Tag Archives: Gertrude

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.

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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.”

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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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