Tag Archives: Vektul

010.018

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What did you do to Arachne?

The thing using her body spun around, whipping out its tail mere inches from Eva’s face.

Eva didn’t flinch. Mostly because of her anger, but partially because she was so used to not moving that doing so actually felt awkward. Instead, Eva kept up her glare while trying to keep her breathing under control. This thing, this being, could probably snap her like a twig and crush her to powder as easily as Eva could step on an ant. Attacking it couldn’t go over well no matter how she thought about it.

In that respect, standing around for the entire ritual without being able to act on her anger had done wonders to calm her down. It let her think without being consumed with hatred.

So she simply put all of that hatred into her glare. The thing thought it could take over Arachne. She might need it now to deal with Life, but that wouldn’t last forever. There had to be some way of destroying it. Perhaps she could ask the demon hunter.

Destroying this form will harm me no more than plucking a hair from your head would harm you.

Eva shuddered as the voice tore through her body. Smooth as silk yet it carried the power of a being she was apparently only seeing a sliver of. It took her a moment to steel herself. Once she did, she resumed her glare. Obviously her thoughts weren’t private before this thing. Though it wasn’t attacking despite her clear intent. So that was good.

The shock of hearing it speak again almost made a small detail slip her mind.

It hadn’t answered her question. The thing invaded her mind and chose to taunt her by letting her know attacking it would be futile. Which was probably why it hadn’t gotten offended and attacked in the first place.

What happened to Arachne?” Eva said. No. She ordered. “Answer me.

The thing spun around again, though its tail didn’t snap out this time. Instead, it stopped with its face mere inches from Eva and reared up onto its hind legs. Both sets of arms hung at its sides as if it were ready to claw out and tear off her face with the three-pronged talons at the end of each arm.

You may encounter the spider again.

Eva actually let out a short sigh. That was something of a relief despite the phrasing. It was the kind of thing a storybook villain would say about a loved one. The villain would promise to reunite the hero and the loved one after the hero performed some devious task, only to reveal the loved one already dead as the villain killed the hero.

Given that the concept of death didn’t normally apply to demons in the same way it did to humans, that probably wasn’t the case here.

Still, she would be much happier with different phrasing. Maybe something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry Eva, I will give Arachne her body back. I’m only using it for a few moments while I take care of this whole nasty business with Life.’

Despite mostly believing the being’s words, Eva still couldn’t bring herself to feel entirely relieved.

Eva tried her best to not look intimidated. But with it standing up on its back legs, even slightly hunched, it towered over Eva. Even higher than Nel were she to stand on Ylva’s shoulders. As such, it was near impossible to not be intimidated, let alone look it. Simply leaning backwards to meet its burning eyes was enough to ruin her efforts.

Who she was posturing for, Eva couldn’t say. Herself for the most part. Void for the rest. Most everyone else had their heads to the ground.

Which was another thing that had Eva’s blood simmering. Just who did this thing think it was. Even Ylva didn’t make everyone bow down to her. Just those that came to her asking for help. A little respect was warranted in those situations, in Eva’s opinion. Here? Not so much. It was the being under attack that had been asking them for help. Maybe Eva would give it a nod of her head if it actually succeeded in taking down Life.

And after it returned Arachne.

It swayed to one side, gesturing out with one claw. It waved another hand to the other side.

Each of them has knelt before me. I have not made them kneel. It is merely the natural reaction to beholding my being.

It wasn’t a very impressive being, in Eva’s opinion. Just a bunch of smoke and fire. A bit of height as well. Certainly nothing worthy of bowing down to.

Aren’t you the most curious thing.

Eva shook her head, shaking away the almost sing-song tone on the wind. A rumbling voice deeper than the seas speaking in sing-song simply shouldn’t be allowed to exist. But rather than respond to its statement, Eva waved her own hand around. “Fix them.

Perhaps later.

Stretching itself up to its full height, the thing twisted around just under its bottom set of arms, ignoring any semblance of bones or flesh as its upper half faced entirely behind while its legs remained angled towards Eva.

Vektul. It is time.

“I am ready.”

Eva blinked. She hadn’t even realized which way she had ended up facing after watching the thing circle around her a few times. Neither had she noticed that Vektul had risen to his feet. The only one out of everyone around. He moved around the circle, passing right by Eva’s section, and came to a stop where Arachne’s position had been.

As he moved, the creature continued twisting its body around to follow him. It winded up facing Eva once again. Without even untwisting its body, it stalked back into the circle Vektul had just been occupying. It spun around twice like a cat looking for a comfortable spot. Once satisfied, it stared right at Eva.

If you would be so kind.

Unlike the previous times, the words seemed to focus on Eva. They hovered around her in an almost visible manner. She was left with no doubt about for who they were meant.

“What are you–”

We do not have time.

The words whirled around her, drawing closer and closer. The moment the wispy fragments touched her, Eva’s body moved. An involuntary jolt carried her a single step backwards. She knelt and pressed her hand to the center of the ritual entirely against her will. Trying to move or blink failed. Just as it had during the actual ritual. It wasn’t the blood holding her in place. Void puppeted her actions.

With her hand pressed against the center, her claws dug into the stone. Thin gouges filled with blood as it ran from her fingers. The small trenches connected the very center of the circle to a few outer lines around her section of the ritual circle.

As soon as the gouges were an inch deep, Eva felt her magic wrenched out from her body. It flooded into the ritual circle.

And the lines started glowing once again.

They weren’t the same lines this time around. The connections her clawing had made sent the magic down different pathways. Circles, lines, paths, and connections all started brightening, starting closest to Eva and spreading outwards. Like before, the light glowed a crimson red. At least, it started red.

As the light spread through parts of the ritual circle that it hadn’t touched before, a blue hue bled into the red. The blue spread far faster than the red. When the blue lines met up with the red, neither overwrote the other. They simply blended in. Before long, the entire ritual circle had turned a vibrant violet.

The moment the light touched the outermost portion of the ritual circle, an earthquake rocked the world. One more violent than any that had been going on over the past few days. The only reason Eva wasn’t thrown to the ground was because she was still kneeling with her hands around the starting node for the ritual. And she still couldn’t move. Not even the earthquake could toss her around.

Everyone else was in much the same state. Still being flat on the ground, the ground shaking back and forth didn’t affect them all that much. Though Eva did hear a few panicked noises coming from Shelby’s section of the circle.

At the thunderous crack of nearby lightning—as if the quake wasn’t enough—Eva momentarily broke the spell keeping her down. She wrenched her head back to stare up at the sky.

The purple shimmers that had been roughly static since they appeared spread across the sky in great jagged edges. Bolts of lightning started crackling everywhere. Some stayed in the sky, jolting between the shimmers and wrenching them open wider. Others cracked down, impacting the ritual circle, the forest beyond, and even further out than that.

Everywhere the lightning struck, things started growing. Wooden, vine-like masses in one case. A more organic blob of flesh cropped up nearby. One pulsating boil exploded, spraying thick yellow goop everywhere around as a thin tendril rose from the crater of the blob. It whipped straight towards Irene.

Only to disintegrate under a combination of flames and lightning from the mouth of what had once been Arachne. Oddly enough, Eva didn’t feel the slightest bit of heat from it despite the flames coursing past just at her side. When the flames died down, there was nothing left of the blob of flesh beyond a scorch mark on the ritual circle. A scorch mark which flaked away and vanished in the increasingly intense wind. Irene, who had been positioned behind the flesh, looked entirely unharmed—not a single singed hair on her head.

Void coughed out another puff of smoke in what might have been nothing more than clearing its throat after spewing that lightning breath. From the smoke, another black bolt of lightning fired out, actually intercepting one of the bolts from the sky in a bright flash that forced Eva to avert her eyes.

So disgusting. So inelegant. These amalgamations of insanity have infested my domain for too long.

It leaned back, pulling back its arms to just behind its shoulders as if to bellow at the sky, and proceeded to spew flames and lightning towards the heavens, burning away every instance of lightning that crossed the sky near the ritual circle. All the while, the shimmers continued to crack open above.

And open was quickly becoming the most apt word for what was happening. As they grew wider, Eva could clearly see inside. A whole other world lay just on the other side of the portals. A planet—or something close enough to one—lay just beyond. A faint violet hue covered the entire thing, though that could have been a side-effect from the portals.

Looking closer, Eva realized that the planet was almost certainly alive. It was… breathing. Or expanding and contracting in a manner resembling breaths, at least. It wasn’t like one small part of it was expanding. Not like an animal’s chest. The entire thing stretched and shrank. Every time it exhaled, Eva spotted what had to be a volcano erupting a cloud of light gray smoke. She couldn’t see what, if anything, it was inhaling.

More and more of the portals connected to each other, granting Eva a wider view of everything beyond. Something was off with the planet. Something she wasn’t seeing.

Until a second, even larger planet eclipsed the first. It slid straight over it at a high speed, but stopped on a dime once the first planet had been entirely eclipsed from view. The second planet stayed for several seconds. All at once, it reversed, moving backwards to reveal the scraped clean surface of the original planet.

It was then that Eva realized exactly what had been off about the planet. They weren’t planets at all. An eye stared down at them through the portal. A massive eye so huge that even the eyeball had its own ecosystem. A now wiped clean ecosystem by the planet-like eyelid. Before the eye blinked, large swaths of the eye had been covered in greenery. A river ran through part of it. And the volcano she had seen protruding from it all. Now it looked like a dry, dusty desert. Smooth and flat.

Though it didn’t stay that way. Even over the few minutes she was staring at it, she could see things regrowing across its surface. Eva didn’t know how much vegetation was required to be visible from, in her perspective, outer space. However, the sandy desert turned green before her very eyes.

A gust of flame obscured the majority of the portal, breaking Eva’s eye contact. For just a moment, she almost waited until the flames had passed to keep staring at the eye.

Only to realize that doing so might not be in her best interests. Eyes didn’t always have much meaning in magic. Sometimes they did. Serena’s eyes induced some sort of hypnosis in those who looked at her. And if Serena could do it, Eva wouldn’t be too surprised to find a Power capable of such things.

With a shake of her head, she forced her gaze back to the ground. Or tried to. Something else caught Eva’s eye.

While the being wearing Arachne’s skin intercepted most everything falling from above, it did let a few things pass through. A lightning bolt struck down nearby. Eva whipped her head over to find Vektul standing in his spot as before save for a bulge of flesh growing on his body. Despite the smoking sack of flesh, he stood calm and unmoving. It wasn’t like Arachne. While she had been standing in that spot, the light in Arachne’s eyes had died off. Her jaw had been slack. She hadn’t been in her body by all appearances.

Vektul was. He stood on his own. None of the beams of light propped up his body. His eyes were bright red—though slowly being taken over by violet—and he was obviously still aware of his surroundings. When Eva looked to him, he tilted his head to the side in that same manner he had always done.

Just in time for a bolt of lightning to strike him in the neck. Eva pinched her eyes shut again. The lightning wasn’t real lightning. At least, she didn’t think it was. But it was bright and caused another boom of thunder to roll over the ritual circle. When she opened her eyes again, the afterimage of the bolt stuck around.

But she could still see Vektul’s face. Or what was left of it. From his shoulder to the tip of his head, one half of his face had turned into a malignant tumor. His skin bubbled outwards with trails of smoke wisping off from the lightning strike.

Except the smoke wasn’t moving naturally. The thin grey trail bulged outwards, starting at Vektul’s shoulder. A faint membrane formed along the thicker smoke. A few feet above Vektul’s head, the trail solidified into a tentacle covered in eyes. The relatively smooth end split in two to reveal a maw filled with teeth.

It snapped around, biting at the air a few times before clamping down on the same arm that it had sprung from.

Another bolt of lightning forced Eva to look away. When she turned back, the tentacle had stretched out to right in front of her face.

Almost reflexively, a razor-sharp whip of blood lashed out from Eva’s back, slicing off the tentacle before the teeth could get too close. It flopped down on the smooth stone of the ritual circle only to start slithering towards her like some kind of monstrous snake. Three sharp spikes of blood from Eva’s back came down and pierced it, pinning it to the ground.

A follow-up of flames and lightning rendered it nothing more than ash.

