Tag Archives: Lurcher

010.032

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After ensuring that she was indeed alone within her domain—she hadn’t found any enigmas, humans, or demons wandering around, nor had she sensed the presence of any—Eva returned to the common room to further inspect the column sticking through the roof.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a column. All four sides angled inwards ever so slightly up until high above the roof where the angle bent sharply towards a central point. She had searched every inch that she could see and found nothing. No markings or inscriptions of any kind. Whoever had built it hadn’t even had the decency to slap on a sticky note telling why they built it.

Eva certainly hadn’t built it. Sometimes her domain did odd things related to creating structures or items that Eva felt she needed—such as a potion kit when Genoa had been injured—but this was a bit beyond anything her subconscious would muster up. Unless it was supposed to have been something meant to help her move about with no legs, but if so, it obviously hadn’t worked.

Luckily, her blood legs worked perfectly.

Under other circumstances, she might have left it behind and pursued a way to get out of Hell, or to at least get a message out to Devon. He would surely summon her. But the strange obelisk wouldn’t have just appeared in her domain for absolutely no reason.

Rubbing her hand, or the blood making up her hand, over the surface, Eva found it completely smooth. The liquid couldn’t find any holes or seams. Each corner was just as solid as the rest of the structure.

Eva did realize a slight problem with her hands as she moved her hand over the obelisk. While she could tell that the obsidian was as smooth as glass, she couldn’t feel it. She saw it. Just like she saw all sources of blood. Her fingers didn’t have nerves. The obelisk could be scalding to the touch and she wouldn’t know. Arachne’s hands suffered from a similar problem, as they were a hard carapace exoskeleton, but there had still been some tactile sense feeding back to her mind.

There might be a solution buried somewhere in her blood books, but it wasn’t such a big deal that she had to drop everything and work on it right this very second. Just a minor annoyance.

Backing away from it, Eva turned and walked out of the alternate women’s ward. The sandy ground was annoying when grains got caught within the blood making up her feet. Too much and she would lose control of the blood as it became more contaminated. Hardening the soles of her feet solved that problem for the moment, but she could fix it with a little construction work around her domain.

First, however, she had a different project in mind.

Standing clear of the women’s ward building and the obelisk sticking out from the center, Eva concentrated on tearing down everything. Her entire domain needed to return to its base state from coast to coast.

Thankfully, her domain bent a knee to her will. The entire alternate women’s ward cracked and shuddered. Bits and pieces chipped off, falling to the ground where they broke apart further. In seconds, the building was indistinguishable from the sand of the island.

All that was left was Eva, a little tree without any leaves, and the towering obelisk.

Of those three, only two were supposed to be around. Eva still wasn’t sure what purpose the tree served, but it had been there on her very first visit. Staring at it, she couldn’t alter it in any way no matter how much she concentrated. It stayed its same brown twiggy sapling without sprouting leaves or crumbling to sand. Some day, she would ask Arachne or Catherine about it. Maybe they had trees in the center of their domains. Maybe they had built their domains over the top of the trees and had completely forgotten that they existed in the centuries since then. Maybe they had nothing at all and it was something unique in Eva’s domain.

For the time being, however, Eva turned her attention over to the obelisk. Bare now that it didn’t have the women’s ward surrounding it, Eva could see it without obstruction. Which only made it seem larger than before. Like the tree, it remained static no matter how much she concentrated. The women’s ward had crumbled to sand at a mere thought. This thing didn’t seem to notice how hard she was thinking at it.

Neither did it light up, change color, turn from the glossy obsidian to a rough granite, or anything else she tried to do with it.

Which really meant only one thing. It wasn’t a part of her domain. It was something foreign.

Something left over from Life’s assault? A beacon? Except Life had been using the enigmas as beacons. Living creatures fit much better with its theme than cold structures, even if the enigmas didn’t count as living ‘enough’ for the sake of her blood magic.

So Void then? Why would it plop down a big obelisk in the middle of her domain. In the middle of her women’s ward, no less. The island wasn’t large, but there was plenty of space outside the walls of the alternate women’s ward. Void could have put it somewhere else without forcing her to relocate her building.

