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Eva stared down at the blade, even ignoring the startled shout from Zoe and the sudden movement from the demons who might as well have been statues up until now.

Normally—and her experience with blades so far in her life supported this fact—blades hurt when they jabbed through her. This one… didn’t. Not more than a slight pinch, anyway. In addition, Eva had killed people before. A number of them. Perhaps not as many as Sawyer, but she had killed enough. And she had killed enough of them through stealing their hearts. She knew very well the time to death once the heart had been damaged.

Demon or not quite, she shouldn’t be standing anymore. Even that was an understatement. Frankly, she should be lying on the floor with her soul detached from her body until someone like Void or Death got around to claiming it. Or until Ylva managed to shove it back into her body. Probably after her body had healed enough at that.

Even demons died when their hearts were destroyed.

And yet, here she was, standing. Her heart didn’t even look damaged to her sense of blood. It had a blade running straight through it without a doubt, but her heart just wrapped around the blade to accommodate it. Even when it twisted to one side and tore through her body right between where her ribs should have been, Eva felt nothing more than a scratch. Her heart, lung, blood vessels, and everything else in the way healed up near instantly. The flowing blood coating her body sealed as if it had never been torn.

“What does it take to kill you?

“A lot more than you can muster,” Eva said with the same unnatural calm and slight apathy that she had felt since the ritual had ended. Turning, Eva faced her assailant. “Why am I not surprised.”

The demon hunter stood before Eva in a very nude state. One hand clutched a thin metal blade about as long as Eva’s arm span. Her red eye blazed with unbridled fury. But the other side of her face, off-arm, back, and half of her chest…

“What–” Eva started.

What did you do to me?

The second she spoke, the hunter jumped back. A series of Lucy’s tentacles slammed into the ground right where she had been standing. Her landing wasn’t quite as steady as Eva felt it normally would have been. Probably because she wasn’t used to the weight of a massive arm or the violet-colored growths running up her back. Her shoulder wasn’t so much a shoulder as it was an eyeball staring right at Eva.

Perhaps a lightning bolt had struck her. Maybe a meteor landed on top of her.

Oddly enough, she didn’t actually have any tentacles. Not unless Eva counted her arm. While huge and bulky, it didn’t look all that danger–

Just DIE

Her arm snapped out towards Eva. Despite the relatively large space between them, it didn’t stop. It stretched out, catching Eva right in the chest. Blood splattered everywhere from the impact, but still nothing hurt. The fist was large enough to entirely wrap its fingers around Eva, which the hunter did without delay.

And it still didn’t stop.

Leaving a trail of blood, the hand carried Eva far across the ritual circle and even beyond. Right up until she hit a tree, splattering more blood everywhere around.

The arm snapped away the second she hit. Most of it must have returned to the hunter. The rest dropped to the ground as a little parasite-like worm with fingers for feelers.

It immediately started burrowing into the snowed over ground.

Eva, slightly stunned but entirely unharmed, stared at it as its tail wiggled around in the air. It dug deeper and deeper before Eva shook her head and came to her senses. She gripped its tail, tore it from the earth, let her blood flow around it, and tossed it back onto the ritual circle. Watching it futilely try to burrow through the stone, Eva grit her teeth as she felt an anger rise up inside her.

Aside from being a constant thorn in her side, the hunter hadn’t done much. Nothing permanent anyway. And yet, she had clearly been… infected. Unless all humans were going to turn out that way. Or all life in general. Regardless, she was the only one at the moment.

And that made her the perfect target. A Proxy of Life. The whole cause behind this mess. The reason Arachne been taken over by Void. Someone who not even Zoe would have qualms about Eva taking out her anger on.

Eva didn’t know if she could kill the hunter. It was infected by Life. Since the enigmas couldn’t die, maybe she couldn’t either.

But they could come pretty close.

She clapped her hands together, obliterating the worm. Only a few smatterings of unmoving blood and viscera remained behind. A burst of flames from Eva’s fingertips cleaned the remains from the stone platform.

Where did something go that couldn’t be killed when blown up and burned away to the point where there was nothing left? Hopefully nobody had been contaminating the entire mortal realm when they destroyed enigmas, or parts of them, thoroughly. But it was probably far too late to worry about that.

With a deep glower, Eva walked back across the ritual circle, past the still form of the Avatar of Life, and back to where the demons and Zoe had surrounded the hunter.

The hunter’s sword slid through Lucy’s tentacles as if they weren’t there. As Lucy recoiled with a gurgling hiss, the hunter continued her swipe, bringing her sword down on Neuro’s charge. The poor demon split straight in two as if he were made out of butter on a hot day. The glowing green of his twisted eyes faded and both halves disappeared into Hell portals before he even had a chance to hit the ground.

A small part of Eva wondered where she had got the sword. Juliana had stripped her of everything and vanished her gear to nowhere, as far as Eva could tell. There was a possibility that it had been a part of the package deal with her infection, but the sword seemed entirely too human. It was a straight silver sword with four little circles of brassy metal on the ends of the crossguard and the end of the hilt. Had Life provided it, Eva would have expected something a little more visceral. Like what had taken over the hunter’s arm, back, and face.

Which the hunter used again. She thrust her arm straight below her. Half a second later, it popped out of the ground directly underneath Sebastian. He tried to jump out of the way, but the thing grabbed his foot. As with Eva, it didn’t stop once it hit him. He disappeared up into the sky. Probably not quite high enough to pass through the portals—if such a thing were even possible.

The fall back down probably wouldn’t kill him, but Eva hoped he had the presence of mind to kill the little worm thing if there was one.

The hand drew back in an instant, leaving the vacant tunnel behind, and reformed into the same arm that had been at the hunter’s side before with no evidence of any additional mass. Not even the slightest flicker of surprise crossed the hunter’s face as she lashed out with her sword, barely missing Catherine’s wings. The arm must have included an instruction manual.

