Tag Archives: Gertrude

010.026

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Kneel.

Across the entire ritual circle, everyone reacted in some way or another. Well, everyone except for Saija. Being passed out apparently afforded her some protection against Eva’s command.

Zoe, being already on her knees, didn’t react much either. Her head bowed down. Not to the point where it hit the floor, but just a nod. Which was perfectly fine with Eva. She had no desire to cause the woman any further pain.

The two most affected were Catherine and Srey. Both hit the ground hard enough that they would have made Eva wince had she not been focusing on their other guest. It was a good thing that they were demons; a human would have cracked their kneecaps. Hopefully Catherine would forgive her considering the circumstances.

As for the charging hunter, she fell to the ground in a heap. Yet, Eva wasn’t sure she had actually tried to kneel. Her momentum was at fault. The command had disrupted her legs just enough, just a twitch, that she hadn’t been able to place one foot in front of the other. With all the force of her charge, she soon started rolling across the floor.

Eva didn’t have time to stand around and admire the work of her command.

While the hunter pushed herself up, her arm burrowed into the ground.

Eva threw herself to the side, just in time to avoid the arm coming up just in front of her. As she flew through the air, ten little orbs of blood formed from her fingers. She flung them out, seemingly at random.

Seemingly.

While the hunter had to roll to one side and immediately froze five of the blood spheres, leaving a portion of her arm behind as a parasitic worm—which Eva immediately started flinging more blood at—two orbs scattered to the winds. The final three landed almost right on top of Zoe. Eva hoped the professor would get a clue and dip the stub of her arm into the conveniently bowl-shaped puddle. She couldn’t spare the thought to actually direct it around while her own blood was hurtling back towards her as razor-sharp spears of ice, but she would be able to harden it to prevent a total bleed out.

As for the icicles racing at her, Eva snapped her fingers. A shower of snow rained down around her while she advanced on the hunter.

A little trick. The hunter only froze liquid. So by turning the core of the orbs of blood crystalline, she retained full control. It might not have been wise, blowing her secret so soon, but the look on the hunters face made it worth it.

Oh yes. She was going to enjoy this. Her catharsis in beating down the hunter had yet to be satisfied. She had to be quick though, and couldn’t be careless. Rage and minor feelings of immortality had led to her defeat before. She could have easily ended it then had she simply torn out the hunter’s throat. If she got the opportunity, she had to take it.

The hunter didn’t stay stunned for long. In fact, she had already started moving before her expression fully solidified into shock.

Eva flicked her arm to one side, extending a blade of crystalline blood out just in time to catch the hunter’s curved sword. She didn’t stay in a blade-lock for long. A slight shift of her footwork and a liquefaction of her own blade sent the hunter’s sword harmlessly through the air.

She froze the droplets of blood, of course. Fast enough that she had probably enchanted her sword—or her person—with some liquid freezing spell. Not fast enough to catch her sword.

Which left Eva to thrust forward with her now shortened blade of blood.

The hunter didn’t even change her expression as an inch-deep gap appeared in the muscle of her human arm—should she even have that much muscle after being bed-bound for half a year? Her arm simply twisted, angling her blade and thrusting upwards in a move that Eva had to dodge by blinking behind.

Dodging put enough space between her and the hunter that Eva felt safe enough to split her attention for a half second.

Zoe, displaying perhaps the natural human reaction to a puddle of blood next to them, had not dipped her arm into it. So Eva did it for her. The black pool lurched out, wrapping around her arm. Zoe let out a slight yelp of surprise, then one of pain as Eva pinched and crimped the end of her arm with the rapidly crystallizing blood.

A clipped chuckle forced Eva to turn back to the hunter.

Who had her eyes locked on Zoe and her arm already in motion, stretching out towards the professor.

Eva nearly blinked inside Zoe in her frantic haste to get to her. Far less gently than she should have, Eva shoved Zoe out of the way.

“Tele–” was as far as she got before the hunter’s hand wrapped around her.

Contrary to what she had expected, the fist did not toss her clear to the opposite side of the ritual circle. She jolted back from the initial strike only to suffer whiplash as the fingers closed around her and pulled her straight back to the waiting hunter.

Waiting with a blade set to pierce through Eva’s rapidly approaching stomach, that was.

Eva blinked out of the hunter’s grip just in time to avoid getting yet another hole in her. She reappeared just behind the hunter, turning her arms into razor-sharp claws.

The hunter didn’t give her a chance to strike. Spinning her blade around into a reverse grip, she thrust backwards with a mad cry of rage. Eva backed away just enough. The tip of the blade actually nicked a tiny cut in her chest.

Before dying, Eva hadn’t been concerned in the slightest about being stabbed, skewered, or otherwise injured. She had marched towards the hunter relentlessly. Which had allowed her to get close enough to knock the hunter down and punch a few teeth out.

Accepting no injuries this time around, she was finding it difficult to strike back.

Thankfully, Zoe had understood Eva’s interrupted order. With the hand of blackened fingernails, she used the hunter’s distraction to pull her wand from her pocket. In a strange set of prioritization, she vanished her severed arm and all the pieces of her damaged dagger into her holding space before teleporting herself, disappearing mere instants before the hunter’s extended arm could reach her a second time.

Crying out a shout of frustration, the hunter whirled to face Eva.

They danced around for a time. Blade slashed here. Blood exploded there. Fist extended. Claws raked. The liquid in her arms and legs kept forming tiny ice crystals, only to be rebuffed by the constant fire magic that Eva poured into herself. Annoying but necessary. If she had had more time, she might have tried to draw some heating runes into herself. Or simply try to cast some passive heating aura to counteract the hunter’s freezing aura. But either option would have taken just too much concentration during their back and forth.

Five full minutes of neither of them gaining a distinct advantage passed before Eva finally grew fed up. She wasn’t doing anything. Nothing lasting, at least. It was only a small consolation that the hunter hadn’t hurt her either. She wasn’t making any progress in killing the hunter, which meant that the hunter was winning. The more time wasted, the higher chance that Devon finished his ritual and decided to ignore Eva’s request to wait.

Something Eva was expecting to happen.

Not only was she wasting time, she wasn’t even getting that cathartic release in the process by pummeling the hunter into pulp.

Something had to change.

Kneel.”

The hunter stumbled again. Just a slight stumble. Something so small that Eva might not have noticed it had she not been looking for it. Unlike last time, she did not fall to the ground in a heap of tangled limbs.

Instead, she looked up with some cross between a mad grin and a hate-filled scowl. “You tried that trick already,” she shouted as both Catherine and Srey returned to their knees. “It won’t work again!”

Eva clenched her teeth together hard enough that they might have broken had they not been demonic in nature. She didn’t really understand what she was doing when she shouted like that, but it seemed to work on all the other demons and it was similar to the thing that Ylva had done a handful of times in the past—which had never been resisted by Ylva’s subjects as far as Eva knew. Was it simply a matter of willpower? If Ylva were here, she would probably be able to force the hunter to get on the ground and lick her toes and make the hunter like it as well.

Which was another point in Eva’s growing frustration with the situation. Srey and Catherine were still the only two here. Besides the passed out Saija. Srey hadn’t even thrown a punch. Catherine had looked fancy while dancing away from the hunter, but she hadn’t been able to attack back. Eva hadn’t seen any evidence that Catherine had tried, but she was assuming that the succubus’ enthrallment wasn’t working either. Perhaps if they had ended up doing one more of her treatments, she would have been able to properly fight back against a foe of this caliber.

But Eva had expected someone to arrive and help out. Genoa maybe. Juliana or even Wayne were good alternates. Even just some random security guards or demons from around Brakket Academy. Yes, they had enigmas attacking the school—as evidenced by the one she had nearly crushed while jumping out of the dormitory window—but Zoe had disappeared five minutes ago. Eva assumed that she disappeared to the infirmary where everyone else should be. Even if she had passed out immediately after appearing, someone should have noticed her missing arm and gone to investigate!

Fuming, Eva stood stock still with her arms bent from the strain of tense muscles against bone. At least for as far as bone and muscles went before turning to liquid blood.

The hunter’s corrupted arm extended after her once again. She didn’t wince as it grasped around her, squeezing her tight. Neither did she care if it were drawing her into the hunter or pushing her far away. The moment the fingers clasped around her torso, Eva sprung into motion.

Her limbs of blood whipped around, losing their human shape as their ends turned to sharp spears of crystal. The sharp spears did as sharp spears were wont to do and pierced straight into the limb. They twisted, drilling into the arm as deep as they could go.

The hand tried to release Eva as it drew back to the hunter. Its fingers splayed out wide. With Eva connected to her arms and legs, she stayed pressed up against the hand.

Eva stopped her drills of blood. She was getting closer to the hunter and had no doubts that a sword would be waiting for her if she did not get off.

However, she wasn’t done yet. The four spears split apart into a hundred needle-thin strands. Each strand burrowed through the arm. Some took the path of least resistance and swam straight through existing veins of blood, blocking the entire vein as they moved. Others pressed through dense muscle. They didn’t make it as far up the arm as the vein needles did, but as the arm compressed down, they still ended up burrowing further than they should have.

Eva cut her arms and legs off at the skin of the arm, almost falling to the ground out of the open hands until she blinked forwards. She returned to existence behind the hunter once again. It was the point safest from the sword.

Not, however, safest from the shards of ice that the hunter filled the air with the second she disappeared. She didn’t fling them at Eva. They simply hung in the air.

One shard wound up in Eva’s stomach. A thin slit right through her stomach lining, leaking into the rest of her chest. A few other tiny blades caused other lacerations. Nothing life threatening. At least, nothing in her brain. For everything else, Eva merely redirected some of her own blood to patch up her injuries.

As she did so, she snapped her newly formed fingers together.

