Tag Archives: Genoa

010.030

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Catherine sat back on the couch in the women’s ward. With her cellphone in hand, she started jotting down notes. Important observations about the previous twenty-four hours that she felt vital enough to jot down. She had nearly perfect memory. The notes were just in case she did manage to forget something. As unlikely as that was.

What she really needed to do was to print them out and send them to her domain. The cellphone was an amazing tool that the humans had come up with, but it was no replacement for heavy tomes and thick manuscripts. If she did wind up perishing, she doubted that she would be able to recover her notes. Even if she were foolish enough to upload her works to the mystical ‘cloud’ that their computers operated from—foolish as who knew who might read her notes—that would only last for a few decades at most.

By the time she got resummoned, the company would have either gone out of business or deleted her data under the assumption that she was no longer using the service. Not to mention all the moving parts involved in keeping the data intact. Who knew when a power failure would wind up with all the backups erased.

No. Phones were poor replacements to tomes. Yet they were excellent tome creation utilities. Write a tome within a decade or so, print it all out, and enchant it with some longevity. It shaved off all the tedium of writing by hand. Not to mention the handy organizational aspects of technology. If she wanted one paragraph in front of another, it was a simple cut and paste. Physical manuscripts had to have several pages rewritten entirely or absurd annotations detailing where to find a relevant paragraph.

Unfortunately for Catherine, she didn’t get too many notes out before her phone rang.

Juliana.

Catherine stared at the name, trying to remember if the girl had ever called her before. She couldn’t come up with a single time. In fact, she couldn’t actually remember entering the girl’s number into her phone. Nearly perfect memory was only nearly perfect, after all.

With a sigh and a feeling that she would regret it later on, Catherine answered the phone.

“Help me!”

Yep. It’s later on and I am definitely regretting answering. For a moment, she considered hanging up. But, with another sigh, she said, “Maybe explain what you need help with?”

“There is this giant obelisk in the middle of the city. Zagan thinks it’s dangerous… or maybe he doesn’t; he won’t tell me straight, he’s just being annoying. It’s something to do with Hell probably though and I can’t get a hold of Eva or any other demon besides maybe Ylva, I haven’t tried her. My mother doesn’t know much about demon things. So please tell me that this isn’t something terrible that’s also going to destroy the world!”

Catherine blinked, staring at the phone as she held it a few inches away from her ear. Despite the distance, she heard every word that the girl said in her diatribe of near nonsense. Once certain that she was finished, Catherine brought the phone a little closer. “It’s always one thing after another with you people isn’t it? The moment I sit down to relax, the world is in danger again.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t do anything though. I just found it. If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”

She considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems went away if they were ignored long enough. Unfortunately, if the world really was in danger again, she needed it mostly intact. The Power summoning ritual wouldn’t function from Hell. She had to do it on Earth. Or some other plane of existence, but Catherine had never been to one. Expending additional time researching safe locations within other Powers’ domains was an extra task that was completely unnecessary while the world was safe.

So, heaving a great sigh that she ensured was audible over the phone, Catherine said, “First, calm down. I don’t know what Zagan said but Irene is cute when she is flustered. You’re not.” She ignored the indignant huff on the other end of the line. “Then calm down more and tell me, in clear and concise words, exactly what is happening.”

“I’m at the spot where Eva killed the demonic enigma. An obelisk is jutting out of the remnant.”

Catherine waited. Juliana didn’t continue. “That’s it? That hardly seems like an emergency. Let alone an emergency worth contacting me about.”

“You weren’t my first choice, but Eva wasn’t answering her phone.”

“She isn’t on Earth. In any case, some obelisk–”

“Wait!” Again, Catherine had to pull the phone away from her ear. “What happened to Eva?”

“She disappeared.”

There was another brief moment of silence before Juliana’s voice crackled over the speaker. “What? Just like that? What happened? Did she die or what?”

“Well, she never reappeared. I don’t know if she died or not, but she hasn’t come back. I would know unless something happened to her demonic side—which is most of her these days.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

I am going to sit here and enjoy my respite from her ritual circles. Do you realize how busy I’ve been with all that nonsense ever since she showed me the circle?”

“We’re just going to leave her? Where is she? What if she needs help?”

“She got back from Hell once in less than an hour. That’s faster than Zagan managed.”

Once again, Catherine held the phone away from her ear as the increasingly irritating young girl kept sputtering nonsense about needing to rescue Eva. As if such a thing was necessary. Had someone even summoned her after she had died? Catherine didn’t know a single demon who could manage to return so quickly. Possibly Zagan or other members of the seventy-two. Yet he hadn’t after he had died at the hands of the other hunter. That made Catherine lean towards the idea that he could not.

No. In Catherine’s mind, if Eva wasn’t on Earth, it was because she didn’t want to be on Earth.

And if she didn’t want to be on Earth, Catherine wasn’t going to risk her ire by trying to drag her here. Catherine didn’t know what Eva was capable of while angry, but she had a fairly good idea from her fights with the hunter. Even after her most recent treatment, she doubted that her paltry tricks would have much of an effect on Eva.

“Juliana,” Catherine said, stopping the flood of words from the phone. “I told you before that you are not cute when you’re flustered. If you have nothing to say that doesn’t involve Eva, I have other things to be doing.”

“Wait! What about the obelisk?”

“I was hoping that you would forget about it,” Catherine murmured. She swung her legs off the couch, standing in the same smooth motion. Might as well get whatever was going on over with.

“How could I forget? I’m standing right in front of it!”

“Yes, yes. Just tell me where you are.”

Catherine stared up at the obelisk with a frown on her face. “It’s definitely something from Hell,” she said, walking around it. Each of its four sides were only a few feet wide. It hardly would have been worth noting were it not for the height. “Perhaps a construct from some demon’s domain.”

“How do we get rid of it?” Genoa asked with crossed arms. She stood just to the side of her daughter, half protective, half trying to look like she wasn’t looking protective.

It would have made Catherine laugh under other circumstances. For now, she just felt a little depressed. A chunk of some domain was sitting on Earth. Similar to how a demon could connect a portion of the world to their domain, except without the permission of a mortal and, most likely, without a demon being involved at all.

Having her domain connected to the world would be a great boon. She would be able to organize all of her notes without the possibility of a transference circle losing them somewhere in Hell. Unfortunately, she doubted many people would be willing to give her permission. Maybe tricking someone into it would work, but not around here. Ylva disconnected her domain from the mortal plane willingly because of the theory that it would accelerate Life’s plans. Even though the plan had been foiled by all appearances, she didn’t want to risk coming under attack because of a linked domain.

Besides that, Brakket Academy had way too many demon hunters running around. Even if they were all dead for the moment, it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long. More idiots would rush in and fill their spots. It was high time she sought out greener pastures, to use a human phrase.

“Catherine?”

Catherine shook her head. “Sorry. Just have had a lot on my mind since everything ended.”

“Everything has not ended,” Genoa said, tapping an impatient foot. “This obelisk gives me a bad feeling. After it’s gone, maybe I’ll consider things done. Until then…” She trailed off, glancing up at the four-sided pyramid capping the pillar. It wasn’t really visible, as she was standing near the base and the sides leaned in, but stared anyway, perhaps just wanting to look up.

“I doubt this is anything to be overly concerned about.” There weren’t any markings around it like it might be some magical construct. Nothing really decorative either. Just an obsidian pillar, gleaming slightly in the moonlight. “However, other demonic enigmas died, leaving behind remnants of Hell. If they also have obelisks, I’ll be mildly concerned.”

The mother and the daughter glanced between each other for just a moment before Genoa looked back to Catherine. “I’ll be right back.” With that said, she blinked away, leaving behind Juliana.

Precisely the situation Catherine didn’t want.

Catherine started walking around the obelisk again, moving to the opposite side from where Juliana had been standing. Had been. The moment Catherine started to move, so did Juliana. Juliana moved ever so slightly faster as well.

The girl caught up and opened her mouth.

“If this is about Eva,” Catherine said before Juliana could say anything, “I don’t want to hear it. Demons aren’t allowed to help other demons reach the mortal realm, remember? Anything I say may constitute help and then I’ll end up at the mercies of the dolls.” She tilted her head up with a slight shake. “No thank you.”

That was a complete lie. Mostly. Catherine was almost certain that whatever she said, it wouldn’t matter. She could tell everyone exactly how to summon demons and no dolls would come after her. So long as she didn’t directly participate in the summoning or circle construction, she should be safe. Not only did she want to avoid testing that theory, but it served as an adequate excuse for avoiding a discussion that she had no interest in participating in.

