Tag Archives: Zagan

010.029

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

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

For the moment, everything seemed to be winding down.

For Catherine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t even sound concerned!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sister Cole?”

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is why I’ll frame it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— — —

Things are winding down, it seems.

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

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

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

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

Is that whining coming out of your mouth?

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

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

Your usage of my power leaves much to be desired.

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

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

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

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

The undercurrent of laughter was plain in his tone.

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

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

Which it promptly did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I hate you.”

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009.020

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Footstep after heavy footstep jolted Juliana awake.

She immediately wished that she had stayed in blissful unconsciousness. Everything hurt. If she had thought she was in pain before, that had been nothing compared to what she now felt. Her leg had been dislocated, fingernails broken, ankle crushed, arms broken, back battered and bruised, and her head throbbed. And that was just the big things.

But she was alive. A painful existence, but she existed nonetheless. If she were the more optimistic sort, she might consider the pain a good reminder that she was alive and be a little more thankful for it.

The stomping around above slowed to a stop. The unintelligible shouting hadn’t, however. From what little Juliana could understand, the hunter couldn’t find the stairs. Juliana wasn’t sure if that meant that the stairs were gone or if the hunter simply couldn’t see them.

A moment after the stomping stopped, jack-hammering started. Dust rained down from the ceiling, forcing Juliana to pinch her eyes shut.

“Persistent, isn’t she?”

Juliana raised her head for just one second, thinking she might take a peek at Zagan. A pain up her neck and down her spine stopped her cold. She instead left her head lying on the cold floor.

“I don’t–” Her words died in a cough. Turning to the side, Juliana spat out a bit of coppery blood. Her entire mouth tasted foul. One tooth felt a little loose. That probably wasn’t a good sign. Though it was relatively minor when compared with everything else wrong with her body. “I don’t suppose you can fix me up?”

“Can? Why yes, I can.” His voice grew closer. After a moment, she could feel his hot breath just to the side of her head.

“But you won’t.”

“Why don’t we find out why you thought it was a good idea to summon me, yeah?”

“You didn’t leave Earth on your own terms, just thought I’d bring you back.”

“And who says that I didn’t intentionally allow myself to be banished?”

Juliana opened her eyes, intent on glaring at Zagan with all the disbelief she could muster. His gold eyes met hers the moment she looked. It was enough to make Juliana jerk back, causing a sting of pain up her side.

“Alright. I admit it. I didn’t plan on being banished. I wasn’t quite sure what he had in his hand, but he kept trying to hit me with it. I wasn’t expecting him to throw it down my throat. I’ll be sure to tear his out when next we meet.”

“Ah. Except he doesn’t have a throat. Or much of a body above his legs. Eva killed him.”

“Then I shall visit upon her my congratulations,” he said in a tone of voice that made her think the last thing he wanted to do was congratulate Eva. “But he doesn’t matter, I suppose. He isn’t why you brought me here. I believe I have told you before how I feel about people summoning me to solve their petty problems.”

“What, you can’t enjoy a free ride to the mortal realm?”

He stared for just a moment, eyes darkening in disappointment. “If you truly wanted nothing from me, I suppose I won’t have to kill you.” Zagan turned towards the opening. He reached out a hand, casually moving through it as if the barrier hadn’t ever existed. “Now, where oh where is little Eva?”

“You… You’re leaving me?” Juliana said through grit teeth. It would be just like him to leave and not deal with the hunter upstairs. In fact, she should have expected it the moment she summoned him.

He turned back with a frown. “Should I not? Was there something more you wanted?” Zagan stared down at her with his golden eyes strangely mute. They lacked their normal sheen, their lust for something new.

Juliana had a strange feeling that no matter how she answered, Zagan would not be happy. Would he kill her? That was a harder question to answer. But he definitely was not about to deal with any of her problems. It was all too old for him.

“Fine,” Juliana said in a whisper. She threw herself over, rolling up onto her back and ignoring the pain that spiked pretty much everywhere on her body. “Fine! You want something new! Something to ease your boredom? Something you’ve never done before?” Grabbing the tattered hem of her shirt, Juliana exposed her chest.