“What a jerk,” she mumbled as she walked back up to the obelisk. For a moment, she considered digging under the sand just to see how deep it went. A better idea came to her. Reaching out again, she brushed her hand over the obelisk. This time, she allowed her hand to partially uncouple from her body. A skeletal finger’s worth of blood dribbled down the smooth slope of the obelisk. Just before the dribble hit the sand, she formed a crystal shell around most of it, protecting it from the sand.

And it burrowed. Deep. Deeper. So far down that Eva eventually lost control as it went out of her range somewhere around two stories deep. Still, there was more to it beneath that. Maybe only an inch. Maybe a mile. She couldn’t tell.

The obelisk grew larger and larger the deeper it went. The angle of the four sides wasn’t that noticeable, but even a single degree could mean thousands of miles if the distance was far enough.

She started to consider just how deep it could possibly be before realizing that she hadn’t the slightest idea how Hell actually functioned. Maybe the obelisk went on literally forever. Maybe if she dug far enough, she would fall into nothingness for eternity. Something similar to the pit in Ylva’s domain.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change the fact that part of the obelisk was above the surface.

Pressing a hand to it again, Eva started to channel some of her magic into it as if it were a rune array or ritual circle of any type. Mostly on a whim. If it failed to produce any notable results, there really wasn’t much else to do with an inert pillar of stone. However, turning her attentions towards returning to Earth wasn’t really appealing so long as there was any sort of distraction. Hence her whim.

Honestly, she didn’t know where to begin in escaping from Hell. There had to be a way out from the Hell side. It couldn’t be a commonly known way out or even a remotely obvious way out. Earth would have been overrun with demons long ago if any old demon could find it.

Eva didn’t consider herself any old demon. Technically, unless something unintended had occurred during the corruption of Life, she was still a sliver human. And that just might be what she needed to get out. Otherwise, there were things to try. When she teleported, she knew that she at least partially left the mortal realm and dipped her toes into Hell. If she could enter the waters and think of a place filled with meat passageways, she just might be able to break into the tunnel from the Hell side.

Of course, she was just as likely to wind up facing some horrible cleaver-wielding demon constantly on the lookout for fresh meat.

That was all for if this obelisk didn’t do anything. At the moment, with her hand pressed against it, she could feel her magic flowing into it. There was a place for it to go. Something inside it accepted her magic.

But it wasn’t actually doing anything. No lights brightening it up, no mystic portals opening up to spit out demons or enigmas, nor any portals opening up to any other plane of existence.

With a frown, Eva pulled her hand away. The obsidian was just as smooth as it had been before. No hand-shaped mark. As another thought crossed her mind, Eva pulled all the blood of her hand back into her body. With nothing more than bare skin, she reached out.

Once again, she tried pressing magic into the obelisk. This time, she really opened the floodgates. If it needed bare skin contact, she had that covered. If it just needed more magic to fill its massive size, the torrential deluge of magic she was releasing should fill it to the brim. It was like trying to overpower thirty of her most explosive fireballs at once while teleporting. Every scrap of magic filling her veins that was not keeping her legs cohesive flooded into the obelisk.

This time, she got a reaction.

A faint glow. A red light right at the very tip. Barely notable. In fact, the only reason she did notice it was because of the pitch black sky in the background.

But red was a good color. Had it been violet, she might have stopped the instant she noticed. Red, Eva associated with demons. Which meant that it was probably not something Life had left behind to restart the rending of the borders between planes. She didn’t know what it was for.

Perhaps it was a gift. She had done fairly well in averting the apocalypse, in her opinion. It might not have gone exactly as Void had planned, but Void hadn’t seemed too upset during her brief death at the hunter’s hands.

She held it as long as she could. But the dim light never got any brighter. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she tore her hand away. The sweat dripping from her forehead flung through the air as she collapsed down onto the sandy beach.