Sure enough, Juliana’s mouth shut with a light clack of her teeth.

Catherine kept the smirk off her face as she pretended to observe the obelisk. It was somewhat of an odd structure to have leaked through. Mostly because it hadn’t been there before. If anything was going to appear over the remnants, she would have expected it to appear shortly after the remnants formed.

More than that, the base of the obelisk almost perfectly occupied the ovular section of Hell on the ground. Any random construction in a domain would likely have appeared incomplete. A section of a wall. Maybe even a floating chunk of a building that was connected to the rest of the structure beyond the borders of the remnant.

In fact, the more Catherine stared at it, the more she decided that it couldn’t just be some random section of a domain. A sinking feeling built up in her chest. Something was definitely off about the obelisk. No markings. No inscriptions. From the base, the tip was just a little too hard to see with how it leaned inwards.

Spreading her wings behind her, Catherine took off without a glance at Juliana.

She circled around. No part of her crossed the threshold of the remnant. She had ensured that on the ground and it remained true for up in the air. Crossing over into another demon’s domain was dangerous enough under normal circumstances. Especially unknown demons. Not only had this been created from an enigma, but the entire thing shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Catherine had no intention of being sucked into nonexistence should the remnant suddenly cease to exist. Which, frankly, wasn’t that far-fetched of an outcome. Normal domains had their links to Earth broken when the demon died. Since it had been created from a demonic enigma and that demonic enigma had, by all evidence, perished, Catherine didn’t believe for a moment that the area was as stable as it looked.

With Life’s corruption and subsequent sealing of its portals, she couldn’t say what was keeping the remnant around. Unless, of course, it was some odd interaction because of the enigmas’ inability to perish. Which might be what had caused the remnant in the first place.

Ensuring Lynn finished her research into killing enigmas might be a higher priority than it had been not so long ago.

Like the rest of the obelisk, the top wasn’t inscribed or detailed in any way. Facets that faced the moon gleamed a brilliant white while their opposites were as dark as the night. She didn’t touch them, but figured that they would feel smoother than a pane of glass. The very tip stood a good ten feet above the base of the pyramid, which, itself, was on top of the rest of the obelisk. It was more of a spire than an actual capstone.

But, Catherine breathed out a sigh of relief. There wasn’t any kind of activity at the top. No laser beams, no buildup of magic about to destroy the world. It was as inert as the rest of the structure. Probably just some demon’s poor idea of aesthetic architecture.

Feeling much calmer, Catherine dipped down and landed on the ground just a short distance from Juliana and the girl’s mother, who had apparently returned during the flight.

“Well?”

“I only checked one other. The one just outside the city, not far from our home. There is something there, but not like this. It might have been an obelisk–”

The relief vanished from Catherine faster than it had come, leaving her with a vacant empty feeling. “Another obelisk? Same type, same size? Give me more details.”

“Identical, as far as I could tell, but destroyed. I didn’t exactly sit around and measure it, I doubt I could tell the two apart. However,” Genoa paused, holding her hand up above her head. “From about here on up, it was rubble. Bright red lava leaked down the side, spreading out across the ground.”

Frowning, Catherine pulled out her cellphone. One of the applications was a map. On that map, she had already pinned the location of each known remnant. One from Eva, three from Ylva, and another two from Brakket security guards, and the one from Genoa. Staring at their location, she couldn’t see any sort of pattern to their placements. The five didn’t form the points of a pentagram or a star, neither were they arranged in anything resembling a circle or a straight line. They were simply random dots on the map as far as she could tell.

Wondering when the obelisk had appeared, she started towards the pizza place—they would have noticed it popping up—only to find a sign out front stating that the building had closed. Permanently. Apparently its owner didn’t feel comfortable in a city filled with earthquakes and raining enigma.

Which sent another, far more worrying thought through Catherine’s mind.

The earthquakes had really only started up after Juliana summoned Zagan. Catherine doubted that Zagan really had anything to do with the quakes; his summoning had merely been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the mortal saying went. Some of those earthquakes hadn’t been accompanied by falling enigmas.

Unless they had and nobody noticed. The affected area beneath the purple shimmers in the sky had extended well beyond Brakket City’s borders. If things had fallen out there and never wandered close to the city, they could still be out there. Or they could have died. That enigma they had captured had tentacles that were eating the creature itself. Who was to say that another enigma’s tentacles hadn’t taken a big bite out of their jugular vein.

And some of them could have easily perished in the fall itself. Some demons, and demonic enigmas by extension, had wings. Those that didn’t could easily not have the hardiness required to survive a fall from such a height. One could have hit the ground at a velocity most terminal, been sucked into a Hell portal, and left behind a remnant that an obelisk now occupied.

It was a silver lining that Genoa’s obelisk had been destroyed. Perhaps it had been some other plan of Life’s to bring more of Hell over. Perhaps something else entirely. With one destroyed, any sort of magical array wouldn’t function properly.

Still, they couldn’t leave it alone.

They needed to do a complete sweep of every inch of the affected area and probably several miles around as well. Unfortunately, they couldn’t even count on being able to spot obelisks cropping up as easy ways to spot the remnants. The obelisk had popped up sometime within the last twenty-four hours. Likely during the ritual after the guards were called away to deal with the situation closer to Brakket Academy. If the obelisks appeared based on time, another remnant could easily remain nothing but a dark blight on the land, easily missable during a quick flyover, only to turn to an obelisk later on when nobody was looking.

“Gather up your mage-knights,” Catherine said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

And a lot of work that would further delay her own research.

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010.028

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The sky burst into flames.

Catherine couldn’t help herself. Despite the mild danger of being stuck in an almost hypnotic trance should she stare at the massive eye overhead, she looked up.

Burning meteors raced towards the eye from the edges of the shimmering portals. One impacted one of the molten teardrops. Rather than be forced down towards Earth, it continued straight towards the eye, neither stopped or slowed. Everywhere one of the meteors hit, the eye caved inwards. Like a giant bed sheet with bowling balls dropping on top of it.

Plumes of flames burst forth from the impacts.

Less than a minute after Eva disappeared and it already looked as if the world truly was ending.

Though, Catherine didn’t find herself all that concerned. This had been the plan. Probably. Had it occurred when she wasn’t expecting something to happen, Catherine might have worried a little. But Eva said that something would happen and something had happened.

So she turned on her heel. Srey stood there, still staring at the spot where Eva and the avatar had vanished. Unlike Eva, Catherine had a feeling that she knew what had shaken the other demon so.

It was all she could do to pretend nothing had changed.

During Eva’s initial ritual to corrupt the Avatar of Life with the Avatar of Void, she had gone been between the two avatars. And that had not left her unscathed.

Unscathed was probably the wrong word to use. It implied that something bad had happened to Eva. By all appearances, Eva hadn’t been distressed in the slightest. No. She had changed. In a few short minutes, she had gone from feeling like a miniature Zagan to eclipsing him so completely and thoroughly that Catherine had thought she had witnessed the birth of a new Power. For a moment. Further thought revealed the truth.

Obviously Eva hadn’t become a new power. She had only absorbed a sliver of a sliver of a Power. Just because Catherine had trouble distinguishing the feeling between Eva and the Avatar of Void before it had vanished did not mean that Eva had become such a thing.

Of course not.

How silly.

And yet, Catherine couldn’t help but wish that she had been the one to propose that plan. If she had just been the one to suggest that she stand between them while Eva performed a standard treatment from outside the circle… Catherine shivered just thinking about it.

The ritual circle was well and truly ruined. The hunter hadn’t cared about destroying it in the slightest. Neither had Eva or anyone else for that matter. It would be completely unusable should anyone try. Worse than merely fail, it would probably explode. Violently at that. Catherine did not want to be on this continent when that happened.

But it was unlikely that anyone would be able to gather up six humans and six demons and try to start it anytime soon. Zoe had mentioned wanting to destroy it and all records of how to construct it once they had finished.

Not a bad plan. It would certainly keep those humans who liked to meddle in things they shouldn’t from setting off another apocalypse.

Catherine had a feeling that she wouldn’t be deleting her copy from her phone. It was far too valuable. Perhaps not this century, perhaps not even the next, but one day, Catherine would redo this ritual. Not the whole thing. She had no desire to summon up Life. Just the Avatar of Void.

