Tag Archives: Saija

010.024

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

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

She had been too slow.

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

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

Slowly, Zoe stood and turned to face the hunter.

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

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

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

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

“Any ideas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, the hunter had skipped those lessons.

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

Saija crashed down in a heap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In more ways than one.

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fool he was.

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

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

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

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

What a pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or bloody.

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

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

Though her eyes still made him shift where he stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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010.020

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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.

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010.004

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“Dean Anderson here.”

Eva sat on the edge of a table, staring out the window. So far, nothing had fallen from the sky that she had been able to see. Neither had anything approached the building. In fact, the pulsing of the violet streaks had died down to their usual levels of activity. Or inactivity, as the case was.

Around her, most of the students had lost their nervousness. They were going about class as normal. Even Juliana had gone back to her seat after watching and not finding anything too alarming after several minutes. Or, as normal as class got when they weren’t allowed to leave a full half an hour after class normally ended. Eva hadn’t actually continued with the lesson, choosing instead to stare out the window for the entire time. Surprisingly enough, Professor Lepus hadn’t objected to her watching out the window. She did walk past with a few disapproving looks every now and again, but apparently the situation was odd enough that she was willing to overlook a few people not studying.

Only Arachne sat with her.

She hadn’t yet received a response from Zoe, though telling her that things were falling from the sky probably wasn’t much to go off of. Neither had she received another message from Nel. Of course, Nel was probably out with Ylva and not looking at her phone at the moment.

In fact, the first message about the outside world was likely to be Anderson’s message. So she turned slightly to better give her attention to the overhead speakers.

“The emergency situation has been resolved. Or, to be more accurate, it wasn’t that big of an emergency. Still, given the matters announced at the feast, we felt it prudent to take immediate action to ensure the safety of the school and its inhabitants. There will be a more detailed announcement later, but for now: Someone or something may have modified the weather experiment over Brakket Academy. We do not believe there to be any immediate danger but will continue to investigate. As always, any suspicious persons or creatures should be avoided and reported to Brakket Academy security. Thank you for listening, you are all free to go about your business. The rest of school has been canceled for the day.”

Silence followed the announcement for a good thirty seconds. Professor Lepus was the first to speak.

“Well. What a waste of time. Now the class that should have been in this timeslot is going to be behind schedule,” she said, more mumbling to herself than actually speaking to the class. “I’ll have to catch them up in a hurry.”

“So, we can leave right?” one of the Isomer guests said.

“Apparently,” Professor Lepus said with a sigh. “That is what the message said. Go on and clear out,” she said a little louder to the rest of the class. “I’ve got lessons to reorganize.”

As the students packed up their books and tablets and whatever else they had been occupying themselves with during their detention, two walked over to Eva.

Srey, shaking off his few admirers, moved up a few paces away from Eva. “What was that all about?”

“No idea. Going to go find out in a few minutes, however.”

“The announcement mentioned creatures,” Juliana said, clipping the rest of her sentence with a quick yawn. She went up and peered out the window again for a few moments before turning to face Eva. Brushing a hand back over her ear, she pushed some hair back and revealed a line running up the side of her face where it had been pressed into the desk, sleeping. “He didn’t mention any creatures the other night.”

“Enigmas maybe? Or demons.”

“I can feel something out there,” Arachne said, sliding around Eva to look out the window properly. “Can’t tell what. But then, most demons don’t feel overwhelmingly strong. So they’re either extremely weak or fairly far out. Possibly both.”

Eva hummed for a moment, considering. “Enigmas fit better with the term creatures, but it could be hellhounds or something similar.” As Eva spoke, she checked her phone again. Still no message from Nel. She sent out a simple one asking what they had found. “So we’ve been given the all clear by the school. No reason to stick around. Let’s go find out..” Eva trailed off as she noticed the face Juliana made.

“I don’t know that my mother would be too happy with me running around the city.”

“That’s a good point,” Eva said after a slight hum. “Does your mother know what happened?”

“I sent her a message about the announcement. She said she would be here soon.” Juliana pulled out her cellphone and typed out a few words. “There. Let her know it is over with.”

Eva nodded and turned back to the window. Both Brakket dormitory buildings stood tall outside along with the fountain and demon blood plaza. Nothing around wrecking them which usually seemed to be the case in such situations. In fact, she didn’t see a real need to run out aimlessly in the city anyway. She did want to go find where her clone had perished. Still, no pressing need for it.