For a moment there, she almost forgot to keep her blood circulating. Which represented a certain weakness in her new heart—aside from the obvious need to replace it eventually with another bloodstone, perhaps one from her void metal dagger if she could find it. It might take time, but she should heal. She was demonic enough. Her heart would come back sometime. Until then, she absolutely needed to make circulating her blood such a habit, such a regular act of her subconscious that she could circulate it properly while she was asleep or otherwise unconscious.

Something to work on.

Once she was certain that her body wasn’t going to unexpectedly shut down, Eva looked long and hard at the once again dim obelisk. Even straining herself to the breaking point didn’t do enough. There was something, but not enough.

Which made her wonder if two people would do any better. Or four; there were four sides, after all. Unfortunately, as she had been lamenting earlier, she didn’t know three demons in Hell. At least not three she wanted to meet with.

But this was her domain. Why should she need other people? It could conjure up buildings and people-like simulacra like Eva could conjure up fireballs. The entire place was more or less under her control.

Eva took a moment to reform her legs—they had gone a little jelly-like when she had collapsed—before standing and once again pressing her arm against the obelisk. This time, she only let a trickle of magic pass through her arm.

Most of her concentration went into her domain. The magic of the world that surrounded her. She focused hard, imagining a massive hand squeezing it all down into the obelisk, pressing and draining every droplet of magical energy from the ambient air against the pillar.

With the force of her domain behind her, Eva watched the top of the obelisk. The red light increased in intensity. It doubled over, steadily brightening. But it didn’t stop there. It kept doubling its brightness, reaching a point where Eva had to look away to avoid her eyes burning out.

The current of magic charged the air, making the hairs on Eva’s arms stand on end. At the same time, a pressure built up. Opening and closing her jaw made her ears pop like she had been driving up a steep hill.

As she poured more magic into the obelisk, she could feel the receptacle she had noticed earlier filling up. The reservoir, though deep, was not infinite. It had a ways to go. She increased the efforts of her domain to fill it while keeping herself from straining.

The popping in her ears turned to a loud crack.

Eva found herself flying backwards, leaving her legs behind. It took her a moment as she flew through the air to realize what happened. A quick thought just before she hit a bank of sand drew some of her legs back to her body, but a good portion of the blood had already sunk into the sand around the obelisk.

Veins of red ran down the sides of the obelisk, branching and splitting as they moved downwards, becoming individually thinner but densely coating the sides. It became so dense that Eva couldn’t tell that there was any of the obsidian left from ten feet off the sand and below. And it didn’t stop there. It continued downwards below the sand, presumably until it hit some sort of base. Even if Eva could sense that far down, she wouldn’t have been able to see the lines. They weren’t blood. All she could see was a faint glow squeezing between the grains of sand in a short radius around the obelisk.

Eva stared, rebuilding her legs—much shorter now than they were before—as she waited for it to do something. Though, for all she knew, it might take a good few hours before the red reached the bottom. If it ever did.

It had thrown her away like a used washcloth while still drinking of the magic of her domain. She could feel the flow, though only tangentially. Eva didn’t think that she would run out of magic anytime soon. Her domain was a part of her, yet not. Her subconscious and conscious both contributed to how it worked. The amount of magic it would take to build and destroy nearly anything at will, including semi-sapient constructs of people, had to be extreme. Given that she had never heard of a demon running out of magic in their domain, it had to be excessive.

Or she just didn’t know enough demons.

But all of Hell was essentially a part of Void. That had been the whole point behind Life’s plans in drawing Hell to the mortal realm. It was a way to get at Void. So unless this obelisk was meant to exhaust the magical ability of a Power, she doubted she had to worry about much.

In fact, seeing that it would probably take some time, Eva conjured up a chair. The sands around her rose up, molding into smooth leather as she sat down. The soft cushions of one of the Rickenbacker lobby chairs cradled her, taking away the need to keep legs of blood formed. Comfortable, she sat back and waited.

Something had to happen eventually.

— — —

“An attack,” Dean Anderson said. “An attack on what we stand for. What we are doing here.” He gazed out, peering over the assembled cameras and reporters. Mostly mundane, but there were a number of obvious mages standing around the crowd. “Make no mistake,” he continued in his most authoritative voice, “there are those who do not agree with the decisions of Brakket Academy, Nod Complex, Faultline, Isomer, and Mount Hope to disclose information about the magical community to the world at large.”

