Tag Archives: Juliana

010.030

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana.

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

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

“Help me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She disappeared.”

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

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

“What are we going to do about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait! What about the obelisk?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Catherine?”

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

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

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

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

Precisely the situation Catherine didn’t want.

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

The girl caught up and opened her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, they couldn’t leave it alone.

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

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

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

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010.029

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Catherine snapped a quick picture of the ritual circle Devon had devised to close the portals. It could be handy in the future given her other plans. For the moment, it had served its purpose. Magic now spent, the faint glow dimmed and was extinguished, plunging the entrance to Brakket Academy in the dark of the night.

As it should be. Her phone’s clock and the light of the sky now matched without the portals flooding daylight everywhere. She scanned the dark, starry sky—cleared of any clouds by the final blast of magic—for any hint of a leftover scar. Not a sign of the portals remained. No shimmering streaks. No slight distortions in the sky. It should be fairly easy to spot anything as the portals glowed. Against the backdrop of night, they would stand out. Later on, she could set up a camera to record the moon transit just in case. With its distinctive pattern, any distortions should be easy to spot.

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

Who could say how many monstrosities made their way to earth before the portal closed. Someone would need to deal with them. They would probably need to scour a fairly large area around Brakket as well. If any escaped… well, it wouldn’t be another apocalypse, but tons of people could get hurt.

Tons of people who Catherine didn’t care about in the slightest. A clear job for someone else.

As she heard the academy doors opening behind her, Catherine gave the approaching woman an appraising look.

Yes, she thought. Perhaps someone like Lynn. Or the whole of the Elysium Order. The Elysium Order specialized in things that didn’t die properly and Lynn had been working on that captured enigma for quite some time. Ylva as well, though she had been conspicuously absent for quite some time. Last Catherine had heard, Ylva had gone to visit the Elysium Order’s headquarters. Perhaps she had finally been done in by them.

Wrapped in Lynn’s arms while putting up a marginal effort to escape was the more useless of Eva’s mortal friends. Really, Catherine couldn’t fathom why Eva had her as a friend. Pity, perhaps. Though, seeing the brunette reminded Catherine that she hadn’t checked in on Irene since the end of the ritual.

She just about started heading off to find Irene when she realized that the former nun was trying to talk to her.

“What was that?”

“Is it over?” She sounded tired. Exhausted. Looked it too, with her dark hair hanging disheveled off her head. Catherine wasn’t sure what for. It wasn’t like she had done anything at the ritual site or elsewhere.

“Somewhat. Cleanup is needed. Killing enigmas and such. I expect you have it well in hand, given your research.”

“I… I haven’t actually finished a spell to kill enigmas. I’m close, but Eva took away my test subject.”

“Ah, yes. She did show up with that thing.” Catherine sighed for a moment and checked her phone. “Pity about your research. I’m sure you can find another enigma lying about,” she said with a casual wave of her hand. There were enough pieces of enigma scattered around the courtyard. Surely Lynn could scrape some up and resume her tests.

Before Catherine could walk away, the younger version of Lynn escaped from the elder’s iron grip. She stepped right up to Catherine without looking like she had been pulverized and broken in the slightest. “Do you know where Eva and Juliana are?”

“Not a clue for either. Eva isn’t on Earth. Or she’s extremely far away. For all I know, she was in those fireballs that launched towards the eye.”

The girl gasped as she looked up. Obviously there was nothing to see. Catherine tried to step away again—she really wanted to get some notes down while everything was fresh in her mind or go bother Irene—but the girl glared at her with a look befitting Eva.

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

“Should I be?” Catherine said, shifting her eyes slightly towards Lynn—who just gave her a shrug in return. Given a few of the former nun’s comments about Eva, Catherine wouldn’t be surprised to find her throwing a party upon finding out that Eva died. For herself, Eva would have been a valuable subject to repeat the treatment ritual with. Given recent plans, Catherine was slightly less concerned with that than she otherwise would be.

“As for Juliana…” She shrugged. “I don’t know why she wouldn’t be on Earth, but I am not her minder.” Catherine doubted that she would have died given who she was hosting, but that was a separate matter entirely.

Catherine tried to step away once more, yet found herself nearly walking into Lynn.

“You said that Eva appeared with my engima? Is it still around?”