Eva, finally back close enough to act, moved right up to the hunter without heed for the blade. It hadn’t hurt her the first time. Sure enough, it struck her right where the neck met the shoulder and continued down and out the side of her stomach. Eva barely felt a pinch as her body sealed itself in the blade’s wake.

Without breaking her stride, Eva drew back a fist and punched forwards.

A disgustingly purple bruise spread across the hunter’s bare stomach far faster than any bruise Eva had ever seen. She wasn’t sure if that was because of her infestation or because her heart was beating about ten times faster than normal hearts during stressful situations. Either way, Eva didn’t much care. She took a certain satisfaction from watching the hunter’s face twist in pain.

Eva pulled back, ready to punch again. She should have created shards of blood sticking out of her knuckles, but she didn’t. Maybe later. For now, the hunter would be her punching bag.

Punching bags tended to work poorly while punctured.

But Eva didn’t make it. The hunter’s arm swung out in a wide sweep, smacking both her and Catherine as it grew. It didn’t pin them this time. It just knocked them back.

Eva flew uncontrollably through the air. Her own wings sprouted out from her back and formed a thin membrane of blood between the tips of the hard bone-like structure. Stretching them out, she caught the wind, slowing considerably. Her uncontrolled flight shifted to a far less turbulent glide.

A lightning bolt crackled out ahead, striking the hunter in the chest. A thankfully normal lightning bolt of thaumaturgical make, not one from another plane of existence.

For a moment, it seemed to have some effect. The hunter convulsed while clutching at her stomach. But the massive violet eye making up most of her shoulder snapped open and looked right at Eva.

Zoe’s bolt of lightning crashed straight into Eva. It hit her right between her breasts, sending blood exploding outwards from her back. One of her wings blew clean off. Without it, Eva crashed down onto the stone ritual circle, leaving a trail of blood as she skidded across the surface.

Eva went down but she didn’t stay down. Pushing herself up, she got a clear view of her own insides with her eyes rather than her sense of blood.

Everything inside her chest was black and shiny. A familiar liquid. Her ribcage and sternum should have been shards of calcium coated with viscera. Instead, she found liquid blood racing to fill in the gaps. Her organs were much the same. The top of her lungs should have been distinct from her throat, stomach, and heart; all were normally slightly different colors. Not anymore. They regenerated rapidly in the same demonic blood as her ‘skin’ melded over until she couldn’t even tell that she had been hit.

Despite the awe in the change of her healing factor, Eva could really only think one thing as she stood up. Devon is going to be furious.

Oh well, he’s wanted a new test subject for a few years now. This might just be the excuse he needed to get off his ass and go find one. One who wasn’t a terminal child at any rate.

Eva could worry about him later. For now, she clenched her fists even as her dismembered wing flowed across the stone as a puddle. It touched her foot and flowed into her body. Within seconds, she had fully absorbed the wing and spat it out her back, fully formed.

Though she didn’t need it anymore. Her short gliding had carried her close enough that, after a blink and a short sprint, her fist connected with the hunter’s face. Eva’s momentum carried both of them down to the ground.

She wailed on the hunter’s face. Eva made no distinction between the human side and the more grotesque infected side. Blow after blow rained down until teeth started flying.

All the while, the hunter struck back. Or tried to. Eva pinned down her mutated arm using both of her wings. It was a struggle, but she had the high ground and the leverage. The sword barely registered as a threat to Eva. Not even when it entered her neck and exited out the other side.

A bright flash from the hunter’s normal hand made Eva hesitate. The straight sword had disappeared. In its place, a smaller dagger had appeared. The sword might have transformed. Eva doubted it. Transported seemed the more likely answer. Which made perfect sense. The hunter wouldn’t want her toys to be taken away like Arachne had done to the sword her partner had fought with.

Luckily, neither of the weapons gave off that sickly eerie feeling that the demon-slaying sword had emanated. If she could pull that sword out of thin air, then Eva would get worried. Until then…

Eva balled up her fist and broke the woman’s jaw.

As her fist connected, the hunter jabbed the shorter dagger into Eva’s side. Like before, she felt the slightest pinch. Only when a heat grew in her side did Eva pay any attention.

She tried to reach for the hunter’s hand.

A light flashed before she could.

When the bright spots in Eva’s eyes faded, she found herself halfway across the ritual circle, missing her lower half. Entirely missing. From her stomach downwards, there was nothing left. She had landed upright. Were she not intrinsically aware of her own body through her sense of blood, she might have thought that she had been sucked into a pitfall. Obviously that was not the case. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel much of anything, pain least of all. But something was wrong.

The ground around her shimmered. A thin red line split out across the ground where she had landed. It opened wide into a dark empty void with her at the center.

Eva lashed out with a startled cry, gripping the edge where the portal met stone. She could still fight. She was still alive. All she needed to do was find out where her legs had gone. If her body was working like she thought it was, touching them should reconnect her halves.

“Eva!” Zoe shouted. She sprinted towards the portal.

But the portal was not cooperative. It stretched open ever so slightly. Just enough for her fingers to lose their grip. For the ground under the tips of her wings to disappear.

With nothing to grab onto, she fell into the abyss. The sound of the hunter’s mad cackles chased after her.

And she fell.

And fell.

Downwards and deeper.

At some point, Eva lost track of herself. She couldn’t see anything with her own eyes; there was no light. Her sense of blood failed as well. Even trying to use her hands to feel herself didn’t do anything for her. She couldn’t even tell if her arms were moving. It felt as if her brain had been stuck in a jar, kept alive through magic or technology while leaving her completely isolated from everything. Her mouth didn’t work. Or if it did, she couldn’t hear or feel anything. Even the sensation of falling vanished before long.