“Why don’t we find Zoe then. See if she knows anything more. Your mother won’t object to you running around the school, would she?”

Juliana shrugged. “Don’t think so.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said. After slinging her bag up over her shoulder, she started out of the room with Juliana, Srey, and Arachne in tow. The hall was packed with students. More than normal, anyway. Packed wasn’t an easy state to achieve in Brakket Academy. Not even with all the other schools running around.

Maybe it just felt packed. Everyone was in their little groups. Some walking and talking, some just standing and talking. They were all talking. Eva didn’t even need to listen in to guess the topic. She hadn’t been the only one to notice the fluctuations in the violet streaks overhead.

A few pointed at her or otherwise glanced in her direction as she walked past. She had no idea why. Not beyond the obvious anyway. Even though he looked more or less human, most people knew Srey was a demon. Arachne stood out by appearance alone, as did Eva. After a few weeks around the new schools and several months with Brakket’s students, they shouldn’t stand out quite as much as they did. Perhaps some rumors had gone around about the last time a similar announcement had interrupted classes. Or maybe about the hunter she had fought and killed just before the other schools had arrived.

Eva ignored them and continued on her way.

Yet they didn’t even make it halfway to Zoe’s room before a group of students ran up to them. Saija headed said group, pulling Irene along at her side. Behind them, Jordan, Shelby, and Shalise all followed along.

“See. I told you she was here,” Saija said, slowing down with her hands on her hips. “I can always tell where Eva is.”

Eva held up a hand before anyone else could speak. “Something fell from the skies. I don’t know anything else. I also didn’t have anything to do with it. Whatever happened was entirely not my fault.”

Saija curled her lips slightly, showing off her sharp teeth. “And that just makes you sound guilty.”

Shrugging, Eva turned and continued walking towards Zoe’s classroom. “I’m stopping by Zoe’s office. I won’t object if you all want to come. But apparently the situation has resolved itself. According to the announcement. So there probably isn’t much need.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere on my own after–”

A low rumble in the ground cut Shalise off. The Earth shook, nearly sending the group to the ground. Only Saija, Arachne, and Eva—who grabbed a hold of Arachne’s arm—managed to avoid waving their arms around to retain their balance. No one said a word as they waited, widening their stances to brace themselves against any additional shocks.

Eva slowly let go of Arachne’s arm, standing on her own. “Huh,” she said when nothing else happened. “I wonder what that was about.” She half expected another announcement over the speakers. Even after waiting a few minutes, they stayed silent.

The hallway, however, did not. After the initial shocked silence wore off, everybody in the hallway exploded in conversation. Nobody really freaking out, but lots of questions. Especially from the foreign students, most asking if earthquakes were common around the area. The Faultline students, of which three were walking down the hall, barely seemed to notice the quake. She had thought their school was just a name, but maybe they lived right on top of an actual fault. She actually hadn’t looked up its location.

“I-I don’t like this,” Shalise said, wrapping her arms around herself as she glanced around. “There were earthquakes constantly, or nearly so, in Hell.” Her last word came out a little more than a whisper.

“There are earthquakes all the time on Earth,” Jordan said, voice soft but steady.

Shelby poked him in the side. “Not here there aren’t.”

“Well, no. Not here. At least not recently. There was a fairly sizable earthquake around Yellowstone in nineteen-fifty-nine.”

Shalise shook her head, moving slightly to lean against the brick wall. “And w-what are the odds that a natural earthquake just happens to happen after,” she paused, swallowing her saliva and licking her dried out lips as she glanced towards Eva. “After something fell from the sky. After that announcement.”

Frowning slightly, Shelby moved over to the wall and put an arm around Shalise’s shoulders and gave her a few comforting pats. Juliana moved closer as well, though she refrained from actually touching Shalise. Instead she just leaned against the wall with an uncomfortable look on her face. An almost sick look. Maybe she felt guilty over the Hell thing.

“Still, nothing has changed.” Eva paused as her group gave her flat looks. “I mean, nothing in terms of us not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Juliana leaned forward slightly, pulling out her cellphone and frowning at whatever she saw on the screen. She tapped out a short response before slipping it back into her pocket. “What are we going to do?”

Eva didn’t bother responding. A musical tune carried down the hall. The second Juliana heard it, she winced.

Genoa charged up the hallway with her cellphone in hand, obviously using it to track down Juliana. Eva had caught sight of her a few moments ago, which was really the only reason she hadn’t continued onwards to Zoe’s class. That and Zoe was with Genoa, both coming towards them.