“I suppose somebody should clean up the ritual circle,” Catherine said after a long sigh. And, now that she was actually thinking about it, ensuring its destruction sooner rather than later would be a good idea. Not only would it prevent others from inadvertently pulling things to this plane that were never meant to be on it, but it would keep more people from stumbling across what she intended to make her magnum opus.

Yet neither were earth mages. Leading them there would ultimately be a waste of time. For her, at least. Besides, the girl knew the way.

“Hold on for a few minutes. I’m going to get Genoa to take you out there. She can destroy the ritual circle while you collect your enigma. Also the other nun there. A certain Cole, I believe Eva said.”

“Sister Cole?”

Catherine didn’t bother humoring her, instead pulling out her phone. “Oh,” she said as she typed out a message, “tell Srey that he is free to leave once the circle is destroyed. If Saija is still out there… you can probably leave her out there. I’m sure she’ll heal someday.”

And that should be the last thing she had to take care of. At least for now. Time to go write down a few notes. With maybe a stop to check on Irene on the way.

— — —

Zoe slumped back in the couch in her office. The nurses had tried to shove her into one of the infirmary beds the moment Devon left, but they needed those beds for others. Maybe that was a bit too selfless. She was missing an arm, after all.

She stared down at her arm, half expecting it to be there yet knowing it wasn’t. It gave her a strange sensation. Like she was constantly off-balance. When she had been walking towards Devon, she felt almost certain that she was tilted to one side even though everything looked straight.

Of course, how much of that was her injury and how much of it was the cocktail of potions keeping her sensation of pain numbed, she couldn’t say. Frankly, she was surprised that she was conscious and lucid at all. Then again, maybe she wasn’t conscious or lucid and everything was a pain induced hallucination.

She shuddered at the thought that she might be hallucinating and decided that no, the bed was real. Her body was real. Her eyes were really seeing and her arm was really sitting under a stasis ward not far from the bed. Just in case it could be reattached.

It should be able to be reattached. Even mundane medicine was capable of fixing a severed limb so long as it happened within six or so hours after being severed. Unfortunately, the doctors and nurses were far too busy dealing with all the other injuries sustained to look much at her own arm. Eva’s cap was adequate enough while there were more serious things to attend to.

After ensuring that she wasn’t going to bleed out, they had dumped a few potions down her throat and went on their way.

She sighed as she stared out a window. The sky was back to normal, but she could still see security guards patrolling about. Not so long ago, she had watched them fight off an enigma as large as a bear, though it lacked the tentacles dangling off its back. Maybe it actually had been a bear.

At the ritual circle, everything had seemed so calm. Relatively, anyway. The ‘brain’ had lashed out its tentacles and Eva had fought back, but aside from that, nothing had really happened until the hunter attacked well after the ritual had ended. Well, lots of things happened, but not fights or attacks. Shalise’s incident excepted.

Spotting Shalise around the infirmary had been such a relief as well.

But outside the ritual circle, all those lightning bolts, meteors, and earthquakes hadn’t been for show. All of it had meant chaos in the city.

Luckily, it was holiday vacation. Plenty of students left to visit their families. Some did not, however. With how many people were inside the infirmary, Zoe couldn’t help but fret over what had happened. Had an enigma made it into one of the dormitory buildings? Were they having a party out on the streets or in a club?

Zoe couldn’t help but jolt as the door opened. Her hand—her only hand—tightened around her wand. Only for a moment. Her fingers relaxed as Wayne entered the room.

“How are things?” she asked before he could speak, ignoring the way his eyes darted to her arm. Talking about her arm wasn’t something she cared to do at the moment. It would either be reattached someday or she would learn to work with a prosthetic.

But Wayne didn’t respond. He crossed the office, stopping at the table to her side with… not a scowl on his face. A gentle frown. He stared down at the severed arm. His hand reached out.

Not to grab it. Zoe didn’t know why he would want to touch it. Just looking at it sent a wave of nausea through her stomach. There was something disturbing about looking at a part of herself that wasn’t a part of her.

No. His fingers never touched the stasis ward over the severed arm. He picked up her once elegant dagger, frowning deeper as part of the handle fell to the table. Glancing over, he managed to ask about a hundred questions without opening his mouth.