Do take care. Your position in this ritual is not merely for show.

Eva grit her teeth and shot a glare at the monster inhabiting Arachne’s body. If it noticed, it didn’t respond. It only met her eyes for a bare instant before turning its gaze skyward to continue intercepting the rain of lightning. She didn’t know if something along the lines of what happened to Vektul and Arachne was going to happen to her. Or if the avatar of Void had merely been concerned about some other esoteric part of the ritual. Whatever the case, Eva had no intentions of winding up eaten by whatever Vektul was becoming.

And whatever he was becoming, it was rapidly going out of control. Eva couldn’t even look at Vektul anymore with all the lightning strikes hitting on or around him. Through her blood sight, she could see him growing tentacles and tumorous masses all over his body.

She had been so distracted with the ritual, Arachne, Vektul, Void, and Life that she hadn’t even realized that she had grown two massive wings on her back until they had struck down Vektul’s tentacle. Though they weren’t proper wings. Perhaps if she stretched a thin membrane of blood between the ‘bones’ then she would be able to fly. Not that now was the time to try anything.

For now, they gave her a much longer reach. Perfect for slicing off more of the tentacles that Vektul was growing. To keep them from slithering towards her, she skewered the severed portions and flung them up into the near constant streams of fire overhead. Eva was slightly worried for Zoe, being the closest to Vektul aside from Eva, but the outer ring of people was significantly farther away from Vektul than Vektul was to Eva. Almost twice the distance, in fact. They probably wouldn’t be attacked. Not right away, at least.

Maybe after Vektul grew more. In fact…

Eva pressed her hand down onto the ground, using it to push herself up.

She could actually stand. And, taking a step forward, she could move. Whatever had been keeping her pressed to the ground had broken. Her small place in the circle had plenty of room to move around. She had a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t be able to move outside the ring—or if she could, Void would become quite cross with her—but she didn’t need to move very far.

The blood wings coming off her back could stretch far. And even if they couldn’t quite reach what she needed, they were made from blood. Blood that, near as Eva could tell, she was constantly producing. Extending and retracting them was easy.

As she started tearing apart anything that extended beyond Vektul’s circle, a realization occurred to Eva. At the moment, she was assuming that Vektul was undergoing a similar process as Arachne had just undergone.

Which would leave Eva directly between two avatars of Powers.

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010.016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Arachne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could teleport.

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

Eva blinked, aiming straight for Arachne.

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

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

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

Until she realized that Arachne had not caught herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva doubted it. Blood was her thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you take part in this monstrosity?”

“Oh shut up.”

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

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

In fact, now that she was thinking about it…

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

And the world complied to her wishes.

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana winced in advance, preparing for the scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliana doubted she would get much help from that corner.

“It’s a Po–”

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

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

In fact…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.015

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Eva paced back and forth, trudging through a section of cold damp ground with every step. After ensuring that hunters weren’t going to jump out of the woodwork and attack her or the ritual circle, she had set to clearing away the dome of snow. The snow was all gone. She had even cleared it enough to allow a decent path outside the ward. Yet the melted snow had to go somewhere. With the winter-chilled ground hard and cold, it turned the dirt to a freezing mud all too quickly.

In fact, the mud was getting stuck between Eva’s toes. With Arachne’s legs, she didn’t need shoes most of the time. That didn’t stop her regret over not having a spare pair on hand. A nice set of rain boots would have at least kept the dirt out. But nothing to do about it now.

The ritual circle had been undamaged during the fight. Miraculously. Really, despite her complaints about the mud, Eva had to give her thanks to the snowfall. The dome of snow over the ritual circle had probably protected it better than anything else. Even though someone could simply walk through the snow curtain with little resistance, the hunter had been at least somewhat fearful of what might have been inside. Had the snow not fallen, the hunter and nun would have likely walked right out on the ritual circle itself. Then Eva would have had to fight on the circle itself. Considering the damage done to the small battlefield, it would be a wonder if anything survived of the circle.

Either that, or the hunter would have simply destroyed it before Eva had arrived. Without the curtain, they would have seen it and decided that they didn’t like massive ritual circles being constructed by demons. To be fair, Eva might not be too thrilled about finding ritual circles constructed by demons she didn’t know too. So there might be some perspective bias.

But the hunter probably wouldn’t have sought her out and politely asked what the ritual was for whereas Eva might have, depending on various circumstances.

Clasping her hands behind her back, Eva paused her pacing, staring down at their captured nun. She was awake. She had been for a while, actually. Her heart rate was off the charts and she kept twitching. But she hadn’t moved more than that. Her eyes were closed—not counting her third eye. She hadn’t even tugged at the hardened blood bindings around her wrists and ankles.

Eva, after Genoa and Zoe had arrived and been fully informed of what had happened, had teleported out to the prison and retrieved her dagger. At this point, she really didn’t care if her bloodstones or use of blood magic was caught on camera. Eva enjoyed attending Brakket Academy. When it wasn’t under attack, that was–which seemed to happen more often than it should. Before Zoe and Wayne popped into her life, it had just been her, Arachne, and Devon. Arachne wasn’t even around half of the time. Devon would run odd jobs for cash or favors to get on with day to day life while carrying out his research. Occasionally, Eva would be invited to help him with those jobs. If he thought they were simple enough.

It wasn’t a bad life. Eva could certainly think up worse ways to spend the years.

But it had been lonesome. Devon had been her only constant companion. Back then, she had been convinced that he was a fairly powerful mage as well. Someone to look up to. Now, having met more mages than just him, Eva wouldn’t call him powerful. Knowledgeable, without a doubt. Not powerful. Even had he been magically superior, his personality would be the same. Devon was a lousy conversationalist.

In that light, Eva much preferred being around the school. Juliana, Shalise, Irene, Shelby, Jordan, and so on and so forth. All were fun to talk to and to be around; even if she didn’t speak with half of them half as much as she should. Even the professors were fun to speak with. And that included those who weren’t Zoe or Wayne. Just having a different perspective about nearly everything was fun. Once in a while, anyway.

There came a point where there was something just a little more important than all of that. At the moment, the ritual circle seemed to be just that something. True, the eye-patched hunter would have made much of Eva’s blood magic worthless simply by freezing the blood. But maybe, just maybe had she been willing to carry her dagger around, she could have kept up her shield long enough to torch a hole through the hunter’s heart.

So if she got kicked out of school—or even had to go on the run because of various murders she had committed in the name of blood magic—she was willing to risk it at the moment. All in the name of security. And maybe, just maybe, a chance that this ritual circle would save the mortal realm as well as her patron Power. Or what might someday be her patron Power.

She actually wasn’t sure what she was to Void at the moment. From her… experiment with Ylva, she hadn’t been sucked down to Hell when she had died like normal demons did. Perhaps even after Devon signed off her treatment as complete, she would still be unwanted. If that happened… Unwanted by Death and by Hell, she might just have to wander the Earth perpetually. Which wouldn’t be so bad. If she couldn’t be considered a demon, there wouldn’t be anyone or anything to stop her from summoning up Arachne or Catherine or anyone else should she wish.

Well, actually, that doll had tried to assault her for a similar transgression. Apparently she was almost demon enough to register with the Keeper’s dolls. Or had been, at the very least. Maybe they would take her off the list. Maybe they would keep trying to hunt her for all eternity should she do anything wrong again.

But, at the moment, none of that mattered. Perhaps someday.

For now, Eva turned away from the nun. She could ask about the hunter. Where they had been based out of or how they had learned about the ritual circle despite Srey not having detected anyone watching them in quite a while. But really, it didn’t matter. The hunter would have moved on. Eva couldn’t believe that the hunter would be foolish enough to actually go back to their home—or whatever it was—after realizing that her companion had been captured. As for how they had found the ritual circle… that wouldn’t matter either. They had already found it. Eva didn’t have anything else she needed to keep secret for the moment.

So she focused on the two approaching people, wondering just what they were arguing about.

“Are you sure that you’ve double-checked it enough? You barely gave your pictures a glance. What if something was damaged the night before? A stray shot could have gone flying and skidded across the ground or otherwise crashed into an existing line. You didn’t even compare it to the original sketches.”

“Perhaps it is difficult for a human to understand my mental capacity. I haven’t looked at the blueprints since the night I received them.” Catherine tapped the side of her head. “Memorized. It has the added benefit of not messing up if a page is lost or maliciously modified.”

Zoe sighed, pressing a finger to her forehead. “That’s… great, I guess. But you still only glanced at the pictures you just took.”

“How long do I need to stare at them before you’re satisfied?” Catherine pulled out her cellphone, tapped it twice, and stared. “There. Three full seconds. There are exactly zero more errors in this segment than there were five minutes ago.”

“Look,” Zoe said, voice strained. “I’m just trying to make sure that nothing is going to go wrong. A ritual circle this big, it’s hard to keep track of every single thing.”

“Which is why Eva asked a genius like me to keep the circle in check.” Catherine puffed out her chest as far as it would go, tilting her head up in pride.

Something that had Zoe sighing again. She turned to face Eva, brushing a frazzled lock of hair back behind her ear. “Are we sure we’re ready? Delaying wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Eva shook her head. “Genoa has finished turning the ritual circle to marble. So it’s a bit stronger. But if that hunter finds something else on par with the Elysium Order’s sky laser beam, it might not survive. Though that was probably thanks to this nun,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at the ‘unconscious’ nun. “So she might not have anything else.”

“But we can’t take that chance,” Zoe finished with a defeated slump of her shoulders.

“Exactly. That earthquake this morning… I worried for a moment that we were in for another day of constant shaking. I would prefer to avoid anything more.” Eva stepped around her, moving slightly closer to the ritual circle. “Besides, everyone’s here already.”

Six humans, six demons, Vektul, Arachne, and Eva. On the demon side of things, Eva had the usual suspects present. Catherine was right in front of Eva, of course. Saija, Srey, and Lucy were talking among themselves not too far away. Though Lucy was less talking and more squirming her tentacles into the grooves of the ritual circle, spreading herself out. It was a good thing that the marble was strong enough to not be easily disturbed. She could probably still break it if she tried, but her actions were closer to those of a curious cat than anything harmful. Rounding out the demons, Eva had asked Sebastian and Neuro to join in. She hadn’t picked them for any real reason other than that Eva had spent a few more minutes with them relative to the rest of the demons around Brakket because of the tournament.

For the humans, Zoe and Genoa were around with the latter still inspecting her work around the ritual circle. Apart from them, Shalise and Irene were standing not far from Saija’s group.

Juliana was around as well. Eva didn’t want to tell her not to show up, but she would rather have her outside the circle if she had to be here. So far, Zagan hadn’t done anything. He might not in the end. But if Eva were Zagan and she wanted to screw up the ritual, she would do it after everyone was already in place and starting the summoning. Unfortunately, Eva didn’t really have anyone else to fill Juliana’s spot.

She could probably find another human around. Then she ran into the problem of explaining to Genoa why Juliana shouldn’t be part of the ritual.

Luckily, Shelby and Jordan were around. Irene had brought along her sister and Jordan naturally followed. So they had enough people. They just needed a good reason to swap Juliana out for Shelby. Which was probably what Juliana was doing off on her own with a thoughtful expression on her face. Though, privately, Eva doubted that Juliana needed to protest too much. If she wanted to step away for any reason, her mother would probably let her in the interest of keeping her safe.

Which was something odd. Eva would have expected Zoe to protest having any children involved. But, by the looks of things, she was far too worried about the ritual circle itself to consider the students. Eva wasn’t complaining. She knew the students better than the adults; they were easier to convince too.

Eva clapped her hands together, pulling everyone’s attention back to her. “Let’s get this started.”

“What about the nun?”

Turning back with a slight frown, Eva shrugged. “As long as your anti-magic wards work properly, might as well just leave her here. Afterwards…” Eva trailed off with a shrug. The nun’s breath hitched despite her still pretending to be asleep. Something that Zoe might have noticed had she been sharpening her senses, but her eyes didn’t even narrow in the slightest. So Eva pretended not to notice as well. “We can decide then. Maybe toss her to Ylva. Maybe dump her on the front porch of some Elysium Order cathedral. I doubt her actions are sanctioned by the Order given her attire.”