Before even starting the summoning circle, she had drawn out one other circle. Rather, a triangle with three circles around it and one in the center. The sigils within the circle came entirely from her memory. She hadn’t even paid it all that much attention the one time she had seen it. But Zagan should realize what she meant. He would fix it.

If he agreed.

For the moment, he just stared.

Juliana waited with bated breath. If he didn’t agree—or worse, if Juliana was wrong and someone in the past had tried to do what she was doing—he would probably kill her for having the audacity to suggest such a thing. In fact, she could see him phrasing it exactly like that. And then when her mother bound her as a ghost to the deepest pit on the face of the Earth, he would probably come to kill her then as well. Which might be a good thing, now that she thought about it.

A sharp sound split the silence. Juliana flinched backwards. She didn’t have the energy to shield her face from whatever was coming, not that it would have helped.

But it didn’t matter. The sound had been a laugh. A single burst of a laugh that quickly descended into raving chuckles.

“Do you even understand what you have failed to smear over your chest?”

“I was working off my memory, okay!” Juliana shouted just before she collapsed onto her back, unable to take the strain of propping herself up on one elbow. “I saw it once and I didn’t even have my soul at the time.”

Zagan turned away from the open doorway, approached Juliana, and squatted down just to her side with the heels of his shiny shoes pressed flat against the ground. He reached out. A leather-gloved hand brushed over her ribcage just beneath her breast. His finger traced a circle before he pulled back.

“If that is even a half-accurate recreation of what was on your friend’s chest, it is no wonder she and her demon wound up so inside out.”

Juliana opened her mouth to respond. She didn’t quite make it. Though Zagan had both of his hands clasped together, she could still feel his finger pressing into her chest. It pressed deeper and deeper.

“What did you do?” The pressure started turning to pins and needles.

He just grinned.

Juliana couldn’t do much beyond squirm as the pins and needles turned to a hot branding iron. She opened her mouth to scream but all that came out was a strangled squawk. Then she realized something. Her body had been lying to her. Broken and mangled though it was, it hadn’t been in pain. What she had felt had merely been light aches.

As midnight black scars traced over her chest, Juliana realized exactly what real pain felt like.

Her hands clawed across her chest. Bones unbroken or broken, fingernails intact or not, it didn’t matter. Just so long as she tore off the skin on her chest.

But she never quite reached her chest. Zagan moved forward, pinning her hands beneath his shoes. Juliana could do nothing but sit and writhe.

Juliana didn’t know for how long it lasted. It couldn’t have been long, as Zagan would surely have grown bored of standing over her. However, end it did. All at once too. Juliana blinked her eyes in a daze, half wondering if she hadn’t just imagined all the pain on her chest. Everything else still hurt again, but nothing more than the same amount of hurt she had been in before Zagan touched her. In fact, it was strangely muted now.

She could still see and feel all her injuries. Zagan hadn’t cured her.

Letting out a short breath, Juliana raised her head just enough to see just what had happened to her chest. The blood she had smeared over herself had vanished entirely. In its place, deep black lines marred her chest. Neat lines as well. Like they had been drawn with a steady hand in permanent marker.

The sigil on Shalise’s chest had been a triangle. Of that, Juliana was certain. That was what she had drawn using her own blood. The markings in the circles had been the fuzziest part of the whole design in her memory. As for what was on the chests of the Brakket students who had bound demons, she had no idea. Anderson had tried to get her to bind a demon only for her to rebuff him.

Her mother wouldn’t have been happy.

Hopefully she wouldn’t kill Juliana for this.

However, the marking on Juliana’s chest wasn’t a triangle. A five point star sat on her chest within a larger circle. An endless string of words ran around the edge of the ring. Though Juliana couldn’t read whatever language it was written in, it seemed like the words changed the longer she followed the text. Like there were more words written in the space and she had to continue looping around to read them all.

It actually made her dizzy trying to stare at it.

Dropping her head back to the cement, she just breathed. The cool air soothed her throat and her lungs definitely needed the oxygen. All the while, Zagan stood over her and stared down. He kept her hands pinned beneath his shoes.

“What did you do?” she asked again, finally feeling ready to talk after a moment of silence.

“I corrected your mistakes. I gave elegance to your crude scrawling. I made it worthy of a higher being.”