She simply was.

How long that took, she couldn’t say. Her sense of time had gone out the window the moment she fell into the portal. The rate of her thoughts seemed slow and sluggish.

My my, come to visit so soon?

It was that voice again. Similar to the first times she had visited Hell, it pierced her mind and spoke directly to her very being. It skipped over the elegant and flowing sounds that Void had used while on Earth.

Frankly, Eva preferred this way. It was easier to understand.

Eva tried to talk but she just couldn’t speak. The sensation of isolation continued even now that she was being spoken to by her captor.

Captor? My dear, you perished.

I was fine, Eva thought. Thinking was the one thing left to her and, so long as Void could read her mind, she might as well think. Where is Arachne?

Arachne? Ah. The spider. I don’t believe that any of my creations have had to regenerate from dust before. It will be interesting to see if she can maintain a sense of self despite her pitiful state.

Eva couldn’t even grind her teeth together. As far as she could tell, she didn’t have teeth. Just a voice in her head.

Put her back together.

Look at you, ordering me around. Fascinating. Sadly, for you, I am still in the process of collecting enough of the spider’s remains to actually begin healing her. You have brought me a great deal, carried in your heart, but it is not enough.

Eva blinked. Or she would have had she been capable. It took her a moment to realize exactly what it was talking about. She had used her own body as part of the conduit for corrupting Life. The treatment ritual, her old one, always had needed blood and she hadn’t been sure that the Avatar of Void’s gaseous mist counted. Since her body had been a conduit, a good amount was still inside her. Or had been.

My legs, she thought with a sudden jolt of elation. And my arms. They were originally Arachne’s. If her limbs could get Arachne back to her, she would gladly sacrifice them. Though… had her legs even made it to Hell? Probably. Void should be able to drag them down here if not.

As she stewed in her consciousness, she felt something. A little something. Not much, just like a weight removed from her shoulders. If her shoulders even had meaning at the moment.

Hmm. This isn’t all that much.

Then send me back, bastard. I’ll tear open that cancerous sack of flesh and find every last bit of her.

That is not an option. I have only just begun clearing out the remnants of our enemy and those corrupted by its minions. Such a shame, so many of my creations lost permanently. But doing as you suggest may result in a relapse–

I do not care.

of the attacks. And with the portal already open in the mortal realm, it will likely not survive.

That… actually did sound like something she should care about. Earth was her home. And the home of everyone she cared about. Even demons, for the time being.

Worse, everyone she had left was still in the company of that infected hunter.

You have to send me back.

Perhaps in time. For now, you are mine.

I am no one’s. I might work with you, but Devon created me. Not you.

Ah yes, the mad warlock. I find myself curious about his end goals.

There is no time. My friends are in danger. And if that hunter decides to attack the avatar, as you said, Life will relapse. Send me back.

For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. There had been silence all throughout the conversation as Void wasn’t truly speaking. But the absence of his thoughts piercing her mind was all the more apparent without some noise.

Eva held her metaphorical breath. She couldn’t be sure whether the Power was trying to decide if she should be sent back or had abandoned her because she had attempted to order Void around. If she had been abandoned, she didn’t know what she could do. Every sensation save for her thought simply didn’t exist. She couldn’t even feel magic flowing through her mind as she tried to cast a spell. Blinking did nothing.

But she didn’t have to wait forever.

I agree that the situation could turn precarious should Life’s champion act against us. However, the planar gaps need to be sealed. Your haphazard corruption will work for an eon or two, but not if mortals have access to any higher being. Mortals are nosy and tend to disturb things that should be left well enough alone, as you are well aware.

So tell me what to do and Send. Me. Back.

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A final bolt of lightning hit the blob of flesh that had taken the place of Vektul. With it came perhaps the loudest sound that Eva had ever heard. A constant roar of thunder for several seconds until it finally faded to a faint buzzing.

Rather than merely vanishing into aether as normal lightning bolts did, this one persisted. It burned brighter and brighter. Eva wasn’t quite willing to glance away. Vektul’s mass appeared to have fallen into some sort of torpor, but Eva wouldn’t count on it staying that way.

To keep her eyes from burning out of her skull, Eva stretched a few thin layers of blood over her eyes. The black blood acted somewhat like sunglasses. Which really didn’t do much while staring at something that was as bright as the sun. A few more layers darkened the surrounding ritual circle to the point where Eva could barely see anything at all.

But she could still see. Especially all the light from the lightning.

And the lightning just wasn’t stopping.

Prior to the lightning, Vektul’s flesh had been what one expected of flesh. By appearance, it had a leathery texture and brownish color. But as the lightning continued, bright purple veins started to bulge out around the massive tumor.

Eva wasn’t sure what it was with all the glowing. First all the beams of light from the ritual circle. Then Void’s skeletal fiery light glowing from within his smoky body. And now this blob of flesh that was likely Life itself—or a hair on Life’s head, to use the avatar of Void’s example. That wasn’t even going into all the other glowing things, such as demon eyes.

Life and Void were the things most glowing in the local area. Aside from the ritual circle itself, that was. Eva did not want to be between the two of them. The very second the ritual circle’s light died off, she fully intended to blink to the edges of the circle.

So long as she wasn’t stuck in place once again. If that happened…

But still, she had yet to feel any inclination to bow despite Life being a being of presumably equal power to Void. In fact, she found her temper heating up as she stared at the mass of flesh that had once been Vektul. It didn’t even have arms or legs anymore. Just a series of writhing tentacles—most of which Eva had pruned off. Had it not been attacking Void, so much could have been avoided. Not only would Arachne not have had a Power shoved into her carapace, but Juliana and Shalise probably would never have been stuck in Hell. Zagan only dropped them in there because he had been trying to figure out what had been going on.