A muffled thump came from the hunter’s arm. Veins burst, sending violet blood everywhere; like a series of gopher tunnels blown up by ignited gas with strips of flesh replacing the dirt. Smoke started to leak from across the entire arm, all the way up to just before the eyeball at the shoulder. The veins were only evidence of superficial wounds, however.

The real damage was inside.

A few tendrils of Eva’s blood had wrapped around the bone. Though much thicker and… stretchier than even a thigh bone, it didn’t hold up to her blood magic. She had concentrated a decent amount of blood right around the elbow in the hopes of completely blowing off the lower half of her arm as well.

Unfortunately, it looked like she would have to settle for it hanging limp at the hunter’s side.

The screaming hunter, Eva realized as she took a few steps backwards. Just enough to dodge a swing of the sword. The swing crashed hard into the ground, lacking the modicum of elegance and control that the hunter had displayed so far. It hit so hard that the blade’s tip actually snapped.

The hunter dropped the rest of the sword. In a momentary flash, a thin rapier appeared in her already thrusting hand.

Eva’s step back took her just barely out of range. It still scraped against her bare chest, but not enough to puncture her skin.

Cold ice jutted off the tip of the blade before Eva could take another step. The ice pressed into her chest, driving straight through her lung and heart before reaching the other side.

The hunter put on a victorious grin, even laughing. “Come back again. I dare you.

Eva grasped at the rapier with her hands, leaving a trail of slime-like blood as she staggered back, gasping. Something that only had the hunter laughing harder.

Absolutely insane, that one. Was it the loss of her partner or had she been that mad before? Eva couldn’t say. Soon, it wouldn’t even matter.

Behind the hunter, Catherine and Srey both moved forwards at the sight of Eva being stabbed. Eva wasn’t sure what they were going to do. They hadn’t done anything so far. But they hardly mattered anymore either.

Looking down, Eva watched as the spike of ice came out of her chest. The nearly transparent crystal had its entire tip stained black. Blood sprayed from the hole, splattering against the ground.

She watched it fall with a wide grin on her face.

Eva snapped her fingers. The blood coating the icicle and the slimy blood—just thick enough to avoid triggering the freezing aura—exploded. Metal and ice went flying, cutting off the hunter’s maniacal laughter.

The heart was merely a means of transporting blood around her body. What need had she of such a redundant organ. She had served as a heart for Genoa once. Obviously she could do a better job with her own blood that she had complete and total control over. Some of the injury, she simply healed. Blood plugged up the rest while she ensured that her liquid blood kept flowing within her veins.

“I heard a story about a man who could summon an infinite number of swords,” she said slowly as a small dagger appeared in the hunter’s hand. The same dagger that had sent her to Hell not so long ago. “I wonder how many you have left.”

She screamed, pointing the dagger at Eva more like a wand than a bladed weapon. Eva blinked just in time to avoid an explosion at its tip.

A narrow chunk of the ritual circle turned to slag where the dagger had been aimed. The very rock turned bright red. Some parts melted entirely.

It had Eva thinking that maybe she had deserved to die the first time around. She hadn’t exactly been cognizant of what her body had absorbed last time.

With the hunter’s large arm being nothing more than dead weight, Eva half jumped, half blinked to the woman’s side. But she didn’t stay there. Eva blinked away, intentionally leaving a portion of herself behind.

A snap of her fingers detonated the hanging arms and legs, sending the hunter sprawling over the ground from the force. The dagger skidded across the surface of the stone ritual circle.

Right to Eva.

She stepped on the blade, coating the entire thing in a thick layer of blood. Before she could snap her fingers, the hunter, still lying on the ground, opened her hand wide.

The dagger reappeared between her fingertips.

Still coated in blood.

Blood and viscera—mostly red but with a slight purple hue—exploded at the stump of the hunter’s arm. She screamed out. Nothing articulate. Just random noise of pain, anger, and hatred.

Eva didn’t give her a chance to teleport or come up with any other plan. Blinking right on top of the hunter, she thrust her foot into the half-human, half-enigma maw, filling it with blood.

She didn’t even back away before snapping her fingers.

One moment, the wide eyes of the hunter were staring up at Eva.

The next moment, the wide eyes of the hunter were flying across the ritual circle with no skull to contain them.

Eva stared down at the headless corpse, panting for breath. Maybe having a lung damaged was a slight issue. But only slight. She could manage. Humans—or demons—had two lungs for a reason. She stared, looking for any sign of motion. With the mutation on its back and arm, Eva wasn’t going to take any chances.

Even though it hadn’t moved in the short time it took Catherine and Srey to finish walking up to her, Eva started stuffing the entire body with blood. Especially around the massive eye and the already damaged arm.

“You’re looking a little shorter.”

Eva glared up at Catherine without stopping the blood filling. Her glare apparently came intense enough that both demons took a step back.

Though the succubus might have a point. Eva had used up enormous quantities of blood throughout that fight. Especially in her final few attacks; leaving behind most of her arms and legs and the spears of blood that disabled the hunter’s arm should have run her blood supply completely dry. If her legs were only a few inches shorter because of it, she wasn’t about to complain.

She just about complained about the lack of assistance she had received during the fight, but thought better of it.

“The enigma I brought with me,” Eva said, pointing a vague hand towards the edge of the ritual circle. “Drag it over to the middle, just next to the avatar.”

“You have a plan?”

Eva grinned. She could taste a little blood on her sharp teeth, though couldn’t say exactly where it had come from. “Oh yes,” she said. “We’re going to shove this lobotomized hunk of flesh back into Life’s skull. Or whatever passes as one for Powers.”

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010.025

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Eva left Devon behind to finish his ritual design and to continue managing the defense of the prison. There wasn’t much to defend. Devon himself and whatever research notes he might have had lying around. Eva didn’t think that the enigmas would be too interested in a bunch of notebooks and papers, but who knew with them.

As for Eva, she didn’t think that she had left anything irreplaceable around. Most important things were over at the dormitory. Which, if she was being honest, was probably under attack as well. Brakket Security should be able to deal with enigmas. With the help of the teachers, students, and the demons who Eva hadn’t recruited, they should be fine.

Still, it was a good thing that there wasn’t much here. Her women’s ward had been half demolished. Presumably by enigmas. Eva didn’t know how that had happened, but it had explained why she had returned to the mortal realm outside the walls of the prison to find her beacon shoved down an enigma’s throat.

There was always the chance that the dormitory wasn’t under attack. The enigmas’ interest in her prison might be more an interest in her prisoner than anything else, or so Devon had suggested.

Eva threw open the door to the cell block and walked straight into a mass of violet blood and organs.

The demonic enigma that they had originally captured had been strapped to a table within its cell. A bar, perhaps cut from another cell door, held open its ribcage. Almost every organ had been removed from the cavity. Most were scattered around the room on various tables. An eye and a tongue each had their own jars.

Walking into the cell and around to its head, Eva nudged it with a finger. It didn’t react. Not even a little twitch.

Shooting a glance to the nun following behind her, Eva said, “I would have expected this from Sawyer. Not you.”

Lynn Cross glared at Eva without the slightest hint of shame. “These things have something to do with necromantic magic. I’ve seen enough necromancers while they work.”

“Is this one of those ‘he who fights monsters’ and ‘if you gaze into the abyss’ things?”

“I am not turning into a necromancer,” she said as her eyes briefly filled with white fire. After making sure that Eva had been good and glared at for a few seconds, a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “I’m going to kill them. Permanently.”

That made Eva raise an eyebrow. From what she saw of Sawyer, he had tried and failed to kill one. Though, admittedly, she didn’t know how hard he had tried. But Ylva had failed as well. Lynn had much better motivation to find a proper way to kill them than Sawyer—simply on account of her not being an omnicidal jerk—but if a mini god of Death couldn’t manage, how could she?

“You’ve found a way then?” Eva said, asking despite her disbelief.

“Well, no.” Her shoulders drooped for just a moment before her confidence returned. “But I’m close. I can feel it. This one is the key,” she said, tapping the operating table with a latex gloved finger.

Which was another difference between her and Sawyer. She actually had proper standards for hygiene. Eva knew without a doubt that she could watch Lynn all day and she would never drop chunks of rotten flesh into her macaroni noodles and then eat them.

“Unfortunately, I need this one. And I can’t let you kill it. I need it alive.”

Thankfully, it was still alive. Even torn apart as it was, Eva could see its heart beating outside its chest. She didn’t even need her sense of blood. Her own eyes were enough.

“But I’m so close. With the proper applications of necromancy combined with holy magic, and maybe a tiny hint of demonic corruption, I should be able to kill these things to the point where we can bury them in a deep hole and never have to worry about them again. Their bodies will decompose properly.”

“And that’s great. You keep working on that. Just do it without this particular one.” Eva thumbed over her shoulder to the wall. “Summoning works again. I think. Devon should be able to summon you a demon you can feed to those things in the other room. But if I don’t take this one, we’re going to have problems a whole lot more serious than a few dozen enigmas that we have to imprison for eternity.”

Lynn just about protested again. Eva held up a hand to stall her. Arguing further was pointless. So she swallowed her sigh and put on a somber expression.

“Besides, Lynn, you should be with Shalise.”

All traces of good humor vanished from the nun’s face. Her countenance became stone-like and ridged. “Shalise?”

“She’s in the Brakket infirmary. When everything started, she was injured. It was–”

A gust of icy wind nearly knocked Eva off her feet. She hadn’t even finished her explanation before Lynn disappeared. Which was roughly what she had expected. Unfortunately, Lynn would likely find out that Shalise had been with Eva when she got injured. In fact, Eva had asked her to come to the ritual in the first place. Eva hadn’t wanted to bring the subject up, but time was short. Later on, Lynn would probably come after her with a vengeance.