Zoe just sighed again. “I don’t think I can repair it this time.”

It had been damaged not too long ago. But only the handle. This time, the blade itself had been shorn in two. And not a clean cut either. The hunter’s sword connected with the edge of the blade and cut right through it to the base of the wooden handle, which had split in two. She could look over to her severed arm and see where the hunter’s blade had bit into her hand.

If she were a little less lucky, she could have wound up not with a severed arm, but with it mangled and torn to shreds. Something that would have been significantly more difficult to repair than a clean cut.

The dagger would never function as a dagger or a focus again. Not unless it were completely reforged. And if she reforged it, would it even be the same dagger? No. It would be no different from going and purchasing a new one.

“I think I’ll frame it. Put it in a thin glass case and hang it on the wall.”

“It was all we salvaged from Lansing. From your home.”

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

“I thought this ritual was supposed to be safe,” Wayne said, dark eyes moving to stare at Zoe’s arm before looking up to her eyes.

“It was safe.” Mostly. Minus the Shalise part. She didn’t feel the need to mention that at the moment. Sometime when she was feeling better, she was certain that they would go over every detail together. “This happened afterwards. That demon hunter attacked.”

“Where is she?” Despite the calm of his voice, she could see a fire in his eyes. A different kind of fire compared to that of the Elysium Order. More of a hatred than anything magical.

“Last I saw, at the ritual site. The hunter killed Eva–”

“At least that’s one problem solved,” he grumbled, though immediately looked ashamed of himself. Mildly. More for Zoe’s sake than actually caring about Eva.

“She came back roughly fifteen minutes later,” Zoe said, to which Wayne just made a disgruntled grunt. “In the interim, I held off the hunter as best I could. She had said that she wanted to kill everyone at Brakket. I couldn’t let her walk away.” Zoe let a sorry chuckle escape from her lips as she nodded towards her arm. “My best wasn’t good enough.

“Based on the sky,” Zoe said, turning towards the window without looking at Wayne’s face, “I assume that Eva won her second fight with the hunter. She and Catherine likely fixed everything.”

“I’ll believe it when nothing happens over the next year.”

Rolling her eyes at Wayne’s grumbling, Zoe looked back to him. “How are things outside? I didn’t get much of a chance to go and look for myself.”

“Lots of injuries. One of those flaming meteors struck the Gillet,” he said, confirming Zoe’s fears. “It burrowed down to the second floor before stopping. Things crawled out not long after. Anderson made an announcement shortly before that everyone should remain indoors. Had he gathered everyone in the gym, several injuries could have been avoided.”

“Perhaps, but he couldn’t have known.”

“The people… and demons, I suppose, that he has guarding the buildings have been doing an adequate job aside from that incident.”

“That covers the students. What about the rest of the town?”

“Genoa’s mercenaries are proving that the money she spent on them did not go to waste. Or so I understand. Haven’t left Brakket’s campus myself.” He paused for just a second, glancing towards the door the instant it opened.

An ashen-faced Anderson entered the room, flaps of his undone suit billowing behind him in his haste. His eyes flicked between Zoe and Wayne for just a moment before he crossed the room. “Good,” he said as he dragged one of the chairs in front of Zoe’s desk over to the couch she was lying on. “I’ve been looking for someone who can explain to me exactly what happened. The nurse told me I might find you here.”

“Some nurses should mind their own business,” Wayne grumbled just barely loud enough for Zoe to catch it as he moved to lean on the wall next to the couch.

Anderson’s eyes flicked to the severed arm on the table for just a moment before he looked back to Zoe. He showed no disgust or revulsion at its presence. “I need to know everything.”

All so he can come up with a proper excuse for the public, Zoe thought with a slight frown. Then again, so long as he was up to it, she wouldn’t have to go in front of a camera and mention all the injures. Had there been deaths? Wayne hadn’t said. Maybe he didn’t know. Regardless, Anderson’s task was not a job that Zoe envied.

So she decided to start from the beginning, just in case he actually believed Martina’s lie about the sky being an agricultural project.

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

Juliana jolted at the foreign thought intruding on her stream of consciousness. That jolt just about turned the street inside out. She quickly released all holds she had on Zagan’s magic. “Don’t scare me like that,” she snapped.