Zoe found herself frowning. If her memory served, and she had no reason to doubt it at the moment, Anderson had sprung the idea on the other schools. Faultline, at the very least, had been upset. Mount Hope and the Nod Complex had far more subdued reactions to his announcement during the initial feast between the schools. They very well might have known beforehand.

Yet framing the incident as an attack against all of them made the other schools far more likely to stand with Brakket Academy against criticism and adversity. Which was more of a public relations move on his part than a real call to action. There was no real enemy. Not in the manner he was implying.

Zoe refrained from interrupting. He had obviously put a some thought into what to say. She would wait and see if anything was morally objectionable beyond lying about the potential apocalyptic situation they had been in. Frankly, telling the layperson about an averted apocalypse would probably be worse than lying about nonexistent terrorists. So, with a sigh, she pushed the imaginary dull pain in her missing arm away and focused on his speech.

“Fools,” he said, making Zoe glad she was sitting behind him along with most of the rest of the various schools’ staff members. A bit of spittle might have escaped his mouth as he spoke. “Releasing dangerous creatures into the city? Creating that ghastly illusion in our skies to frighten off good and wholesome people? What do you hope to accomplish by harming children and innocents?”

He slammed his fists down on the podium, sending a loud crack through the assembled microphones. Zoe could actually believe that he was honestly angry.

“It is too late to go back to the way things were. It has been too late for a long time.” Anderson held up a cellphone, raising it high over the microphone-covered podium. “You, who attacked us, may be unfamiliar with mundane technology given your desire to cling to the old ways. Nearly every mundane human carries one of these. They are getting smaller, faster, and smarter.” He flipped it over, pointing towards the camera. “They record everything, uploading pictures and videos to data servers where the images become nigh impossible to remove. It is a wonder, an absolute shock that knowledge of magic was only as widespread as it was before our tournament.”

He dropped his hands to his sides, putting on an expression of remorse. “And yet you would sabotage this attempt at peaceful revelation. I can only hope that whatever trust has been broken between our societies because of this incident can be repaired.”

Silence befell the briefing area as Anderson dipped his head in a solemn nod of respect. It took a few moments for the silence to be broken.

One of the reporters stood, holding up a hand. He didn’t wait to be called upon before blurting out a question. “Do you know who is behind the attacks on the school?”

“Specifically? No. As a group, they’re terrorists, nothing more. We have people attempting to uncover their identities.”

“Hank Hanson,” Hank said as he stood up with an award-winning smile.

Among all the reporters in the audience, very few had actually been present for the ‘attack’ with the exception of Hank. The only real evidence of that was the matted gauze pad on his face from where he had gotten a bit too close to an enigma in his overzealous attempt to get an up-close story. Frankly, he was lucky to have survived. One of the various demons had apparently saved him.

And yet, he was still smiling. Perhaps more impressively, he hadn’t run off screaming.

“You say that you have people looking into their identities. Is it common for schools to take care of constabulary duties?”

“The magical society is not as large as our mundane counterparts. We don’t have anything like a standing army or police force. The Royal Guild of Mage-Knights,” he said with a vague wave of his hand towards where Redford sat not far from Zoe, “are trained bounty hunters who we are working closely with us to bring these terrorists to justice.”

Redford’s hands rubbed over the top of his cane as he stared out with a deep scowl on his face. Zoe had told Anderson the truth, but she had no idea what he had told Redford. Were the members of the Guild looking for terrorists that didn’t actually exist?

“One more question,” Hank said before another reporter could stand up. “Have you…”

He trailed off. Zoe couldn’t figure out why until she noticed the ashen faces of the rest of the crowd of reporters. Most were staring at some point over Anderson’s head. Anderson realized that something was wrong as well and turned to look along with most of the staff.

On the horizon of the city, a faint red glow had encompassed the rooftops. The center point, the area that glowed the brightest, was straight towards where the obelisk was.