Which was Life’s fault.

It felt weird, being an enemy of Life. She was sure that if she said as much out loud, everyone would look at her funny.

Eva clenched her fists.

Frankly, she doubted that she would care at this point. What a world she lived in when Life was the villain and demons were the good guys. Probably. So long as Void actually gave Arachne back.

Otherwise she might consider looking into ritual circles to summon another Power to punch the lights out of Void if she couldn’t manage it herself.

Eva’s musing came to an end along with the light from the final bolt of lightning. Its brightness waned to a barely visible level. With a light popping noise, it vanished from existence. The faint buzzing that had been constant for who knew how long disappeared along with it, leaving the ritual circle in absolute silence once again.

She waited. When the first ritual had finished, this had been the moment when Arachne’s smoky body had taken on its fiery countenance. However, Vektul was already glowing bright purple. His tentacles, those Eva hadn’t sliced off and tossed into the great inferno raging overhead, lay flat on the ground. They weren’t even twitching.

Something had to happen soon. The air was thick with tension. And also the unpleasant scent of burned flesh, but that probably wasn’t part of the ritual so much as it had to do with the flames and the lightning. Eva felt safe in ignoring it with little more than a wrinkle of her nose.

But even waiting a few moments, the blob hadn’t made a move. The ritual circle was still glowing and the eye overhead was still staring down through the violet-hued portals. So perhaps it wasn’t quite over yet. But Eva expected something to happen.

Another buzzing started up. Low buzzing. The sound was low and loud enough that Eva could actually feel the vibrations inside her chest. It took a moment to realize that the noise was growling. And it was coming from behind her.

Glancing over her shoulder at the avatar of Void, Eva watched for a moment as it cut off the breath of lightning and fire with a slight cough. It waited as well without stopping the low hum. For a few moments, it did nothing more than stare up at the portals, locking eyes with the sole eye.

“Is it finished?” Eva called out.

Only then did the thing finally break its contact with the eye. It turned its burning gaze onto Eva and stared.

Eva didn’t flinch. She met its eyes and glared back. The thing had taken over Arachne and she wasn’t about to give it any power over her by acting frightened. If anything, the Life avatar was far more intimidating. It had actually tried attacking her.

You still stand despite being in the presence of two of us?

Is it finished?

The light between its teeth dimmed. Maybe it was like grinding its teeth together. Did it even have proper emotions like anger? Or annoyance for that matter. Eva hoped not. It might decide that she wasn’t needed for this ritual after all if she kept ordering it around.

But Eva couldn’t help it. She wanted this whole thing done with. To get Arachne back. For everything to go back to normal. It was odd. She had known about Life for a good while now. Yet she hadn’t cared nearly so much until the ritual had actually started. She knew that it was important to see it through properly.

Eva found it difficult to care about Life at the moment. Especially while it wasn’t even attacking her. Maybe later. The big blob of flesh didn’t look too threatening anyway. In that aspect, Void had definitely made Arachne into a much more threatening avatar than Life had done to Vektul. Flesh tended to burn, tear, rip, rend, disintegrate, fall apart, and generally just die when it came into contact with creative enough magic. Smoke didn’t.

Though maybe Zoe could have just whisked her wand and scattered Void to the winds.

Eva’s train of thought screeched to a halt as she shook her head. For some reason, her mind had been scattered. She kept going off on odd tangents entirely unrelated to anything relevant. It had been that way since the ritual began. Which, now that she was thinking about it, seemed suspicious.

Was the ritual itself affecting her mind? Did watching Arachne’s transformation cause some trauma that her mind was trying to gloss over by focusing on the little things? Or was it something else entirely?

With a second shake of her head, Eva clamped down on her thoughts. She was doing it again. Rather than think, she merely glared at the avatar of Void and waited for a response.

It took a while, but it eventually vibrated the air in its strangely elegant speech.

Not quite. Where what you see of me might be likened to a hair on your head, what you see of it might be a segment of your brain.

Eva frowned, glancing back towards the still mass of flesh. Poor Vektul. He had been turned into a brain. Or part of one. With how empty he had felt, Eva had to wonder if Void hadn’t created him specifically to act as the vessel.

“So you lobotomized it?” she said, turning her attention back to the avatar behind her. “Why was it fighting us earlier and not now?”

That may be an apt word for the situation. Lobotomized. Only temporarily, however. We are not yet finished. As for why it was attacking, it was because it recognized an attack. Now that this section has been separated from the main body, it will not stay that way for long. It will rapidly regrow this missing section. This reprieve will not last indefinitely.

“Of course not,” Eva said with only a slight grumble. “So how do we kill it?”

Kill? I do not believe the concept of death holds any meaning to this being.

“Powers can be killed,” Eva said, voice firm. Catherine had complained about the elves often enough for her to have gathered most of the story. With the death of their Power, they lost their unique magics and newly born elves were not immortal. Essentially, their identity as a people had been tied to their Power and they had lost everything with its death. Probably more than that as well.

Ah, but this isn’t just any of us. I know of no way to slaughter this menace, as much as I wish I could. The only being with that knowledge might be Death. And He isn’t telling.

“I hope your plan is a bit more involved than repeatedly summoning a portion of its brain until it decides to give up.”

The avatar laughed. Actually laughed. The very air around Eva chuckled along with it. Eva found the sound unsettling. Like riding a roller coaster—it was the feeling of her stomach dropping out from under her. Repeatedly. And constantly.

Though it did answer the question of whether or not the avatar had feelings. Maybe. Laughter could merely be something it had learned from watching demons and humans. Or it might be its way of expressing despair. Eva couldn’t say anything with any certainty. At least not beyond the growing unease in her chest. That was definitely there.