Oh well. She would deal with it when it came.

Turning back to the demonic enigma, Eva frowned. She needed it. Probably more of it than an empty shell of skin at that. Some gashes in the crown of its skull had probably been made by Lynn. If Eva hadn’t arrived, she might have tried taking out its brain as well.

With light steps around the room, she plucked a stomach off a table. Eva hadn’t ever held a stomach on its own despite having cut open a number of people in the past. Her form of magic focused on blood. Hearts were really the only relevant organ in that regard. The few rituals that involved bone marrow never really appealed to her.

That presented a slight problem. She hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about putting the body back together. Trying to mentally put the organs back into place like a puzzle using her own internals as a template didn’t quite work out. There were lungs, but they had several connectors that she didn’t have. It wasn’t human.

Shrugging, Eva just dropped the stomach into the chest. She moved around to pick up one of the lungs and dropped it in as well. The other lung flew over her shoulder and into the cavity as she moved on to the heart. Being a special organ to her, Eva stared at it for a few moments.

It looked just like a human heart. For her, that would be easy to reconnect.

But was there really a need?

Eventually, she shrugged again and just dropped it in.

Around the room, Eva continued tossing everything like the body was a cauldron and she needed to make a stew. Teeth, a gallbladder, a regular bladder, the kidneys, more teeth stored separately for some reason, a uterus, several feet of intestine, and so on until she finally reached the jars with the eye and the tongue.

Jars in hand, she turned around and stared at the mound of organs. It all wasn’t quite fitting in properly. Eva took a moment to shove the organs around. She tucked the organs in as best as she was able, pressing them down into the waist and up near the neck as far as they would go. It wasn’t perfect, but close enough.

She dropped the eyes and tongue into the chest, jars and all.

Curling her fingers around the metal pipe holding the ribcage open, Eva yanked it, watching as the bone snapped shut like the jaws of life.

The body didn’t heal. Neither did it wake—for which Eva was grateful; she didn’t want to carry it around while it was trying to attack her or escape. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure if the chest would stay shut despite the force with which it closed. Eva planned to put the body through the works.

It might not hold.

Reaching out her hand, Eva dragged the tip of her finger from the start of its autopsy cut at its navel to the mid-point of its chest. From there, the incision split into a ‘Y’ shape. Rather than use her other hand or make two passes, her hand simply stretched and extended.

A trail of blood flowed from her fingers. Black crystalline blood sealed the gap in the enigma’s chest as Eva hardened it.

She didn’t actually have fingers anymore. Not as far as she could tell, and Eva could tell pretty far. Her sense of blood showed absolutely nothing but blood roughly an inch below her elbow. The same was true for her legs, though at a much higher point around her hips.

Arachne had been destroyed so thoroughly that Eva had been willing to do anything to help bring her back. For the past two years, she had been carrying around a decently sized chunk of Arachne every day. Eva had given up her arms and legs without complaint or hesitation.

She hadn’t known that she would be receiving new even better limbs in return. Void never mentioned anything like that while they were speaking.

Or perhaps Void hadn’t done anything. Her skin wasn’t like an amputee’s arm where it wrapped around the wound. Both legs and arms were open wounds, as if she had taken a razor-sharp blade and sliced straight through them only moments ago. For all she knew, she had been bleeding out everywhere yet subconsciously holding it together using her innate ability to control demonic blood.

It was just how she had woken up.

Regardless of how it had happened, it worked perfectly for now. If she needed her fingers hard and rigid, she could make her fingers hard and rigid. If she needed to split her hand in two to reach two sides of the demonic enigma’s chest, she could split her hand in two.

In fact, she didn’t even need to have hands. If the situation called for it, she could have tentacles just like Devon had on his one arm.

There had to be some odd demonic magic going on similar to what had happened during the ritual or in the past while fighting the armored hunter. Her bloody limbs could stretch out and expand for quite a distance while increasing their concentration of blood so that they didn’t thin out. But blood generation had been happening around her before ‘dying.’ It wasn’t anything Void had done. At least not recently. That one time when her treatment ritual had been interrupted with a Hell portal might have had something to do with it, but that was entirely unrelated to giving up Arachne’s limbs.

It had her slightly worried that her limbs were going to disappear after the current high-stress situation ended. But she could deal with that when it happened.

For now, she needed to get back to the ritual circle before anything bad happened. The hunter was still there. Probably the nun as well. Though Eva hadn’t seen the latter fight before she had died. Maybe she had been hit by a lightning bolt as well and didn’t take to it as well as the hunter had.

Whatever the case, Eva grabbed hold of the freshly sealed up enigma, slung it over her shoulder, built up her magic, and teleported straight to the gate circle in the Rickenbacker. The burning squeezing tube of nightmares and flesh didn’t bother Eva in the slightest anymore. Her temporary companion on the other hand… well, there was a reason she had sealed up the wound.

The once smooth flesh of the enigma sizzled and smoked as they emerged from the teleport. All its fur had burnt off completely. But it was otherwise whole. And that was all that mattered. Eva threw open the window in her dormitory room. The hallways might have students or security and Eva didn’t care to meet either, so she jumped out from the window with the enigma slung over her shoulder.

And just about landed on another enigma gnawing on the brickwork.

A wave of her hand encased it in blood. A snap of her fingers—she could snap again!—destroyed the thing enough that it wouldn’t be a problem in the near future.

With that finished, she started running.

A part of her wanted to stop by the infirmary and ensure that everyone was alright. There just wasn’t any time. Zoe and Catherine, and the others, were still at the ritual circle with that insane hunter. Besides, Lynn was at the infirmary. Eva didn’t exactly want to die again before her job was finished.

She jumped to the roof just to avoid all possibility of running into Lynn. Normally, it would have been somewhat difficult with someone slung over one shoulder. Maybe a shorter wall like the one at the prison, but Brakket Academy was a two-story building for most of the way around—three story at the far end.

But Eva could cheat. Her right arm was looped around the enigma twice over, locking it in place. At the peak of her jump, she stretched out her left arm until she grabbed the edge of the roof. From there, it was as simple as reeling herself in while walking up the wall.

Jumping down into the Infinite Courtyard on the other side of the wall was actually more complicated. She had noticed while jumping from the wall at her prison that her legs nearly gave out beneath her. Whatever they were, they were not Arachne’s legs. If she jumped from the top, she would probably splat on the ground and have to rebuild her legs. Except if they got too contaminated by dirt, she wouldn’t be able to control the blood any longer.

So Eva wrapped her left arm around the lip of the roof and simply rappelled down.

She took off running through the snow. Which was another uncomfortable part of her new body. The cold never agreed with her. It never had, and she doubted that it ever would. Now more than ever, she could feel her legs freezing over just from contact with the snow. It took an expenditure of magic and concentration to cast some warming spells around her body. None of which held together all that well on her liquid feet. The spells just slid off.

Magic resistance? Eva didn’t know. Void hadn’t exactly handed her an instruction manual—if it was his doing and not her own blood magic.

Halfway to the ritual circle, Eva stopped. She could sense Lucy nearby, but not far enough to actually be at the site. And there was something else.

Eva shifted slightly and started to run again. Tree after tree whizzed past Eva as she nearly flew towards the feeling. As she closed the distance, she started to hear something squelching. A grinding twisting writhing of wet limbs slapping against wet limbs.

“Lucy!” Eva shouted out as she skidded to a stop between two trees.

A mass of tentacles fought against another mass of tentacles. Teeth, eyeballs, and tentacles as thick as trees crashed against the much smoother more thread-like tentacles of Lucy. Neither was giving up ground. Lucy’s tentacles squeezed and crushed, destroying the thicker tentacles.

But the thicker tentacles were winning. Their mouths chewed off the thinner tentacles in droves.

Eva dropped the enigma without worrying about the possibility of giving it brain damage and rushed forwards. She snapped out an arm of blood, coating the larger tentacles as best she could with the liquid. In some places, she hardened it, in others, she stretched it. All in the name of separating the two monsters.

Only, as she continued, she realized something.

There was only one being before her.

Lucy’s tentacles merged into the larger trunk-like tentacles, and the larger tentacles were all connected to the bulk of Lucy’s mass. They were spreading.

Eva didn’t hesitate. She snapped her fingers together, detonating the tentacles she had covered at their base, as close to Lucy’s natural tentacles as possible.

As the viscera careened through the air, she spotted it. A little worm-like leech identical to the one that had been left behind after she had been shoved by the hunter’s massive arm.

Eva jumped after it, reaching out her arms to grab hold of it before it could escape and cause more harm. The blood that touched it hardened, forming into a solid sphere of blood. It had escaped from her initial detonation of Lucy’s limbs, but it wouldn’t escape now. The other one had died and so would this one.

Snapping her fingers, Eva turned back to Lucy. “Are you alrigh–”

A hole in the bloody snow opened wide. The half of the mass that was Lucy fell within, traveling down to Hell. Only a few bits and pieces remained, most of which were larger chunks of the corrupted portion of her body.

Eva stared for just a moment, feeling a sinking in her chest as she stared at the spot where the portal had disappeared. Somehow, she didn’t think that Lucy would be so lucky as to be sent back by Void as fast as it had sent her back.

Shaking her head, Eva got a move on. She couldn’t sit around moping all day unless she wanted to say goodbye to all of her friends like that. As she walked back to the demonic enigma, she coated each of the scattered chunks of corrupted flesh with blood. She didn’t exactly have time to deal with it all, but at the same time, she probably wouldn’t find this exact spot of land again. Leaving any sizable chunks behind could allow Life to do who knew what.

Snapping her fingers as she scooped up the enigma, Eva took one last look around the blood-splattered trees before taking off running once again. It hadn’t lasted long, but stopping even for a short time could cost her.