If the nun actually tried something, well, there was a reason why Eva had used Arachne’s blood as bindings. Should she decide to, the nun would explode just as the male hunter had.

“In the meantime, Catherine, could you get the demons all set in their spots? Zoe, the humans?”

“And you?”

“Perhaps I’ll wake up our friend here and ensure she understands her position. Then I’ll head out and take my spot with Arachne and Vektul.”

Catherine turned and headed off without another word. Zoe, on the other hand, lingered behind, looking like she wanted to say something else. But she left after staring at Eva’s back for a moment, heading to follow Catherine.

Stepping forwards past Serena—who was wearing a thick coat, snow goggles, and more clothing than Eva owned—Eva squatted down just on the other side of the line drawn in the dirt. The marker Zoe had drawn to show where the edge of her wards was. The line wasn’t actually part of the wards. It wasn’t like shackles where the lines would be part of the spell. Within the line, use of magic should be suppressed, teleportation blocked, and there should be some invisible walls keeping the nun from simply wandering out.

Of course, Eva didn’t trust it half as far as she could actually construct such a complicated ward. That was why the nun had her hands and feet coated in blood.

“So,” Eva said, not bothering to actually let the nun know that she knew that the nun was awake. “Here’s the thing. You moving out of the little circle drawn around here will cause your hands and legs to explode. If you feel the need to test this, go ahead. I don’t particularly care.”

Eva stood up and started towards the ritual circle when the nun didn’t move, only for her to sit up and prop herself up on her elbow once Eva’s back had turned.

“What are you doing, abomination? What is all this?”

“Just trying to save the world,” Eva said with a slight sigh as she walked away.

She did pause and offer a slight nod towards Serena. “Keep an eye on her, just in case.”

Which is exactly what Serena had been doing since she arrived. It was overcast out, but not so overcast that she could take off her outfit. Were it not for that, Eva imagined that Serena would have been shooting a death glare at the nun. Perhaps a literal death glare given her abilities.

But Eva didn’t stick around. If the nun was going to sit around calling her an abomination, she didn’t really have much interest in conversing with her. Sure, she might be an abomination. That was why she had to be at the center of the ritual circle. She was some bridge between the mortal realm and Hell. Just because it was true didn’t mean she wanted to further entertain the nun.

Arachne also had some special spot in the ritual. Vektul as well. Eva could understand Vektul having his own slot. Nobody seemed to be able to name what kind of demon he was. Combined with the vacant feeling Eva got from him, Eva had a suspicion that he was a specially designed demon. Something Void had created specifically to act as a vessel with Void filling that vacancy.

Eva was far less certain of Arachne and why she had her own spot. Once upon a time, she had been a human. Perhaps she was a secondary bridge. But that had been a long time ago. Arachne was fully demon these days, as far as Eva could tell. Maybe not the best demon with how she couldn’t create void metal or teleport—or perform any other magic for that matter—but still a demon in essence.

Had they had more time, Eva might have asked Catherine to further investigate exactly how Arachne’s circle interacted with the rest of the ritual. Unfortunately, they just didn’t have the time.

A few quick blinks carried Eva right to the center of the circle. Right to where Arachne and Vektul were waiting. They weren’t in their spots just yet, instead gathered around the very center. Vektul wasn’t even standing. He had been sitting down right up until Eva blinked in, at which point he decided to lay flat on his back and just stare at the sky.

A nice overcast sky today. The snow had stopped falling since Eva cleared away the dome, but it looked like it could start up at any time. They were getting started well before evening started to darken the sky. The clouds still had it fairly dark for the time of day. Naturally, the violet streaks marred the otherwise normal clouds.

“We’re about ready,” Eva said. “I’ve asked before, but you’re sure we’re not missing anything?”

“The ritual circle is complete. We have the requisite demons and humans. The timing was slower than I had expected, but only small portions of Hell have been drawn through thus far. Nothing catastrophic.”

“Catastrophic. Right. Well, hopefully this doesn’t wind up catastrophic.” Turning to Arachne, Eva said, “You ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Arachne said with only a slight growl. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Not like we have much choice,” Eva said as she stared around the circle. Everyone moved about, though none were moving all that fast. Catherine and Zoe distributed them evenly around the circle, demon then human then demon again and so on. Shelby stood on her own in one of the slots, looking somewhat nervous. At the same time, Juliana was standing over near the nun and Serena, staring at her with narrowed eyes.

Eva found herself blinking in surprise. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised. Everyone was where they should be. There was something odd about Juliana being off to the side, but not odd enough for her to worry about.

So with a shrug, she turned back to the two demons around her. “Should the two of you get into your spots?”

“To start the ritual,” Vektul started, rolling over onto his stomach before pushing himself to a sitting position on his knees, “just channel a little of your magic into the very center point. As soon as you do, you’ll feel a drain. Everyone will feel a drain. The ritual will handle the rest, drawing on everyone’s magic to power itself. I would advise against actively pushing your own magic into the ritual once it starts.”

“Alright. Sounds easy enough.”

Finally finding his feet, Vektul stretched back, staring at the sky for just a moment before dropping his eyes to meet Eva’s gaze. He didn’t actually say anything. Instead, he spun around on his heel and walked a few dozen feet to his circle.

“Just be careful,” Arachne said as she stalked off in the opposite direction.

Eva performed a quick turn-around as Arachne stalked off to her position, noting everyone in their place. Catherine lifted up a hand to give her a thumbs up. Most everyone else looked somewhere between nervous and resigned. With Arachne coming to a stop, Eva oriented herself to face Vektul. Two little marks inside her circle were in the rough shape of feet—her feet—so she couldn’t really choose to face anywhere else.

Of the people she could see in front of her, Zoe stood morose, shoulders slumped. Irene could barely keep standing because of the shaking she was doing. Saija shivered as well, though it seemed to be more from anticipation judging by the smile on her face.

With a shake of her head, Eva bent over and touched the tip of her finger into a narrow groove and pressed just a slight amount of magic into the ritual circle.

The concentric circles connected by labyrinthine lines that surrounded Eva started to light up. At first, it was a pale red. Almost pink. As the glow spread outwards to encompass the entire ritual circle, the lines deepened until they were the brilliant red of demonic eyes. The second the light touched the outside edges of the ritual circle, Eva felt it. Just like Vektul had said. There was a drain. A sudden lethargy that almost had her yawning.

Where she had a slight headache growing—nothing that could compare to her anemia induced headaches after using too much blood—the others were having far more adverse reactions. None of the humans remained standing for longer than a few seconds with the exception of Genoa. Even she collapsed to her knees after another dozen seconds.

Saija actually took a step towards Irene, excitement gone from her face.

Vektul whirled around, pointing a finger. “Do not move,” he shouted, voice booming much like Ylva’s. “She is not being harmed. But you must not move.

Faltering, Saija stumbled backwards into her spot. Almost as if Vektul’s voice alone had knocked her back.

A howling wind kicked up. Rather than a chill from the cool winter air, Eva actually felt beads of sweat form on her back. The air was hot. Like a summer in Florida while stuck in her abandoned hospital without any air-cooling runes. Considering Eva’s usual enjoyment of hotter-than-normal temperatures, she hoped that something that was hot even for her wasn’t going to hurt the humans around.

Though she didn’t get much of a chance to consider their comfort.

The clouds overhead swirled around like the eye of a hurricane with the very center over Eva. Only, instead of the expected blue sky, the eye of the storm revealed nothing but pitch black.

To most people, the night sky was about the darkest thing they had ever seen. But that wasn’t true at all. The night sky was filled with lights. Stars, galaxies, satellites, planets, all reflected some light. Not much light in many cases. Even galaxies were relatively tiny when viewed from Earth.

The sky above her now had none of that. It was as dark as the sky over her domain in Hell. More, it was expanding, sucking away the light from the clouds around it. The black of the void stretched downwards, blotting out the trees.

Soon enough, the only thing that Eva could see was the ritual circle, illuminated only by the bright red light emanating from the lines. The forest beyond was gone as far as she could tell. Nothing but darkness stretched into eternity.

Looking around as much as she could without moving her feet and risking being yelled at by Vektul, Eva started frowning.

The entire circle wasn’t actually lit up. Only about half of it. It wasn’t straight half split down the middle, but some lines had glowing red lights while other lines looked just as they had before the ritual started. Eva couldn’t be sure if that had been so since the start or if they had dimmed afterwards, she hadn’t been paying enough attention to the floor, being focused on the dark dome overhead.

But now, she did note that the lines and circles surrounding Vektul were obviously dim. Twisting her body, Arachne’s circle was exactly the opposite. Everything burned a brilliant red.

Everything except Arachne’s eight red eyes. Each one of them was as dark as the sky.

Mini Author Note: I almost went back through every chapter and removed or altered mentions of Juliana participating in the ritual to imply that Shelby had always been the one supposed to be in her spot. Just to really mess with people’s minds. Unfortunately, any future readers would possibly get confused so decided not to in the end.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.002

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“Are you insane?” “That seems pretty ambitious.”

Everyone in the clearing jumped to high alert. Everyone except for Eva. She had seen their followers through her sense of blood. Letting them know what she was up to was something of a risk, but she needed humans for the ritual. People would be finding out sooner or later. Might as well start with those she knew best.

Putting a hand on Arachne’s shoulder to calm her down—she was the only one Eva was really worried about starting anything as neither Vektul nor Srey were fighters and Catherine looked ready to run more than actually fight—Eva walked slightly closer to the ring of trees at the edge of the ritual circle.

“Alright, you might as well come out.”

Eva waited. The two in the woods were hesitating, whispering to each other. But eventually, one dragged the other out.

Serena walked out of the woods hand in hand with Zoe. The vampire looked about as nervous as she always did, which was to say not nervous in the slightest. Zoe, on the other hand, had her lips pressed into a thin line. Perhaps the thinnest Eva had ever seen.

“You knew we were here?”

“Of course I did. You could have just come out. Or asked.”

Zoe glanced down to Serena, frown on her face.

The vampire shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. I just said that there was a large ritual circle out here with Eva’s scent all over it. You’re the one who decided to follow them,” she said, nodding towards Eva and Catherine.

With a shake of her head, Zoe looked back towards Eva. “Please tell me you were joking just now.”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t,” Eva said with a sad shake of her head.

“But… why?”

“Someone has to try to avert the apocalypse.” Eva pointed a finger upwards as she spoke. She let it hang in the air for a moment before meeting Zoe’s eyes. “No one else is doing anything.”

Zoe clenched her teeth together, pressing her lips into a thin line once again. “I am researching.” She brushed her fingers through her hair. “I know, I don’t have much to show for it. Not yet. But soon. Someday. Eventually. And Sister Cross is working as well. I know that for a fact.”

“She has made about as much progress as you.”

“Well it’s not like there is much existing research to go off. Powers are about as well researched as fairy tales.” She paused, pacing around in a small circle. “Actually, fairy tales are probably the more researched topic.”

Eva did note the dirt around her feet being torn up. One of the shallower lines ran right through her pacing. She took special note to fix it up later. For now, she didn’t say anything and let Zoe pace.

“But summoning a power?” Zoe shook her head. Once again, she ran her hand through her hair. None of it hung down in her face. She still brushed it back anyway, tucking it behind her ear three times before finally settling down. “You can’t think that’s a good idea, can you?”

“Not really. In fact, that was why I brought Catherine here and why I didn’t say anything when you two started following us. I want a second opinion. I want to make sure nobody has better ideas. And I definitely want to ensure that this ritual does what it is advertised to do.” Eva paused and glanced towards Vektul. “Not that I think you’re intentionally distributing false information or anything. I just want to be sure.”

Vektul tilted his head off to one side. After a moment, he just shrugged.

“So I’ve brought you and Catherine here. I’m not good enough to look over a ritual of this scale. Though I have the design memorized, I barely understand what my treatment ritual is doing. Or the first version, anyway. The most recent version is way beyond me. And this,” Eva thumbed over her shoulder, “I haven’t even tried to decipher.”