Panic quickly set in. Of course it had. They were in a meeting discussing the actions of terrorists. Whether or not those terrorists actually existed didn’t matter. The reporters didn’t know the truth. And that horizon looked an awful lot like another attack.

A thunderclap coming from Redford’s cane as he slammed it down onto the ground silenced the slowly mounting noise. In the same motion, he created a dome overhead. “Do not panic,” he shouted out. “We will keep everyone safe.”

Anderson looked to the staff, to all of the remaining professors, but especially the security guards. “Ensure the students don’t come to harm,” he said loud enough for the reporters to hear.

Zoe shared a look with Wayne. Just a brief look. They wouldn’t be heading to the dormitory buildings. A silent agreement passed between them. Wayne teleported away first.

“It’s always one thing after another,” Anderson mumbled just before Zoe disappeared.

She reappeared on the far end of the street from the obelisk—no sense teleporting into the middle of a hundred enigmas or demons if it was some sort of invasion. Wayne apparently had the same idea. He wasn’t standing far from Zoe.

His eyes twitched back and forth in the tell-tale signs of mental acceleration, so she didn’t bother saying anything for the moment. Instead, she surveyed the situation.

The obelisk was covered in veins of red lines, all lit up like a Christmas tree. A very ominous and slightly evil Christmas tree.

But that was it. No monsters running about attacking people. The dark area of sand around the obelisk wasn’t spreading. Or, if it was, it was spreading so slowly that Zoe couldn’t tell. The few mage-knights who Anderson hired to watch over it were backing away slowly, but none of them were being eaten alive or disintegrated by some wave of magical energy.

Zoe breathed out a sigh of relief.

Still… perhaps it was time to evacuate Brakket City. Anderson might not like it. Then again, he didn’t like much of anything. It could be temporary. Catherine had been concerned over the obelisk for about a day until her search for more came up with nothing substantial. It was entirely possible that these obelisks were merely benign remnants from the ritual.

Better to be safe than sorry.

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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.”

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010.008

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Eva froze, staring at the creature. It scampered off to hide the moment she snapped her head over, but she continued staring. The thing had spoken. Words—her name—had come out of its mouth.

“I thought you couldn’t get it to talk,” Eva said without taking her eyes off the thing.

“It didn’t do anything but growl and slobber when I tried speaking with it.” Catherine leaned forward, nearly touching the bars of the cell with her face.

“That was my name, right?”

“I doubt it actually knows the context of what it said. I’ve said Eva once or twice during our conversation. Devon has as well, right? I probably said your name while trying to get it to speak as well. Like a parrot, it is merely repeating what it heard. Eva has been a fairly common word around it. Likely when you first captured it as well. Arachne or Zoe probably said your name.”

The enigma pressed itself to the floor behind the twisted remains of the bed frame. The frame wasn’t doing much at all to hide the creature’s body. Only its face. But its two pointed ears, which had been lying flat against its skull, perked up and twitched every so often as Catherine spoke.

Eva spent several minutes attempting to coax the creature out of hiding. It didn’t speak once. None of her words to it seemed to do a single thing.

“If it was just repeating a common name, it would have said ‘the’ or ‘I’ or something else that we say far more often than my name,” Eva said with a deep frown.

“Perhaps it is that human thing.”

Eva finally took her eyes off the enigma—it wasn’t doing much of anything at the moment—and stared at Catherine. She had a slight sinking feeling in her stomach. “What human thing?”

Catherine grinned. “Human babies’ first words are often calling out to their parents. A similar thing could be occurring here.”

Shaking her head, Eva said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a proper response. Besides, if that were the case, its first word should have been Catherine.”

“Very funny.”

“Still, if it said a word, maybe it can say more. Maybe to the point where it will understand what it is saying and what is being said. Of course, you might have to teach it like a human. It will take time, effort, love, and care and nurturing.”

That wiped the smile right off Catherine’s face. Taking a few steps away from the cell, she paused with a shake of her head. “I believe this ‘communication’ experiment has run its course. No valuable data can be gained from continuing attempts to meaningfully interact. Lynn wanted to dissect it. I think I will tell her that she is free to do so.”

