collapsed into a puddle of violet blood. Organs no longer attached to each other, it fell forwards into a disorganized pile of bones.
A queasy feeling rose up in Juliana’s stomach as she stared at what had once been a living creature. The spots in her vision grew until she collapsed into her mother’s arms.