Eva reached the ritual circle before long and stopped right at the edge, staring.

There weren’t many left. Srey looked mostly unharmed as he stood next to the brain. Saija, not so much. She was collapsed in a heap towards the far end. Life—or the hunter—hadn’t corrupted her with the little worm thing and she wasn’t being pulled into a Hell portal, but she wasn’t moving either.

Aside from them, it was just Catherine and Zoe.

Eva’s eyes widened as she looked at Zoe. Her teeth ground together as she narrowed her eyes.

One of Zoe’s hands, blackened and scarred with red streaks up to her elbow, clutched tight against her other arm just below the shoulder.

She didn’t have much below that. The mangled remains of her arm littered the ground not far from where she had collapsed to her knees. Her little silver dagger was split in two, along with several of that arm’s severed fingers.

Catherine held the full attention of the hunter, dancing backwards in her full demonic form while avoiding strike after strike from the enraged hunter. But she didn’t hold the hunter’s attention for long. A sharp shift in her dance forced the hunter’s gaze to cross over Eva.

A swing from the hunter’s sword died as she stared. “No, no, no, no no no no! NO! I KILLED YOU!

Eva chucked the enigma’s body to the ground, once again not caring for its health in the slightest. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she strode forward, eyes flicking between Zoe and the hunter.

A wound like that could easily cause her to bleed out in minutes. She needed to get close enough to stop the bleeding. A cap of blood over the arm should work temporarily. Maybe shoving some of her demon blood up Zoe’s arm could help replenish some of that which she had lost. Demon limbs could be grafted to humans, so why not blood.

But the hunter was already charging at Eva.

She wished that Catherine could have waited an extra minute before shifting the hunter’s attention. But watching the succubus—a demon that personified beauty and grace—heave and pant for breath now that the hunter was leaving her alone… she might not have been able to dance for much longer.

Eva needed to get close enough to Zoe, just long enough to drop off a little blood. Then she needed to escape before the hunter decided to strike at another, far easier target.

“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” Eva shouted back to the charging hunter. “But first… Kneel.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.024

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Zoe stared at the spot where the portal had been. She had been too slow. Nothing of Hell remained behind, just the smooth marble-like stone that made up the majority of the ritual circle. Not even blood remained within the portal’s boundaries. Everything that was Eva was gone.

A second portal had opened to swallow her legs—or what was left of them—though Zoe hadn’t paid that portal so much attention. She had been focused solely on Eva’s wide red eyes.

She had been too slow.

Zoe knelt, hand on the ground as if to ensure that the stone truly was solid. Somewhere behind her the hunter let out a series of maniacal cackles.

“Thought she could ignore my enchanted weapons, did she?” the hunter said between laughs. “If she comes back again, I’ll send her right back to Hell where that bitch belongs!”

Slowly, Zoe stood and turned to face the hunter.

“Or better yet, I’ll kill every last one of you bastards. Everyone with the capacity to summon that demon.

The woman started to laugh again. She didn’t quite finish. A series of tendrils wrapped around the hunter’s bloated arm, squeezing it. When the arm didn’t immediately burst into bloody pulp, Lucy swung her tentacles up and around, carrying the hunter through the air until she slammed down on the ground head first. Considering Zoe had seen Lucy tear apart Sawyer’s demon-human hybrids and had heard of her peeling an enigma apart like an orange, she couldn’t help but gape at the lack of damage on the hunter’s bloated arm.

Upside down with her head half buried in the stone, the hunter pressed her arm to the ground. Half a moment later, it came out from under Lucy’s main mass and carried her at an angle towards the forest. The tentacles still wrapped around the hunter snapped like rubber bands from the force. Without being connected to Lucy, the tentacles that didn’t fly off into the distance fell to the ground around the hunter, limp and languid.

The arm wasn’t even bruised. Because of its haphazard colorization, it was difficult to tell for certain, but there were no distinct markings around where Lucy had grabbed on and the rest of the arm.

“Any ideas?”

Zoe jumped slightly, having missed Catherine’s approach. When she did not immediately answer—mostly because she didn’t have an answer—Catherine gave her a wan smile.

“Don’t bother fretting about Eva,” Catherine said as if she were telling a joke. “That portal means Void has accepted her as a demon. She’ll be back eventually. It might be a decade or two, but any demon will return. In the meantime, I doubt you could say the same should that hunter get her hands on you.”

“Can we even kill that thing?” Zoe said. A certain weight rested on her shoulders as she stared at the monster before her. The hunter had finished tossing Lucy and was now digging her head out of the stone. It took a bit more effort than Zoe would have expected of someone with an arm like she had, but eventually, she popped her head out. “You saw what Lucy tried to do. She got away without a scratch.”

“Could be worse. We could have to deal with the nun at the same time. I,” Catherine paused to lick her lips, “had a few words with her. She won’t be interfering.”

Tumorous growths covered half the hunter’s face. She had no hair on that side of her head. Yet even her human side looked completely unharmed as the hunter scanned the area for the nearest target, settling for Saija.

Who noticed, gave a slight yelp, and immediately turned tail to fly away.

“Besides, does it matter?” Catherine said. “We have to stop her. I have no intentions of returning to Hell just yet. And if you need more motivation than my own pleasures, she apparently means to kill most of the people around the school if only to prevent Eva from coming back. ‘Everyone with the capacity to summon Eva.'”

Zoe pulled out her cellphone, intending to call in everyone she knew. Genoa, Wayne, Nel and Ylva, even Devon if he bothered to check his messages. But the hunter, even though she was focused on Saija, noticed the very instant she wrapped her fingers around the cold plastic. The massive eye in her shoulder swiveled to stare at Zoe.

She didn’t hesitate for a moment. A thaumaturgical lightning bolt crackled over her head as she dove for the ground. The hunter didn’t stop there. Another three bolts struck the ground in Zoe’s wake as she rolled along the stone.

A fourth bolt never came. Saija had swung back around and was pelting the hunter with her own fairly weak balls of fire. The hunter had stopped to shield her face with her oversized hand.

Seizing the opportunity, Zoe swiped her thumb across the screen, unlocking the phone. She had only just tapped the text messenger app when the hunter fired off another lightning bolt. The hunter wound up with a few scorch marks on the side of her face, but her lightning bolt struck true.

Zoe cried out as her phone went flying from her hands, clattering across the ritual circle while leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Her fingernails had either turned to blackened char or had completely exploded off her fingers. She honestly couldn’t tell which while cradling her hand against her chest. Bright red branching scars were already forming up to her elbow. Thankfully, her elbow had been touching the ground. Had it not, the electricity might have run through her entire body to get out.

Proper air mages carefully directed their lightning strikes even after the bolt hit. Magic could suppress the electricity just as easily as it created it. Drilling that into the minds of students was enforced so heavily that it typically became an ingrained habit.

Obviously, the hunter had skipped those lessons.

The hunter turned her attention back to Saija, shooting her out of the sky with a single spear of ice conjured from the tip of her rapier—the latest sword she had summoned. The icicle tore straight through Saija’s leathery wing. A second and third icicle punched too many holes in the succubus’ wings.

Saija crashed down in a heap.

“Succubi aren’t fighters,” Catherine said, completely unnecessarily. “Neither is Srey.”

The only other demon that hadn’t been either killed or knocked away stood even farther away than Zoe and Catherine. Srey had barely moved when the hunter had first appeared. If he really couldn’t fight, Zoe supposed it was better that way. Otherwise he would simply get in the way. Or get killed needlessly. Zoe might have suggested that he run to find help.

Without Eva, Sebastian, Neuro, and Lucy around, the hunter would undoubtedly notice his running.

Apparently taking a cue from Zoe, Srey pulled out his own phone while the hunter was distracted with Saija. Like Zoe, the hunter didn’t stay distracted for long.

She turned, launching three bolts of lightning from her shoulder and a barrage of icicles from her rapier. Srey didn’t stand a chance. He managed to dodge the first bolt and a few icicles, but one clipped his leg. He fell to the ground under everything else that the hunter threw at him.

No portal opened up, but Srey didn’t move.

“We need help,” Zoe said, standing even as she clutched her scarred hand to her chest.

“I’d use my cell, but I rather like my fingernails where they are,” Catherine said with a certain callousness that did not fit the situation.

Of course, if Catherine died, she would come back. She wasn’t in mortal peril, just in peril over losing access to the mortal realm. Temporarily. Fear meant nothing to her. Not in the same sense that Zoe felt.

In more ways than one.

It wasn’t just her life that Zoe worried about losing—though that was a big part of it—but the thought of what might happen if the hunter did kill everyone here. The hunter would likely move on to Genoa and ambush her in a moment of trouble or rest. With Genoa out of the way, who knew where the hunter would stop. Mage-knights might try to stop her. Other demons might as well. But would they be able to?

Zoe didn’t intend to leave it up to them. In her left hand—her off hand—she curled her fingers tightly around her dagger.

“If you see an opportunity to escape, or even some cover to pull out your phone, send a message to everyone we know.”

With that, Zoe took a deep breath and sprung into action.

— — —

Devon sat with narrowed eyes, feeling more like a traffic director than a researcher of things beyond the average humans’ comprehension. At no point in his life could he have imagined how monotonous fending off an attack might be. An attack from a Power, no less. He had his feet propped up on a table with a heavy leather tome on his lap.

A glowing violet light made its way across a map on the table.

“To the left,” he shouted out. The waxy ruax moved to obey his order.

One of Eva’s enigmas—or something close enough to it—climbed over the prison wall and came face to face with the wax demon. Already standing in place, the ruax made eye contact.