“Juliana, you are going to be sticking with me.” Genoa paused for a moment, looking over the gathered students. Nodding towards the wall, she continued. “Shalise as well. The rest of you… well, I can’t order you around. However I suggest sticking with adults and finding safe places.” Genoa turned to address Eva. “I spotted two enigmas on my way here. There might be more.”

Eva glanced to Zoe, giving her a look. “I felt at least two demons out there as well. I can still feel them, though they’re extremely weak. Maybe imps?” she said with a glance to Arachne. She got a shrug in return. “And Nel said eight things fell when she texted me, though she didn’t elaborate much on what exactly they were. Ylva headed out to take care of some of them.”

“And with the announcement,” Zoe said, “I assume Brakket security took care of the remainder.”

“I didn’t realize that the security team had been replaced after the attack early in the summer.”

“He brought on two almost immediately after assuming Martina’s position, but hired another three after the armored hunter attacked. Though, unlike Martina’s security force, I do not believe any of them are demons. Most seem to be former mage-knights. Except for Lucy, that is.”

“Two security guards worked for the school and didn’t help fight that hunter?” Eva shook her head, deciding that it didn’t really matter how many security guards Brakket had if they weren’t going to help out in the big events. Supposedly they did something today with the things that fell from the sky, but for all Eva knew, that had actually been Ylva.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “let’s get out there and find out exactly what is going on. Nel and Ylva should have some information. It’s a bit worrying that Nel hasn’t messaged me back, but–” she cut herself off as her phone buzzed in her pocket. “Never mind,” she mumbled as she pulled up her messages.

Okay! Finished. We disabled four enigmas. Three of which were drawn into portals to Hell when they ‘perished,’ and left something behind. I don’t understand what that means, but Ylva seemed a little upset at it.

“Huh.”

“What is it?”

Rather than answer, Eva just handed her phone over to Zoe. Genoa leaned over to peer over her shoulder, both reading the message. It wasn’t a long message, but Zoe kept staring at it for a lot longer than Genoa. Eva actually had to clear her throat to startle Zoe into looking up.

“Right,” she said, handing it back to Eva. “And this doesn’t have anything to do with you?”

“For the twentieth time, no. I was just sitting in class and maybe trying to bait out the demon hunter at the same time. She didn’t bite. Something that fell from the sky targeted my fake body out in the city and landed on it.”

It had to have targeted her. Maybe if more than eight things had fallen she would have believed that random chance could have wound up with one landing on her. But eight? Brakket wasn’t a big city, but it was still a city. And if Genoa had seen a few on her way over from her house—completely out of the way from where Eva’s clone had been wandering around—then it wasn’t like they had all fallen on top of her.

“So I’m going to head out there and look around a bit.”

“Alone?”

“Arachne will be with me. I’m not opposed to others joining as well.”

Juliana glanced up to her mother and nodded her head towards Eva. Genoa pretended to ignore her, but did put on a slightly more thoughtful expression.

“Anyway, come with me or not, I would like to get moving before the blood dries too much.” Eva waited just a moment before she started walking. Arachne followed after her immediately. Zoe said a few words to Genoa before coming along as well. Despite Juliana’s glare, Genoa stayed where she was, as did the rest of her friends. Not even Saija moved to follow.

Eva didn’t mind so much. Fewer people meant traveling faster. As soon as she made it out one of the side doors, she picked up the pace, moving to a light jog. Just light enough to not completely outpace Zoe. Which had the unfortunate side-effect of inviting conversation.

“Enigmas falling from the sky?” Zoe asked between breaths. “Eva, this doesn’t have anything to do with your ritual circle, does it?”

“I don’t see how it could. The circle is still incomplete.”

Though that did remind Eva that she should text Catherine. Maybe more enigmas had fallen over towards the prison area that Nel had missed. The streaks through the sky did extend over the prison as well, after all. Come to think of it, someone should probably be checking the fields between and all around Brakket as well. It would be just Brakket Academy’s luck for an enigma to wander into town while everyone was unprepared.

“Anyway,” Eva said, “I assume this is just a natural progression of the apocalypse. Obviously nothing apocalyptic has happened just yet. Assuming it stops for the time being, that is. Zagan never did give us a time frame. Maybe little things will happen for the next three centuries before anything truly bad happens.” She slowed just a little to look at Zoe out of the corner of her eye. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Zoe started to respond, but Eva reached the end of Brakket Academy’s main campus, turned down the first street they came across and immediately slipped into an alley between two shops. Having been running right alongside Eva, Zoe just about missed the abrupt turn down the alley. Really, Eva didn’t need to take the alley. She had been walking on the open roads not far from Brakket. However, a few quick jaunts down a couple of alleys would save her a little backtracking.