Turning away for a moment, Eva blinked a short distance across the ritual circle. She picked up a large plastic tub from nearby the unfinished section of the circle and ran straight back to the surprised group. “This,” she said, dropping it at the feet of her waiting companions, “is the designs for the entire ritual circle. Each paper is marked out with a grid identification number. It’s shrunk down, but will still need a fairly sizable room if you want to lay it all out to look at.”

Catherine, who Eva stopped closest to, reached in and pulled out a single binder from the side of the tub that contained finished papers. A plastic divider separated the two halves; the finished side drastically outnumbered the incomplete portion. Catherine leafed through the binder, stopping every now and again at various pages. As she continued to look over it, a frown grew on her face.

After a moment, she carefully replaced the binder before pulling another out. As she looked through it, Serena hopped forward and leaned over the edge. She plucked out her own binder, glanced through it for less than three seconds, shook her head, and handed it off to Zoe as Zoe approached.

“Like I said, it’s shrunk down. You’ll probably not get much from any one paper. And the ones we’ve already finished with have not been sorted properly, so you won’t just be able to pull out the first three binders and have them be in any sort of order.”

“Eva… I–”

“Just think it over. Look at the ritual. Make sure that it isn’t doing anything unwanted. The real circle isn’t finished yet, so there is still some time left. But so far, nothing has really happened. Everyone has stopped trying to summon demons for the most part and there are no domains open on Earth, which probably helps a lot. However, should anything seem like it’s going to happen, we need to be ready.”

“Ready to summon a Power?” Serena said, mimicking Vektul with an overly exaggerated tilt of her head—something Vektul hadn’t stopped doing since Eva had mentioned him. “Seems a bit extreme.”

“Yeah, that’s what everyone says who I explain this to.”

“Who all have you explained it to?” Zoe said with narrowed eyes.

“Present company excluded, Juliana, Irene, and Saija. The two nuns from Isomer know about the ritual circle, but they’re not aware of exactly what it does. I’m planning on telling Shalise. Eventually. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

Again, Zoe was running her hand through her hair. “I can understand Juliana and the others, even if I’m not too pleased with it. Why do the students from Isomer know?”

“Needed the manpower. The ritual is a huge project after all. And they owed me for a favor.”

“A favor? Wait,” Zoe held up a hand. “No, maybe I don’t want to know.”

“It’s nothing bad. Just me putting them into contact with Ylva.”

“That doesn’t sound like something most people would want.”

Eva shrugged and looked around.

When she had first come out, Zoe had been tense. Now, not so much. Nervous maybe. Not quite ready to run off to Wayne though. Which was something Eva wanted to avoid. Wayne clearly didn’t like her. Zoe did, at least enough to not complain too much about half the things she did. But Eva wouldn’t put it past Wayne to try to destroy the partially complete ritual circle simply to prevent its activation. Not necessarily out of spite, but simply because he wouldn’t believe in her good intentions. Or Vektul’s for that matter.

He would find out eventually. That was the risk in telling Zoe. Frankly, Zoe double checking everything might be worth having to fend off Wayne. Besides, if something big did happen and they lacked other plans, he might be a whole lot more amicable. She just needed to delay until then. Whenever that might be.

Serena, on the other hand, moved away from Zoe. She wandered a short distance away with her hands clasped behind her back, alternating between staring at the ground and the sky. Every so often, she would skip around to find herself in a new point.

Eva wasn’t worried about Serena all that much. The vampire expressed little alarm upon hearing what the ritual was for. She had been standing around Zoe in a manner that Eva would describe as protective—and Eva definitely wasn’t going to assume that she was higher in the loyalty hierarchy than Zoe and Wayne should anything come between them—but that was perfectly understandable when wandering out in the dark with several demons around. Doubly so given how close Arachne had been to jumping for their throats.

Arachne probably would have stopped as soon as she realized who they were, but there wasn’t a real guarantee of that.

Still, her presence did worry Eva slightly. She might not be worried about the ritual or its purpose, but the vampire might still tell Wayne. They were close despite their constant bickering and complaints about each other. Even if she didn’t tell him of her own volition, she would probably answer if he asked.

As for their resident succubus, Eva wasn’t worried in the slightest. Even if Catherine had protests, she was fairly powerless especially when placed next to herself and Arachne. Which wasn’t to say that Eva considered herself on par with Zagan like everyone seemed to say, merely that Catherine would yield if it came down to it. Probably. But that was assuming Catherine had a real complaint.

The way she was flipping through paper after paper, staring at them for a few seconds before moving on made her look more curious than anything. And, as Eva stood watching her, she pulled out a binder she had already replaced in the plastic tub, flapped her wings, and took to the skies. Eva watched her circle around twice before returning. Catherine flipped through the binder and removed one piece of paper, handing it to Eva a moment later.

“Segment F1-3A has an error. You drew a symbol of avarice where a shield of want should have been. They’re similar, but the symbol of avarice lacks these lines,” she said, tracing a finger across the paper. “As does your full-scale design.”

Eva lacked the wings to go up and compare for herself, but she would trust Catherine’s judgment. “I’ll make sure it gets corrected,” she said, slipping the paper into the section of the plastic tub that held portions not yet finished.

“I’d like to take pictures of the ritual circle from above, though I suppose it should wait until morning. My phone’s camera lacks good enough night vision. Even with flash.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Eva said, already feeling much better knowing that Catherine would be looking over it all. Who knew which tiny mistake would be the cause of the entire universe imploding. “Though, do keep it a secret from Devon. I imagine he would freak out.”

“Devon is… quite talented with rituals,” Catherine said as she crossed her arms under her chest. “His input could help.”

There was a hint of respect in her voice. Eva hadn’t really been around the prison much in recent months, but she hadn’t realized that they had done all that much together. Perhaps the occasional ritual circle related question. Apart from that, they lived on opposite ends of the complex. Catherine stayed inside the women’s ward for the most part and Devon had his hollowed out cell block.

“The real question is not whether he could help but if he will help. Working with him, you’ve certainly noticed how curmudgeonly he can act.”

Catherine glanced to the side, making a face. “You could say that I’ve noticed. His temper switches between grudging willingness to help and open hostility at the drop of a hat. Presumably whenever he remembers that I’m a demon.”

That sounds like Devon alright. “But maybe involve him as a hypothetical. That might work. Don’t tell him that the ritual circle is three-quarters done.”

“He’ll probably figure it out.”

“Yeah, so use your judgment. I’ll trust you.”

Catherine shifted; an uncomfortable shift of her weight from one leg to the other. After a moment, she just shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”

Turning to Zoe, Eva stared for just a moment. Unlike Catherine, who was already pulling out another binder to inspect and discard, Zoe had a single paper in her hand that she had been staring at since the start. Really, Eva didn’t know what she was staring at. Any one paper barely showed anything at all. She really needed the bigger picture to get a better idea of the circle. Unfortunately, unlike Catherine, Zoe lacked wings.

Of course, she probably wasn’t really staring at the paper. It was more of a ‘lost in thought’ kind of stare. Her eyes weren’t even moving over the paper. Eva didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts, but she did need to mention Wayne.

So she interrupted anyway.

“Wayne should probably be kept in the dark as well.”

“What?” Zoe blinked twice before shaking her head. “Why?”

“For almost the exact same reason as Devon, if you were listening.”

“Barely.”

“And I don’t think he has the same kind of ritual experience that Devon has, does he?”

Again, Zoe pursed her lips. After a moment, she shook her head. “No. But I will still be telling him. Something of this magnitude…” Zoe ran her fingers over the top of her head, dragging them across her scalp. “I’m not going to keep a secret like this from him.”

Eva sighed. She really didn’t have a plan for if Wayne decided to destroy the ritual circle. Perhaps surrounding the area with blood wards would work. Of course, if he tried to teleport right into the middle of the circle, he could find himself in trouble. Trouble that would likely alienate Eva from all of her friends and companions.

Even if he didn’t, random students wandering around might accidentally stumble across the ritual circle. Which was the main reason there weren’t any wards already set up. It hadn’t happened so far—or Eva hadn’t heard any rumors flying around school about some giant ritual at least, which she assumed would happen the moment someone happened across it.

So not really viable unless she was willing to potentially hurt or kill random students, professors, and mundane people who decided to snoop about because of the tournament. Not that she thought people would randomly stumble across it. Nobody really wandered the infinite courtyard. In fact, it would probably be the event organizers who found it rather than anyone else. So far, she had really been relying on its obscure location to keep it secret above all.

For Wayne, perhaps Zoe talking to him would be for the best. Explaining everything. Maybe he would even agree to be one of the humans. Between him, Zoe, Irene, Shalise, Shelby… she wasn’t sure if the nuns would work given their implanted eye, but if Vektul gave them the okay then she would have all six. Otherwise she would need to find two more. Which might not be such a big deal.

She tried to think of all the regular people that she knew who also didn’t have bound demons. Devon was out for the same reason why she didn’t want Catherine telling him about it. Genoa and Carlos almost certainly wouldn’t agree.

Or perhaps Genoa would. She knew about Life attempting to pull Hell into the mortal realm. So long as this seemed more reasonable than other options—of which there were none—she might even help out.

Carlos, Eva wouldn’t be talking to.

Beyond them, Eva really didn’t know any normal humans. She would probably have to ask a few people from the diablery class.

“Alright,” Eva said eventually. “I’m not going to stop you, though perhaps wait. Look into the ritual yourself for a time. Then, should he have questions, you’ll be able to better explain some things he might ask about.”

“I’m still trying to sort through all my questions,” Zoe mumbled.

“And that’s just fine. You figure them all out to better prepare yourself for Wayne.”

“Oh! I have a question,” Serene said, skipping back to the group. “Is this circle capable of pulling other Powers from wherever they live? Or just Void?”

“I… don’t know,” Eva said, glancing towards Vektul.

“The design is merely what I was told to use,” he said with a helpless shrug. “If it can be modified for other Powers, I don’t know how.”

“Probably best to destroy the circle and all records of it after we are done with it then. Who knows what kind of things lunatics would try if they got their hands on the plans.”

“That,” Zoe said, finally looking up from the paper, “is something I can agree with.”

Catherine shifted slightly to Eva’s side, looking about ready to say something. After a moment, she just shook her head before giving a slight nod of agreement. “Not to mention how vulnerable Powers could be if brought to the mortal realm. Summoning Void…” She trailed off with a glance to Vektul. “I would be against it if the ritual had come from anywhere else. But if a plan is in play, who am I to deny my patron Power?”

Which was good news. If all the demons felt as Catherine did, then recruiting six wouldn’t be a problem. Srey, Catherine, Sebastian, Neuro, Saija, and one of the other demons who hadn’t bound themselves to someone. Lucy, perhaps. Arachne and Vektul had their own private positions—though she was still a little fuzzy on why Arachne needed her own circle, something she would be privately asking Catherine to investigate. And Eva, as the ‘bridge’ between humans and demons and the mortal realm and Hell, was stuck in the middle.

She almost wondered if she should bring Ylva into the loop. So far, she hadn’t mostly because Ylva was something of an oddity among all the demons Eva knew. Ylva acted more like Zagan than a regular demon in terms of temperament and personality, though with fairly different apparent goals. Eva couldn’t be sure how she would react.

Probably best to leave her alone unless she, Catherine, or Zoe came up with a good reason to do otherwise.

“But,” Eva said, turning back to Serena, “why do you ask?”

Serena shrugged. Glancing up to the sky, she said, “No real reason. But Powers are supposed to be super mysterious and unknowable right? Might be fun to ask Void some questions when you do this ritual.”

“Questions?” Eva blinked, moving slightly to lean against a tree, she crossed her arms. “What kind of questions?”

“I donno. Maybe like what does Void do all day? Void must get bored sometimes, right? Do demons have daytime television that it talks to? Do days even have meaning for something like that? Do Powers talk with other powers? What about a love life?”

Eva held up a hand, stopping the vampire in her tracks. “Do Powers even care what we think about them?”

Serena grinned, showing off her fangs. “That’s a good question too. We’ll have to ask.”

Sighing and shaking her head, Eva turned away. “So, you two will help research the ritual? I’d like to have it done and ready to go by the start of the next event. Just in case something happens.”