Devon could only imagine the headache the thing felt. Or rather, he could imagine it if he bothered to empathize with the creatures. He didn’t find suffering all that productive and chose to ignore the wailing screeches as the thing curled up on itself. Finding a solution to this mess was a far better use of his time.

As dull as it was directing the ruax around, it could be worse. A flood of the things had cascaded over the walls of the prison some time ago. Eva’s wards had managed to explode a good number of them before the explosions stopped. The number of enigmas had likely drained her wards’ blood supply. They had bought him enough time to get the ruax out of solitary confinement for defense, so he supposed he should try to remember to thank her for that later on.

With the bulk having been taken out, he had plenty of time to go through his books.

Luckily, he had a vague idea on where to start looking. That damn succubus, who just so happened to be missing from the prison at the moment, had brought him designs for a ritual not that long ago. One he had dismissed as being foolish, idiotic, risky, impossible to accomplish, potentially apocalyptic, deadly, and, above all else, foolish. The succubus had dropped the subject and not brought it up again.

What a fool he was.

A demon like Catherine wouldn’t design a highly detailed ritual and then just drop it. All that work and research that would have gone into it, thrown away? Devon wouldn’t have dropped it. Why would he ever expect anything else to do the same?

He stared at the page of his tome, not quite reading the words. He was too busy trying to remember every scrap of information down to the tiniest detail that Catherine had brought to him. The circle had obviously been designed in two parts. Essentially two separate rituals contained within the same location, all mixed up together. The thought of succeeding at something like that without causing an unplanned chaotic demolition of the ritual circle was mind boggling. It had been one of the primary reasons he had scoffed at the idea.

The second reason was staring right at him. With a slight shudder, Devon kept his eyes firmly on the pages. Whatever was above him did not like him. He could feel that much.

Again, the map started glowing. Something else had actually made it inside the prison walls. Damn Eva and her damn prisoners. It was probably that prisoner they had that was drawing them all here. They sensed one of their own and decided to investigate.

What a pain.

“Between the cell blocks and whatever is left of the women’s ward,” he shouted out to the ruax. “And you,” he said, glancing towards the carnivean, “go find that woman. We’re going to need help in a few minutes. There are a number on their way.”

For once, the carnivean didn’t talk back, argue, or otherwise protest against his orders. The thin slits in its red eyes flicked towards the cell block holding their captured enigmas and that woman from the Elysium Order. With a nod of its head, it started running off, leaving the book it had been looking through behind.

Devon reached forwards and grabbed the book as his two demons took care of their duties. The ruax was still dominated. He hadn’t even tried letting it off its leash. Dominating a demon gave a small connection between the dominator and the dominee. Through that connection, Devon felt nothing but hatred directed at him. He didn’t care in the slightest about being hated. Emotions of others rarely affected him. But it was hatred to the point where there could be no cooperation between them regardless of the situation.

With that in mind, the carnivean was far more agreeable. He had mostly left it alone to help with research and occasionally called on it to fend off the monsters should the situation require.

Though, looking at the page in the book that it had been reading, Devon didn’t know why he bothered having the carnivean research. Analytic topology of locally euclidean metrization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds? What a fool! It was enough to make him chuckle despite the situation. In that respect, Devon actually wished for the company of Catherine. At least the succubus would have been able to tell the difference between infinite conformal symmetry in two-dimensional vector space splicing and the obvious critical exponents in cross-planar spectrum tear.

Ugh. Some people, he thought, mild humor dying as a sense of severe disdain grew towards the retreating carnivean. It looked like it would be up to him and him alone to save the day. Frankly, he had considered taking a vacation in Guam or somewhere else sufficiently far away. He wouldn’t have bothered trying to seal the gap if it weren’t for the fact that such a planar tear had the very real capacity to rip reality in two if it were left alone for too long.

Ah well. Imagining all life as he knew it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in his body exploding at the speed of light was a fairly good motivator to fix everything.

If he was remembering the papers Catherine had showed him properly, the first of the two rituals had been intended to open up a planar tear. The second as well. The first obviously had succeeded, as it had been directly tied to Hell. Whatever that was above him, it wasn’t Hell. His current theory was that the second ritual hadn’t terminated as expected. Likely due to a malformed ritual circle. A ritual that size was bound to have errors.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to recreate the entire ritual. Just the portion of it that would close the planar tear. Something that would be far simpler if she had left her notes and research anywhere he could find. He had already scoured the women’s ward from floor to ceiling—or its rubble, anyway. A good half of the first several enigmas that had assailed the prison complex had tried passing through it. Their exploding corpses damaged much of the structure. Unfortunately, Catherine hadn’t left anything useful behind that he had been able to find.

But all was not lost. Devon reached out to his sketch pad and drew a thin line around the seal of sorrows. A line that should force the magic to interact with any planar tears. Theoretically, someone could be doing an experiment on the moon with his waist half in a tear. When his circle activated, it would snap shut. Poor guy won’t know what hit him.

He paused his sketching for a moment as he glanced at the map. The mass of glowing dots outside the prison was winking out one by one. In some cases, several by several. It actually had him taking his feet off the desk to sit upright. His thumb rubbed against one of his ring foci as he watched whatever it was carve a path through the enigmas to the prison.

Sending both of his demons away might have been a mistake. Through the connection with the ruax, he called it to his side. But it would be a short time before it got near.

He stood and filled the air with infernal flames as the thing approached the wall.

An enigma made it up to the top first, tentacles thrashing in the air. It didn’t make it over. A bloody hand the size of the entire enigma grasped it by the tentacles and dragged it back down on the other side. From there, Devon couldn’t see what happened to it.

He could hear it cry out much like the ones the ruax had given aneurysms to. The cries cut short with a spray of violet blood up and over the wall like some kind of geyser.

The hand of blood reappeared once again, grasping the top of the wall. A tiny humanoid figure attached to it used it like a grappling hook to vault over the top.

Eva landed in the clearing near the former basketball court. The bloody hand attached to her arm shrunk down to the size and length of a normal human hand, though it remained liquid and bloody from her elbow down.

As she sprinted towards him, Devon considered attacking. There was something off about Eva. Something unnatural. More than usual. Her arms—and legs, now that he looked lower than her skirt—were coated in blood. But that wasn’t too surprising for her. She had always enjoyed blood magic. It was something else. Her red eyes were just too red. Too intense. Her long hair flowed in the wind.

Hair that she wasn’t supposed to have. Eva had hair barely an inch long. That was all that had grown back since she got it burned off. And now that he was actually looking at it, it looked oily.

Or bloody.

Before he could actually come to a decision on whether or not to attack, she stopped on the other side of the table.

He let his flames die out. She wasn’t attacking him and both the ruax and the carnivean were almost back to him. If she wanted to pretend like she had hair with blood, who was he to stop her.

Though her eyes still made him shift where he stood.

“Devon,” she said, those red eyes stared at him for a moment before flicking down to the table. “Is this going to close the portals?”

“They’re not portals. It’s a planar–” Devon clenched his mouth shut, grinding his teeth together as her eyes looked back to him. “Yes,” he eventually ground out. “But it isn’t ready just yet.”

“Good. Get it ready. Then find Genoa. She should be in the Brakket Academy infirmary. I don’t know how big this is going to be, but she’ll help you get it set up instantly. But do not start it before receiving my signal.

Devon faltered, falling back into his chair. The aberration he had created had the audacity to look sheepish with a hand tucked behind her head.

“Sorry,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean that. I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean it all ‘kneel before me foolish mortal.’ I just–”

“What happened to you?” Devon said, narrowing his eyes.

“Not entirely sure. Died, or came close enough to it. Beyond that…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. “But still, don’t activate this until I say so.” She tapped the sketch with a bloody finger. Devon just about yelled at her, but when she dropped her hands to her sides, not a single droplet of blood stained the paper.

“And why should I listen to you? If we leave this open–”

“I know, end of the world. The thing is, it might be the end of the world if we close it too early.” She pointed a finger straight overhead.

Against his better judgment, he followed it up to the massive eye overhead. The eye that had turned black and red and was crying out tears of corruption onto the Earth. He tore his eyes away before he could stare for any longer.

“A chunk of that thing’s brain is sitting around Brakket Academy and I have to shove it back inside its body before we close the portals. To do that,” she said, turning slightly to face the approaching demons and the nun. Her eyes twitched down to the blood-covered glove on the nun’s hand. “I’m going to need my prisoner. I hope you have been taking good care of it.”

Eva rubbed her hands together. Or mimed the action. Where her hands connected, the blood melded together to the point where Devon couldn’t tell one hand from the other. It was just a big ball of blood. A ball that couldn’t possibly have Arachne’s carapace hidden beneath.

“I do need it alive,” she said with a grin.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.023

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“Huh.”

Eva stared down at the blade, even ignoring the startled shout from Zoe and the sudden movement from the demons who might as well have been statues up until now.

Normally—and her experience with blades so far in her life supported this fact—blades hurt when they jabbed through her. This one… didn’t. Not more than a slight pinch, anyway. In addition, Eva had killed people before. A number of them. Perhaps not as many as Sawyer, but she had killed enough. And she had killed enough of them through stealing their hearts. She knew very well the time to death once the heart had been damaged.

Demon or not quite, she shouldn’t be standing anymore. Even that was an understatement. Frankly, she should be lying on the floor with her soul detached from her body until someone like Void or Death got around to claiming it. Or until Ylva managed to shove it back into her body. Probably after her body had healed enough at that.

Even demons died when their hearts were destroyed.

And yet, here she was, standing. Her heart didn’t even look damaged to her sense of blood. It had a blade running straight through it without a doubt, but her heart just wrapped around the blade to accommodate it. Even when it twisted to one side and tore through her body right between where her ribs should have been, Eva felt nothing more than a scratch. Her heart, lung, blood vessels, and everything else in the way healed up near instantly. The flowing blood coating her body sealed as if it had never been torn.

