29 - Choosing Sides

Author's Note: From this point forward, in an effort to get myself to finish this project, I'm changing the narrative style. Specifically I'm going to skip the filler and jump right to key scenes. This will make the story a bit more haphazard but at least I might get to the end.

A few months have passed. Cataclysm has been taking magical instruction from DEMON and has become significantly more powerful. She has incorporated dark magic into her fire rituals. She has also learned to open the Fire Rift more predictably and control the forces with confidence. In return she has helped DEMON with a project, though she doesn't know the scope of it. She recovered the Key of Hecate and participated in the summoning of the demons Abaddon, Barbos, Chemosh, and Danjal.

Meanwhile she has continued to hunt for Psychotic. She's had a few run-ins with her robot minions, broken up occasional technological thefts but not yet met up with Psychotic again. Examination of the robot remains reveal that they are ARGENT technology but it isn't clear if the organization is directly involved or if someone is using purchased or stolen technology. She has found no information at all about what happened to Zoe Loft between her escape from prison and her reappearance as Psychotic.

We find Cataclysm in a ritual room located in the interdimensional spaces that can be accessed from secret doors in the Great Beast Bookstore.

Cataclysm looked across the pentagram nervously from her position at one of its points. At each of the other nodes were the demons Abaddon, Barbos, Chemosh, and Danjal. She studied the pentagram symbols and they seemed to be drawn correctly but she was hardly an expert. Still she was more well-versed in summoning magic than she had been, having been a principle participant in the summoning of these very demons. She ran over the spell in her mind again. It wasn't a difficult incantation but hers was only one component of a complex ritual. The other dozen spellcasters in the room would each have to do their part, building an arcane structure no single spellcaster could manage alone. However she was key. Her innate connection to Fire would provide the power needed to summon a being as powerful as Bloodstone.

"Whenever you're ready," the Black Shepherd said impatiently. Cataclysm pulled herself back to the current situation, realizing she was dawdling. She ran her eyes over the collection of lesser wizards gathered to support the ritual. She took a deep breath and, trying to keep her voice steady, began the recitation.

The demons added their deep voices to the chant and the other spellcasters began their rituals. Cataclysm could see the pattern start to build inside the pentagram. She could appreciate its beauty and intricacy even as she dreaded what it foreshadowed. This was a more involved gate than the one Hi Pan had created to summon the Death Dragon, and not one that would be easily pulled apart once finished.

She was so focused on the ritual that it took several minutes for the other sounds to register. Her attention wandered as she realized she could hear fighting in another part of the complex. She continued the spell but swiveled her eyes over to see two DEMON wizards rush through the door at the top of the sweeping staircase that was the room's only exit. They whispered excitedly to Black Shepherd. He pointed to the door and hissed something back, and the two wizards reluctantly left the room.

Carefully balancing the arcane forces in her mind, Cataclysm said, "What is it?"

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with," Black Shepherd rumbled. "Continue the ritual."

Cataclysm tried to ignore the commotion, audible even through the heavy door, but it was coming closer. Then the door burst open and Witchcraft strode into the room and stood at the head of the stairs. Black Shepherd said, "Keep going! I will deal with this pest."

"No," said Cataclysm firmly, locking gazes with Witchcraft and letting the spell fade. The others struggled to maintain their parts but without her supporting it, the structure collapsed and faded.

"What are you doing?" Black Shepherd demanded of Cataclysm.

"This is my fight," Cataclysm said, her eyes still on Witchcraft. She left the pentagram and approached the steps.

Black Shepherd studied her shrewdly. "Yes," he said, waving the others back. "Perhaps this is a good opportunity for you to prove your allegiance."

Cataclysm ignored him as she climbed the stairs until she stood before Witchcraft. "What are you doing here?"

"I promised you I'd come," Witchcraft said. Cataclysm looked confused and Witchcraft said, "You asked me once what I'd do if you used the powers I taught you to commit crimes. I said I'd stop you. I've turned a blind eye for too long, hoping you'd come to your senses, but I can't stand idly by any longer." She looked over the people in the room and shook her head. "I had no idea you had fallen so far."

"So you're prepared to fight me? All of us?"

"If necessary," Witchcraft said sadly. "If you force me to."

Cataclysm sneered. "Force you to? Witchcraft, this is who I am. Who I've always been. Don't act surprised."

"No," Witchcraft said firmly. "This isn't the same. Cataclysm, these people are not like the Maniacs. DEMON is not just some big street gang. These people aren't criminal; they are evil. There's a difference."

"Not as big a difference as you think," Cataclysm replied, but even as she said it she knew that Witchcraft was right. It had all felt wrong and she hadn't been able to figure out why, but what Witchcraft had said put it in perspective.

"Don't you see what they are doing?" Witchcraft said in frustration. "They aren't your friends. They aren't your family. They are just using you."

"And you aren't?" Cataclysm said hotly.

Witchcraft looked stunned. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm not your sister," she snapped. "You can't save me to make up for your guilt over being unable to save Talisman."