Knowing Brakket Academy, something was bound to happen.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


010.001

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Catherine paced around the Brakket Academy lobby. She walked up to the potted plant in the corner, turned and walked to the window, and turned back to the potted plant. With every step, she grew more and more impatient. Had Eva told her to wait in the dormitory, she might have been able to relax.

But Anderson’s door was right there. He could pop out at any time. Theoretically, there was nothing to fear. Catherine was free from any contracts at the moment. She wouldn’t be beholden to stick around and listen to him. Neither had he actually done anything to her. Originally, he had said a few words that unnerved her. He had sounded almost like he wanted her to be bound to some snot-nosed human.

Of course, there wasn’t much need for him to bind her now that the event was well underway. So even had he originally wanted it, she shouldn’t have to worry about it now.

Shouldn’t, but did anyway. Catherine couldn’t help but feel like he was planning something. Martina had been a fool, but an honest one. Or at least, she had been honest with Catherine. Mostly. Anderson… Catherine wasn’t too sure about. Sometimes he seemed the fool. Other times, he had this look in his eyes that sent chills up her spine.

Biting the nail of her thumb, Catherine looked up through the little window leading towards the office area of the lobby. The secretary desk and all the offices were separated by a wall and a door, but the secretary desk connected to that wall with a large sliding window.

Despite it being a Sunday and the feast having only finished an hour ago, the old guy Anderson had replaced her with was in her old seat. He wasn’t playing games. In fact, it looked more like he was working. He kept taking a paper off a tall stack, scribbling on it, and dropping it off on another stack before repeating himself.

All between the uncomfortable stares he kept giving her.

The moment she had arrived, he had notified Anderson of her presence. However, neither had done anything since. And that made her more nervous than anything else. Unless Eva had warned him that they would be meeting in the lobby for the evening, he had to be wondering what she was doing.

Catherine pulled out her cellphone, checking for messages. Eva was supposed to have been here twenty minutes ago. If she was standing her up… Catherine would ensure that she regretted it.

Nothing. No Eva. No message. And, oddly enough, no Zagan.

Zagan was another curiosity. One Catherine was less worried about than she otherwise might have been. Zagan had endorsed her ritual circle, after all. If he was displeased with her or otherwise hostile towards her, he wouldn’t have been so cooperative.

She knew without a shadow of a doubt that she had sensed him. The sensation had been muted. Which wasn’t surprising. Zagan was powerful, but Catherine had been all the way out at the prison. That she had been able to sense him at all was somewhat surprising. Catherine couldn’t feel any of the other demons around Brakket while in the prison.

It had only lasted for a few minutes. Had he been banished again? Or maybe he disappeared on his own, going back to Hell or just farther away than Catherine could sense on Earth. She didn’t know why he would do either of those things. Then again, she didn’t know how Zagan might think. His goals weren’t often the goals of normal demons.

Most demons were content merely being out of Hell for a time. Some of the more aggressive or unstable ones often took exception to their summoners’ attempts to bind them to a contract, but the rest usually didn’t care so long as they were allowed some freedom.

“Did I keep you waiting long?”

Catherine jumped. She spun around and just about clawed off Eva’s smiling face. Instead, she just scowled at both Eva and her ever-present shadow. Arachne stood just behind Eva, arms crossed and attempting to look menacing. It might have been menacing a long time ago. Arachne was stronger than Catherine without a doubt. But, so long as she didn’t try to harm Eva, Catherine doubted anything would happen to her. She had a good enough grasp on both of their personalities at this point.

“Don’t scare me like that.”

“Scare you?” Eva said, blinking her eyes in confusion. “You didn’t sense me coming?”

“You feel something like Zagan in that you’re a bit too omnipresent. The closer you are, the harder it is to tell distance.” She shook her head. Eying the closed secretary window, Catherine dropped her volume to just above a whisper. “Speaking of Zagan, I assume you know something?”

“I might,” Eva said, also glancing to the window. She paused for a moment before shaking her head. “But let’s not talk here.”

“Alright. Lead the way. You had some ritual circle for me to look at?”

“Let’s hold off on talking about that as well.”

Catherine’s lip curled back. Eva had something planned. The way she looked around to ensure that they were alone… just what was her ritual about that it needed such secrecy? Catherine wouldn’t have worried about talking about her own ritual. It wasn’t like any of the idiots around Brakket—demon or human—would be able to replicate her work. Neither would they be able to stop her from carrying out more rituals.

But Eva started walking off, unaware of Catherine’s thoughts. And, strangely enough, she walked straight opposite of the main lobby doors. She headed towards the large windowed doors that led towards the Infinite Courtyard rather than towards the dormitory buildings.

“So,” Eva said as Catherine moved to follow from a few steps behind, “How have you been lately?”

“How have I been? What do you mean?”

“What, can’t I make some small talk? Seems like we always talk about serious things.”

“There’s probably a reason for that,” Catherine said after a moment of walking. They were moving over the paved path that led out towards the magizoology building. There weren’t too many trees around this close to the edge of the Infinite Courtyard, but Catherine still scanned the area for any threat. Something about wandering around outside with Eva and Arachne had her feeling nervous. “Where are you taking me?”

“I couldn’t find a suitable location for the ritual circle very close to the school building,” Eva said, turning around and walking backwards as she talked. As she turned, Arachne sped up just enough to walk about two steps in front of Eva, though Arachne kept facing the direction they were moving. “It’s about a fifteen minute walk away. Beyond that, I don’t really know how to describe where except by saying it’s out in the Infinite Courtyard.”

They were passing by the zoology building and its attached zoo. From her time working at Brakket, she knew that there was nothing else out in the Infinite Courtyard. Nothing of any real interest anyway. A small park area that, as far as Catherine knew, had never been used during her two years at the school. Apparently it had been a popular destination for students to pass time after its initial construction. Considering how overgrown the brush and weeds were around the worn benches, it had been abandoned soon after.

Except, as they continued on, they reached the small park. Or what had once been the small park.

Someone had plowed straight through the area with a bulldozer. Nothing remained of the thick brush or the rotted wood and rusted metal making up the benches. Instead, the whole area had been renovated. A large wooden deck stood alone, surrounded by electronics and well-trimmed grass. Cameras and monitors littered the area.

Inspecting the former park just a little closer, Catherine found the tell-tale sign of a ward set up over the whole set. A weather ward, most likely. Something to keep the electronics from exposure to the elements.

“I normally avoid this area, but nobody is out here this late.”

“This is for the event?”

“You haven’t been watching? Zoe and some news caster sit over on those benches,” Eva said, pointing to the wooden deck half-surrounded by cameras.

“I turned it on for a few minutes before remembering that I really don’t care about your high school squabbles.”

“But you play video games?”

Catherine just shrugged. It wasn’t remotely the same thing, but she didn’t expect Eva to understand even if she tried to explain. So she didn’t bother.

Reaching the end of the cleared out studio, Eva left the paved pathways. She hopped over a small fence that separated the area from the rest of the Infinite Courtyard’s forest. Catherine paused, watching as Arachne stepped over the fence without breaking her stride as if it wasn’t even there. So far, nothing had been all that odd. At least if she ignored the fact that they were out wandering the Infinite Courtyard.

But now, Catherine stared.

Eva took three more steps before pausing and turning back around. “What’s wrong?”

“Why are we going so far out? I don’t like this.” Even if Eva wasn’t going to do anything to Catherine—which Catherine honestly believed, even if the whole situation was odd—wandering around like they were didn’t sit right with her. Eva had been the one to warn her about the hunter after all. What better ambush place could there be than a dark and isolated forest?

The prison was nice. Really nice. The constant wards surrounding the place prevented people from simply teleporting in and wreaking havoc. By Eva’s own admission, they could be taken down from the outside; however, it wouldn’t be an instant thing. So long as she or Devon noticed, they could prepare defenses. Not that they had to deal with any attacks since Catherine started living out there.

Catherine had definitely grown accustomed to the peace of mind granted by the wards. And the peacefulness. She had only scarcely thought about the hunters while out there. It was a nice change of pace from the nuns, necromancers, and hunters that seemed to be a persistent feature at Brakket.

“We’re going so far out because I needed a large and isolated area.”

“You couldn’t have just used the courtyard of the prison? We could have moved or temporarily erased your treatment circle.”

Eva put her hands on her hips as she frowned. “You would have complained. Don’t try to deny it. Besides, I needed the space.”

“More space?” The treatment circle occupied the basketball court in the prison. Catherine understood that it wasn’t a fully sized court—not that she had ever watched human basketball—but it was still sufficient for a fairly large ritual.

“You’ll see. Come on. We’ll be meeting up with Srey and Vektul in a few minutes. Srey can tell when someone is watching us, so if you’re worried about that, meeting up with him will be better than standing around in the open.”

Catherine bit her lip. Glancing around, she hesitated for just a moment before grasping her shirt and pulling it off. She might have torn it in the past, but buying new shirts constantly was a tedious affair. Instead, she simply folded it up and draped it over her arms. As soon as it was off, she spread her wings wide. Just in case the hunter had set up teleportation wards. Wings should suffice for escaping, especially if the hunter had Eva and Arachne to worry about.

She considered flapping her wings and flying over the fence, but it really was more for decoration than actually barring someone from crossing, so she simply hopped it, placing her hands on the rail while swinging her legs around to one side.

While Catherine undressed and jumped over the fence, Eva just stood there, watching and staring with her red eyes. She couldn’t say exactly why—red eyes were perfectly normal among demons—but something about her look just had Catherine on edge. It was probably the general situation more than Eva.

“Alright,” Catherine said after a moment of just standing on the other side of the fence, “are you going to lead the way or just stand around all night?”

“No, nothing like that. Come on.” Eva turned her back to Catherine, took a few steps, and paused again. “Oh, and watch your step. There are tree roots and berry bushes… all kinds of things to trip over.”

“I have never tripped,” Catherine said, following as Eva started walking again.

“Never?”

“Not once.”

“Something to do with you being a succubus?”

Catherine hesitated for just a moment before nodding her head. Though she was behind Eva, the blood mage should be able to see it. But it wasn’t something she had really considered before. All succubi had a natural grace. Their steps were always sure, their movements smooth and sultry. It wasn’t even a conscious action. Neither had she trained herself for it; the day she entered existence, she moved exactly how she did to this very day.

Not that it was really a thing worth considering. Probably. So long as she was trying to change things about herself, would changing her gait do anything? Probably not. It would be hard to increase the confidence of her walk and turning her stance submissive or otherwise lacking in confidence simply did not appeal to her.

Even if she did try something, it would be later. After boasting to Eva, tripping now because she had decided to mess around would be far too embarrassing. She liked being the demon Eva looked up to for advice despite how Eva felt to her demonic senses. At least so long as she was useful, Eva wouldn’t have any reason to either kick her out of the prison or do something worse.

“Lucky,” Eva said. “I mean, I don’t trip either. But I cheat. There is a fine mist of blood spread through the air that I can use to spot branches and roots well in advance, but it isn’t quite the same as being able to ignore everything because I’ll naturally avoid tripping.”

Catherine didn’t bother responding. Eva managed to drag her into small talk. Instead, she just walked in silence.

As Eva had estimated, it took roughly fifteen minutes before they came across anything but open woods. Srey and Vektul were leaning against a tree. The former with a book open in one hand, the latter just standing stock still. Catherine had met the two before. The very first day they arrived in Brakket, Catherine made sure to spend at least a few minutes interacting with every demon.

“Catherine,” Eva said as she gestured to the two demons. “Srey and Vektul. Not sure if you’ve met or not.”

“We’ve met.”

Neither had struck her as all that special. In fact, just the opposite. Both were weak demons. Vektul barely had a presence at all. She didn’t know what kind of demon he was, but he wasn’t anything special. Srey, on the other hand, was an oculus. Catherine had heard of them and yet had never actually met one. Assuming Srey was an average member of the species, Catherine was not impressed. She felt no fear towards either one of them. Even if both tried to attack her at the same time, neither would succeed in anything but accelerating their own demise.

Not that either looked like they were considering such a thing. Between Srey’s book and Vektul’s vacuous eyes, they weren’t worried about anything.