At first, Juliana felt the beginnings of a scowl cross her face. Zagan’s words sunk in just a little deeper and the scowl shifted to a trembling smile. “So… You are agreeing?”

“Let me make a few things clear,” he said, squatting down while still keeping his feet on her hands—something she was glad to not be able to feel all that well with all the rest of her muted pain. One of his hands moved out to place a single finger beneath her chin. “You are likely not the first to have come up with this idea.”

Zagan stopped talking. His lips closed and he simply stared.

Once or twice in the past, he had grown extremely irritated when Juliana had interrupted his talking. But, at the same time, he might get angry if she didn’t say something. She swallowed, feeling the pressure of his finger beneath his chin, before looking up at him. “Likely?”

“It’s hard to say. I likely killed my summoners before they could think to ask.”

“Oh. But…”

“You are in an interesting position. Martina is dead. My contract keeping me from harming school children is null and void. I could kill you for having the audacity to try to contract with me. But…” He trailed off, removing the finger from under her chin as he stood. “Is that not also boring? I have killed people before for a myriad of reasons. This… could be something worth trying once.

“Of course, how interesting this is will be entirely dependent on you. I am not like that cambion that infested your friend. Displease me and I will claw my way out of your body leaving nothing but a ruined husk behind.”

Juliana brushed her tongue across her dry lips, tasting tried blood as she went. Really, whether he killed her in the future or left her to die at the hands of the hunter, it probably wouldn’t matter. She would be dead either way. One of those ways sounded like she might at least be able to get revenge first.

“Fine,” she said. “I can keep you entertained. Even if I have to go to the ends of the Earth, Hell, or some other plane of existence.”

He leaned down again, grabbing the back of her hair with his hand. “I shall keep my hopes low,” he said, yanking her head to meet her eyes dead on. “For your sake.”

Juliana glared. Or tried to. As Zagan pulled back on her hair, her chest started burning. Quite a separate sensation from what she had just felt when he corrected her binding circle. It was… almost pleasant. A certain warmth. Like being stuck out in the cold for hours only to come home to a roaring fire. Except centered on her chest rather than her entire body.

Above her, Zagan wasn’t looking quite his usual self. He had turned transparent. Though not a ghostly sort of transparent. More like a black smoke in the rough shape of a man. His only real defining features were his gold eyes that lit up his smoggy face.

She breathed in before she could stop herself. Zagan’s smoky form flooded into her body, pushing up into her mouth and nose, and even her eyes and ears. She couldn’t stop him. She couldn’t breathe.

It only lasted a moment before every last wisp of Zagan had disappeared. Without him holding her head up, she fell, knocking her head against the ground. All at once, she could breathe again. Her blocked airway cleared and Juliana sucked down fresh air.

Zagan still squirmed around inside her. Heat still poured off the sigil on her chest. Just as she wondered how long it would go on for, the sigil pulsed a faint red. After it faded, she couldn’t feel anything. No heat, no Zagan.

And no fixes to her body. Her bones remained broken, even if the pain felt considerably muted. For some reason, she had thought she might heal. Prax inside Shalise altered her body. She had said that she healed better as well as had those giant muscles.

So shouldn’t she be able to do something similar? Zagan could probably heal extremely rapidly. Better than Prax.

Of course I can. But there are simpler ways to fix your body. Faster ways.

“Zagan,” she whispered. Obviously he was still around. He wouldn’t just disappear. And Shalise had said that she could talk with Prax while he had been inside her head. “How do I heal?”

The sigil on your chest grants access to all of me. If you wish to turn into my demonic bovine form, do so. If you wish to grow horns and wings, do so. If you wish to access my magic, do so. And my magic will allow you to heal your body instantly.

“But you’re not going to tell me.”

There is a certain amusement to be gained from watching you struggle. Do try to avoid erasing yourself from existence, however.

“That’s a possibility?” She didn’t get an answer, though she did get a strange sensation like she wanted to laugh except she really didn’t.

Instead she focused. She had never really needed to think about magic before using it. The effect she wanted from her magic, yes, but never magic itself. Now, however, she could feel something else. Something only barely tangible. She could feel it slip through her fingers—metaphorically—when she tried to draw on it. She had the idea of healing her body in mind, but it just failed to do anything.