Of course, the ritual would need to undergo some changes. When the avatar had first formed fully, it had gone around to sniff at each and every participant in the ritual. Never before had Catherine felt such a sensation of impending doom.

Yet nothing had happened.

Unless she made some changes, she had a feeling that such would not be the case in any future rituals of the same type. What she needed was an inert avatar, much like it had become after the ritual had been interrupted. Perhaps after running one or two such rituals of that type, she would feel hearty enough to try with an avatar that was not inert.

Catherine shuddered again. Maybe after one or two hundred inert avatar treatment rituals.

Yes. That was a good plan. The century or two she planned to wait just to ensure that everyone save for Eva and the other demons were dead might actually be mandatory given how many modifications she would need to make. Everything in the ritual circle to do with Life could be safely stripped out. Then she needed either a way to turn the avatar inert without it being a fluke or a modification to summon only inert essence.

Much much to do. But she had time. All the time in the world, in fact.

For the moment, she had another ritual circle to go inspect.

Catherine just about teleported herself when she hesitated. “Srey,” she said, glancing to the stunned demon, “remain here. Ensure no one attempts to interfere with this ritual circle unless they mean to demolish it.” When he didn’t immediately respond, she drew on her magic forcing him to look at her. Such a simple thing would have been impossible on another demon not so long ago. What would she be capable of in a few centuries?

“Yes,” he said immediately. “Sorry. I just… with that thing staring at me.” He tremor ran through his whole body before he shook his head. “And was that demon really the same demon we’ve been helping for the past several months?”

“Don’t get any smart ideas,” Catherine said with a curl of her lips. “The day is not yet over, be vigilant. If there are any surprises, come find help.” She glanced over towards the edge of the circle. “And keep an eye on that nun. If she’s still alive. I don’t know if Eva wants her alive for some reason, so I recommend not killing her without due cause.”

“Of course.”

Catherine couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle as she teleported back to the main Brakket Academy building.

Now to find Devon.

— — —

Go take a rest, Eva had said. Take a rest indeed.

How was she supposed to rest when the town was under siege? Every one of those meteors—accompanied by the occasional lightning bolt—spawned another dozen of the enigmas. None of them had hit the ritual circle, so no one there really knew.

Though Genoa had to admit, she had been in far less restful battles. In fact, this might as well be a vacation for her. Juliana was doing a good portion of the work.

Watching her daughter walk down one of the streets of Brakket City while enigmas of varying size, shape, and material—not all of them were fleshy, they had passed one almost entirely made of stone not long ago—turned inside out around her was somewhat disconcerting. Juliana didn’t even have to move a hand. She just looked at them. Boom, inside out enigma.

Disturbing hardly seemed a big enough word. Genoa couldn’t even begin to categorize the feelings running through her as she watched Juliana turn around with a mournful smile.

“So that’s how it is,” Juliana said, a note of finality in her voice. Like she was absolutely certain that she was about to be disowned or something equally ridiculous. She turned away from the most recently inverted enigma with a shudder, looking rather sick.

Genoa couldn’t really blame her. She had never been able to handle such things. It was a wonder she hadn’t fainted outright.

“I can see why you said that you would be fine on your own,” Genoa said as she wrinkled her nose at the last in a long line of twisted monsters. Juliana had insisted that they would do more work saving the town if they split up. Obviously she had been correct. Nothing had sneaked up on Juliana. The one thing that tried ended up just as inverted as everything else. “Can’t you just do that to the entire city at once?”

“Probably. Zagan’s power is finicky though. I don’t want to accidentally kill everyone by messing up.”

“That’s a possibility?”

“Well, yes. Kind of. Zagan listed off a few limitations when he first was showing me how to use his power. One of which was that I cannot directly kill someone. However, turning these enigmas inside out doesn’t directly kill them. They die because they’re inside out.” She paused and scowled at herself. “Or maybe it is directly killing them, but it works on them anyway since enigmas don’t die like normal things. I’ve never actually tried it on a non-enigma.”

“Good. Don’t.”

“Of course not. But that’s a perfect example of how it could be finicky.”

“But if–” Genoa cut herself off as a few rhythmic beeps came from her pocket. Her cellphone. And the default ring tone as well, meaning it wasn’t Zoe, Eva, or anyone else she had programmed in. “Hello?”

“Is this Genoa?” came the rough yet familiar voice.

“Devon?”

“Why does everyone know who I am?”

“We’ve met. I lived at the prison for a few months just a year ago. How could–” Genoa shook her head. “Never mind. Did you need something?”

“You come… highly recommended in the ritual construction industry,” he said, somehow managing to sound extraordinarily sarcastic without changing his gruff tone in the slightest. “I need you back at the Brakket Academy building.”

“I can’t–”

For the second time in half as many minutes, Genoa cut herself off. This time, it wasn’t because of some minor distraction in her pocket. Nor was it because a horde of enigmas had descended on her and Juliana—her daughter took care of everything that came near without any intervention needed on Genoa’s part—but it was because of the sky.

All the clocks said that it should be night-time. Given how early night came in the winter, it should really be pitch black out. Yet there was this ever-present light around everything. Not strong enough to cast any hard shadows around, yet bright enough that no one needed to worry about seeing. Eerie, but not too unusual given that eye overhead, the light it put off, and how bright the edges of the portal were.

If she had thought it was bright before, it was nothing compared to now. The edges of the portal hurt to look at. They turned a brilliant golden-yellow, though the interior remained much the same. Like a perfect solar eclipse. Though that only lasted for a few moments.

Great meteors, completely unlike those that had been falling as teardrops, streaked across the sky, crashing into the eyeball hard enough that Genoa could actually hear it as distant thunder.

“What is that?” she snapped simultaneously to her daughter and to the man over the phone. One had been keeping secrets from her for a long while and might have a clue. The other called just in time to be too convenient.

“Eva’s signal, I presume,” Devon said with a slight grunt, answering before Genoa’s daughter could even open her mouth. His tone hadn’t changed in the slightest. Or, if it had, it sounded bored. “Which means I need you here now. I don’t know if this is a temporary window of opportunity or not.”

Genoa glanced down at her daughter. They were in the very center of the city. Not the farthest possible distance, but Brakket had been built on one edge of the city. A fifteen minute walk, at least. She could blink with her daughter, but that would still take more time than blinking without her.

Her eyes drifted over one of the inverted carcasses and she found herself putting on the same mournful smile that her daughter had on just a few minutes ago.

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Good enough,” Devon said just before the line went dead.

Looking back to her daughter, Genoa put on a confident smile that she didn’t quite feel. “That was a signal from Eva,” she said, pointing a finger overhead.

“I don’t know anything about that. Giant fireballs in the sky were never–”

“No time to talk. I’m heading back to the academy. Can I trust you to stay safe out here?”

“Of course. I told you, I’ll be fine on my own.”

Genoa closed her eyes for just a moment. Juliana was so young and already trying to be independent. Independent with all that demonic magic, at that. When Erich had cut ties with the family, it had been… expected, frankly. The second he graduated, he disappeared. Even before then, he had been distant. Largely Genoa’s fault.

But this wasn’t the same. Juliana wasn’t cutting ties. Independence and abandonment were two entirely separate things.

Genoa would still watch over her. At least until she graduated.

If only to ensure she did not use the demon’s power in the wrong manner.

“Good,” Genoa said, blinking away in an instant before Juliana could respond.

Two minutes, as it turned out, had been an overstatement in the extreme. Genoa finished blinking into the academy’s lobby a mere thirty seconds after she left.

— — —

Devon stared at the ground. The lightshow growing more and more intense over his head did nothing to distract him.

His design had gone from an inconceivable null in his mind before realizing what had happened to plans in his head to a full sketch in less than six hours. In all his life, he couldn’t recall having made a ritual circle in such a short amount of time. From design to construction, his rituals normally took several weeks at minimum while he went over all possible variables.

To say he was mildly nervous about this current construct would be putting it lightly. Not that he would allow a hint of his feelings to show on his face. Even having it looked over by Catherine in the few minutes it took for the earth mage to arrive did little to assuage his concerns.

He merely watched the earth mage work with a critical eye, pointing out every inconsistency no matter how small. From the depth of one line in comparison to another, the shape of a circle that wasn’t quite circular, an ellipse that was too circular, Devon corrected everything. Everything had to be perfect. Every last little thing, every single tiny microscopic little thing had to go according to his plan.