No, fool. Such a thing would not go over well. We have perhaps two more chances should this fail before summoning portions of its brain becomes only a minor irritation. The disgusting monstrosity that it is will adapt and find a way around the inconvenience of having no brain.

For just a moment, Eva wondered if the avatar was still speaking metaphorically. If so, a hair on Void’s head was quite intelligent. Also Void had a head. And hair.

I will corrupt it.

Tangents. Eva thought with a growl, barely managing to avoid slapping her own cheek. The avatar’s words registered a moment after.

“Corrupt it…”

Was that a good idea? To corrupt Life itself? Would that affect humans? Demons were alive. What would happen to them? The better question to ask was how much Life affected living things. People, humans and demons, were not enigmas. They didn’t go around mindlessly eating everything in their path. Usually. And when they did, they didn’t take on aspects of what they consumed.

Which meant that it was probably safe.


Eva didn’t get a chance to ponder any further. Behind her, one of the tentacles twitched. She whirled around with her great razor wings spread to their maximum wingspan. A thin beam of light stretched from some indefinite point overhead down to the highest tip of the… brain.

Ah, it’s trying to reconnect with its severed self before trying to regrow the segment. Perfect.

Perfect,” Eva repeated with a scoff as the tip of her wings struck the tentacle. Without the avatar spewing fire into the air, she didn’t have any way to permanently get rid of the thing. It wasn’t quite active yet, but she doubted it would be long. Instead, she broke off the tips of her wings into the ground, pinning it in place for the time being. With her endless supply of blood, reconstructing her wings wasn’t difficult in the slightest.

Hopefully the spikes of blood wouldn’t hurt the ritual. None were near any glowing lines, so it was probably safe.

Gritting her teeth, Eva severed another tentacle before it could become a problem and pinned it to the ground.

Eva had been about to turn over her shoulder and shout at the avatar to incinerate all the tentacles. She stopped the moment she caught sight of Void.

All the fiery glow had dimmed to barely embers. The mane of flames making up its hair had gone out, leaving just the smoke from the main body. Behind him, Eva could see the light from the ritual circle fading out around the edges. The bright violet grew faint pink before being extinguished entirely.

And it didn’t stop at the edge. The color drained further inwards, starting slow but moving faster and faster. In seconds, the absence of light spread all the way up to Eva’s central position, leaving her with no light save for the evening rays of the sun.

“Was that supposed to happen?” Eva shouted. Maybe she actually had messed something up with the ritual circle.

Behind the hulking form of Void’s avatar, Genoa brought a foot up. Her movements weren’t quite steady. She wobbled a little as she put weight on her foot. Still, she managed to stand on her own two feet. It took a few more moments, but others started standing as well.

Shaking her head, Eva refocused on what had once been Vektul.

But it was no longer moving. The twitches in the tentacles stilled as it lay slumped into its own flesh. The beam of light vanished just as quickly as it had come. Eva watched it for a few moments, waiting to see if it was merely pretending. When stabbing its main mass with her wings elicited no response, Eva finally turned away.

Ignoring the slowly recovering humans and demons around the arena, Eva blinked out of her circle and right in front of Arachne. She was still the three-story-tall smoky Avatar of Void, but the last embers of what had been glowing within her had died down. Nothing but wispy black smog remained behind. Yet it still stood mostly upright on its hind legs, supported by the lower pair of arms. It hadn’t collapsed into a formless pile of smoke.

“Arachne,” she said, voice soft. Though she didn’t really wait for an answer. She had a feeling that she would have been waiting for a rather long time.

Before, Eva had been distracted. Between being locked in place, the ritual, Arachne, Vektul, and the avatars, one thing slipped her mind. She hadn’t actually checked Arachne with her blood sight. Not since the first part of the ritual had finished, at least. Now, closer and with her head not quite as foggy, Eva stared at the avatar.

There was nothing left of her friend. No blood. No brains. Nor any organs. As far as she could tell with her sense of blood, there wasn’t anything in front of her at all.

Stretching out with timid fingers, Eva raked her claws through the smoke and encountered no resistance. Were it not for her eyes, she wouldn’t know that the thing was there at all. It didn’t even have a smell despite its appearance. She supposed that it might have a taste, but she wasn’t about to try licking it.

“That was a pain in the… everywhere. Especially my knees and my back,” Genoa said, brushing some dirt from her knees with one hand. Her other held tight to her dagger as she eyed the mass of smoke that was the avatar. “What’s happened? Is it done with?”

Eva shook her head before glancing towards Genoa. She had seen the woman coming through her blood sight and hadn’t even blinked an eye at her sudden question. “I don’t think so. I think something went wrong.” Eva pointed a finger up without raising her gaze to meet the eye overhead. “The portals are still there.”

Genoa made to glance up, but Eva waved a hand in front of her face. “Don’t look at it. It creeps me out.”

Nodding her head and licking her lips, Genoa said, “We can’t leave things as they are.”

“I heartedly concur.” Turning, Eva homed in on the one person present who might be able to figure out exactly what had happened. Only for her to realize that none of the demons had moved. Zoe was moving around between the students, ensuring that they were all unharmed. Most of them were looking far more unsteady than Genoa. But the demons, besides having stood up, hadn’t budged in the slightest. All of them had their eyes locked on Eva.

Or the avatar. Probably the avatar. Standing right in front of it, it was a bit hard to tell. There wasn’t any reason for them to be staring at Eva. All of them had seen her plenty of times before. Aside from the blood coating her body and the wings sprouting from her back, Eva was fairly certain that she wasn’t doing anything odd.

Even Lucy, who Eva would have expected to be moving about and most irreverent of them all, was frozen in place.

Cupping her hands to her mouth, Eva called out, “Catherine, come–” She cut herself off with a slight throat-clearing cough. “Come here!”