The tone Catherine spoke with had Eva wondering if she was serious or not. On one hand, the enigma probably didn’t have any answers to questions that she might ask. If the creature had only recently gained sapience—if it was even sapient now—then it probably wouldn’t be able to tell much of its goals, purpose, or its patron Power. On the other hand, it might be amusing to convince an enigma to fight against its creator.

Eva ran a finger over the whistle in her pocket. Depending on exactly how Sawyer’s whistle worked, it might not take much convincing. She had actually forgotten about it until a few minutes before going to check on the enigmas. Despite having them ready to be the perfect test subjects, Eva was a little hesitant to use it.

It looked like it had been carved out of bone. Knowing Sawyer, it had to be human bone. Anything less just wouldn’t fit with him. But she wasn’t hesitant because it was bone, rather because it had belonged to Sawyer. Eva couldn’t help but shudder. It was a whistle. That meant his lips had touched it. In fact, she had seen his lips on it.

Still, she might have to use it. If not on the hellhound-enigma, then on the one still lost in the city.

Leaving it in her pocket, Eva threw one last look at the still cowering enigma before following Catherine out of the cell block. The enigma was probably not going anywhere. If Devon thought his containment was close to failing, he would have stayed behind and fixed it up. However, Catherine was going somewhere and Eva still had a few things to discuss with her.

Only for Eva to nearly bump into Catherine as she stepped out the main door.

She only had a moment to realize that Catherine was staring up at the sky before actually bumping into her. Though it wasn’t Eva’s fault.

The ground shaking sent Eva straight into Catherine’s backside.

“Oh no,” Eva said, pushing herself away from Catherine to stare at the sky. “Not again.”

Catherine, having maintained perfect balance despite Eva, just turned her head back to the sky. “I didn’t see anything fall before you bumped into me.”

“Things could have fallen beforehand. Last time, there was a good hour between things falling and the earthquake. Call Nel,” Eva said, patting Catherine on the shoulder as she moved around her to get out of the cell block. “see if she found anything. I need to grab my dagger.”

She had promised herself, and Anderson a little, that she wouldn’t use blood magic while the other schools and cameras were around. However, there came a point where pragmatism won out over caution. If there were more enigmas running around, she didn’t want to come out unarmed. A few vials of blood and her dagger would make her feel much better. So long as she kept her dagger hidden, she could probably pass off the blood as some demon thing.

As for the whistle… well, if more did fall from the sky…

Eva really needed to put it through an acid bath. That would clean off any remnants of Sawyer. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the time or the acid.

Maybe she could coat her mouth with semi-solidified blood that she could just obliterate later on. Did it say something bad about her that she would rather have demon blood in her mouth than a whistle that might have lightly brushed against Sawyer’s lips a time or two? Probably not.

“Eva!” Arachne called out. Eva had barely made it halfway to the women’s ward before Arachne made it to her. She ran up, placing a hand on either of Eva’s shoulders. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Nothing happened here. Grabbing my dagger and some blood. Then we’re heading over to Brakket.”

The carapace making up Arachne’s mouth curled back into a teeth-baring grimace. “Must we?” she said, voice low. “You have no obligation to keep those humans safe. There are security guards and bounty hunters there. We have already captured one enigma for any testing we could possibly need. There is no reason to throw yourself into danger.”

Eva sighed. It was true. She didn’t need to do anything. Genoa would be keeping Juliana safe. Shalise as well. Irene had Saija constantly shadowing her and Jordan could take care of himself. And, as Arachne had said, Brakket had a security force. Apparently.

In that light, there might not be much of a reason to run.

“Except,” Eva said slowly, patting Arachne on the arm. “What happens if an enigma crash landed right on the ritual circle?”

Arachne’s grimace twisted even further. “I suppose we should take care of it.”

“At least check it out. And maybe nothing happened this time. Normal earthquakes do happen. This could just be an aftershock from the one the other day.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Not in the slightest!” Eva slipped around Arachne. “I’ll just be a moment. Check in with Catherine around the enigma cells. See if she got a hold of Nel.”