“Srey, everything alright?”

“Haven’t noticed anyone watching us. Of course, they could have been watching you up until you arrived.”

“Perhaps, but so long as the ritual circle is left secret, it doesn’t matter. Shall we continue?”

Srey shrugged as he snapped his book shut.

Together, they all walked on in silence. Not for quite as long this time. Maybe five minutes, ten at the most. When the forest faded away to a large clearing, Eva paused and turned to face Catherine. She spread her arms wide. “Well, what do you think?”

“Think? Of wha–”

Catherine blinked. At first, she had thought this was just a clearing. Looking around, she started to notice grooves carved into the earth. Long sweeping lines that dragged around the entire area. And the area wasn’t small. It stretched out probably four times the size of the small basketball court that Devon had turned into a ritual circle.

She took a few steps forward, naturally stepping over one of the carved grooves. Eva and Vektul were both still a few steps forward, so she probably wasn’t accidentally walking over a set of shackles. Of course, she couldn’t even tell what the circle was supposed to be. It was too large. Despite its size, Catherine could see several smaller circles. Or rather, two circles to the left and right of where they had entered the clearing.

It took her a moment to realize just what the smaller circles were for. Someone was obviously supposed to stand within. The circles weren’t even part of the larger circle. If she was reading the sigils around them properly, they would actually isolate magic from interacting while allowing magic to pass into the circle. In essence, they were batteries for whatever the main ritual was for.

Spreading her wings, Catherine took to the skies. She couldn’t see enough of the circle from below to tell what she was seeing. It took but a moment to find the center and hover, beating her wings just enough to keep her in one spot. Being so late at night, the lighting wasn’t the best. However, she wasn’t a demon for nothing. She could see enough from just the moonlight and her own naturally strong sense of vision.

Of course, she would never want to design a ritual circle in such poor lighting. Hopefully Eva hadn’t been doing so either.

From up above, she could see that it wasn’t quite finished yet. A chunk was missing from the far side of the field. Maybe an eighth of the total circle. Unless there was something absolutely vital in that section, what was left should be more than enough to tell exactly what it was for.

At least, it should have been enough to tell what the ritual did. Not only was it huge, but it was busy. Lots of ritual circles—including shackles and summoning circles—were more empty space than they were actual lines and diagrams. Not this one. There was some drawn pattern everywhere she looked, some curved line or sigil.

Some were obvious. One recycled unused magic. Another ensured that all magic involved in the ritual was contained to the circle itself. In the event that too much magic built up, a vent off to one side would consume the magic through excessive light generation. Towards the center, there was something that almost looked like it was meant to summon demons. Except it also looked like there should be someone standing in the middle. And not in the sense that someone might put a sacrifice on a summoning circle as the enticement for specific demons.

Turning her flight into a dive, Catherine rejoined Eva after a few more minutes of inspecting the circle.

“I’ll admit, I don’t know what this is for,” she said, moving closer. “Some parts make sense, but most of it is entirely alien to me. Perhaps if I studied it for more than a few moments.”

Eva’s smile turned to a muted frown.

Which seemed odd. Catherine would have expected Eva to be excited that she had come up with something that Catherine couldn’t figure out.

“Would it help if the final section were completed?”

“Doubtful. Enough is there that I should be able to understand. The problem is that I simply don’t recognize half of what is out there.”

“I see.” Eva’s voice carried an obvious note of disappointment. “Well, I can’t actually help with that. Would it help if I described what the ritual should do?”

“Possibly,” Catherine said with a nod of her head. It wouldn’t tell her exactly what each individual part did, but it might be possible to reverse engineer from there. “Though, I might have noticed an error. I wouldn’t know for sure, but one of the rings was more of a cube. I can show you where exactly in a moment.”

“I’d appreciate that.” Eva turned to face the majority of the ritual circle. “As for what it does, it is a circle that has come from Vektul’s head. Void gave him the designs,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “The intention is to summon Void. Only Void.”

Catherine bit her lip. A thousand thoughts ran through her mind. Had she not known the truth about the violet lines in the sky, she would have immediately protested. Even as it was, was that truly the best option?

Before she could respond, two separate voices echoed out from the shadows at the same time. All the gathered demons jumped to full alertness, ready to fight.

“You’re summoning WHAT?” “That seems pretty ambitious.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.015

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Wow.”

Eva rested her head on the table with a soft sigh. She had tried to keep her discussion quiet. That had failed within seconds.

Vektul, as Eva had asked of him, had gone around and warned the other demons of the sky cracking idol and the demon hunters. Unfortunately, he had gone around and told everyone during lunch. Everyone, in this case, included more than just the demons. Eva would be surprised if anyone in the whole school didn’t know what had happened the night before.

Having only gotten back to Brakket early in the morning, Eva had promised to tell her friends what she had been up to the night before as soon as school was out and they could have some privacy. After Vektul created an uproar, Eva figured that she might as well explain now.

“There were some flashes on the horizon. Shalise actually woke me up after the first one. I had been asleep.”

“I was just studying,” Shalise said. “I thought it was lightning, but there weren’t any clouds.”

“I can’t believe you ran off to all the excitement without us again,” Juliana said with a half-hearted glare.

Shalise shifted, glancing between Eva and Juliana. “I could do without all the excitement, personally,” she whispered.

“Says the girl who tried to convince Arachne to fight her without even talking to me,” Eva said, pretending she hadn’t heard Shalise’s hushed comment.

“I said I was sorry.”

Eva waved a hand. She really didn’t care if the two sparred or not. It was heartening to see Arachne consider Eva’s feelings. However, as long as she kept herself under control, they could spar all they wanted. There were more important things for everyone to worry about.

“But there wasn’t supposed to be anything exciting last night for you to miss. Just a simple terrain survey and cleanup.”

“You still haven’t explained what for.”

Eva glanced around the cafeteria.

The people who weren’t paying attention to Vektul’s robotic repetition of last night’s events were all leaning in on Eva’s conversation. Originally, he had only spoken with the demons. Loudly. Once a regular human asked for clarification on a point and he had responded without murdering them, that had opened the doors for all kinds of questions.

While the exact details of last night were no longer secret, the ritual still was. He had the sense for that at least.

Eva intended to keep it that way.

Knowing about demon hunters and the ways they could attack might be valuable for someone. Maybe it would even save someone’s life.

But not her ritual.

For Zoe, Eva had simply said that she had noticed something odd outside her prison and had gone to investigate. Eva doubted that Zoe actually bought it, but she hadn’t pressed too hard.

At least not about her reason for being out there. She asked a great deal of questions about the hunters.

Eva could understand her concern. If the hunters decided to use their sky-cracking idol around Brakket, they might kill a few demons. However, they would probably catch a great many humans in the collateral.

Looking away from Juliana, Eva just shook her head slightly. “How did they find us? They weren’t watching us before we went to my prison. Nobody was watching us when I told Srey and Vektul to meet me out there. While they might have wondered why we weren’t at Brakket and assumed that we were at the prison, they weren’t watching us before we left. We didn’t leave much of a trail for them to follow. We could have been anywhere.”

“Some kind of demonic tracking device that doesn’t trigger Srey’s sixth sense?”

“Yeah. Maybe. The good news is that they can’t block Nel’s vision. Or, if they can, they haven’t yet. She’s keeping an eye on them.”

A task she had taken to with a great deal of enthusiasm. When the inquisition had originally attacked Eva’s prison, she had put up a small protest against destroying their idol. Nothing had ever came of her momentary anger. She had either realized the necessity or had forgotten about it with her capture at Sawyer’s hands.

But seeing this mockery of the idol had set her off. Eva had a stack of maps and notes to go through as soon as school ended. Everywhere the hunters had been since their departure last night, everything they had been up to, anyone they had met with, and any possible traps around the farmhouse outside of town that they had co-opted as their base of operations.

“So we’re going to counterattack them, right?”

Eva glanced over with a frown on her face. Juliana had used the word ‘we.’

Her mother would probably kill Eva if she knew what her daughter wanted to get into.

The only real advantage Juliana had going for her was that she wasn’t a demon. None of the traps would work on her. At least, none of the ones set up to counter demons specifically. Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of generic traps.

As for counterattacking them…

Charging into Sawyer’s lair could have ended extraordinarily painfully had Eva not spotted his haugbui. That had been a stroke of luck in retrospect. He never would have gone to it had he not suspected the vampires of treachery. That had only happened because Eva failed to provide some secret passphrase, which had only happened because the vampire had gotten a call off and she needed to try hiding it from Sawyer.

A chain of luck that probably saved her life.

Even if they spied on the demon hunters for a week, Eva doubted that Nel would see every trap they had set. Even if she did see them all, who knew if she would recognize things dangerous to demons.

She could still remember opening up their apartment door to find Lucy amidst so many anti-demon magical circles that it had taken the complete destruction of the room to get her out. According to the note left behind, Eva had just about stepped into a trap that was supposed to have reduced Ylva to a scorch mark.

Attacking the hunters in their home base would likely leave them facing far stronger and far more prepared defenses.

“I don’t know,” Eva eventually said. “But something has to be done. We need a large place to work with. Their sky cracking thing ruins outdoor locations.”

“You’re just going to leave them alone? They tried to kill you!”

“I know. I’m not going to do nothing. But I’m not sure what to do.”

Juliana fell silent. She idly stirred some green sludge that had been served for today’s lunch. Eva hadn’t seen her actually take a bite of it. She couldn’t tell what it was and wasn’t about to put it in her mouth. For all she knew, it could be poisonous towards demons. Or humans. Both, probably.

“Do you want to talk with my mother? She’ll have interacted with these sorts before. Maybe enough to give you good advice.”

Not really, Eva thought. Seeing Genoa was just a little awkward these days. Avoiding the woman in the wheelchair felt wrong and yet Eva still did it. But… thinking about it a moment longer and it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

“Maybe,” she said. “Though I’m not so sure about Carlos and your brother.”

“Brother left, actually. His vacation from his job ran out a while ago. ‘Family emergency’ only held out as an excuse for so long.”

Well, that was a positive, at least.

“Of course, if we go there, we might be leading the demon hunters right to your family. With your mother still not up to full speed…”

“I’ve been going there every week since school started,” Juliana said with a shrug. “Given my relation to you, I’m sure they already know about it.”

“But they might not have attacked because they’re seemingly unrelated to me outside of our friendship. This might be just what it takes to warrant an attack.”

“You know what?” Juliana said as she pulled out her cellphone. She held up a finger when Eva went to respond. After tapping twice, she held the phone up to her ear.

“Mom? I– No, everything is fine. Nobody is in trouble… No. Nobody died as far as I know.” She paused, rolling her eyes towards Eva before shaking her head. “I don’t know! Look, no emergency at the moment. I just wanted to ask if Eva could come over and ask you a few questions.”

“Also,” Eva added, “we might be dragging demon hunters to her home.”

Juliana rolled her eyes again. “Eva wants you to know that she is worried that some demon hunters might notice where she’s going and attack you sometime.” She paused while her mother answered on the other end of the line. After a few seconds, she turned to Eva and smiled. “She said that’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to worry about her.”

Back to her phone, Juliana said, “I told her. Yes. Alright, we’ll be over after school. Bye. Love you too, mom. Alright, bye.”

Juliana slipped her phone back into her pocket. “There. No more excuses.”

“They weren’t excuses. I was just concerned.”

“Well, be concerned no longer.”

Eva sighed, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll go.”

Now I need to think up some actual questions.

— — —

Irene watched as Eva, Arachne, Juliana, and Srey took off for the day. During their conversation at lunch, she had kept quiet and tried to draw as little attention to herself as possible. She had already gotten involved in far too many things with the group of them.

Learning about shackles and even demons was one thing. A mildly enjoyable thing.

Being chased around town by demon hunters was another entirely.

And it did not sound appealing in the slightest.

With a sigh of relief at having gone apparently unnoticed all day, Irene started into the dormitory.

Only started.

The exterior door opened up just before she could reach it and she found herself running into another troublesome individual.

“Irene!” A certain succubus said, beaming at her as she skipped the short distance between them. She put her hands on Irene’s shoulders before drawing her close and planting a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been so long.”