The succubus burst into motion well before Eva had finished asking her to. None of the others had broken from their reverie, but that really wasn’t Eva’s problem at the moment. Eva just waited, tapping her foot with growing impatience while Catherine hurried over. The succubus wasn’t using her wings for some unfathomable reason despite having been clear across the ritual circle.

But eventually she made it, stopping just in front of Eva with a dazed look in her eyes—not quite looking at anything in particular. She snapped out of it soon enough. Her eyes snapped to the smoky visage of the dormant avatar for almost a full minute until Eva clicked the tips of her fingers against her chitin, spreading the blood away from her hand to do so. Locking eyes with Eva, she said, “Don’t… Just don’t do that again.”

“What, the ritual?”

“No. Just–” She ran her fingers through her hair, sending it swishing over one shoulder. “Your voice. Talk to me normally or don’t talk at all.”

Eva blinked, but slowly nodded her head. “Alright.” She wasn’t quite sure what she had done aside from cuping her mouth and shouting. Catherine looked a bit too unsettled to be concerned over a little yelling. Though with everything going on, Eva wouldn’t blame her for not wanting any more stress piled on. “I’ll try to keep that in mind. For now, what went wrong? It wasn’t those spikes of blood, was it?” she said with a vague gesture back towards Life’s avatar.

“I don’t think…” Catherine turned her head, moving back and forth between Void and Life. “They’re not moving.”

Genoa huffed. “Tell us something we don’t know.” She almost tipped her head upwards before a small shudder wracked her body. “Now that you’ve mentioned it, that thing is absurdly creepy. Figure out whatever, I need to check on Juliana.”

As she walked off, Eva turned back to Catherine. “Astounding observational skills aside, I was hoping for something a little more insightful.”

“I told you this was too soon. I hadn’t finished researching it. Zoe and I barely finished our corrections!” She let out a low growl as her eyes found the ground. “Give me ten minutes,” she said as she walked off, following one of the many lines of the ritual circle.

Eva first glanced to the unmoving Avatar of Life before sneaking a glance upwards. The eye overhead bulged over on one side with an overabundance of some putrid mass. She tore her gaze away before she could get caught staring at it.

One thing was certain, the portal was fully open and it was watching them. If it couldn’t reconnect with its severed chunk of brain, it would probably try regrowing the chunk. When that happened, with the portals opened wide…

“I hope we have ten minutes.”

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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.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


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Juliana didn’t bother jumping to the side to dodge the oncoming icicle. There was no need. Her earlier manipulation of reality worked perfectly. Unless, of course, the hunter deliberately made her attacks miss. That was a possibility. Not one that Juliana could understand however.

So she wasn’t too worried, even while watching the icicle that had been aiming directly at her head as it skimmed past the metal of her helmet. Not a single attack had actually hit though all had come close.

Every missed punch, icicle, ice boulder, lightning bolt, pitfall, and whatever else the hunter had up her sleeve only served to infuriate the hunter when they scraped by Juliana’s armor, failing to actually do any damage. Doubly so when Juliana didn’t move and the attacks missed for no real reason. She tried not to stand still too often. The hunter might eventually decide to quell her irrational rage and just go after the slowly opening ritual circle.

Really, the increasingly intense wind coming from the hand-width space between the bottom of the void and the natural earth was more annoying than the hunter. She had considered making it stop with Zagan’s magic. Yet she hadn’t dared. If the winds were some vital component of the ritual, she didn’t want to be called out as the reason why the world was doomed.

So she left it alone and just squinted her eyes with her visor’s slit narrowed even further. Which helped with the almost blinding light that bathed the surrounding forest in red.

At least she didn’t need to worry about the nun. With the Elysium Order’s magic-eating magic, Juliana wasn’t sure that Zagan’s magic would work properly. Presumably it would. She had seen him use it against the Elysium Order back during her first year of school. But he had several millennia worth of experience using it whereas her experience could be measured in days. Luckily, the nun was having a hard enough time just keeping from being blown off into the forest. She didn’t have the weight of armor keeping her grounded that the hunter and Juliana had. If not for the wards Zoe had set up around her, she probably would have flown off, never to be seen or heard from again.

Almost a shame that the wards were still around. Still, the nun hadn’t so much as tried to escape. Though she had been a decent way away, Juliana had heard Eva’s threat. The nun was obviously trying to avoid triggering it. Anytime she thought the wind might die down, she tried to center herself in the ward, though it was difficult to tell now that the line Zoe had drawn had been blown away.

The hunter hadn’t tried to help the nun in the slightest. Not even a single spell came close to the wards holding in the nun. She didn’t try to destroy the nun’s bindings. At first, Juliana had been worried. Not so much anymore. Now she just wanted to keep the hunter distracted enough for the ritual to finish.

Juliana blinked as a realization hit. She stared down the hunter, taking a step to the side so that an icicle wouldn’t have to curve around her to miss.

She didn’t need to fight the hunter to distract her from the ritual circle until it was over and Eva could take care of the problem. There was no need. Obviously, she could have killed the hunter. Or simply wished her away from here. But… Juliana didn’t want any unintended side effects if she phrased something incorrectly. And outright killing her, even though she was clearly trying to kill Juliana, just didn’t feel right. Especially with how easy it would be with Zagan’s help.

Which, suddenly thinking about it, made her earlier use of Zagan’s powers on the nun all the worse.

Shifting her eyes towards the nun for just a moment, Juliana double-checked that yes, the nun was fine. No side effects from losing her mouth. Probably. She didn’t have a mouth at the moment, but she was still alive.

Okay. Nothing to worry about there.

Back to the armored hunter, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. The hunter was charging forwards, moving so fast that Juliana could almost see through her. Yet Juliana wasn’t worried in the slightest. For what was the opposite of the hunter being armored?