Blinking twice had Eva just in front of the women’s ward doors. She dashed inside, grabbed her dagger from its spot just next to the copper engraved plate that Juliana had gifted her, and ran back outside. Another few blinks and Eva found herself right next to Catherine and Arachne.

“Well?”

Catherine glanced over to Eva as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. Which, when Eva thought about it, was probably a good reason to wear clothes. If Catherine didn’t wear clothes everywhere and suddenly needed her phone, she would either have had to carry it everyone or go pick it up.

“Nel was out of town with Ylva. Not sure what they were doing. As such, she didn’t see anything fall. Which doesn’t mean that nothing fell. Once she gets back, she said that she will start scanning the streets of Brakket.”

“Well great,” Eva mumbled as she sent off a text message to Zoe. If nothing actually fell from the sky, there was no need to rush. Though, even if nothing had fallen, she should still check in with the ritual circle to ensure that the earthquake hadn’t damaged anything.

And, now that she was thinking about it, she should probably have Catherine retake pictures sometime.

“Arachne, we’re teleporting there. Shrink down, if you want to come. Catherine…” Eva trailed off, scratching the short hair on the back of her head. “Well, you can do whatever you want, I guess.”

“I’ll remain here. If more enigmas fell, I should ensure that those we have captured do not escape.”

With a nod of her head, Eva started building up magic within herself. Arachne climbed up her leg and perched at her shoulder. A moment later and both were hurling through the fleshy tunnel between Hell and Brakket Academy.

— — —

Zoe paced back and forth in Wayne’s office. She passed by the colorful jars of potions and ingredients that lined every available space on the walls without so much as glancing around. It wasn’t the first time she had entered his office. Most of the potions weren’t real potions anyway. Or if they were, they were so old that ingesting them would give someone quite the stomach ache at best. The potion bottles were purely decorative. A little fancy touch to his room to impress students and parents that entered.

Of course, anyone who actually knew Wayne would know that he wasn’t really the type to go for superfluous decorations. Zoe—while she had been much younger, just after Wayne landed his job as professor—had been the one to set it up for him. In all the years since, he had never bothered to change it.

In fact, it was about time she dusted again.

While she paced, Wayne sat hunched over his desk, staring at the top.

Wayne hadn’t said a word in quite some time. Not since she had dropped a pack of papers on his desk. With Catherine’s help, she had scaled down the ritual circle’s primary plans to fit on nine sheets of paper. A great deal of details had been lost, but Wayne wasn’t trained that heavily in ritual circles anyway. He might notice, but it was a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. If he really wanted to see a more detailed version, she didn’t have a problem showing him.

She hadn’t fully explained what the ritual did. The subject was hard enough to broach. For now, she had told him that it was designed to help close off the connection between Hell, Life’s domain, and Earth. Which, assuming it did what Eva said it would do, shouldn’t be too far from the truth.

But between the earthquake the other day and what it likely meant about just how impending an apocalypse was… Really, she– They all had known about it for nearly a year now. Compared with every other thing in her life, an impending apocalypse wasn’t quite something that she could quantify in her mind. Not even the Lansing Incident could compare. Zoe imagined it was similar for the others. It was too big.

As such, though she wouldn’t admit it to anyone save perhaps Wayne, Zoe was secretly glad that Eva had been doing something about it. Even if that something was creating a ritual circle of dubious intentions apparently designed by a Power.

Zoe bit the edge of her lip as she looked over to Wayne. He had no formal training in ritual circles and yet he had been staring at the papers for well over ten minutes. Testing the waters, she tried clearing her throat.

The creases on his brow smoothed over as he glanced up to meet Zoe’s eyes.

“You said that this ritual is supposed to be large?”

Nodding her head, Zoe approached the desk. She pointed out each of the small circles dotted around the ritual circle. “People are supposed to stand inside each one of these to help power the ritual circle. I’ve checked over it and each circle is designed in the same manner. Magic can pass from within the smaller circles out into the larger ritual, but not the reverse. Regardless of what the circle actually does, they should be safe.”

Wayne sighed with a shake of his head. “That you had to tell me that does not speak well for… anything, really.”