But as she thought and focused, Juliana realized something. The hammering up above had ceased. She wasn’t sure when it had ceased, but she couldn’t hear anything. No heavy footsteps as the hunter walked around either. She might have given up and taken a seat or she might have left.

Juliana was leaning towards the latter. Especially once she got a whiff of the smoke.

The hunter hadn’t been able to break through the floor, probably because of Zagan, and was now trying to burn the place down?

She had to move quickly.

“Any hints?”

My power does not do anything directly. You must take a more… inverted approach to your problems.

“What, I have to try to hurt myself?”

Getting warmer. But skip the process. Hurting yourself is a process. Healing yourself is a process. Focus on your current state and how it relates to your desired end result.

Juliana remained still as she thought, glad she was on the floor. The air overhead was looking a little hazy. The black plastic around the chimney pipe had melted away. The hunter must have thrown something down there, but Juliana couldn’t see anything from her angle on the floor.

“End result,” Juliana mumbled to herself. “I am injured and broken. I want to be alive and well. But inverted? So dead?”

The intangible feeling of Zagan’s power vanished, torn from her grasp.

“Aww, worried about me?”

I’d rather not have my fun ended before it can begin.

“So that’s wrong then.”

You’re inverting the wrong part.

“I’m injured. The inverse of injured is healed?”

The power came back… and Juliana still didn’t know how to use it. It was just there, swirling around within her. Trying to grasp and use it still had it just falling from her metaphorical fingertips. It was almost like trying to use magic without a focus. Except she knew that Randal hadn’t used a focus to throw around his anti-magic orbs during the first event.

One time, Zagan said, irritation palpable in his voice. Watch closely. You must frame your current state properly in your mind. If you try to consider the opposite of your arm, you may wind up with nothing attached to your shoulder. For simple things, adding a simple opposite qualifier works nicely. The current state of your arm is broken. The opposite is unbroken.

As he spoke, she felt a tendril of his magic brush against her arm. With absolutely no flair or flashes, it fixed itself. There were no intervening states. One moment, her arm had been twisted to the side. The next it was straight on and fully healed. There wasn’t even a bruise left over.

“Alright. Okay. I think I can do that.”

She lifted up her arm, first inspecting it to ensure that it really had healed properly. Finding nothing wrong, she moved her gaze up to her fingernails. Or where her fingernails had been before pulling them off in trying to escape from the enigma. She started with one that was merely cracked and not completely missing. Start small, she thought. If something went wrong, she probably wouldn’t erase herself just trying to modify her fingernail.

“So it is broken, right?” Receiving no protest from Zagan, she grabbed hold of his magic and pushed it into her finger. “I want my nail unbroken.”

The second she spoke, her fingernail was back to normal. With a slight giddy feeling in her stomach, she moved on to one of her fingernails that had snapped off completely. “It’s off. And now on?” Juliana grinned as the fingernail reappeared on her finger.

To her surprise, the fingernail that had been lying on the cement near the shackles vanished as well. With a furrowed brow, she moved on to her next finger. “There is no fingernail here. And I want there to be one?” Again, her nail appeared in place of the slightly bleeding meat on the end of her finger. This time, however, the fingernail half dug into the cement was still there.

“Seems like kind of an obtuse way of thinking about things.”

Perhaps in the way you are using it. Come complain again after ten thousand years when you’ve discovered the possibilities of turning losses to victories, ups to downs, and love to hostility.

“If you can do that, then how did you lose in the first place?”

There are a few limitations, yeah? I cannot directly kill a sentient being. Not usually a problem as I can strip away defenses and then just tear them apart with my hands. I also don’t resurrect beings with souls as Death gets antsy. The hunter also had a sword and a ring made explicitly to counter demons. A couple other things that you’re not likely to encounter in the immediate future.

“Right,” Juliana said with a slight cough. “Well, I suppose I can do a similar thing to the smoke?”

I believe you have exhausted my assistance.

With that, his voice faded away, simmering in the back of her mind.

“Zagan?” Juliana tried. But he did not respond. “Fine. I can do this myself.”

First her body, then her escape.

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009.019

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“A lot of help she is,” Eva mumbled as she slipped her phone back into her pocket.