The earth mage grew more and more impatient with every passing correction. For the life of him, Devon couldn’t figure out why. Did she want the Earth to implode thanks to a crooked line?

Devon gave a sad shake of his head as the woman stepped away from the stone platform.

“Adequate,” he said.

“Adequate,” Genoa repeated in a flat tone of voice. “You rush me over here, making me leave my daughter in the middle of a city infested with those enigma things, and you spend ten minutes micromanaging my casting for adequacy.”

“Yes.” Was that truly hard to understand?

Before the woman could shout at him, which she had obviously been about to do, Catherine cleared her throat. “It’s finished. What now?”

“You remain here,” Devon said. “The ritual is simple enough to activate with an influx of magic. I assume you are capable. I’ll send your phone a message when it is time to activate it.” He paused, turning back to the earth mage. “Despite your performance, we have two more to complete.”

“Two more? Two more with you sitting around pointing out minor scratches in the stone?” She gave a most unladylike groan. “Even Eva’s massive ritual circle didn’t have this many minute details that needed correction.”

“Yes,” he said with a deeper than normal scowl, turning towards Catherine at the mention of Eva’s ritual. “And we can see how well that turned out.” He paused for a moment to point a finger at the raging inferno above the planet. “Can’t we?”

Nobody answered, giving Devon cause to smirk. Foolish Eva. And foolish Catherine. In fact, near everyone was a complete and utter fool, but especially those who had been involved in that ritual project.

“Stay here,” Devon repeated to Catherine. He leaned down and dropped a tiny portion of green flames right in the very center of the ritual. A marker for later. “And you,” he said to Genoa, “come with me. I assume you can blink.”

He knew she could. He had seen her appear in the lobby. So, without waiting for her to confirm her abilities, he stepped away. Slowly at first, to ensure that she knew where he was headed. Once they got going in a straight line, he started stepping as easily as walking. She managed to keep up, surprisingly enough.

The second point for the ritual was roughly half the distance between Brakket City and the prison. The center of the distortion overhead should be in the middle between this unconstructed circle and the one in front of Brakket Academy. Flaring a small bit of green flame in his hand, he followed the top of the flame as it leaned one way or the other until his movements brought him to a point where the tip was straight upwards.

“Here,” he said. “The ritual needs to be rotated exactly sixty degrees.” With a wave of his hand, the green flame lashed out in a thin line. “The central layline should align with this flame.”

With that, he stepped back. The woman scowled for a moment, but eventually got to work.

As it turned out, she was faster than last time. She made about as many errors, but fixed them with less complaining. Leaving the same marker of fire in the center of the ritual circle, Devon started blinking off towards the third spot.

While Genoa got to work, he double-checked his calculations. It was one of the things he actually enjoyed about modern technology. The whole reason he had even purchased a cellphone after watching Eva and her friends use them. They were amazing calculation aids for rituals. Catherine had taken it to an art form with how she drew out the rituals on the phones themselves. Devon still stuck with paper for the most part. His fingers weren’t quite so dexterous as the succubus’.

Catherine’s hands made it look much easier than it actually was when he had tried it.

But for now, he merely checked the trigonometry he had already mentally calculated. Perfect. Of course it was. The angles should all be correct. Some of the positioning was guesswork. He didn’t have an exact location for the boundaries of the tear, but he had included a little leeway in his ritual design.

The second Genoa finished the ritual to his standards, Devon turned away. “Stay here. We will be coordinating with Catherine to start all three circles at the same time.” He stepped away, only to return one step later. “You do know how to initiate a ritual circle, do you not?”

“Of course I do,” the increasingly irritable woman snapped at him. She started to say something else, but Devon didn’t really care how much she was annoyed with his attitude, so he stepped away again.

The moment he returned to the second ritual circle, he whipped out his phone and sent off a few short messages. One to each of his helpers. A mere note asking for confirmation of their readiness. In less than ten seconds, he had received a response from each. So he sent out one more message.

Giving them only two seconds to read it, he knelt down and activated his ritual with a burst of magic.

Three beams of violet light crashed into each other in the middle of the air. Two of which came from far enough away that he couldn’t see their sources. Where they met, a three-sided pyramid formed. One made of pure magic. It twisted in the air, aiming a single point downwards, touching each of the three beams with just the tip, and three points outwards.

From each of the three points, a much thicker beam fired off, crashing into the sky. Or rather, the edge of the portal.

The first rotation carried all three beams in a full circle. It took nearly ten minutes.

The second rotation only took a little over nine minutes and forty seconds.

The third rotation went shorter than that.

The pyramid spun around. Each pass went faster and faster. As it completed passes, the portal overhead shrank. It was barely noticeable after the first few, but by the time ten rotations had been completed, it was impossible to not notice.

Trails of smoke accumulated in the air where the portal made contact with the regular sky. It was… probably harmless. Devon wouldn’t want to breathe it, but he didn’t see why anyone else would be worried.

Devon watched as the pyramid spun faster and faster. Until he couldn’t even tell the difference between the three separate beams. They left such a trail of light behind that it looked like a single cone. Eventually, that cone narrowed down to a thin beam of light.

A pulse of magic formed into a ring that exploded across the sky. Clouds, both natural and the smoke left behind from the tear, rippled as it sliced through them.

But that only lasted a moment.

The pyramid between the three ritual circles underwent a rapid unplanned deconstruction, filling the air with motes of violet colored magic. All of which dissipated into nothingness. Plants bent as an invisible shockwave crashed over them. Devon threw himself to the ground as the air cracked over the top of his body.

He remained still for a minute, ensuring that there wouldn’t be any follow-up blasts. None came. With everything settled down, he got back to his feet and looked around. The sky was whole and unbroken once again, clear of any violet shimmering or massive eyeballs. Though it wasn’t exactly clear. A dark cloud of smoke hung overhead.

Devon gave a faint nod of approval to no one in particular. A job well done if he said so himself. He turned away, stepping rapidly back towards the prison. He had some wards of his own to set up. Defenses—for that ritual wouldn’t have eliminated the enigmas still present on Earth—and possibly something to purify the local air.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.022

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Eva’s eyes snapped open to find the stone surface of the ritual circle, still glowing in a vibrant violet light. She wasn’t sure when she had closed her eyes. A deep rumbling in the ground beneath her feet had pulled her out of her torpor.

Seeing the ritual circle sent a jolt through Eva’s body. She couldn’t believe that she had fallen asleep.

Straining the muscles in her neck, she barely managed to look straight forwards. And her head ached every moment of the way. She only just got to see Catherine, Lucy, and Shelby standing on their spots before she couldn’t take it any more and let her head hang back down against her chest.

Not too much time could have passed. All three were standing. Mostly. Lucy’s lower half wasn’t a cohesive set of legs at the moment. More of a mountain made from tentacles that her upper body had perched upon. Catherine might not be the best metric for time passing either, being a demon. Eva wasn’t entirely sure about the stamina of a succubus. Maybe she would have collapsed from exhaustion eventually. However, Eva fully believed that Catherine had the stamina to remain standing for days.

Shelby was the real metric. She was a human. Not even an athletic one at that. Standing in one place for hours on end was absolute hell on the feet. Possible, easily, but Eva imagined that she would be shifting her weight side to side every few seconds.

Though it was somewhat odd that she was standing. Most everyone had chosen to kneel before they had started up the ritual. Save for Genoa and Catherine.

Perhaps some time had passed.

The sky would be a much better metric, but it had been a struggle just to tilt her head back enough to see Shelby’s waist. She couldn’t tell from the lighting thanks to the light of the ritual circle. The violet drowned out all the surrounding light.

It took a moment for Eva to realize her stupidity.

Blood coated every inch of her body. Blood that she controlled. A simple thought had her head wrenching back to allow her a sight-line of the sky.

Had the muscles in her jaw not been slack already, she would have started gaping.

Obviously she wouldn’t be able to stare at the sky. The portals were still overhead, blocking her view with the giant eyeball of Life.

Gone were the lush forests brimming with life, rivers, and mountains. The core pupil—the portions she had originally thought had been a planet before realizing the wider scope—had darkened to an almost pitch black. Deep veins of red ran across the entire surface. Eva couldn’t say if it was molten lava, blood, or merely some mystical energy. Concentrated streams of magic, or the like.

One thing was certain. It pooled near the corners of the eye. As she watched it gather, a thick droplet fell, rushing straight towards the portals.