Pushing away from the other girl, Irene wiped off both of her cheeks before glaring at her. “You pulled me aside in the halls just earlier today. And what’s with the kissing?”

Saija was a succubus, but she had never been touchy feely like that before.

“Drew said that humans greet each other this way.”

“Maybe in France. And I don’t believe that anyway. It’s just a thing that happens in movies that people think is real.”

Saija pouted. A real lip-out pout. “Then why would he say that?”

“Because he just wants you to kiss him. Next time slap him or something,” Irene said. Drew was such a slime ball. He was supposedly going out with Kristina anyway. What was he doing tricking a succubus into kissing him?

Saija just shrugged, not looking disturbed at having been taken advantage of in the slightest.

Whatever, Irene thought. If the demon wanted to go around kissing everyone, it really wasn’t any of her business. Just so long as Irene didn’t get kissed anymore.

“Was there something you wanted?”

“You ran away from me in the hall earlier today. Did I do something wrong?”

Irene hesitated, about to deny the claim. She thought better of it after a moment and decided to simply answer with honesty. “The people who you have leashed to your little finger are not really the sort of people I hang out with.”

Especially Drew.

“Leashed to my finger? My friends?”

Irene snorted, cutting it short as she shivered a little. Summer had dragged on a little longer this year, but it was still getting to the point where she needed a light jacket while outside. Winter was coming early. She hadn’t brought a jacket as she hadn’t expected to be stuck in the entryway of her dorm for ten minutes.

“If you think those people are your friends…” Irene shook her head. “Well, you’re probably wrong. Is there a reason you stopped me out here instead of somewhere inside?”

“I didn’t want you running away again. If I’m here, then you have to get past me to get to your room.”

“There are side entrances.”

“That’s… Why aren’t they my friends? I thought humans who hung out with each other were friends?”

Irene tried to slip past Saija. The succubus spread her wings out, blocking entrance as she had said she would. While Irene could go all the way around to a side entrance, now that she had mentioned it to Saija, the succubus would probably just move to block her there.

“Those kinds of people–” I assume “–are shallow. You’re the cool new thing. A demon and a beautiful person. Once something new comes along, you’ll be dropped so they can worship that instead.” Irene paused, glancing down at the succubus’ chest. “Well, at least the ones who aren’t following you around because they’re enamored with your… assets.”

Saija glanced down at her own chest, up at Irene’s chest, then up at Irene’s face.

With a smirk.

“Ugh.”

“Don’t worry. You’re still growing, right? Humans keep developing for most of their life. Especially if you eat more,” she said, poking at Irene.

Slapping her hand away, Irene said, “I don’t care about that. Just go… play with your fake friends.” Again, she pushed past the succubus. This time, when Saija spread her wings out, Irene pressed into the leathery material until it gave way and let her into the building.

Though it took a lot more force than she had anticipated. The wings gave way not because Irene pushed more than they could handle but because Saija let her past. Without the resistance of the wing, Irene stumbled forwards. She almost fell to the ground.

A tail wrapping around her waist kept her upright.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Irene said with a sigh.

“If you really wanted past that badly, you need have only asked.”

“I’m sorry. I just…” She trailed off with another sigh, dropping her head as she did so.

I suddenly wish Eva were here.

The diablery class, barring a certain specific incident, had been somewhat enjoyable. With Eva there to watch and keep an eye on the more rowdy elements of the class, it had been a safe environment to learn in. At least, as safe as such a volatile subject could be.

Interacting with demons—even Eva on occasion—was not something she envisioned herself doing more than strictly necessary. They didn’t act like humans. They didn’t react like humans. They didn’t think like humans.

Without Eva around to act as a buffer, Irene just didn’t know what to do.

Irene idly thumbed at the leather cord around her waist.

Maybe the problem wasn’t in the demons. Maybe it was her.

Saija was easily the most personable demon of the bunch. Almost everyone got along with her just fine. But other demons had been opening up in the recent weeks. Each had their own cadre of friends, though none had as large of a group as Saija. They all, people and demons, seemed to handle themselves fine.

It was just her.

Of course, some days had Irene thinking that she was the only student in school who got bullied. Jordan never got bullied. Juliana never got bullied. Even Shalise never got bullied. Her own twin sister never got bullied.

Eva did get bullied for a short time last year just after her appearance had been revealed to everybody, but that had died off quick enough. Irene wasn’t sure if it was Eva’s menacing appearance or something else, but it wasn’t a thing that had lasted very long.

So maybe it wasn’t the demons that were the problem.

It was that Irene couldn’t properly interact with other sentient beings.

Shaking her head, Irene pulled her hand back from the leathery tail as if it had been shocked. Saija was a succubus and Irene didn’t want a scatter-brained idle action while she had been lost in thought to give the demon any ideas.

“Are you going to let me go any time soon,” Irene asked, glancing towards Saija.

But the demon wasn’t even paying attention to her.

Saija’s eyes were narrowed, glowing bright red as she gazed outside the dorm building.

Following her gaze, Irene peered out into the courtyard.

At absolutely nothing. A handful of students were meandering about. None doing anything suspicious. It was only a half-hour after school. Given the only mild cold, it wasn’t too odd to see her peers outside enjoying themselves. Two of the demons were out there as well, speaking with humans.

Interacting with people. And people were interacting with demons. Casually.

It was enough to make Irene sigh.

Though they had been warned about the sky laser beam thing—they and most of the school thanks to Vektul—apparently they felt safe enough to be outside around people.

Irene watched the two of them for a moment before deciding that nothing worthy of alarm was going on with them. They were just chatting. No rampant murders or demon hunters attack.

“Is something the matter?”

When Saija failed to respond, Irene pushed a wing out of the way to place a hand on the demon’s shoulder.

“Saija?”

The demon jumped at the contact. Her tail tightened around Irene’s waist. Not painfully. Just reflexively as part of her startled jump.

“Sorry. I thought I– It’s probably nothing.”

That made the hairs on Irene’s neck stand on end. “What was nothing?”

“Nothing,” Saija said with a smile and a shrug.

Irene shook her head. “No. You don’t get to say nothing. There are demon hunters running around, hunting demons–”

“As demon hunters are wont to do.”

“So you can’t just dismiss something that had you glaring at the air as nothing,” Irene continued, ignoring Saija’s quip.

“Sure I can. I dismiss tons of things every day as nothing,” she said, waving a hand to one side with a chuckle. “I’m not paranoid.”

“It isn’t paranoia when they’re really out to get you!”

Someone was watching them. Some demon hunter saw Irene with a demon’s tail wrapped around her waist. They would come after her thinking that she was related somehow. Her throat would be slit in the middle of the night without her even knowing.

Irene froze solid. I sit with Eva and Arachne at lunch. I am already related.

She didn’t have special powers to help defend herself. No super strength. No wings to fly away quickly. She was just a boring human caught in things that she really shouldn’t have ever–

Though already frozen, Irene stiffened further.

Saija had her chest pressed against Irene. Both arms were wrapped tightly around Irene’s shoulders as the tail tightened and dragged Irene closer. Her wings wrapped around her, shielding them from any prying eyes.

Or shielding Irene. Saija would obviously still be visible from the outside.

For a moment, Irene thought she was about to be eaten. Or something equally as terrible. But the succubus just rested her chin on Irene’s shoulder and stood there in the entryway of the dormitory building.

It took two minutes of enduring the… hug? —before Irene welled up the courage to push Saija off her.

Carefully.

She made sure she touched nothing but the demon’s shoulders. And even that was as ginger of a touch as she could manage.

“Um, Saija? No offense, but I don’t think I really… like you in a way that involves so much touching.”

“Drew said that hugging helps humans when they’re worried, nervous, sad, happy, and several other thing.”

Irene frowned. At least Saija’s tail wasn’t wrapped around her anymore. But…

“You really need to stop listening to Drew.”

“Alright,” Saija said, voice firm and slightly chipper.

“Alright?”

“I’ll tell him to go hang around with someone else.”

“I don’t– I mean, why? Why listen to what I say?”

“You were the first human to talk to me. You even invited me out to that place outside of school. It’s made me sad that you never come talk to me during school.”

“That…” Was Juliana, Irene thought. She had only been there—and at the demons’ initial arrival—because she had been dragged there by the others.

“Besides, he’s obviously been lying to me. I came to the mortal realm because someone summoned me. However, I’m still here to learn and have fun.”

“Well, okay,” Irene said. That sounded far more innocent than she had expected. Especially of a succubus. Were all of the student-demons like that?

Irene glanced over Saija’s shoulder, watching the other two demons interact with the humans around them. Maybe so.

And besides. The dean of the school wouldn’t have brought dangerous demons to interact with schoolchildren, would he? She knew Jordan’s dad. He could be scary, but he wasn’t evil.

She shuddered a little as she considered, remembering just why she had ‘needed’ that hug in the first place.

“What did you see just now?”

“Just an older woman in a long leather coat running around.”

“Old woman?”

“Well, she had white hair. That means old for humans, right?”

Irene considered Randal. His hair varied between white, silver, and plain gray depending on the lighting. But he was an exception, not the rule.

“Yeah, I suppose so. She was running?”

“Yep. Just dashed across my field of vision. She was pretty quick, I almost wasn’t sure I saw anything. Probably nothing. Though I do wonder why she had a sword. Most humans don’t carry them. Just that one professor.”

“Sword?! That doesn’t sound like nothing!” Irene paused, trying to think of something to do. There really was only one option. “We should warn Eva.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.014

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Alright! Let’s move!” Eva shouted out over the somewhat smoldering field. Arachne was a short distance away, clearing out a few tumbleweeds. Vektul and Srey were both near each other and, as such, near Eva as well.

As soon as Arachne heard the shout, she dropped her tumbleweed to the ground and started running towards Eva without hesitation.

As she ran, Eva took the time to extinguish her lingering flames. While she wanted to burn down a good portion of the area, she didn’t want to start an uncontrollable forest fire. Or field fire, as the case was. Taking the time to do so wasn’t that big of a deal either. It didn’t take long and, more importantly, Eva doubted that they would be attacked. At least not immediately.

They only just started watching.

“We don’t want to run into them on our way out,” Eva said, turning towards Srey. “Which direction are they in?”

“There are actually two separate ones. Both started looking at us around the same time. Not exactly. Maybe a minute or two difference.” He pointed a hand towards the direction of the prison. Perhaps slightly to one side. “There and over there,” he said as he swung the hand. It didn’t actually move all that far. Still in the direction of the prison, but on the other side.

“How far?”

“Not very. Not right on top of us, obviously, but maybe five minutes of walking out.”

“Both of them?”

He gave a curt nod of his head.

“Great.”

“Is it?” Vektul cocked his head to one side, almost pressing an ear to his shoulder. “Friends of yours?”

“No. Great as in: Great, they’re setting up to ambush us on our way back to the prison.”

“Oh.” His head snapped back to a straight position as his smile spread across his face. “Great!” he said sounding perfectly genuine about being happy.

Eva turned away from him, ignoring his antics for the moment. “You hear that?” she asked as Arachne ran up to her side.

“Ambush? Are we running into it? Maybe going around and flanking one of the groups?”

“If they can hear us as well as see us,” Eva said with a glance at a shrugging Srey, “they’ll know we’re coming. There are twelve demons back at Brakket. I’d rather not have us get picked off in small groups. Best to avoid them for now and try to fight as a larger group.”

“Might not be so easy,” Srey said. “I think it is safe to say that they can hear us. Both sources started moving as soon as you said to avoid them. Or maybe as soon as you said not to get picked off in small groups. Either way, they’re coming closer.”

“While still scrying on us?”

Most methods of scrying that Eva knew about required the scryer to sit in one spot. Away from her altar and incense, Nel could only get what were essentially still images. The methods she had used to test her anti-scrying packets also needed someone to sit around still pools of water. Moving the water would disturb it and break the scrying effect.

Srey’s nod at her question was somewhat disturbing, though not wholly unexpected. Eva didn’t know every method of scrying after all. They might not be scrying at all. All she knew was that they were being observed by someone who did not wish them well.

“Right. Arachne, we’re moving. Follow me. Srey, Vektul, stick close.”