Deep wrinkles of thought and worry lined Genoa’s face. Since picking up Juliana’s cellphone, she hadn’t stopped pacing up and down the street. She did pause as Eva finished her call. “Nothing?”

“Nel was using the armored hunter’s blood to track them, assuming it is that hunter again. He died. Plus her vision was slipping as well. She only really was able to watch them thanks to her watching them non-stop since they did their beam attacks near the prison. The hunters that attacked her and Ylva interrupted that.

“However, it is most likely that hunter. When Nel tried to use Juliana’s hair to track her down, her vision slipped off just like the hunters. So unless more people have all suddenly developed the ability to evade Nel’s sight, it’s that eye patch woman.”

Eva couldn’t quite understand how it was that woman. She had been crippled. Blood sight didn’t lie. The woman had three holes in her back, hadn’t moved in the slightest, and even had a neck brace with a focus built into it. Tearing up the street this much just wasn’t something a woman so badly crippled could do. Maybe Juliana had done some of it, but the damaged cellphone had been hers and the imprint of a body had been about her size as well.

Though there wasn’t any ice around, and that definitely seemed to be the woman’s favorite tactic. At least, it had been in previous encounters. Maybe the hunter had found a new henchman to do her dirty work.

“And Ylva cannot do anything? That ring she gave Juli…”

“She can confirm that Juliana was alive.”

Genoa’s voice cracked. “Was?

“The ring has been removed. Juliana was alive up till the ring was removed at the very least. She doesn’t believe that Juliana is dead, however. With Juliana still likely on Earth, one of her reapers could figure that out. I guess. Nel wasn’t being perfectly clear.”

Closing her eyes, Genoa dipped her head as she let out a short sigh. “But they can’t locate her?” she asked after a moment of silence.

Eva shook her head.

After a quick thought, she pulled her cellphone back out. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby all deserved to know. They were with Carlos. They should be safe, according to Genoa. But they should be on their guard at the very least. She sent a message to Zoe as well, though she probably wouldn’t answer it until after the event.

If she looked during a commercial, would they cancel the event? Continue as planned to avoid creating a panic?

For that matter, were there other people she should send messages to? Eva was limited by the low amount of phone numbers she had collected. So it wasn’t too big of a list to scroll through. She did send off a message to Catherine.

And received an immediate reply. Catherine had probably been on her phone when she received the message. Nothing had happened out at the prison, but she would keep an eye out. Which, for Catherine, probably meant that she would be playing games or researching ritual circles until she realized that the prison was burning down around her.

“I’m a spider, not a hound.”

Eva blinked and glanced up. Genoa was… not quite glaring at Arachne. Arachne definitely had an annoyed look on her face. She could only guess what Genoa had asked while Eva had been distracted.

“Alright,” Eva said. “Someone kidnapped Juliana and is keeping her alive. Most likely a demon hunter at that.”

“Which means she is going to be used,” Genoa said, voice stone cold.

“There are a lot of demons in the city. The first time they actually tried, they killed a good half of the demons. Last time, I think they were specifically trying to get me. Since I killed her partner, I am willing to bet that a similar plan is running through her mind with a little more reckless vengeance involved.

“But don’t worry,” Eva said. “Getting Juliana out will be simple. I just turn myself in.”

“No you won’t,” Arachne growled, stepping closer to Eva.

“I’m not going to let her kill me,” Eva said. “We get Juliana out then either I escape on my own or you come rescue me.”

“This is a terrible plan. We would trade a more powerful demon for a weak human.” A slight pause passed by before Arachne turned to face Genoa. “No offense.”

Eva winced at the phrasing, only to find herself surprised as Genoa started nodding along.

“No, Arachne is right. Unless you have a guaranteed way of escaping—and fast—you’ll get killed. Assuming her goal is to kill you, she needs to keep Juliana alive to draw you out to her. Once she has you in her hands, there is no reason to keep you alive. Or Juliana, for that matter. She may tell you to kill yourself before she will hand over Juliana and then won’t follow through anyway.”

“Possibly,” Eva said with a slight hum. Thinking back, she wasn’t so sure. The hunter might kill Juliana if she thought she could get away with it, that much was true. Especially if she was aware of Juliana’s own demon summonings. However, just straight up killing Eva didn’t quite align with what little Eva knew of the hunter.