It passed through without resistance, becoming a flaming meteor at some point. The thing crashed down somewhere in the distance, bathing the surrounding land in light brighter than the day for a mere few seconds.

The light went out almost instantly. Juliana, perhaps. Or perhaps whatever fueled the flames simply exhausted itself. Burnt out or couldn’t exist in the mortal realm. Eva supposed it didn’t matter.

If one hit them, or even Brakket Academy, the city, or anywhere else around, it might matter a bit more.

In fact, it looked like a few had hit. The trees near the ritual circle had gone up in flames since she last looked. Extinguished now, but the damage had been done. Spires of charcoal dotted the edge of the circle.

Beneath the eye, her treatment ritual circle still hovered overhead. Which shouldn’t have happened. She had been holding up the blood through her own will. Passing out should have destroyed it. And probably the primary ritual circle at that when the falling blood splattered over it.

But it hadn’t. It clung to the air like a spiderweb between trees.

A dripping spiderweb made from oil, that was. The drips didn’t hit the ritual circle. One dropped from the treatment circle until it was about level with Eva’s head whereupon it darted straight towards her and splashed across her already blood-covered cheek.

The droplet didn’t stay there. Pretending gravity didn’t exist, it beaded up and rolled along her cheek until it reached the top of her head. There it clung for just a moment—apparently gravity was fine to ignore but surface tension wasn’t—before flinging off the top of her head to rejoin the treatment circle overhead.

It wasn’t just the one droplet. The treatment circle created a sort of black rain for a decent radius around Eva with a near constant leak of blood back up to the upper level. Like a leaky faucet. She wasn’t sure what it looked like from the outside, but Eva found it exceptionally eerie. Especially because she wasn’t controlling the blood. Not even subconsciously, as far as she could tell. Trying to hold the blood up and keep it from dripping failed as did attempting to stop it from rejoining with the treatment circle.

In retrospect, it was a good thing she hadn’t been able to stop it.

The treatment was still ongoing. Essence flowed through the tubes.

Eva forced her head to turn towards the Avatar of Void. The significantly smaller avatar.

It didn’t have much in the way of a head anymore. Or even an upper body. The tube she had sent out to take the place of the intravenous tubes used during her own treatment circle wafted back and forth. Smoke disappeared into the tube as it vacuumed it all up.

Watching it slowly disappear felt like a weight in her chest. The smoke, for all she knew, could be all that was left of Arachne. Her body ground to nothing but fine dust under the weight of a Power. Eva wasn’t concerned in the slightest that she was harming Void through her ritual. Even had it not told her that she would be entirely unable to hurt it, she doubted she would care.

In fact, it was almost disappointing that Void wasn’t inhabiting the body at the moment.

If it was, it just might be suffering as much as Life seemed to be.

Ignoring entirely whatever the eye above her was feeling, the Avatar of Life to her other side thrashed and flailed around without stopping. Tentacles waved through the air, impotently attempting to swipe away the treatment circle. The blood simply rippled, moving ever so slightly to avoid every attack. It should have disrupted the magic, but it didn’t. Eva could still feel stuff draining from her body. She wasn’t even sure it was blood anymore.

Speaking of which, the blood tube was another target of the tentacles. Unlike the treatment circle, which just avoided everything the avatar could do to it, the tube broke and shattered every few seconds. Between those breaks, it repaired itself. Every chunk, shard, and grain of dust returned to where it had been as if time itself was rewinding. It wasn’t. Eva could feel her magic pull it back into its original spot—without her input at that—but it looked that way.

More tentacles from the avatar scraped along the surface of the ritual circle, trying to pull itself away. The mass was simply too large. It didn’t budge for as long as Eva watched.

Maybe Life should get a clue and evolve some legs.

And, the mass itself had changed. Where it once had been fleshy in coloration with violet veins, it had mutated to a demonic blood shade of black with vibrant crimson highlights pulsing through it. The single beam of light extending from it to the eye overhead had darkened as well. Eva wasn’t sure how black light worked—given that this wasn’t the ultraviolet kind—but it pierced right into the largest concentration of red up on the massive eye beyond the portals.

Only the tentacles remained their old colors. And that was rapidly changing. It started with the violet veins. One tentacle at a time would turn its violet to red. Then the obsidian skin began creeping up towards the tips.

Frankly, she was surprised its hundreds of mouths weren’t screaming endlessly. Perhaps the gaping maws hadn’t been designed for that and were only capable of consuming. Neither were the mouths eating away at the stone ritual circle itself. Given what had happened to their captured enigma and how much it tried to eat its surroundings, that should have been the first thing it had tried.

Eva found herself somewhat nervous as she finally turned her attentions inwards. Frankly, she hadn’t even considered the possibility that she might die from exsanguinating herself. Sensing what little blood was left in her, that was a real possibility. It might be more surprising that she hadn’t keeled over dead already.

Something was running through her veins. She had a feeling she knew what. Her sense of blood picked it up. It acted like blood enough for her to see it, but only barely. Her heart had the highest concentration of it. A foggy mist of particles swirled around within her heart. Every few seconds, a speed far slower than normal, her heart would pump and the particles would explode through her body. Most of it wound up leaving her body through the tube that led towards Life.

The tips of Eva’s fingers twitched. Applying pressure, she found herself able to fully flex her hands. The process took more labor than normal, but it was an improvement over hanging limp.

The treatment must have been drawing to a close. That might have been what had woken her up in the first place.

Still, she was locked in place for a few minutes before she managed to crick her neck from side to side of her own accord. Another minute and she managed to roll her shoulders and pull back her wings, standing on her own two feet.

Raindrops of blood continued to fall around her, but not quite at the same rate that they had been when she first awoke. Where before it may have been something like a monsoon, now it was a light drizzle.

For the moment, Eva was content to merely watch the blood fall. The avatar wasn’t actually targeting her with its flailing. Though there were some streaks of violet blood splattered around Eva’s circle. Perhaps it had tried at one point and either Eva’s unconscious mind had protected her or Juliana had. One or the other. It was a good thing that none of the blood splatters had interfered with the primary ritual circle.

Her treatment circle probably would have continued, but who knew if anything more would have happened. When the ritual circle had failed earlier, both avatars fell dormant. She would have been treating the Life-less husk of the avatar and not the eye overhead along with it.

That hadn’t happened. So, for the moment at least, she was content. At least until she managed to regain enough control over her body to turn around.

More blood splatters littered the ritual circle. Most centered around the avatar. Most violet in color.

But not all.

A sizable, albeit thin splattering of blood glazed over a section of the ritual near where Shalise had been standing. Had being the key word. She wasn’t there anymore. Juliana had taken her spot. To the side, Genoa looked rather like she had been thrown into a laundry machine filled with rocks.

Just what happened while I was out? Where’s Shalise? She tried to shout out. All she got were a few squeaks. Though her jaw was working, her throat just wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, Eva narrowed her eyes at the avatar.

The slowly stilling avatar. Only the tentacles high up on its body, the ones swinging through the air, were still active. The tentacles that had been trying to drag it off the ritual circle had stilled entirely. Even the moving ones were growing slothful as they changed to a more demonic hue.

Scanning the horizon didn’t help much either. She could see the spot where Juliana had been waiting. Her empty chair. No sign of Shalise. Or Serena, for that matter. The prisoners might still be there, but both had been lower to the ground. She wouldn’t be able to see them all that easily.

Eva ground her teeth together as the drizzle of blood slowed to a stop. At the same time, the last uncorrupted tentacles turned and fell limp next to the mass of flesh. Her treatment ritual collapsed, raining down in jagged shards of solid blood. The shards that hit Eva immediately liquefied and joined with the rest of her body. Everything else sheared straight through the Avatar of Life, the stone ritual circle, and even the stubs of legs were all that remained of Void’s avatar. After being pierced, the stubs dispersed into the air, fading away into nothingness.

The intravenous tubes Eva had created started sucking themselves back towards her. Eva made sure to chop off the end of Life’s tube before it reached her. Even if it was bloated with more demon blood than whatever had been running through its veins before, she didn’t want any of it near her let alone inside her.

Without really meaning to alter them, her wings also melded down into her back. The significant volume of blood they represented didn’t actually seem to add to the rest of it all. She really didn’t know what to think of that, but at the same time, the entire day had been full of things she couldn’t explain. Even discounting the few parts she had known were going to happen.