Eva took off in a run. Away from the hunters and away from her prison as well.

She could teleport away with Arachne so long as they hadn’t set up any wards. It was doubtful that they had. Srey would have said something the moment that he noticed any observations. Without observations, they couldn’t have known to set up wards.

Still, while Eva could teleport, she wasn’t sure about Srey or Vektul. She couldn’t ask without giving information to the enemy so long as they were being observed. It was something that, in hindsight, she should have asked before.

Too late now.

Either they needed to escape without teleporting or they needed to get far enough away fast enough that they had a moment of privacy.

“Only one of the two are following us. The second is staying where it was. Still observing, but… wait, no. Whoever it is just stopped.”

“But the first observer is still following?”

“Matching pace. Not gaining any distance, but not losing it either.”

Eva didn’t stop running, but she did hum in thought for a few minutes.

“Shall we turn and fight?”

“No,” Eva said, glancing over at Arachne. “Not yet. We just need to distract them a little longer. The others should be almost finished by now. At least drawing them out here was a success.”

Vektul, still running, tilted his head to one side. He opened his mouth for just a moment before snapping it shut.

Eva’s glare ensured it stayed that way.

Whoever the demon hunters were, they probably knew that Eva had been lying just now. However, she didn’t need Vektul confirming it. If their pursuers got confused or worried about something happening back in town or back at the prison and left to check on it, all the better for them.

Unfortunately, even after running for another few minutes, Srey didn’t give any update about their observers.

They were still being chased.

To fight or to flee?

Eva slowed down, motioning for the others to follow her lead. She continued in the same direction. It was just at a walking pace.

“They’re keeping pace with us. No significant distance change as far as I can tell.”

“How far back?”

“Still about five minutes of walking at their current pace, were we to stop moving.”

“And direction?”

He raised an arm, pointing.

Eva bit her lip. The hunter was still between them and the prison.

What they were lacking at the moment was information. How were they being spied upon? Who? Someone she knew or some random hunter that showed up while tracking the new demons?

“Counter reconnaissance? Shall we go and see if we can’t catch a glimpse of them?”

“What happened to running… and, uh, distracting.”

Eva frowned at Srey, shaking her head. “If they are matching pace when they could easily catch up, they probably don’t want to fight.”

“You’re fooling yourself.”

Maybe so. Eva didn’t want to fight. She didn’t even want to spy on them. Getting too near to them would likely commit them to a fight. Worse, it would leave them open to that second observer circling around and flanking them.

There could even be more individuals or groups out there who weren’t actively spying but were in contact with the others.

At the same time, if they could spot their enemies, they could start planning around them…

“Actually. Wait,” Eva said as she pulled out her cellphone.

They might be able to see what she typed. If they did, it wouldn’t really matter. There wasn’t much they could do about it.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have Nel’s cellphone number. She wasn’t sure if Nel even had a cellphone.

Zoe. I need you to get to Nel as fast as possible. Have Nel scry on me. Then, have her search a short distance south until she sees any other groups of people.

With a tap of her thumb, Eva sent the text out to Zoe.

It would solve at least one problem. Namely, who their pursuer was. If Nel could continue watching them until they went back to wherever they had made their base, it would be possible to turn the tables. They could be more offensive.

Unfortunately, Zoe would be wondering what Eva and three demons were doing out in the middle of nowhere. She would have to explain that later on. Maybe the truth, maybe some excuse. That could be decided whenever she had to explain. Hopefully she would go on and ask Nel with haste and without complaint.

The return message came almost instantly with a light beep on Eva’s phone.

Please tell me that you aren’t out looking for demon hunters.

Well, that’s an easy enough request.

I am not out looking for demon hunters. Nel?

Setting up her altar. Also not happy about being woken up.

“Well tough for her,” Eva said aloud. She didn’t bother replying, though she kept her phone out and in her hands just in case Zoe sent a reply. “Any change in their distance, Srey?”

“No change in the last few minutes,” he said, glancing off in the direction of their watchers. “I don’t like this. What are they waiting for? We’re doing nothing interesting and they’re still watching us.”

Eva glanced over towards Arachne and Vektul. Arachne stood as a silent aegis over her, ready to protect Eva if need be. Her eyes were glued on the horizon of the rolling hilltops as if daring the hunters to crest the top. Hands curled at her sides, Arachne stood slightly hunched. Just enough to easily leap into motion at the first sign of trouble.

Vektul, on the other hand, stood far more lackadaisically. Like a bored student. Not a single muscle in his body was tense.

Though he was staring up at the sky with some intensity.

Following his gaze, Eva found herself frowning at the clear night sky. The sun had finally fallen below the horizon not long ago—just before they had started running—and the stars had come out in force. With no nearby lights of any kind and the moon a mere crescent, Eva could even see the milky arm of her galaxy against the stars.

But nothing more interesting than that.

“Something up there?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“It might not be a good idea to stand still,” he said without a hint of fear in his voice.

But something sent a chill up Eva’s spine. She glanced towards the sky again, staring at one particularly bright star directly overhead.

Something clicked. Eva didn’t argue with Vektul.

She immediately turned and blinked in the direction away from the observers. Arachne caught on quick, actually lifting Vektul off the ground and carrying him over her shoulder. Srey turned to mist and whisked off ahead of even Eva.

They cleared the area just in time for a white beam of magical light to crash down right where they had been standing. The cold of the night was chased away by the blistering heat of the beam.

“It’s that thing from the Elysium Order,” Eva hissed.

Not the most articulate response Eva could have come up with. Nobody else present had even been around for the inquisition’s attack on the prison. She had told Arachne in the time since, but Arachne hadn’t been nearby.

At the moment, she was too busy running away to explain more.

This was bad. The nuns hadn’t used the device—Nel had called it cracking the sky, if Eva remembered accurately—while Eva had been indoors. They didn’t have shelter out here. Nothing but fields, hills, and occasional trees. Nothing that would stop a magical weapon of that magnitude.

Eva’s cellphone started going crazy. A constant stream of beeps indicating messages gave way to an incoming call ring.

She slapped the phone to her ear without stopping running. “Zoe? Little busy here.”

“I-it’s Nel! There’s an armored man following you. I think he is reading out your location over a phone.”

“Right. Thanks.” Nothing unexpected there. She had assumed that whoever was observing her was in contact with others. It was good to know that it was the armored man again. She wasn’t entirely sure how that helped at this exact moment, but so long as they got out of there, it could come in handy.

“There was another observer,” Eva said into the phone. “One that hasn’t been following us. If you look between us and the prison, there should be a large patch of scorched earth. Keep following it back towards the prison and you might see that observer, if they haven’t moved that is.”

In the mean time, Eva had to get her group out of here.

Preferably without revealing too many abilities, but with that sky cracking thing, Eva wasn’t about to discount anything.

“Vektul,” she said as they ran, holding the phone a short way away from her ear. Still close enough to hear if Nel had anything important to say. “Your portals. Can other people pass through them?”

She hadn’t wanted to ask while her pursuers could hear. With that Elysium Order beam, she didn’t have much of a choice.

“I suppose so,” he said, voice vibrating slightly with each of Arachne’s footsteps. “As long as I kept it open for others.”

Eva turned directions without responding. The others would follow her lead. Probably. If they kept running in a straight line, the hunters would be able to target them by just casting the sky cracking spell some distance ahead of them.

“Excellent. Open–”

“Eva,” Nel’s voice half-shouted over the phone.

Eva moved it closer to her ear before responding. “I’m here. What is it?”

“There’s some woman in a wheelchair. She’s sitting in front of… it’s like some sort of mockery of the Elysium Order’s idol. Twisted and evil. You must destroy it!”

“That’s nice Nel,” Eva said. “Tell me, does this woman have an eye patch? How about a few holes in her back?”

“Eye patch, yes. But she’s wearing clothes. Would the holes be in her clothes as well? I don’t see any.”

“Thanks Nel.” Eva disconnected the call. If something really important came up, she was sure that someone would call back soon.

New mission: Survive. That was always a priority, really. However, Eva really did not want to allow her enemies to possess a sky cracking idol.

“Vektul, can you portal us back to the field?”

“That might be too far away.”

“As close as you can then.”

Just as had happened back at the prison, a dark portal opened in the air in front of them. It started small before widening to a proper size.

Eva didn’t break her stride. She charged right into the portal and out the other side. Whether through clever portal placement by Vektul or simple luck, the ground was at the perfect height and incline to keep her from stumbling.

Less lucky was the addition of a new humanoid in range of her blood sense. Her demonic companions emerged from the portal behind her one by one. None of them concerned her.

Ahead and to the side, Eva found herself close enough to see one of their pursuers.

Not the woman.

A man clad in shiny metal armor stood at the crest of a hill only a quick blink away. The same man who had defeated Zagan at the start of summer.

Notably, his armor was not the same. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that large portions were missing. His arms and boots were clad in metal. One of his legs as well. His other leg and chest just had some kind of padded undergarment.

There was no surprise or shock in his posture. His heart rate remained steady as he drew his sword. A long, curved sword.

The same one that had torn up Zagan.

The vials of demon blood beneath Eva’s cloak exploded, releasing the liquid into the air. Two orbs formed into rings, flying off towards the hunter. Another two orbs formed up into a shield around Eva.

Her shield solidified just in time. The knight dashed forwards in the blink of an eye. His sword came down on the shield.

The blade bit into the membrane, piercing a portion of it, but stopping before it could cleave through Eva.

Both rings she had sent out passed the knight during his charge. She recalled them, but by the time they reached the knight’s back, he had already dashed away.

“Arachne!” Eva shouted, seeing his target a moment before he reached the demon.

She jumped backwards just a hair too late. One of her back legs fell to the ground even as her body flew backwards.

Eva’s shield, or what remained of it, collapsed into solidified daggers of blood as she blinked straight to the hunter. If they were hovering orbs, they wouldn’t blink with her. Daggers would.

And with much of his armor missing, he had plenty of soft spots for Eva to jam the daggers into.

Eva aimed for a particularly soft spot right around his armpit.

His body wasn’t there by the time her dagger reached her target. Somehow, he had managed to get behind her with his blade already swinging towards her neck.

Eva blinked again, not really aiming anywhere in particular. Just so long as she wound up far enough away from that sword.

Srey moved in to Eva’s vacancy, letting the sword pass harmlessly through his ethereal vapor form. The moment it was safe, he solidified.

When he did so, he wasn’t in the form that Eva had become accustomed to.

He looked humanoid, but his body looked like molten vapor. Dark plumes of smoke erupted from a white-hot mist that made up the solid portions of his body. He reached forwards, hands passing through the helmet of the hunter. He retracted his hands almost immediately in apparent pain.

But not before Eva heard a cough.

The hunter stumbled slightly as he coughed a second time.

Eva wasted no time. She didn’t know how long they might have even a slight advantage.

She blinked forward again, arm already posed to bring a dagger down into his shoulder.

He moved a gauntlet up, catching the solidified blood with the back of his hand. Shards split off. Some larger chunks dug into the metal. Other smaller bits sprayed around the area.

Eva clapped her hands together anyway, blinking away as she did so to avoid his raised sword.

His gauntlet protected him from the explosion. Partially. Most of the metal scattered around the area in tiny shards—shards that burned her skin anywhere they touched. She obviously hadn’t blinked far enough away.

But he was still in a worse state. Save for a few fingers, he no longer had a gauntlet on his off-hand. Unfortunately, save for a slight blemish, his actual arm was otherwise untouched.

He was still coughing. More frequently than before.

Before Eva could blink back in and offer him the other dagger, he disappeared.

Eva’s head whipped around as she searched for where he dashed off to this time.

Except, neither her eyes nor her sense of blood could find him anywhere nearby.

Eva pulled out her cellphone, speed dialing Nel before it even hit her ear.

The augur picked up the second the ring sounded.

“Talk to–”

“The eye patch woman is going to crack the sky again!”

“Vektul,” Eva shouted. “Portal to anywhere that isn’t here! Everyone else, get through it.”

It took only seconds for the demon to comply. Eva dashed into the portal alongside the others, chased by the white beam of light crashing down on their position.

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