The hunter had blood covered hands back in Martina’s office. Like she had torn apart demons with her bare hands. And sure, that had been before she had been crippled. But even if she captured Eva now, she would probably want at least a little torture.

“Actually, it would probably be best for you to return to your prison. Stay far away from this hunter. Keep anything that may give her cause to kill Juliana far away.”

“You want me to run away? Abandon Juliana?”

“Not necessarily. If running away ensures Juliana’s safety, then yes. Definitely. Whatever ego you have, whatever you think you might be able to do against this hunter, it is secondary to Juliana’s safety.”

Eva took a deep breath. “I understand. Running away might be worse. If the hunter wants me to stay, threatening to kill Juliana would be a good way to ensure I don’t run.”

“I am aware of that. That is why I said if running ensures her safety. For now, we need to find her.”

— — —

“I’m not going to be bait,” Juliana mumbled. She put her finger in her mouth again and bit down. Spitting the scrap of skin off to the side, she waited just a moment for the blood to well up.

Then she got to smearing it around the floor.

“I’m not going to be bait.”

She was being an idiot. She knew very well that there was little chance what she was doing would work. Sitting around and waiting for rescue would be the much better option. Safer option. Maybe. It depended on how truthful the hunter had been when she said that Juliana could go free after she got what she wanted.

Frankly, Juliana was willing to trust her word about as far as she could throw the woman. With all that armor on, Juliana probably wouldn’t be able to lift her, let alone throw her.

So she had come up with a secondary plan. A terrible, foolish, bound-to-fail plan. Juliana was self-aware enough to realize that much. But she couldn’t do nothing. This was like Willie all over again. Except worse because her captor was specifically intending to kill Eva rather than just toy around for her own amusement.

Juliana paused in her smearing of blood to wipe sweat from her brow. It stung in her open wounds, but that was really only a tingle compared to the rest of her injuries. Still, it had to be done. She didn’t want sweat dripping down and ruining her circle. It was already sloppy enough without sweat thinning the blood.

Dust drifted from the rafters as the woman stomped about upstairs. Juliana held her breath. It wouldn’t do her any good if the woman did come downstairs, but it was more of an involuntary response. She did not want to know what would happen if the woman came down and saw a partially constructed summoning circle in the middle of her basement floor.

“What a stupid plan,” she mumbled as she resumed her drawing.

An enigma was going to pop out. She just knew it. But really, what choice did she have but to try? She had no wand, no focus. Eva had taught her a little runework, but none of it would help her out here. Not that she could think of anyway. Maybe if Shalise were here—she had taken to that a bit more seriously. Juliana knew of ritual circles, but didn’t know any specific ones. She lacked an eye implanted in her chest that would give her access to the Elysium Order magics. She lacked the natural magics and abilities of nonhumans.

So Juliana was hoping for a demon but planning for an enigma.

She had already finished several layers of shackles in the far corner of the room. The actual summoning circle was right in front of the door. The nice wide open door, enticing if not for the invisible ward over it. She was hoping that the enigma would ignore her behind her several shackles and go for the path of least resistance. Or least obvious resistance, anyway.

If the enigma did decide that she was the tastier target, well, she was actually pinning her hopes on the hunter. Or, at least, that the hunter did want her alive for the time being.

Juliana probably wouldn’t come out unscathed, but that was a risk she was willing to take at the moment.

Hell, maybe the enigma would decide to go straight through the ceiling. It was probably easier than the barrier or her shackles.

Demons, on the other hand, Juliana wasn’t too sure about. Assuming she got one. A simple imp or even a succubus probably wouldn’t suffice. The woman was a demon hunter, after all. Ylva might win. Ylva had faced off her own hunters, several of them, back during the attack with the doll. But Juliana couldn’t exactly summon Ylva while she was on the mortal plane. She had sisters, but did they act like Ylva? Would they be nice or would they shout at her to kneel until they interacted with people enough to mellow out a bit?

She didn’t know.

Really, that was the problem with most demons. Juliana simply didn’t know enough about them. She had thought Willie was generally nice before everything. That whole situation had turned out about as well as jumping into a meat grinder. Aside from Prax, she couldn’t even think up a demon that she knew and was in Hell. And really, she wasn’t interested in summoning up Prax. Even if he was strong.