At the very least, she was just glad it was over. The large portal was still open and meteors were still raining down every now and again, but surely that wouldn’t last. Unless there were another few scratches she needed to make to the ritual circle to activate a third phase. Without Vektul or Void, she wouldn’t know.

Looking towards Catherine, Eva got a hesitant thumbs up. Which was great as far as Eva was concerned. She took a few steps until she was out of the central ring. The moment her feet passed over the line, the violet light of the ritual circle died off. It started at the center, weaving around the entire area like someone erasing the lines of a drawn labyrinth. The thin beam of magic that stretched between the avatar and the eye in the sky faded away as well.

Soon enough, absolute silence descended on the darkened ritual circle.

All at once, as if by some unspoken signal, everyone started to converge on her. Or, every human, at least. None of the demons moved a single muscle. Not even a wiggle of a tentacle from Lucy. Odd, but not so odd. All of them had just seen a sliver of their Power corrupt another Power. A little awe was to be expected.

Because Eva headed straight for Juliana, the two of them met well before anyone else reached Eva. Poor Irene was on the exact opposite end of the circle and had actually started jogging to reach them.

Eva didn’t quite make it into conversational distance before she started speaking.

“Shalise?”

“Don’t worry,” Juliana said with haste, holding her hands in front of her. “She’s… alive.”

“You truly inspire confidence.”

“Oh it was horrible!” Shelby managed to reach them before anyone else thanks to her sprinting across the platform. “Her back! It was bent completely the wrong way! Oh go–” She didn’t quite finish what she was saying. She clasped her hands to her mouth. Retching noises escaped her throat as she turned away.

Eva turned a flat look back to Juliana.

“I fixed her back,” Juliana said as everyone else started to gather. “Probably. I think she’s in the infirmary at the moment. Just in case.”

“Confidence. The tremble in your words speaks volumes of your belief in yourself.”

“What did happen, Juliana?” Genoa’s voice came harsh and cold as she stepped up to the group with her arms crossed over her chest. Her foot tapped against the stone in just such a way that it sent small cracks through the ground.

Considering that it took Eva a fair amount of effort to embed her spiked blood into the ground, that was quite the feat.

“Later mom. It’s… a long story.” Juliana hung her head for just a moment as if ashamed. Eva wasn’t sure why. Summoning Zagan had probably saved everyone’s lives multiple times over today.

“For Shalise,” Juliana continued, “I was keeping an eye on our prisoners when I heard the scream. Without even thinking properly, I inverted her state of injury and, a moment later after confirming Shalise wasn’t broken, inverted her location. She had been not in the school infirmary. Now she is.” She paused again for just a moment as she bit her lip. “Probably. In fact, we should check on her.” Much like Shelby, she clasped a hand over her mouth. “I don’t remember if I was specific! What if she’s in every school infirmary? Is that even possible? There could be hundreds of Shalises out there, all equally confused!”

Juliana turned towards the school as if to run and check. A firm hand came down and crushed her shoulder in a vice grip. “Juliana Laura Rivas…” Genoa said. “I think we need to have a little talk. We can walk to your friend while you tell me everything.”

Hand still squeezing down on Juliana’s shoulder, Genoa started marching her daughter away from their little gathering. She paused for a moment and glanced back towards Eva. “It is done, is it not?”

To that, Eva could do nothing but shrug. “If there is more, I’ll call. Actually,” she paused for just a moment, looking around to all the gathered humans, “you should all go. I can’t imagine that this was a relaxing event. Go rest, sleep, take showers, eat, whatever you fancy. Take a break. We’ll figure out how to get everything back to normal soon enough,” she said with a vague gesture towards Zoe—who was absolutely not dismissed.

“Stick close to Genoa,” Zoe said, backing up Eva’s words. “Things might still be strange.” There was a slight pause as she glanced around. “And has anyone seen Serena?”

“Ah! She mumbled something about needing a drink before Shalise got hit,” Juliana said with only a mild shudder. Her feet shifted back and forth for a moment as she stole a glance at her mother. “I… uh… offered. But she declined. Something about not wanting to risk the sunlight by taking off her bundles of clothes.”

Brushing a hair out of her face, Zoe hummed to herself for a moment before mumbling. “She probably went to find Wayne then.” A little louder, she said, “Alright. Stick together and stay safe.”

With that, the humans left. All except for Irene who paused to steal a glance at the still unmoving Saija. Shelby came up and dragged Irene away by the arm once she noticed that her sister wasn’t following.

Eva just sighed as she turned towards the next most important person around, Zoe. Who rather looked like she wanted to run off and check on Shalise as well.

It was weird. Eva thought she should be more concerned about her friend. Instead, she just felt a bit numb. She had used up all of her care on Arachne earlier in the day. Not to mention the deep exhaustion and slight apathy Eva felt—or didn’t—that probably came from the ritual, Juliana probably worrying for nothing, and Lynn Cross likely knowing who to seek out to heal Shalise’s back if it was still broken. Everything would be fine.

“If you want to go see Shalise too, that’s fine with me. I’m sure Catherine and I can figure out what to do from here.”

“You’re not worried?”

“I trust Juliana.”

Zoe sighed. Her eyes never quite stopped on Eva for any length of time. They kept sliding off to stare at the unmoving avatar, the other humans, and even the demons—who had yet to move from their spots. “What about them?” she said, nodding towards the latter group. “Are they alright?”

Turning around in a full circle, Eva started frowning. Lucy, of all people, hadn’t even twitched. Even if none of them cared to join up and interact with the humans much, Catherine should have approached to discuss the ritual and how they should proceed. Saija wouldn’t even be part of that group. She and Irene were close. But even though Irene had obviously been staring at the succubus with a worried frown, the succubus hadn’t budged to follow the humans away.

Above all, every single one of them was staring.

As Eva turned, she met each of their eyes.

“Great.”

“That didn’t sound like the pleased kind of great…”

“No,” Eva said, turning back to her professor with a wan smile. “Notice where they’re staring?”

Zoe only took a moment to respond. She had probably realized sooner, but had to brush a lock of hair back behind her ear first. “What did you do?”

“Nothing more than you saw me do. Which is probably the problem. But we don’t have the luxury of standing around. Even dormant,” Eva said, pointing towards the sole remaining avatar, “I don’t want that on Earth and I don’t want the portals overhead remaining open.” With determination, she turned towards Catherine and made a ‘come hither’ gesture with her full hand.

“That is something I can agree–”

Zoe cut herself off with a hissing gasp. Eva started to turn only to feel a slight pinch in her chest. Looking down, she found a gleaming silver blade stretching out from her chest. Right where her heart was. Black blood ran down the fuller of the blade until it reached the tip where it dripped off, splattering against the stone floor.

“Huh.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.020

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Possibly.”

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

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

“Then what–”

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

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

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

“So how do we resume?”

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

Only to not spot anything amiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is Juliana going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re probably intimidating them.”

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

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

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

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

It would be time to start up the ritual again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.019

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

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

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

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

And the lightning just wasn’t stopping.

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

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

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

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

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

Which was Life’s fault.

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

Eva clenched her fists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it finished?” Eva called out.

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

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

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

Is it finished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will corrupt it.

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

“Corrupt it…”

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

Which meant that it was probably safe.

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, the ritual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope we have ten minutes.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.011

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Zoe sighed as she walked down the streets of Brakket. Eva insisted that nobody walk around alone. Which, honestly, was not poor advice at the moment. However, she needed time to think. Teleporting straight to Genoa’s house wouldn’t give her enough time. Or any time, really. Teleporting was near instant. Barring any sudden wards popping up, teleporting would be a perfectly viable escape from any dangerous situation.

And she was keeping careful watch for any sign of a ward.

A cold wind picked up, sending Zoe’s hair whipping around her face and threatening to steal the papers tucked under her arms. Not bothering to fight the wind, she brushed her fingers over the hilt of her dagger, stilling the air in a small bubble around her.

Tightening the folds of her thick jacket, Zoe resumed her languid walk.

Genoa wouldn’t rush forward and try to destroy the ritual circle. Carlos might, but likely not without his wife agreeing as well. Eva was correct in that regard. Genoa knew about the truth behind the violet streaks in the sky as well. She shouldn’t be overly difficult to convince.

But that was the biggest question. Should she even convince people that the ritual was needed? Telling Wayne, Zoe had essentially received the go-ahead. Maybe she wasn’t looking to convince anyone after all. She might just be looking for a way to convince herself.