“What does it take to kill you?

“A lot more than you can muster,” Eva said with the same unnatural calm and slight apathy that she had felt since the ritual had ended. Turning, Eva faced her assailant. “Why am I not surprised.”

The demon hunter stood before Eva in a very nude state. One hand clutched a thin metal blade about as long as Eva’s arm span. Her red eye blazed with unbridled fury. But the other side of her face, off-arm, back, and half of her chest…

“What–” Eva started.

What did you do to me?

The second she spoke, the hunter jumped back. A series of Lucy’s tentacles slammed into the ground right where she had been standing. Her landing wasn’t quite as steady as Eva felt it normally would have been. Probably because she wasn’t used to the weight of a massive arm or the violet-colored growths running up her back. Her shoulder wasn’t so much a shoulder as it was an eyeball staring right at Eva.

Perhaps a lightning bolt had struck her. Maybe a meteor landed on top of her.

Oddly enough, she didn’t actually have any tentacles. Not unless Eva counted her arm. While huge and bulky, it didn’t look all that danger–

Just DIE

Her arm snapped out towards Eva. Despite the relatively large space between them, it didn’t stop. It stretched out, catching Eva right in the chest. Blood splattered everywhere from the impact, but still nothing hurt. The fist was large enough to entirely wrap its fingers around Eva, which the hunter did without delay.

And it still didn’t stop.

Leaving a trail of blood, the hand carried Eva far across the ritual circle and even beyond. Right up until she hit a tree, splattering more blood everywhere around.

The arm snapped away the second she hit. Most of it must have returned to the hunter. The rest dropped to the ground as a little parasite-like worm with fingers for feelers.

It immediately started burrowing into the snowed over ground.

Eva, slightly stunned but entirely unharmed, stared at it as its tail wiggled around in the air. It dug deeper and deeper before Eva shook her head and came to her senses. She gripped its tail, tore it from the earth, let her blood flow around it, and tossed it back onto the ritual circle. Watching it futilely try to burrow through the stone, Eva grit her teeth as she felt an anger rise up inside her.

Aside from being a constant thorn in her side, the hunter hadn’t done much. Nothing permanent anyway. And yet, she had clearly been… infected. Unless all humans were going to turn out that way. Or all life in general. Regardless, she was the only one at the moment.

And that made her the perfect target. A Proxy of Life. The whole cause behind this mess. The reason Arachne been taken over by Void. Someone who not even Zoe would have qualms about Eva taking out her anger on.

Eva didn’t know if she could kill the hunter. It was infected by Life. Since the enigmas couldn’t die, maybe she couldn’t either.

But they could come pretty close.

She clapped her hands together, obliterating the worm. Only a few smatterings of unmoving blood and viscera remained behind. A burst of flames from Eva’s fingertips cleaned the remains from the stone platform.

Where did something go that couldn’t be killed when blown up and burned away to the point where there was nothing left? Hopefully nobody had been contaminating the entire mortal realm when they destroyed enigmas, or parts of them, thoroughly. But it was probably far too late to worry about that.

With a deep glower, Eva walked back across the ritual circle, past the still form of the Avatar of Life, and back to where the demons and Zoe had surrounded the hunter.

The hunter’s sword slid through Lucy’s tentacles as if they weren’t there. As Lucy recoiled with a gurgling hiss, the hunter continued her swipe, bringing her sword down on Neuro’s charge. The poor demon split straight in two as if he were made out of butter on a hot day. The glowing green of his twisted eyes faded and both halves disappeared into Hell portals before he even had a chance to hit the ground.

A small part of Eva wondered where she had got the sword. Juliana had stripped her of everything and vanished her gear to nowhere, as far as Eva could tell. There was a possibility that it had been a part of the package deal with her infection, but the sword seemed entirely too human. It was a straight silver sword with four little circles of brassy metal on the ends of the crossguard and the end of the hilt. Had Life provided it, Eva would have expected something a little more visceral. Like what had taken over the hunter’s arm, back, and face.

Which the hunter used again. She thrust her arm straight below her. Half a second later, it popped out of the ground directly underneath Sebastian. He tried to jump out of the way, but the thing grabbed his foot. As with Eva, it didn’t stop once it hit him. He disappeared up into the sky. Probably not quite high enough to pass through the portals—if such a thing were even possible.

The fall back down probably wouldn’t kill him, but Eva hoped he had the presence of mind to kill the little worm thing if there was one.

The hand drew back in an instant, leaving the vacant tunnel behind, and reformed into the same arm that had been at the hunter’s side before with no evidence of any additional mass. Not even the slightest flicker of surprise crossed the hunter’s face as she lashed out with her sword, barely missing Catherine’s wings. The arm must have included an instruction manual.

Eva, finally back close enough to act, moved right up to the hunter without heed for the blade. It hadn’t hurt her the first time. Sure enough, it struck her right where the neck met the shoulder and continued down and out the side of her stomach. Eva barely felt a pinch as her body sealed itself in the blade’s wake.

Without breaking her stride, Eva drew back a fist and punched forwards.

A disgustingly purple bruise spread across the hunter’s bare stomach far faster than any bruise Eva had ever seen. She wasn’t sure if that was because of her infestation or because her heart was beating about ten times faster than normal hearts during stressful situations. Either way, Eva didn’t much care. She took a certain satisfaction from watching the hunter’s face twist in pain.

Eva pulled back, ready to punch again. She should have created shards of blood sticking out of her knuckles, but she didn’t. Maybe later. For now, the hunter would be her punching bag.

Punching bags tended to work poorly while punctured.

But Eva didn’t make it. The hunter’s arm swung out in a wide sweep, smacking both her and Catherine as it grew. It didn’t pin them this time. It just knocked them back.

Eva flew uncontrollably through the air. Her own wings sprouted out from her back and formed a thin membrane of blood between the tips of the hard bone-like structure. Stretching them out, she caught the wind, slowing considerably. Her uncontrolled flight shifted to a far less turbulent glide.

A lightning bolt crackled out ahead, striking the hunter in the chest. A thankfully normal lightning bolt of thaumaturgical make, not one from another plane of existence.

For a moment, it seemed to have some effect. The hunter convulsed while clutching at her stomach. But the massive violet eye making up most of her shoulder snapped open and looked right at Eva.

Zoe’s bolt of lightning crashed straight into Eva. It hit her right between her breasts, sending blood exploding outwards from her back. One of her wings blew clean off. Without it, Eva crashed down onto the stone ritual circle, leaving a trail of blood as she skidded across the surface.

Eva went down but she didn’t stay down. Pushing herself up, she got a clear view of her own insides with her eyes rather than her sense of blood.

Everything inside her chest was black and shiny. A familiar liquid. Her ribcage and sternum should have been shards of calcium coated with viscera. Instead, she found liquid blood racing to fill in the gaps. Her organs were much the same. The top of her lungs should have been distinct from her throat, stomach, and heart; all were normally slightly different colors. Not anymore. They regenerated rapidly in the same demonic blood as her ‘skin’ melded over until she couldn’t even tell that she had been hit.

Despite the awe in the change of her healing factor, Eva could really only think one thing as she stood up. Devon is going to be furious.

Oh well, he’s wanted a new test subject for a few years now. This might just be the excuse he needed to get off his ass and go find one. One who wasn’t a terminal child at any rate.

Eva could worry about him later. For now, she clenched her fists even as her dismembered wing flowed across the stone as a puddle. It touched her foot and flowed into her body. Within seconds, she had fully absorbed the wing and spat it out her back, fully formed.

Though she didn’t need it anymore. Her short gliding had carried her close enough that, after a blink and a short sprint, her fist connected with the hunter’s face. Eva’s momentum carried both of them down to the ground.

She wailed on the hunter’s face. Eva made no distinction between the human side and the more grotesque infected side. Blow after blow rained down until teeth started flying.

All the while, the hunter struck back. Or tried to. Eva pinned down her mutated arm using both of her wings. It was a struggle, but she had the high ground and the leverage. The sword barely registered as a threat to Eva. Not even when it entered her neck and exited out the other side.

A bright flash from the hunter’s normal hand made Eva hesitate. The straight sword had disappeared. In its place, a smaller dagger had appeared. The sword might have transformed. Eva doubted it. Transported seemed the more likely answer. Which made perfect sense. The hunter wouldn’t want her toys to be taken away like Arachne had done to the sword her partner had fought with.

Luckily, neither of the weapons gave off that sickly eerie feeling that the demon-slaying sword had emanated. If she could pull that sword out of thin air, then Eva would get worried. Until then…

Eva balled up her fist and broke the woman’s jaw.

As her fist connected, the hunter jabbed the shorter dagger into Eva’s side. Like before, she felt the slightest pinch. Only when a heat grew in her side did Eva pay any attention.

She tried to reach for the hunter’s hand.

A light flashed before she could.

When the bright spots in Eva’s eyes faded, she found herself halfway across the ritual circle, missing her lower half. Entirely missing. From her stomach downwards, there was nothing left. She had landed upright. Were she not intrinsically aware of her own body through her sense of blood, she might have thought that she had been sucked into a pitfall. Obviously that was not the case. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel much of anything, pain least of all. But something was wrong.

The ground around her shimmered. A thin red line split out across the ground where she had landed. It opened wide into a dark empty void with her at the center.

Eva lashed out with a startled cry, gripping the edge where the portal met stone. She could still fight. She was still alive. All she needed to do was find out where her legs had gone. If her body was working like she thought it was, touching them should reconnect her halves.

“Eva!” Zoe shouted. She sprinted towards the portal.

But the portal was not cooperative. It stretched open ever so slightly. Just enough for her fingers to lose their grip. For the ground under the tips of her wings to disappear.