But she couldn’t deny Zagan’s words. Ever since those lasers appeared in the sky, there hadn’t been any earthquakes, bolts of lightning, or any teardrop meteors. That didn’t get rid of all the enigmas already on earth. Those were slowly being cleaned up. At least none of the enigmas falling from the sky had been the demonic enigmas that left behind bits of Hell when they died.

Which raises an interesting point. Go, seek out one of the locations. See if it has vanished back to normalcy.

“The closest one is on the other side of the city.”

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

“No,” Juliana said as fast as she could. “Merely an observation.” As she spoke, she turned and started walking. There were probably more enigmas up ahead. At the same time, there were probably more enigmas in the direction of the remnant of Hell. Which direction she chose to go hardly mattered.

“So, you’re talking again,” Juliana said as she slipped into a narrow alley off the main street. Of course two enigmas were trying to eat each other—Juliana had a feeling that they would be cleaning enigma out of the streets for months in the future—but neither posed her the slightest bit of a threat. With a single tug on Zagan’s power, their insides were their outsides. “I hope that doesn’t mean anything bad,” she said as she exited the alley.

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

Despite the casual tone, Juliana couldn’t help but feel her mouth run dry.

Once you find something that works, you repeat it. Again and again and again. No variation. It is, suffice to say, less than amusing.

Juliana started biting her lip. The moment Zagan spoke, she spotted another enigma wandering down the street. She froze, staring at it.

What are you stopping for? We don’t have all night.

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

She took hold of a tendril of his magic. Gnawing on her lip, she tried to think up another way to kill one of the monsters. It shouldn’t be that hard. Life, she had discovered, was fairly fragile when one had Zagan’s power. Since she got it, she had considered plenty of possible ways of killing enigmas or even the hunter.

At the moment, the only thing on her mind was turning the enigma inside out.

Which it promptly did.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered out. “I’ll do it differently next–”

Zagan burst into a raucous laughter before she could finish her pleas. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping that Zagan tearing himself out of her body wouldn’t hurt half as much as it sounded like it would.

Just get a move on already. Before I really do decide to go myself.

Juliana didn’t need telling twice. She sprinted down the streets, ignoring the enigmas she came across, until she reached the spot where Eva had killed the demonic enigma. There, she stopped and froze, staring with a gaping mouth.

After Eva had killed the demonic enigma, Anderson had set guards around the spot. Both Eva and her mother had described it as a dark spot. A taint upon the land. Her mother had added that it was just a little too dark, unable to be lit by any source of light. Anderson’s guards put up an enchanted glass dome to keep things from escaping easily while allowing them to see any possible interlopers. Demonic shackles surrounded the entire thing as an added layer of security.

But the glass dome had shattered. An obsidian pillar reached out, stretching high into the sky. Its smooth, glossy walls towered over the surrounding buildings. The pizza shop’s facade was the highest thing around and it didn’t even reach the halfway point of the obelisk.

“Please,” Juliana said in a slight whisper. “Please tell me this is just a harmless monument from Hell and nothing dangerous in the slightest.”

This is just a harmless monument from Hell. Nothing dangerous in the slightest.

“I think I hate you.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.028

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The sky burst into flames.

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

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

Plumes of flames burst forth from the impacts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

How silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet nothing had happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

Now to find Devon.

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a possibility?”

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

“Good. Don’t.”

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

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

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

“Devon?”

“Why does everyone know who I am?”

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

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

“I can’t–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Adequate,” he said.

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

“Yes.” Was that truly hard to understand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third rotation went shorter than that.

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

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

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

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

But that only lasted a moment.

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps some time had passed.

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

It took a moment for Eva to realize her stupidity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Life should get a clue and evolve some legs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shalise?”

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

“You truly inspire confidence.”

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

Eva turned a flat look back to Juliana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not worried?”

“I trust Juliana.”

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

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

Above all, every single one of them was staring.

As Eva turned, she met each of their eyes.

“Great.”

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

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

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

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

“That is something I can agree–”

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

“Huh.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.020

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Possibly.”

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

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

“Then what–”

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

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

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

“So how do we resume?”

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

Only to not spot anything amiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is Juliana going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re probably intimidating them.”

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

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

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

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

It would be time to start up the ritual again.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.017

<– Back | Index | Next –>

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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