Witchcraft's jaw dropped. "What? Cataclysm, that's never been my-"

"Save it! I'm tired of you trying to manipulate me, trying to turn me into something I'm not. I'm tired of everyone trying to decide they know who I am and what's best for me. I'm here because I want to be. Using me? Of course they are, and I'm using them. Everybody uses everybody. That's the way the real world works."

"After all this time, that's still what you believe?" Witchcraft asked. "Then I've failed as your teacher. And your friend."

"You live your happy little life and have no idea what people like me go through," Cataclysm snorted. "We've had this conversation before. You don't understand and never will. Why bother going through it again?"

Witchcraft firmed her jaw. "You're right. The time for talk is past. It's time for us to find out which of us is right about you. You can't keep playing both sides of the line. It's time for you decide which side you're on."

Cataclysm's frown deepened as she studied the other woman. Thoughts chased each other through her mind but the decision was clear. She knew who she really was. "I've picked my side," Cataclysm said as she called up the fire around her. "I'm sorry, Witchcraft." The two women held each other's gazes for a second and then Cataclysm added, "The Talisman crack was out of line," before turning to rain fire down on the DEMON wizards.

They were caught unprepared, not expecting an attack from that quarter, and they frantically threw up defensive spells to block the searing droplets falling on them from the ceiling. Black Shepherd reacted more quickly, wrapping her in a binding curse that broke her own spell. Cataclysm struggled to break free as Black Shepherd opened an interdimensional gate. Hell hounds and infernals swarmed through and, at his command, charged up the stairs towards her.

Witchcraft meanwhile had teleported into the middle of the pentagram to engage the four greater demons there. Cataclysm managed to cut through the binding spell and threw up her fire shield before the demons arrived. They clawed at the barrier while she bathed them with a cone of searing flame. They were weak creatures and fell by the time her shield failed, but behind them were two burly Morbanes waving nasty-looking spiked weapons.

She blocked the blows as best she could with the plates on her forearms but she wasn't built for melee combat. She used one of her new spells and a ball of fire exploded between them. Unlike her other fire powers, this fire was laced with Qliphothic energy that channeled fire magic and enhanced her other fire spells. She blasted them with streams of fire and they fell.

Cataclysm was suddenly gripped by energy-draining dark magic and fell to her knees as she felt her life force being sucked out. "Your soul will be mine," Black Shepherd grated as he loomed up before her. Cataclysm surrounded herself with a fiery aura and blasted him with a fireball. She managed to break his spell and quickly buried him in a sheet of flame. The fire splashed against his barrier spell as he continued to strike at her with dark magic. She intensified her attacks trying to trigger the rage that was the source of her power, but she found she just wasn't particularly angry right at the moment. She felt a lot of emotions but fury wasn't one of them.

Dammit, she cursed at herself, if you don't get mad you are going to lose. She dug up her memories of her recent battles with Menton and Psychotic trying to tap into the emotions she had felt at the time but it wasn't the same. The memories were painful but not rage-inducing. She just couldn't make herself angry and that was pissing her off.

Cataclysm realized she'd lost track of Witchcraft. The energies flying out from her battle with Black Shepherd were blocking out the rest of the room. The other woman might have been overwhelmed by the powerful demons. She might be hurt and that would be Cataclysm's fault. If she hadn't sought out DEMON's teachings, Witchcraft wouldn't have had to risk coming here. Her selfishness and hunger for power had endangered someone who, despite the problems they were having, had been a true friend.

Cataclysm raged at herself and felt the energy feed into her fire spells. The heat intensified as she realized she had to finish battling Black Shepherd to find out if Witchcraft was safe. She brought up the roaring holocaust she could summon only at the peak of her fury and she finally got what she was looking for--the air rippled and warped. She continued to pour power into her attack, not directly to hurt him but simply to put more pressure on the walls between this world and the Plane of Fire. Finally it happened, and the air tore open to spill out searing heat.

Without hesitation Cataclysm directed the Fire at Black Shepherd. He knew about her ability but may have simply underestimated how much control she had. She wrapped him in the cyclone she had used on Menton and his defenses quickly failed. After he fell she looked around the chamber. There were still a few DEMON initiates peppering her with spells so weak she hadn't even felt them. Witchcraft had downed two of the four demons but was engaged with the other two. Cataclysm spread her hands and the Fire swept through the room, covering everything other than an area around Witchcraft. When she pulled it back and closed the rift, she and Witchcraft were the only two left standing.

Cataclysm surveyed the room to see if there were any threats left but it looked like everyone was down. She slowly descended the steps, headed towards Witchcraft but unsure what she was going to say. As she neared Witchcraft, not looking at her, said abruptly, "You should leave."

"Oh?" Cataclysm said in surprise.

"Before the police get here," Witchcraft added.

"Oh," Cataclysm nodded. "Yeah, I guess so." She looked at the other woman but there seemed to be nothing else to say at the moment. She turned and started to climb the stairs.

"Cataclysm," Witchcraft said. The Maniac stopped and turned. Witchcraft still wasn't looking at her. She said, "You were working undercover. Getting inside to help us take them down."

Cataclysm mulled that over. "Yeah, okay." After a moment she added, "Thanks."

Witchcraft didn't answer or move. Cataclysm turned away again and left the summoning chamber.