Zoe wasn’t certain which way she was trying to convince herself.

Really, she wished that Eva had just told her about it sooner. It would have given her more time to think. Now, Catherine and Eva were all but ready to start the ritual and Zoe still wasn’t sure what she should do.

On one hand, summoning Void to close off and shore up the weaknesses between Life’s domain, the mortal realm, and Hell was a given. And Zoe fully agreed with Eva that Void would succeed. People didn’t usually put forth great plans to do great things if they thought that they might fail. Of course, Void wasn’t a person. She might be completely off the mark. However, she doubted it.

No, Void would likely stop the current apocalypse situation without much trouble.

What happened after was the frightening part. Would Void be content to head back to Hell? Or would a new sort of apocalypse rise up from the ashes of the averted one?

Zoe shook her head with another sigh and looked up at the overcast sky. Even with the clouds, the shimmering streaks were still plainly visible. Pretty yet ominous. Whatever Void did couldn’t be worse than sitting back and allowing Life to continue its plan uncontested.

Turning down Genoa’s street and walking up to the Rivas’ house, Zoe found herself frowning. The frame of their front door looked like it had been hit with a giant fist. Splinters of wood littered the porch. Yet the door looked brand new. Even the paint looked like a fresh coat.

All except for the purple ooze leaking out from under the crack in the deformed frame. The broken wood would have been worrisome enough on its own. Ooze only added to her concerns.

Zoe hammered her fist against the door. As it turned out, the paint was dry.

“Genoa?” she shouted out. “Carlos? Juliana?”

Some rustling and mumbled arguments made their way through the door. Nothing that Zoe could understand, but enough for her to hear both Genoa and Carlos. The tones were panicked, but both seemed alright. She couldn’t hear Juliana’s voice from behind the door, however.

Before she could contemplate what that might mean, the door opened without a sound.

It didn’t open all the way. Just a tiny crack. Enough for Zoe to see the gleaming blade of Genoa’s focus between the battered frame and the brand new door.

“Zoe?” Genoa said, voice full of caution.

“Did something happen? The doorway–” Zoe pulled back, rushing a hand to pinch her nose closed. A foul scent rather like a poorly maintained butcher’s shop wafted out. Even with her nose pinched, she just about gagged. She might have cleared the air with magic had she not had a focus pointed right at her face. Reaching for her dagger might startle Genoa. With everything strange going on lately, Zoe doubted that she could even blame the former mage-knight should she attack. “What is that smell?”

It took almost a full minute before the door swung open more than a crack. Genoa took a step back. She still had her dagger in her hands, but it was no longer pointed directly at Zoe. Her hair was frazzled out, sweat held it together in clumps. The longer portions that she normally kept tied up in a ponytail had lumps of dried blood—human blood, or some other terrestrial creature if the color was any indication—sticking them together and keeping the hair matted against her shirt. But overall, she didn’t look too injured. In fact, Zoe couldn’t even see where the blood might have come from.

The blood certainly hadn’t come from the creature at her feet.

Zoe’s eyes only stayed on Genoa for a few seconds.

The floor right in the entryway was covered in… viscera. There was really no other word to describe it. Aside from the obvious bones, organs of all shapes and sizes lay within a puddle of violet goop. The heart—at least, she was mostly certain that it was a heart—was still beating.

Zoe pulled out her own dagger and cleared the air with a small burst of magic, allowing her to breathe without gagging, though it did nothing for the actual mess.

“What happened?”

“Not entirely sure. There was a knock at the door. Thought it was you. Before I could even open the door, a hand burst through, grabbed me, and threw me back against the wall. Might have gotten a few slivers as well.”

Finally tearing her eyes away from the remains of whatever was on the floor, Zoe looked up. The wall directly opposite from the door had a distinctly Genoa-shaped outline pressed into the drywall. She must have hit it with some force.

“And how did–” Zoe started to look back down at the mess before her feet only to freeze up again when she noticed Carlos and Juliana near the stairwell. Or rather, Carlos cradling Juliana in his arms. She didn’t look like she had any injures. That didn’t mean that she didn’t have injuries. And there were plenty of ways to harm someone without leaving a single mark, as Zoe well knew.

But Genoa waved a hand back and forth, apparently noticing Zoe’s gaze. “She just fainted. We’re pretty sure, anyway. We’re mostly basing that off her bug-eyed stare at the remains just before her eyes rolled back into her head,” she swept her free hand towards the floor. “Juli has never had the strongest stomach.”

“I see. And you… dealt with the intruder?” Zoe had to ask. Genoa, as far as Zoe knew, didn’t usually melt her opponents to puddles of intact organs and unbroken bones. There was a distinct lack of earthen debris around the area; which was a fairly distinctive sign of Genoa’s fighting style. A lack of collateral damage that was normally present around Genoa was missing as well.

And the door that she had just said had a hole in it looked awfully intact.

“I’m not sure. One moment, I was lying on the ground with half a door stuck in my chest. The next, the door was back on its hinges and the thing just started falling apart.”

Zoe rapped her knuckles against the wooden door, listening to the wooden knocks echo back to her. Everything looked and sounded normal. “Strange.”

Strange,” Carlos said with a huff. “Everything about this town is strange. Tell us something we didn’t know.”

Zoe stared for a moment as Carlos averted his eyes to look at his daughter. He brushed a lock of Juliana’s hair back behind her ear. With a slight sigh, Zoe knelt down, careful to keep her shoes out of the mess on the floor. Her fingers continued flicking her dagger, cycling the air so that she didn’t have to hold her breath as she looked over the remains.

She was not a forensic expert. Yet she could tell some things. For example, if she found a body with a bullet hole in its head, she would assume that it had been shot. Of course, guessing wasn’t infallible. If someone had been strangled and still had a bullet hole in their head, she would still assume that they had been shot.

Neither really applied in this situation. She had no clue what had caused the thing to fall apart. More, not only was the heart beating, but the lungs were expanding and contracting as well. The muscles appeared wholly intact. No rips or punctures that might indicate any sort of combat had taken place. Even the veins and arteries leading out of and into the heart were unbroken.

It really looked as if its skin had peeled off then the rest simply fell off the bones. Or perhaps it had been turned inside out, as there wasn’t skin littering the floor, yet something fleshy was deep within.

“It is an enigma, right?” The purple blood might not entirely be unique to the enigma’s species, but they were the only things with purple blood that had been showing up on a regular basis. In its current state, it was difficult to tell exactly what shape it would have taken while whole. Though most enigma that Zoe had seen had six primary limbs. She only counted two arms and two legs, though she supposed some could be hidden beneath the pile of viscera.

Genoa stepped forward and nudged the pile of organs with the tip of her boot. “I thought it was a human. Granted, I only saw it for a few seconds and they weren’t a few clear seconds either. And then I had slivers of the door in my chest at the time. Something I found ever so slightly more concerning than getting an accurate picture of the thing.”

Zoe sighed as she stood up. It might be time to call Lynn in. She had done more research on enigmas than anyone. Catherine as well. The two of them might be able to tell her why it had fallen apart. As for how or why it had come to the Rivas’ home, it could simply be that it had fallen nearby and they were the first inhabited dwelling it had come across. Eva thought that she had killed the last enigma that was free roaming, but she also mentioned how difficult they were to detect.

Though this one wasn’t dead yet, despite its current unfortunate state. If she stomped on its heart, would Hell open up and take it back, leaving a part of itself behind? It might be best to scrape it up and move it somewhere where such a thing wouldn’t impact the Rivas’ home.

“Let’s move it out of your house,” Zoe said. “Carefully. It doesn’t look dead yet. It would be best to keep it that way as long as possible. One of these died the other day and the area around its death is… less than pleasant at the moment.”

“Should we be expecting more?”

Zoe paused. She had been just about to wrap up the remains in a bubble of solidified air, but Carlos’ question made her stop and consider. “Possibly. Though I doubt it was directly targeting you. I could ask Chelsea to put up some wards around your house. I’m surprised you don’t have any already.”

“I was generally the one taking down wards,” Genoa said with a slight huff.

“In any case, let’s get rid of this. Then, I think we might have some things to talk about. Something that might prevent more enigmas from coming to Earth at all.”

— — —

Two young nuns, probably the youngest Nel had ever seen, walked into the great hall of the Elysium Order’s tertiary headquarters. The same building that Eva had broken into and stolen from not so long ago. Something the Elysium Order hadn’t forgotten. Guards lined the walls. Most wore the white habits of standard Elysium nuns. Two full chapters had probably stopped by just to provide security for two little girls.