So why go for the demon she didn’t know when she could go for the devil she did.

“Ah, I’m such an idiot,” Juliana thought as she finished drawing out the summoning circle. “But I am not going to be bait.”

If she did end up dying, then problem solved. She wouldn’t be bait anymore. Her mother would take up necromancy, summon her ghost—pissing off Ylva and Death in the process—then bind it to some object and throw it in a tomb for ten thousand years while she was grounded. But she wouldn’t be bait.

Juliana paused, staring over the completed circle. She hadn’t drawn one in some time, but she felt confident. It wasn’t too complicated anyway. That didn’t mean she didn’t want to check it for errors. Who knew what she might get?

She had considered trying for a transference circle. Diving into Hell would be away from the hunter. However, there were even more problems with that than trying a summoning. First, nobody would know she had gone to Hell. Which meant that the hunter could still use her as bait. Second, prison had really not been fun the first time around. She liked being attached to her soul and definitely did not want to fight through a jail break to escape again. Third, she really didn’t want to end up in Willie’s domain. Zagan had killed him, but he was probably back by now. He had been able to redirect her away from heading into Prax’s domain. Who was to say that he couldn’t do the same again.

In fact, Juliana didn’t want to end up in any demon’s domain except for Eva’s. Or Arachne’s or Ylva’s, she supposed. But they were three demons among an endless population. The odds were not in her favor.

And lastly, Hell was, presumably, full of enigmas. A single one being brought to Earth was far more manageable than diving into a pit of them no matter how she considered it. Best to deal with one rather than a potentially unlimited number.

Juliana licked her lips, tasting the half-dried blood. It was finished. And now… she was just delaying.

The longer she delayed, the greater chance that something bad happened. Either Eva or her mother would walk into the hunter’s trap or the hunter would come back downstairs.

So she crawled onto the circle, doing her best to avoid messing up any lines.

After closing her eyes, Juliana started pouring magic into the summoning circle. Like clockwork, the circle lit up and started slowly rotating. That was Juliana’s cue to get out.

She scrambled off as fast as she could, trying to get to the shackles in the corner.

It wasn’t fast enough.

Something slimy wrapped around her one good leg just before she could make it off the circle. A tentacle. She hadn’t been trying to summon anything with tentacles. Which meant enigma.

Eva had said something once. They were weak. Except they also bit off her leg. Juliana didn’t quite understand, but she didn’t want her leg anywhere near its mouth.

She reached forward with her good hand and started prying the slimy tentacle off her leg. It wasn’t constricting too tight, but it had wrapped around a good half a dozen times. Unfortunately, peeling it away just made more tentacle rise up out of the slowly rotating summoning circle, which tried to wrap around Juliana’s hand as well. She barely pulled back in time.

A high-pitched whine started winding up between her ears. She tried to press one ear to her shoulder and a hand to her other, but didn’t make it.

A cannon went off. Juliana’s ears rang and her vision blurred. For just a moment, she thought she might pass out again.

But the feeling passed. Her eyes slowly focused.

And she saw the wide round maw of the enigma emerge from the summoning circle. Rows upon rows of shiny black teeth filled the beast’s throat down as far as Juliana could see. And she could suddenly understand exactly how Eva got her foot bitten off, though not so much how she reattached it. If Juliana’s foot went into that blender, it would turn to mincemeat. Maybe this was a different breed.

Not that it would matter in a few minutes. Now that the body had emerged from the depths, the tentacle around her leg had tightened and was pulling her towards it.

Juliana scraped at the hard cement. A fingernail snapped off as she tried to dig it into the unforgiving ground. She managed to move. Barely. Possibly because the enigma was still emerging from the circle, moving slightly forward and giving Juliana that much more room.

Still, as she scrambled away, she didn’t scream. Even as another fingernail split up the middle, Juliana just clenched her teeth. If she could get just a few inches more, she could get her leg to the shackles. Most of her body was already well beyond the threshold.

Just as her leg touched the shackles, the enigma shrieked. Not the high-pitched whine into explosion, but more like a dog being kicked in the stomach.