With nothing to grab onto, she fell into the abyss. The sound of the hunter’s mad cackles chased after her.

And she fell.

And fell.

Downwards and deeper.

At some point, Eva lost track of herself. She couldn’t see anything with her own eyes; there was no light. Her sense of blood failed as well. Even trying to use her hands to feel herself didn’t do anything for her. She couldn’t even tell if her arms were moving. It felt as if her brain had been stuck in a jar, kept alive through magic or technology while leaving her completely isolated from everything. Her mouth didn’t work. Or if it did, she couldn’t hear or feel anything. Even the sensation of falling vanished before long.

She simply was.

How long that took, she couldn’t say. Her sense of time had gone out the window the moment she fell into the portal. The rate of her thoughts seemed slow and sluggish.

My my, come to visit so soon?

It was that voice again. Similar to the first times she had visited Hell, it pierced her mind and spoke directly to her very being. It skipped over the elegant and flowing sounds that Void had used while on Earth.

Frankly, Eva preferred this way. It was easier to understand.

Eva tried to talk but she just couldn’t speak. The sensation of isolation continued even now that she was being spoken to by her captor.

Captor? My dear, you perished.

I was fine, Eva thought. Thinking was the one thing left to her and, so long as Void could read her mind, she might as well think. Where is Arachne?

Arachne? Ah. The spider. I don’t believe that any of my creations have had to regenerate from dust before. It will be interesting to see if she can maintain a sense of self despite her pitiful state.

Eva couldn’t even grind her teeth together. As far as she could tell, she didn’t have teeth. Just a voice in her head.

Put her back together.

Look at you, ordering me around. Fascinating. Sadly, for you, I am still in the process of collecting enough of the spider’s remains to actually begin healing her. You have brought me a great deal, carried in your heart, but it is not enough.

Eva blinked. Or she would have had she been capable. It took her a moment to realize exactly what it was talking about. She had used her own body as part of the conduit for corrupting Life. The treatment ritual, her old one, always had needed blood and she hadn’t been sure that the Avatar of Void’s gaseous mist counted. Since her body had been a conduit, a good amount was still inside her. Or had been.

My legs, she thought with a sudden jolt of elation. And my arms. They were originally Arachne’s. If her limbs could get Arachne back to her, she would gladly sacrifice them. Though… had her legs even made it to Hell? Probably. Void should be able to drag them down here if not.

As she stewed in her consciousness, she felt something. A little something. Not much, just like a weight removed from her shoulders. If her shoulders even had meaning at the moment.

Hmm. This isn’t all that much.

Then send me back, bastard. I’ll tear open that cancerous sack of flesh and find every last bit of her.

That is not an option. I have only just begun clearing out the remnants of our enemy and those corrupted by its minions. Such a shame, so many of my creations lost permanently. But doing as you suggest may result in a relapse–

I do not care.

of the attacks. And with the portal already open in the mortal realm, it will likely not survive.

That… actually did sound like something she should care about. Earth was her home. And the home of everyone she cared about. Even demons, for the time being.

Worse, everyone she had left was still in the company of that infected hunter.

You have to send me back.

Perhaps in time. For now, you are mine.

I am no one’s. I might work with you, but Devon created me. Not you.

Ah yes, the mad warlock. I find myself curious about his end goals.

There is no time. My friends are in danger. And if that hunter decides to attack the avatar, as you said, Life will relapse. Send me back.

For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. There had been silence all throughout the conversation as Void wasn’t truly speaking. But the absence of his thoughts piercing her mind was all the more apparent without some noise.

Eva held her metaphorical breath. She couldn’t be sure whether the Power was trying to decide if she should be sent back or had abandoned her because she had attempted to order Void around. If she had been abandoned, she didn’t know what she could do. Every sensation save for her thought simply didn’t exist. She couldn’t even feel magic flowing through her mind as she tried to cast a spell. Blinking did nothing.

But she didn’t have to wait forever.

I agree that the situation could turn precarious should Life’s champion act against us. However, the planar gaps need to be sealed. Your haphazard corruption will work for an eon or two, but not if mortals have access to any higher being. Mortals are nosy and tend to disturb things that should be left well enough alone, as you are well aware.

So tell me what to do and Send. Me. Back.

<– 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 –>


010.017

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Juliana didn’t bother jumping to the side to dodge the oncoming icicle. There was no need. Her earlier manipulation of reality worked perfectly. Unless, of course, the hunter deliberately made her attacks miss. That was a possibility. Not one that Juliana could understand however.

So she wasn’t too worried, even while watching the icicle that had been aiming directly at her head as it skimmed past the metal of her helmet. Not a single attack had actually hit though all had come close.

Every missed punch, icicle, ice boulder, lightning bolt, pitfall, and whatever else the hunter had up her sleeve only served to infuriate the hunter when they scraped by Juliana’s armor, failing to actually do any damage. Doubly so when Juliana didn’t move and the attacks missed for no real reason. She tried not to stand still too often. The hunter might eventually decide to quell her irrational rage and just go after the slowly opening ritual circle.

Really, the increasingly intense wind coming from the hand-width space between the bottom of the void and the natural earth was more annoying than the hunter. She had considered making it stop with Zagan’s magic. Yet she hadn’t dared. If the winds were some vital component of the ritual, she didn’t want to be called out as the reason why the world was doomed.

So she left it alone and just squinted her eyes with her visor’s slit narrowed even further. Which helped with the almost blinding light that bathed the surrounding forest in red.

At least she didn’t need to worry about the nun. With the Elysium Order’s magic-eating magic, Juliana wasn’t sure that Zagan’s magic would work properly. Presumably it would. She had seen him use it against the Elysium Order back during her first year of school. But he had several millennia worth of experience using it whereas her experience could be measured in days. Luckily, the nun was having a hard enough time just keeping from being blown off into the forest. She didn’t have the weight of armor keeping her grounded that the hunter and Juliana had. If not for the wards Zoe had set up around her, she probably would have flown off, never to be seen or heard from again.

Almost a shame that the wards were still around. Still, the nun hadn’t so much as tried to escape. Though she had been a decent way away, Juliana had heard Eva’s threat. The nun was obviously trying to avoid triggering it. Anytime she thought the wind might die down, she tried to center herself in the ward, though it was difficult to tell now that the line Zoe had drawn had been blown away.

The hunter hadn’t tried to help the nun in the slightest. Not even a single spell came close to the wards holding in the nun. She didn’t try to destroy the nun’s bindings. At first, Juliana had been worried. Not so much anymore. Now she just wanted to keep the hunter distracted enough for the ritual to finish.

Juliana blinked as a realization hit. She stared down the hunter, taking a step to the side so that an icicle wouldn’t have to curve around her to miss.

She didn’t need to fight the hunter to distract her from the ritual circle until it was over and Eva could take care of the problem. There was no need. Obviously, she could have killed the hunter. Or simply wished her away from here. But… Juliana didn’t want any unintended side effects if she phrased something incorrectly. And outright killing her, even though she was clearly trying to kill Juliana, just didn’t feel right. Especially with how easy it would be with Zagan’s help.

Which, suddenly thinking about it, made her earlier use of Zagan’s powers on the nun all the worse.

Shifting her eyes towards the nun for just a moment, Juliana double-checked that yes, the nun was fine. No side effects from losing her mouth. Probably. She didn’t have a mouth at the moment, but she was still alive.

Okay. Nothing to worry about there.

Back to the armored hunter, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. The hunter was charging forwards, moving so fast that Juliana could almost see through her. Yet Juliana wasn’t worried in the slightest. For what was the opposite of the hunter being armored?

The hunter’s joints locked up mid-punch. Her fist stopped just inches from Juliana’s face. A weighted pause passed as the hunter’s eyes grew wide. She didn’t have time to do more than that. Without her armor—or anything at all, for that matter—she was just as paralyzed as Eva had said she was. Her body collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, already being blown by the wind.

She hit the ground hard enough to make Juliana wince. With her on the ground, Juliana clearly saw the three marks on her back. Dark blotches of skin that didn’t quite follow the contours of the rest of her spine. Just imagining what had happened did cause a small shudder.

Just a small one. This woman had tried to kill her. And had kidnapped her. She probably deserved both her paralysis and whatever Eva was sure to do to her once the ritual was over.

When the hunter started to speak, Juliana repeated her earlier spell and erased the woman’s mouth. It seemed to work well enough on the nun. And she really didn’t want to listen to the woman’s screaming, taunting, or general unpleasant words. Maybe it was hypocritical to worry about the nun while using the same spell on the hunter, but Juliana really didn’t like the hunter.

Juliana reached into her pocket and pulled out her wand—she had yet to replace her ring foci since her kidnapping—and pointed it down at the ground. The Earth came to life, raising small pillars of dirt around the hunter’s body. With a flick of pure regular old thaumaturgy, the earth wrapped around the hunter’s body. A quick hardening of the dirt into rock and the woman was thoroughly trapped. It also kept her from blowing away in the wind, but that was a side effect.

The entrapment was a just in case measure. The hunter was supposed to be paralyzed, but no sense taking any chances. Who knew if she had an earring focus or something else similar that Juliana’s armor-removing spell had missed.

For two full minutes, Juliana didn’t take her eyes off the downed hunter. There had to be some trick. Something that would come back and bite her. But the hunter didn’t move. Couldn’t move, obviously. Without a mouth, widening and narrowing her eyes was about all she could manage.

Finally letting out a small sigh of relief, she turned back to the ritual circle. And promptly took a step back. Doing so just about sent her stumbling over the mound of rock that covered the hunter. Lucky for the woman, a light knock against her earthen sarcophagus didn’t disturb it in the slightest.