The hunter’s joints locked up mid-punch. Her fist stopped just inches from Juliana’s face. A weighted pause passed as the hunter’s eyes grew wide. She didn’t have time to do more than that. Without her armor—or anything at all, for that matter—she was just as paralyzed as Eva had said she was. Her body collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, already being blown by the wind.

She hit the ground hard enough to make Juliana wince. With her on the ground, Juliana clearly saw the three marks on her back. Dark blotches of skin that didn’t quite follow the contours of the rest of her spine. Just imagining what had happened did cause a small shudder.

Just a small one. This woman had tried to kill her. And had kidnapped her. She probably deserved both her paralysis and whatever Eva was sure to do to her once the ritual was over.

When the hunter started to speak, Juliana repeated her earlier spell and erased the woman’s mouth. It seemed to work well enough on the nun. And she really didn’t want to listen to the woman’s screaming, taunting, or general unpleasant words. Maybe it was hypocritical to worry about the nun while using the same spell on the hunter, but Juliana really didn’t like the hunter.

Juliana reached into her pocket and pulled out her wand—she had yet to replace her ring foci since her kidnapping—and pointed it down at the ground. The Earth came to life, raising small pillars of dirt around the hunter’s body. With a flick of pure regular old thaumaturgy, the earth wrapped around the hunter’s body. A quick hardening of the dirt into rock and the woman was thoroughly trapped. It also kept her from blowing away in the wind, but that was a side effect.

The entrapment was a just in case measure. The hunter was supposed to be paralyzed, but no sense taking any chances. Who knew if she had an earring focus or something else similar that Juliana’s armor-removing spell had missed.

For two full minutes, Juliana didn’t take her eyes off the downed hunter. There had to be some trick. Something that would come back and bite her. But the hunter didn’t move. Couldn’t move, obviously. Without a mouth, widening and narrowing her eyes was about all she could manage.

Finally letting out a small sigh of relief, she turned back to the ritual circle. And promptly took a step back. Doing so just about sent her stumbling over the mound of rock that covered the hunter. Lucky for the woman, a light knock against her earthen sarcophagus didn’t disturb it in the slightest.

The black dome had risen up higher than her head in the time she had focused on the hunter. Maybe even higher than the roof of a small house. Because of the size, the interior was still fairly dark and difficult to see. Even with the bright red beams of light that crisscrossed through the air, Juliana couldn’t see all that much. Maybe because, though overcast, her eyes were far more accustomed to the bright light of normal outdoors. She did have to squint her eyes because of the onrush of air. Though, now that the darkness had receded as much as it had, the wind wasn’t quite as strong.

Nobody was on their feet anymore in the outer ring save for Catherine. She could see that much. Demons and humans alike were pressed down against the ground. It took a good amount of willpower to keep from rushing forwards and checking on her mother. But walking across the ritual circle while it was active… probably not a good idea. For all she knew, chaotic magic would hit her instead of going wherever it was supposed to go and cause the whole thing to explode.

Her mother having her head raised helped to calm Juliana down. If she were dead or even unconscious, her body would be slack on the ground. Everyone’s would be slack for that matter. Even though they were pressed to the ground, everyone looked tense.

Which might not be the best thing.

But, despite the darkness, she could see something towards the very center of the ritual circle. Something large. The center of the circle was the hardest to see discounting the opposite end of the ritual circle where the distance itself fought against Juliana.

At first, Juliana thought that something was burning. She could really only see a silhouette and that silhouette looked an awful lot like a plume of smoke rising from the center of the circle. But the longer she stared, the more intelligent of a form she could see. A design to the pattern of smoke that wouldn’t be present if someone had just started a fire out there.

The smoke was roughly humanoid in shape, somewhat slender. It formed two legs and at least two arms on a flowing body. A second set might be present just under the first, but the smoke flowing off the body made it difficult to tell. If there was a second set, the arms were much thinner. More skeletal than the bulky upper arms. If skeletal was a word that could be applied to a cloud of darkness.

She could only tell the details of its arms because of how large it was. Eva wasn’t far away from it. Vektul as well. The smoke-being had taken Arachne’s place as far as Juliana could tell. She wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but hoped that it wasn’t anything bad. With the other two nearby, they served as decent comparisons for its height.

At the moment, it was more than twice as tall as Eva. Ylva would find herself angling upwards to look at its head.

But, while the column of smoke was the most notable thing inside the ritual circle, it wasn’t the only oddity.

Eva had a shiny black gloss coating her entire body. The red lights reflected off almost perfectly. For a moment, Juliana thought the lights were actually emanating from within Eva, like her carapace had cracked and her insides were glowing. But the lights and the obsidian coating weren’t all that had changed with her.

Two tall spikes jutted above her shoulders. From the tips on either side, a series of thin branches fell back down with the longest nearly reaching her hips. Wings. Though they lacked the fleshy membrane between the branches. At the moment, it was like looking at a bat skeleton. Like the rest of her, the wings were shiny and reflected the red lights on their black surface.

Juliana didn’t know what to think about that. Nobody else had changed besides Eva and Arachne. Not even Vektul, who was in the middle along with Eva and Arachne—or whatever that smoke thing was. At least, she didn’t think he had changed. He looked the same, but he didn’t reflect the light half as well as Eva.

Double-checking that both the hunter and the nun were in their proper places, Juliana built herself a chair with earth magic and a small wall to help shield her from the wind. She sat angled just enough to keep both prisoners and the ritual circle in sight.

Then she sat down and waited. There wasn’t much else to do. She would have to ask about Arachne and Eva’s wings once everything had finished.

— — —

Eva couldn’t tilt her head back. She couldn’t see above her. Still, she felt like the ritual should be nearing its completion. Every moment that passed made the curtain rise faster and faster. With the bottom of the curtain being completely out of her sight, there couldn’t be much left.