Her leg went taut with a snap as the tentacles yanked her back. A brief spike of pain crossed her hip. She gripped the flat cement as best she was able, even with her injured arm.

And still felt herself being drawn back.

“I will not go to Hell again,” she hissed through grit teeth as she struggled against the sudden pressure on her leg. “And I’m not going to be eaten either.”

Over her shoulder, the enigma looked like it was having just as many problems as she was. The tentacles streaming off its back were pulled as tight as Juliana’s leg, tense and all leading down into the summoning circle. Its wide maw snapped at the air, not actually managing to accomplish anything.

The tentacles leading into the summoning circle jerked. The enigma jerked with them, slipping a bit into the circle.

Juliana jerked back with it.

She let out a clipped whimper, cut off as she grit her teeth. Something in her knee snapped.

A hand emerged from the depths of Hell, grabbing onto the enigma’s face. Two fingers actually slipped into its razor-sharp maw.

The enigma, snapping down, broke its teeth rather than slicing through the fingers.

Juliana slid back just a little more before everything stopped.

Violet blood painted the walls. Teeth exploded outwards and burrowed into the drywall. The tentacles, save for a little end around Juliana’s ankle, were gone.

Standing with a frown on his face was a golden eyed demon.

“You,” he said in his silver voice, deep and familiar, “are looking far worse than the last time I saw you.”

Juliana didn’t have a proper response. She tried, but all that came out was a pained squeak. Trying again was impossible. Her eyes fluttered shut as her blood-covered face hit the concrete.

— — —

Irene pressed her back against an earthen wall, ducking her head as a fireball flew overhead.

Why did I sign up for this? she thought with a narrowed glare towards Saija. Oh wait! I didn’t.

But Saija was completely oblivious to her thoughts. In fact, she was completely oblivious to everything, including the battle going on around them. A stone the size of Irene’s fist slammed into her shoulder, but Saija barely noticed.

She was just… staring.

Behind her, just to the side of another barrier, Sebastian had stood up and was staring as well. An icicle whizzed past his face and he didn’t even blink.

Both were staring in the same direction.

Something knotted in Irene’s stomach. Something wrong. Two demons, both completely ignoring the battle around them?

“Saija?” Irene said, reaching to grab the succubus’ hand.

Saija didn’t even react until Irene pulled her back down behind the wall. And then, it was just to stare at Irene.

“Are you alright?”

“Perfect!” Her voice came bright and cheery. Almost forced. “Come on, let’s show these humans how real demons fight.”

Saija didn’t wait for a response from Irene. She vaulted over the wall, spreading her wings. She was gone in an instant.

Blinking, Irene realized that Sebastian was back to fighting as well. Fighting with, of all things, cutlery. A dinner fork flew from his hands over the wall. A short moment later, someone cried out.

With a short sigh, Irene felt the tension leave her shoulders. If they were both back to normal, it couldn’t have been anything too bad. She stood with her wand in hand.

Only to dive to the side as a fireball crashed against the wall, knocking shards of hardened earth into the air.

“I’m not a demon, Saija,” she mumbled. “I don’t even want to fight as a human.”

— — —

Zoe’s heart lurched.

Something happened.

Both demons at the Brakket post had frozen. That on its own might not be worth noting; however, the scout demon had frozen as well. A second camera showed him over by Isomer’s post. All three of them froze at the exact same time. No matter how she considered it, something was off.

Eva. Because what else would it have been.

She considered making an excuse to step off stage for a moment. To at least grab her cellphone and tell Wayne to be on the lookout for anything odd.

Next commercial break, she thought as she reinforced her smile.

“Glad you asked, Hank,” she said, hoping there was no strain in her voice.

— — —

Catherine jolted. A full cup of coffee spilled all down her front.

And all over the front of her cellphone.

Letting off a stream of curses at the audacity of some demons, she ran to the bathroom to grab a towel. Though she did pause at the window for one moment, looking out over her ritual circle.

Perhaps it was for the best that she had been delayed in committing to the next version.

— — —

Eva and Arachne spun around in sync with each other, turning to face the exact opposite direction from where they had been running.

“We’re going the wrong way,” Eva said.

“How can you be sure?”

“I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt since…”

Eva didn’t bother finishing her sentence. She took off at a sprint with Arachne following close behind.

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