Unlike Zoe, Arachne kept right at Eva’s side. She didn’t need prompting. Nor did Eva’s turn come as a surprise. Eva couldn’t say exactly why, but guessed that it related to Arachne’s fixation on Eva. Small tells in her body language showed Arachne where to go before Eva actually made the turn.

And yet she managed to keep her head turning around, scanning for potential threats on rooftops, streets, and shadowed building entryways. Really, every time she thought about it, Eva was all the more happy that Arachne was an ally and not an enemy.

“I still haven’t told Wayne,” Zoe said as they exited the final entryway. “I want his input before anything. Even if…” she trailed off with a glance at the sky as they slowed down.

Eva followed her gaze, glancing up as well. But there wasn’t much to look at. A gray, partially cloudy sky lined with purple veins. The streaks had returned to their previous stability, looking much the same as just a week prior. Something Eva took as a good sign. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining enigmas and demons anytime soon.

“It looks like we’ve got a little while. I still want your and Catherine’s input as well. In the meantime,” Eva slowed to a stop just in front of a large splatter of blood in the center of the sidewalk. “I would like to find out what attacked me specifically.”

Black blood covered a small portion of the sidewalk and street, barely glistening in the overcast day. Some even splashed up on the brickwork of a nearby bookshop. Not a hint of a person was left behind. Which Eva expected. Her blood clone was just that, blood. It had no bones or organs. Not even real skin, just blood with some magical food coloring to look like her held together in her shape. As soon as it had been disturbed to the point where it couldn’t hold together, the spell had broken and the magic had dispersed.

Sending off a burst of flame from her fingertips, Eva immolated every trace of the blood. Leaving parts of herself lying around for others to mess with just didn’t sit right with her, even if none of it could actually be used for more blood magic.

“This was the same bit of magic you used to fight me that one time?”

“Yep. Just a simple blood clone with orders to wander around. I was trying to draw out the hunter so Nel could get a bead on her. Didn’t work out quite how I hoped.” Eva glanced around, including back down the alley to the side of the bookstore. “No sign of whatever landed on it. I half expected mangled remains of something or other. Or maybe footprints leading away.”

There were a few droplets of her blood that had either splashed a great deal away or dripped from something. Eva, incinerating each droplet as she followed the trail, was leaning towards the latter theory. Especially once she found a few streaks of blood leading up the side of the bookstore. There weren’t any real claw marks, it was more like someone had dragged their hand along the wall. Maybe something capable of flying or levitating around. If something was flying, it was probably a demon. She hadn’t yet encountered an enigma with wings.

That she felt an extraordinarily faint presence nearby only confirmed that idea.

“Up on the roof,” Eva said as she incinerated the trail. It was a good thing the building was made of bricks. A wooden bookstore probably wouldn’t have survived even her tiny flames half as well. As soon as she had finished, she blinked straight upwards, higher than the top of the roof. Once up high, she blinked to a standing position right on the ledge of the building. Arachne followed her up, though by sprouting a few extra legs and scaling the wall rather than teleporting.

Zoe made it up as well, teleporting herself directly to the top without the intervening hop. But Eva barely paid attention to the blast of cold air that accompanied her disappearing.

Her eyes were focused on the creature curled up at the far corner of the next roof over. Just barely out of the range of her blood sense. Its four arms and two legs were covered in fur, which it was licking and grooming as a cat might, but with a humanoid face. The rest of its body was a smooth skin, fur stopping abruptly just above the elbows and knees. Its back had wings, which explained the droplets of blood, but that wasn’t all. A series of tentacles curled around it protectively. Each capped with a tiny mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Eva grit her own teeth, staring at a large gouge in the side of the creature. Violet blood dripped down its bare stomach, matting the dark fur.

“An enigma?” she hissed. But it felt like a demon.

The moment she spoke, two pointed ears on top of the creature’s head perked and angled towards her.

A beat passed before it sprung up, landing on all six legs. Twin tails stuck straight up in the air, black fur puffed out as wide as it could go as it bared its sharp teeth—both on its face and its tentacles—in Eva’s direction.

All at once, it turned and spread its wings.

“Catch it,” Eva shouted as it took off, already running after it.

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