The black dome had risen up higher than her head in the time she had focused on the hunter. Maybe even higher than the roof of a small house. Because of the size, the interior was still fairly dark and difficult to see. Even with the bright red beams of light that crisscrossed through the air, Juliana couldn’t see all that much. Maybe because, though overcast, her eyes were far more accustomed to the bright light of normal outdoors. She did have to squint her eyes because of the onrush of air. Though, now that the darkness had receded as much as it had, the wind wasn’t quite as strong.

Nobody was on their feet anymore in the outer ring save for Catherine. She could see that much. Demons and humans alike were pressed down against the ground. It took a good amount of willpower to keep from rushing forwards and checking on her mother. But walking across the ritual circle while it was active… probably not a good idea. For all she knew, chaotic magic would hit her instead of going wherever it was supposed to go and cause the whole thing to explode.

Her mother having her head raised helped to calm Juliana down. If she were dead or even unconscious, her body would be slack on the ground. Everyone’s would be slack for that matter. Even though they were pressed to the ground, everyone looked tense.

Which might not be the best thing.

But, despite the darkness, she could see something towards the very center of the ritual circle. Something large. The center of the circle was the hardest to see discounting the opposite end of the ritual circle where the distance itself fought against Juliana.

At first, Juliana thought that something was burning. She could really only see a silhouette and that silhouette looked an awful lot like a plume of smoke rising from the center of the circle. But the longer she stared, the more intelligent of a form she could see. A design to the pattern of smoke that wouldn’t be present if someone had just started a fire out there.

The smoke was roughly humanoid in shape, somewhat slender. It formed two legs and at least two arms on a flowing body. A second set might be present just under the first, but the smoke flowing off the body made it difficult to tell. If there was a second set, the arms were much thinner. More skeletal than the bulky upper arms. If skeletal was a word that could be applied to a cloud of darkness.

She could only tell the details of its arms because of how large it was. Eva wasn’t far away from it. Vektul as well. The smoke-being had taken Arachne’s place as far as Juliana could tell. She wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but hoped that it wasn’t anything bad. With the other two nearby, they served as decent comparisons for its height.

At the moment, it was more than twice as tall as Eva. Ylva would find herself angling upwards to look at its head.

But, while the column of smoke was the most notable thing inside the ritual circle, it wasn’t the only oddity.

Eva had a shiny black gloss coating her entire body. The red lights reflected off almost perfectly. For a moment, Juliana thought the lights were actually emanating from within Eva, like her carapace had cracked and her insides were glowing. But the lights and the obsidian coating weren’t all that had changed with her.

Two tall spikes jutted above her shoulders. From the tips on either side, a series of thin branches fell back down with the longest nearly reaching her hips. Wings. Though they lacked the fleshy membrane between the branches. At the moment, it was like looking at a bat skeleton. Like the rest of her, the wings were shiny and reflected the red lights on their black surface.

Juliana didn’t know what to think about that. Nobody else had changed besides Eva and Arachne. Not even Vektul, who was in the middle along with Eva and Arachne—or whatever that smoke thing was. At least, she didn’t think he had changed. He looked the same, but he didn’t reflect the light half as well as Eva.

Double-checking that both the hunter and the nun were in their proper places, Juliana built herself a chair with earth magic and a small wall to help shield her from the wind. She sat angled just enough to keep both prisoners and the ritual circle in sight.

Then she sat down and waited. There wasn’t much else to do. She would have to ask about Arachne and Eva’s wings once everything had finished.

— — —

Eva couldn’t tilt her head back. She couldn’t see above her. Still, she felt like the ritual should be nearing its completion. Every moment that passed made the curtain rise faster and faster. With the bottom of the curtain being completely out of her sight, there couldn’t be much left.

Arachne—or whatever had taken her place—barely fit within her section of the ritual circle. With her almost three times Eva’s size, even she was getting difficult to look at. The red beams still had her propped up, but her feet were flat on the ground now. Which only made her height all the more impressive. Had it not been Arachne in all the smoke, Eva might have taken a moment to be impressed.

The wind around her ears cut off as the last of the void disappeared within the murky fog that had once been Arachne’s head. She had almost forgotten what it was like to not be constantly hearing that roaring. Without it, the following silence felt all the more oppressive. No one said a single thing. No one moved.

Eva still couldn’t move, so perhaps the others were the same.

One by one, the red beams of light started winking out. Soon enough, the sky was back to the dark gray of natural overcast and unnatural violet streaks with only a handful of the beams left. Darker even than when they had started. Eva hadn’t thought that more than ten minutes had passed, but either that wasn’t the case or the very presence of the being in front of Eva was enough to darken the world.

The few remaining beams of light were those that had propped up Arachne. Rather than simply fading away as the others had, they pierced into the smog. Each one knocked Arachne around, sending her form stumbling slightly, yet somehow managing to catch herself before actually falling to the ground. One pierced either shoulder. One hit her chest. The final beam touched to the center of her face, slowly pressing into it rather than a rapid puncture as the others did.

The light around the ritual circle dimmed the moment the beam disappeared.

Arachne, or her hulking form, slumped. She didn’t fall to the ground. Her legs bent in two spots, digitigrade. An orange glow began radiating from deep within her chest. It started obscured by all the smoke and grew to a bright fiery red. Just when Eva thought she might have to close her eyes to shield them from the light, the entire creature burst into flames.

The flames formed a skeletal ribcage. Just the outline, as if there were bones obstructing the light despite that obviously not being the case—as the smoke wafted in and around, the light shone through the ‘bones’ of the creature. From the ribs, the flames traveled upwards and downwards, lighting up both sets of arms and its legs in a similar manner along with a long, whip-like tail. Once it reached its head, it bled into actual features. Teeth, a nose, two eyes. As with the ribs, it lit up where the bones wouldn’t be. Like a jack-o-lantern. Except, rather than the triangular teeth most common pumpkins had, its teeth were sharp and jagged. It lacked symmetry no matter how you looked at it.

Flames exploded from the top of its head, flowing down its back in a very unflamelike manner. As soon as the flames came out from its head, the creature burst into motion. It didn’t walk around like a person. All four of its arms were used in conjunction with its legs to propel it around the ritual circle.

And Eva finally found herself able to turn, to keep it in sight as she rotated to follow its path.

Which was somewhat difficult and not due to the blood that still coated her body. Void scurried around the circle, everywhere it touched the ground left a column of flame and smoke. It went up to Shelby first, circling around her. As it circled, its eyes locked onto her and never strayed. Shelby had her head down on the ground. She couldn’t actually follow it as it moved, but she definitely saw it out of the corner of her eyes.

Eva was fairly certain that she heard a light whimper from the girl as it drew in a deep breath—sniffing the air, perhaps. Yet it didn’t actually do anything more. It never even moved inside the circle in which Shelby knelt. Once it finished another circuit around Shelby, it moved on in a flash.

Its tail snapped back and forth in time with every step. Like the rest of its body, a core of orange burned within the smoke.

Srey ended up being its next target. Like Shelby, it circled around him a few times while occasionally sniffing at the air. Once satisfied, it moved on and on until it had inspected everyone in the outer rings.

It did stop at Catherine, staring at her for far longer than anyone else. Eva watched as the succubus’ knees started trembling. Her face twisted into a strained grimace. Though she had managed to remain standing throughout the entire ritual, Catherine’s knees gave out. She collapsed to the ground. A tune of satisfied laughter rumbled through the air.

Vektul—who, Eva realized, was now on his knees in a mirror of everyone else—barely warranted a glance. The thing didn’t even fully circle around him before it approached Eva.

Apparently warranting the most attention, it crawled around Eva on all six legs. The way it moved was almost serpentine, a slither more or less. It stopped every few steps. The tail coming off its back snapped into the air reminiscent of a scorpion’s tail every time it stopped. Yet, as with the others, it never crossed over the ring around Eva’s spot in the ritual.

Finally, it finished its inspection. The creature that had once been Eva’s friend stopped dead in front of her.

The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?

Eva jolted. The sound– The voice came from everywhere around her. Its mouth hadn’t moved, keeping its rictus grin. The light continued shining without any parting of its teeth further than they were already held. It was more like the very air had caved to its whims and created the words on its own accord.

And the voice itself… There was a feminine tone to it, underlying all the rumbling. Some remnant of Arachne, perhaps. But the majority was just deep. So deep that Eva could feel her insides rumble along with it. Small bits of dust and stray dirt that littered much of the ritual circle vibrated against the ground. The trees on the far edges bent backwards while the words echoed through the air. Just how far had the sound carried? Had everyone in Brakket City heard? Farther?

Though it didn’t matter. Given how everyone around her was on their knees, it was doubtful that anyone on the planet could stand against the being before her. Let alone fight it.

Only as she considered that did the words it had spoken register with her. She had been distracted by the booming voice and hadn’t quite consciously heard them.

Eva wasn’t bowing before it. She was the only one.

What,” Eva said anger rising, blood coating her beginning to boil, “did you do to Arachne?

— — —

Author’s Note: I was a little worried that the text wouldn’t show up for everyone, so if anyone can’t read that one line of text up there, it says, “The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?” If the text doesn’t show up, shows up as garbled symbols, or perhaps as boxes with little numbers in them, I’d appreciate it if you would mention as such in the comments.

Edit: Altered to just plain bold for mobile users. Sorry about that.

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010.016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Arachne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could teleport.

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

Eva blinked, aiming straight for Arachne.

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

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

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

Until she realized that Arachne had not caught herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva doubted it. Blood was her thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you take part in this monstrosity?”

“Oh shut up.”

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

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

In fact, now that she was thinking about it…

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

And the world complied to her wishes.

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana winced in advance, preparing for the scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana doubted she would get much help from that corner.

“It’s a Po–”

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

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

In fact…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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