“I know.” Zoe hung her head, staring at the lines on the sheets of paper. “But I’ve yet to hear any better solutions. And after the earthquake the other day and everything involved with it, I’m worried we’ve got less time than anyone was thinking we had.”

“Do keep in mind that everything we know about this so-called apocalypse comes from a demon. Worse, Zagan. That… man did not sit well with me from the moment he showed up as a teacher.”

Zoe leaned back, crossing her arms. “Oh? Monsters raining from the sky is just a normal part of life then?” She frowned as she realized something. “I suppose that’s par for the course in my life.”

Wayne pressed his hands to his desk as he stood. He stood like that, back bent with his hands unmoving. “Look, Zoe,” he said, voice far softer than she had heard it in years. “I don’t know what you hoped to accomplish by bringing this to me. Obviously I’m not going to like it. But it isn’t something I can offer meaningful advice on. If you construct this, you should be exceedingly careful. Both about the circle and those you’re working with.”

Shifting slightly, Zoe pressed her lips together. The ritual circle was essentially complete. Or it had been the other day when Eva showed it to her. Assuming Eva had kept up work, it might even be finished. He didn’t need to help in the slightest. “I wanted you to know. To realize what I’m doing. So that you weren’t blindsided if you stumble across me building a ritual circle. And your help… well, any insights you can offer would be appreciated, but myself and Catherine–”

Wayne let out a loud scoff. “Sometimes I wish we had never found that girl.”

“Sometimes?”

“All the time. I tried to leave her behind, you know.”

“So you remind me every time something happens. Still, things would still have happened. Perhaps not in the way that they did, but there could still have been some impending Armageddon. We would just be ignorant of it. With that in mind, I’m glad we’re the ones to know about it. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

“And you’re so sure that this–” He put a finger down in the center of the printed papers, “–is right?”

“That’s what Catherine and I hope to find out. And before you scoff again, Catherine likely would have been around Brakket Academy with or without Eva’s presence. Dean Halsey was well on her way out and Martina well on her way in long before Eva’s first year. Zagan as well.”

“And that,” he grumbled, “is scoff-worthy on its own.”

Turning from his desk, he moved up to the shelves of flasks just behind his chair. He pulled off a tall bottle of amber liquid. Reaching behind the other bottles, he grabbed hold of two short glasses. He slid the papers over to make room for a glass in front of each of them.

Zoe raised an eyebrow. “You never accept my invitations to Tom’s bar. I thought you quit.”

“It’s just an occasional thing. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I like my head on straight more often than not these days. Every five minutes seems like something life threatening is going on. But it seems we never just have nice social nights anymore.”

Just as he started to pour, all the bottles, vials, and jars on the shelves started to rattle. Alcohol ran off his desk from where his pouring failed to connect with the glass. Zoe felt the ground shaking beneath her shoes. One bottle shook itself off a shelf, shattering against the floor of his office, before Wayne could reach over and place a hand on his tome.

As soon as he did, a semi-translucent barrier appeared over all the walls, keeping the glass trapped in place.

Wayne just sighed. “See. Like this. I try to relax for five minutes and now we’ve got another quake.”

Zoe jumped to her feet, feeling far less nonchalant than Wayne’s exasperated tone. Her first thought was to check her phone. Perhaps in her pacing and nervousness, she had missed messages from Eva, Nel, or Catherine. But there were no recent messages. No missed calls.

“Well,” Wayne said, moving to his feet with a certain sluggishness as the momentary tremor died off, “might as well go see what the damage is.”

“I hope it was just an aftershock from the quake the other day.”

“Yeah, hope hasn’t done much for us lately. If that was just a simple quake, I’ll drink the whole bottle at once,” he said, corking the opening. He set it down only for another slight tremor to send it rolling off his desk. There was plenty of time to catch it even if he wasn’t enhancing his thought processes. However, he just stood and stared, watching as it shattered against the ground. “I suppose that answers that question.”

Zoe just rolled her yes. “Come on. We need to make sure the students are safe. Then just hope that Brakket’s security team handled everything else.”

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