Only three of the nuns wore the black and gold inquisitorial habits. Nel couldn’t be sure why there were only three. They might still be rebuilding, but a decent chunk of time had passed since Ylva destroyed the previous chapter of inquisitors. There should be more than three.

Perhaps another augur had run away and the majority was off hunting her down.

In focusing on the two younger nuns, Nel couldn’t help but frown at how obviously scared they were. One, the one with curlier hair, couldn’t keep herself from looking at the nuns that lined the walls. And she had to stare at each one of them. On both sides. Her head snapped back and forth to each side of the hall with every step.

The other kept her head facing forwards at all times. Her eyes might have darted around every now and again, but her neck may as well have been in a brace. She was much more disciplined in that regard. But the way her clenched fists shook betrayed her true feelings.

At the very end of the long hall, a makeshift courtroom had been set up. Makeshift was the wrong word to use as it implied a haphazard mishmash of parts that didn’t fit together aesthetically yet still functioned well enough. The table set out was anything but haphazard. Ornate wooden pedestals sat before a large table filled with a number of important people. The pedestals weren’t wide enough to hold a sheet of paper. Maybe a pen if turned horizontally. They were little more than markers for where the two girls were to stand.

Of the people seated behind the wide table, Nel could pick out and name just about every one. Even though she hadn’t met some of them in person, almost all of them were important enough to be well-known. Provost Willem sat front and center. Two silver candlesticks framed his stick-thin body. To his right side, Company Captain Shika sat, twiddling with a pen in her lap without her eyes even twitching up to look at the two approaching girls. She was the head of all chapters within the Elysium Order, the one Sister Cross used to report to. Almost all chapters, anyway.

Cloaked in the black and gold of the inquisitors, someone who Nel didn’t recognize sat to the left of Provost Willem. Likely the new leader of the inquisitor chapter. Whoever they had found to replace Brother Maynard. Despite his position to the left of the provost, he probably wasn’t all that important at the moment. Not without any real power base within the Elysium Order to support him.

Further out on the right side was the head of the local cathedral, Vicar Leah. She clutched at a small golden pendant while her lips moved in what was likely a prayer of some sort. Not many people within the Elysium Order were all that religious as far as Nel knew, despite the outward appearance of the Order as a whole. Some obviously were.

On the far left, Saint Adal sat. Though only barely. If it weren’t for the straps holding her to her chair, she likely would have fallen to the floor long ago. Adal was only aware of her immediate surroundings on the best of days and, judging by her lolling head and the twitching of the countless eyes implanted on every inch of bare skin, today was not one of her best days.

Really, it was a wonder they even brought her out. Especially for an occasion like this.

Five extremely important members of the Elysium Order had been brought out to frighten two little kids who should still be in school. Despite all the bad things that had happened to Nel, leaving the Elysium Order and finding Ylva was one of the best moments of her life. She had had reservations about serving Ylva initially—mostly thanks to being told that she would be a servant—but looking back, she couldn’t be happier.

“The two girls just reached their podiums,” Nel said, pulling herself out of her augur haze and back into her actual surroundings. Lady Ylva sat on a chair far too small for her size just on the other side of a bowl of burning incense. She gave a slight nod of her head, stood, and reached for Nel’s hand.

The moment her fingers brushed over Nel’s glove, the world fell apart. A brief sensation of cold followed before the world returned to normal. The world just outside the giant wooden doors leading into the great hall. Two nuns on either side of the doors jumped. Their eyes burned white in an instant.

And the white died off without so much as a glance from Ylva. She placed her hands on the doors. With what was apparently a light shove, the doors flew open. Doors that had to have smaller doors built into them because of their size crashed into the walls with a resounding thud. Ylva just marched in as if she had done nothing more than simply open a small closet door.

Along the walls, the guards’ eyes lit up in pairs. The first two closest to the doors, then the next two, and so on until the entire hall was filled with burning eyes. Just as they lit up, they went dark again. A silent few seconds passed by where nobody save Ylva moved. Panic descended on the gathered Elysium Order quickly after.

A definite uncertainty took hold. Nel imagined that most of the Elysium Order had been informed of what had happened to the original inquisitors. Now, a statuesque woman marched right into their stronghold without a hint of fear, disabling their ability to use their powers. It probably stirred up memories, if not their own memories then memories of likely exaggerated stories and rumors.

At the front table, both Provost Willem and the head inquisitor stood. Fury lined Willem’s face while the inquisitor just about tripped over his own decorative chair as he tried to backpedal away. Being unable to accept implants, they would be the least affected by Ylva’s presence.

“What is the meaning of this?” Willem shouted, slamming his lithe hands on the table before him. His circular glasses jolted up and down on his face as he did so.

Nel, walking alongside and one step behind Ylva, called out. “Do not be alarmed. Lady Ylva will merely be overseeing this… interrogation. Though attempting to fight her may not go over so well. For you.”

“You cannot– You,” he said, pointing at Nel. “I know you.”

“We’ve met once or twice, Provost Willem,” she said without a hint of respect that her voice might have once carried for the man. “Though I’m surprised you remember a lowly augur such as myself.”

“Nel Stirling.”

Turning to face the inquisitor who had just spoken, Nel cocked her head to one side. “I don’t recognize you. Glad to see my reputation precedes me.” She might be getting a little confident. A little too cocky. But she couldn’t help it. Everything was going so well so far. Nobody had tried to stop them. The guard nuns were still mostly against the walls. A couple had moved forward, but not far enough to actually get in Ylva’s way. More had pressed themselves against the walls and held still as if Ylva were some sort of dinosaur.

Everyone was too uncertain about how to proceed to do otherwise.

So Ylva continued her forward march through the hall. In a few short steps—or rather long steps with the length of her legs—she made it up to the pedestals before the long table.

The curly-haired girl looked absolutely relieved. Though she wasn’t quite smiling. Still, her eyes weren’t twitching around quite so much and she didn’t look about ready to cry. Her friend still had her hands clenched into tight fists.

Really, Nel didn’t know what she was so upset about. Did she want to be excommunicated? Nel had personally experienced having eyes torn from her body. It had not been a pleasant experience. And if she ran away, the inquisitors would be after her.

Which hadn’t been fun either.

Standing directly between the two girls, Ylva bent as if to sit down. As she did so, a brief tinge of white accompanied her throne appearing just in time to catch her. Though the table containing the heads of the Elysium Order was raised over the rest of the hall, Ylva still managed to be at eye level with those sitting. Between her natural height and the size of her throne, she got away with resuming her usual slouch.

“Sit.” The simple command from Ylva had Provost Willem and the inquisitor back in their seats in an instant. And not just them. Around the hall, everyone sat down flat on the ground. Everyone except Nel, who remained standing just to the side of the throne, and the two young nuns at their podiums. “We will observe the proceedings overseeing those who have asked for Our protection. Afterwards, We will be entering a discussion regarding the unfortunate direction this organization has taken and possible reformations.”

Provost Willem tried to stand. He actually made it all the way to his feet, but he only lasted a few seconds before his shaking knees sent him back to his seat.

“You have no authority here, demon.”

Ylva lifted her head off her curled fist. “We,” she started, slow and steady, “act in the authority of Death. No other authority is needed.” As she dropped her head back onto her fist, her voice rumbled through the halls. “Continue as normal.”

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Author’s Note: Thanks for all the votes on top web fiction! I appreciate it.

As a side note, I may not be around to respond to comments for most of the day. (Which I half don’t do anyway. I always respond to typo reports, but speculation is kinda hmmm to comment on; I usually like to see readers commenting on each other’s speculation rather than me coming in and giving any definitive response).

My family and I are driving for about two hours to get a full minute of totality in tomorrow’s eclipse. Apparently some roads will be packed hard enough that those two hours will actually be seventeen hours, so we’re leaving a little early and are expecting to be back a little late. Personally, I’m hoping for the two hour version.

Seems like an awful lot of hassle for what is essentially a big shadow, but who knows! Maybe Thursday’s chapter will come and I’ll say what an absolutely amazing and life changing experience witnessing the eclipse was.

Guess we’ll find out.


010.010

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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. Instead, they focused on 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 the 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 have stopped 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 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—sometimes with her eyes, sometimes using her blood sight—wandering the hallways at school, sitting in his room 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.

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