Arachne—or whatever had taken her place—barely fit within her section of the ritual circle. With her almost three times Eva’s size, even she was getting difficult to look at. The red beams still had her propped up, but her feet were flat on the ground now. Which only made her height all the more impressive. Had it not been Arachne in all the smoke, Eva might have taken a moment to be impressed.

The wind around her ears cut off as the last of the void disappeared within the murky fog that had once been Arachne’s head. She had almost forgotten what it was like to not be constantly hearing that roaring. Without it, the following silence felt all the more oppressive. No one said a single thing. No one moved.

Eva still couldn’t move, so perhaps the others were the same.

One by one, the red beams of light started winking out. Soon enough, the sky was back to the dark gray of natural overcast and unnatural violet streaks with only a handful of the beams left. Darker even than when they had started. Eva hadn’t thought that more than ten minutes had passed, but either that wasn’t the case or the very presence of the being in front of Eva was enough to darken the world.

The few remaining beams of light were those that had propped up Arachne. Rather than simply fading away as the others had, they pierced into the smog. Each one knocked Arachne around, sending her form stumbling slightly, yet somehow managing to catch herself before actually falling to the ground. One pierced either shoulder. One hit her chest. The final beam touched to the center of her face, slowly pressing into it rather than a rapid puncture as the others did.

The light around the ritual circle dimmed the moment the beam disappeared.

Arachne, or her hulking form, slumped. She didn’t fall to the ground. Her legs bent in two spots, digitigrade. An orange glow began radiating from deep within her chest. It started obscured by all the smoke and grew to a bright fiery red. Just when Eva thought she might have to close her eyes to shield them from the light, the entire creature burst into flames.

The flames formed a skeletal ribcage. Just the outline, as if there were bones obstructing the light despite that obviously not being the case—as the smoke wafted in and around, the light shone through the ‘bones’ of the creature. From the ribs, the flames traveled upwards and downwards, lighting up both sets of arms and its legs in a similar manner along with a long, whip-like tail. Once it reached its head, it bled into actual features. Teeth, a nose, two eyes. As with the ribs, it lit up where the bones wouldn’t be. Like a jack-o-lantern. Except, rather than the triangular teeth most common pumpkins had, its teeth were sharp and jagged. It lacked symmetry no matter how you looked at it.

Flames exploded from the top of its head, flowing down its back in a very unflamelike manner. As soon as the flames came out from its head, the creature burst into motion. It didn’t walk around like a person. All four of its arms were used in conjunction with its legs to propel it around the ritual circle.

And Eva finally found herself able to turn, to keep it in sight as she rotated to follow its path.

Which was somewhat difficult and not due to the blood that still coated her body. Void scurried around the circle, everywhere it touched the ground left a column of flame and smoke. It went up to Shelby first, circling around her. As it circled, its eyes locked onto her and never strayed. Shelby had her head down on the ground. She couldn’t actually follow it as it moved, but she definitely saw it out of the corner of her eyes.

Eva was fairly certain that she heard a light whimper from the girl as it drew in a deep breath—sniffing the air, perhaps. Yet it didn’t actually do anything more. It never even moved inside the circle in which Shelby knelt. Once it finished another circuit around Shelby, it moved on in a flash.

Its tail snapped back and forth in time with every step. Like the rest of its body, a core of orange burned within the smoke.

Srey ended up being its next target. Like Shelby, it circled around him a few times while occasionally sniffing at the air. Once satisfied, it moved on and on until it had inspected everyone in the outer rings.

It did stop at Catherine, staring at her for far longer than anyone else. Eva watched as the succubus’ knees started trembling. Her face twisted into a strained grimace. Though she had managed to remain standing throughout the entire ritual, Catherine’s knees gave out. She collapsed to the ground. A tune of satisfied laughter rumbled through the air.

Vektul—who, Eva realized, was now on his knees in a mirror of everyone else—barely warranted a glance. The thing didn’t even fully circle around him before it approached Eva.

Apparently warranting the most attention, it crawled around Eva on all six legs. The way it moved was almost serpentine, a slither more or less. It stopped every few steps. The tail coming off its back snapped into the air reminiscent of a scorpion’s tail every time it stopped. Yet, as with the others, it never crossed over the ring around Eva’s spot in the ritual.

Finally, it finished its inspection. The creature that had once been Eva’s friend stopped dead in front of her.

The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?

Eva jolted. The sound– The voice came from everywhere around her. Its mouth hadn’t moved, keeping its rictus grin. The light continued shining without any parting of its teeth further than they were already held. It was more like the very air had caved to its whims and created the words on its own accord.

And the voice itself… There was a feminine tone to it, underlying all the rumbling. Some remnant of Arachne, perhaps. But the majority was just deep. So deep that Eva could feel her insides rumble along with it. Small bits of dust and stray dirt that littered much of the ritual circle vibrated against the ground. The trees on the far edges bent backwards while the words echoed through the air. Just how far had the sound carried? Had everyone in Brakket City heard? Farther?

Though it didn’t matter. Given how everyone around her was on their knees, it was doubtful that anyone on the planet could stand against the being before her. Let alone fight it.

Only as she considered that did the words it had spoken register with her. She had been distracted by the booming voice and hadn’t quite consciously heard them.

Eva wasn’t bowing before it. She was the only one.

What,” Eva said anger rising, blood coating her beginning to boil, “did you do to Arachne?

— — —

Author’s Note: I was a little worried that the text wouldn’t show up for everyone, so if anyone can’t read that one line of text up there, it says, “The others bow before me. Brought low by my very presence. Yet you dare stand?” If the text doesn’t show up, shows up as garbled symbols, or perhaps as boxes with little numbers in them, I’d appreciate it if you would mention as such in the comments.

Edit: Altered to just plain bold for mobile users. Sorry about that.

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