Things were going to Hell in a handbasket.
Lynn Cross only wished the situation wasn’t so literal.
Something went very wrong somewhere along the line. Royalty from Hell itself targeting the Elysium Order. Not just any part of the order, but Charon Chapter. The idea would have made Lynn laugh under other circumstances.
Under less dire circumstances.
Now the whole town had shown up to burn the order out-of-town like some sort of puritan witch hunt.
Fools. The lot of them. The town was infested with demons and necromancers. The town her daughter called home, for now.
My daughter, Lynn sighed as she glanced out the window. Her daughter’s friends were standing out there, watching like vultures. At least they hadn’t involved Shalise in their treachery. That was something she could thank Eva for.
Right before boiling her brain with lightning.
Eva assured Lynn that she had nothing to do with the demon attacking her chapter.
There was a slim possibility that she was telling the truth. The demon attacking her sisters stood on a roof on the opposite side of the street from Eva. They may have both simply shown up to watch the fireworks independently of each other.
That thought nearly made Lynn burst out laughing. She should have killed the stupid girl when she had the chance. Summoning a member of Hell’s royalty; how stupid could she get.
“Sister Goose,” Lynn barked out as she turned from the window. One of the white-robed nuns turned to her with a slight decline of her head. “Gather up Sisters Horner, Piper, and Botter. We need to evacuate the injured at the very least.” Lynn turned, glancing out the window once more. “I don’t like this and our injured sisters will only hinder what is to come.”
“Of course, Prioress. To one of our other safe houses, then?”
“No,” Lynn said with a shake of her head. “No. Take them to headquarters. Staying in the town will only see the current situation repeat itself. Ready transport and get them out of here.”
“It will be done, Prioress.” Sister Goose gave another bow before heading off towards the section of the warehouse petitioned off for medical use.
That they needed a medical center was odd. Before a few weeks ago, there were deaths any time that thrice damned bull showed up. The deaths ceased and injuries became far more common. They were gruesome and debilitating, but the attacked sisters were alive.
All except Sister Hubbard. In the midst of all the injuries, Sister Hubbard was the lone death. She likely wouldn’t have died if her holy fire never touched that student.
If Lynn tried to pinpoint the moment her fate was sealed, that would have been it. Never before had she seen so much anger and hate directed towards her by everyone. Brakket as a whole turned against Charon Chapter after that regrettable incident.
She had thought to win back support with the capture or death of Sawyer, but her augur vanished without a trace weeks before. Not even the augurs at headquarters had managed to locate her. She hadn’t received authorization to elevate another nun to the position.
Before that incident, Lynn had thought to win support with the capture or death of the wild bull. After that notice posted of it protecting students, that option was forever denied.
The noose was slowly tightening around Charon Chapter.
Headquarters was already upset at the lack of progress towards destroying the necromancers. They believed that the necromancers had fled. Wasting time and personnel on maintaining a presence wasn’t seen as a valuable operation. It didn’t help that Lynn had had to acquire special permission to move Charon to Brakket in the first place.
She had thought about releasing the information that it was a demon. She thought about it when it first appeared and again after that hateful notice. Lynn worried about panicking the population of Brakket. Few things were more dangerous than widespread panic.
A city of rioters might be one of those more dangerous things.
Lynn grit her teeth and strode out the warehouse door with her head held high. Cool night air assaulted the bare skin she bore on her face. The last night of March wound up far colder than the few days before.
The effect of her presence on the crowd was near instantaneous. Unnaturally so. The attacks against the shield stopped and the crowd quieted to a loud murmur. An improvement over the angry shouts by far.
Lynn allowed her gaze to flick up at the demons and the students. There were two professors from Brakket alongside the students. Lynn wasn’t sure what their presence signified. Possibly the school itself was actively against her.
That would be no surprise, Lynn thought with a barely suppressed scoff.
Turning back to the gathered crowd, Lynn scanned the faces. Anger seethed on most of them. Hate on others. Fear on a few.
So far gone were the hopeful and cheerful faces that greeted the nuns after Halloween.
Lynn sighed, but steeled herself against despair. She brought out her focus. A simple wand small enough to fit in a pocket. With a wave, magic flowed into her throat. She wasn’t much of an air mage, but even Lynn could amplify her own voice.
“People of Brakket,” her amplified voice said, “cease this foolishness. We are not your enemy.”
The murmur of the crowd threatened to rise back to full-blown shouts. Lynn cut it off.
“Necromancers attacked your fair dwelling mere months ago, have you forgotten? The horror and pain that accosted your city that night? You welcomed us with open arms and smiles on your faces. While the threat has been defused, one of the necromancers runs free still.”
Lynn watched their faces, those towards the front at least. Some flickered through emotions, others stayed the same. They all ended up with rage in their eyes. Lynn’s eyes once again twitched up to the two buildings containing demons.
“A greater threat lurks your streets. Demons stalk your town, invade your school, and wreak havoc.”
A shout rose up from the middle of the crowd. “Demons you brought here!” Several among the crowd cheered at that. Their cheers turned to jeers aimed at the Elysium Sisters. Aimed at Lynn. “Only you’ve been attacked,” another shouted. “Only you have attacked our students,” another cry came. “That bull protected my son.”
Lynn cut off any further shouts. “Would you have them run free? We are all that stands between you and the darkness encroaching on your town.”
More jeers and angry shouts followed her statement. Lynn tuned them out. One of the demons, a man, just jumped off the roof he stood on. It was only two stories high. Plenty high for a human to get injured, but cakewalk for a demon.
Lynn connected herself to the source. The familiar feeling of dampened emotions and heightened clarity enveloped her. She scanned the crowd, searching for the demon among them.
Before she could lay eyes on the demon, she realized her mistake. Lynn swore at herself just as the first cry rang out.
“Her eyes are glowing. She’s going to attack us,” someone screeched.
That was all it took. The rioters panicked. Some started their own attacks, mostly the fire mages in the crowd. Most, however, simply ran. Seeing their comrades flee, those few brave enough to strike at the Elysium Sister’s shields turned and ran.
Within minutes, the streets were clear. Lynn felt that tingle of unnaturalness in their movement. She had no time to dwell her thoughts on the matter.
Standing in the center of the street was the great winged bull. The fleeing people moved around it without reacting–not seeing or not caring that it was there.
The source fed her all the information she cared to know about the creature.
A devil class monster stood in front of her. Asmodeus of lust was its primary heritage. Secondary was Mammon of greed. It had traces of all the others according to the source. As expected of one of the kings of Hell.
The source had run through every possibility over their previous encounters. Good nuns died teaching the source about the capabilities of that creature.
Lynn doubted it had shown everything it was capable of.
Attempting to banish it would be impossible. It would kill her before she got a third of the way into the chant. Fighting would be impossible. It would kill her before she caused even minor damage. The most she could hope for was to hold it at bay for a few minutes. Fleeing would be impossible. Lynn would die the moment she turned her back on it.
Truly a loathsome beast.
“Designation: Zagan,” Lynn said through grit teeth. Its solid black eyes bored into her. If she was to die here… Lynn’s eyes flicked up to her daughter’s friends. No worry nor concern would be found there.
“Sister Cole,” Lynn shouted over her shoulder. “Evacuate everyone. I will buy time.”
“Sister Cross,” one of the nuns started. They were all seeing the same information from the source–they were all being told to do nothing but despair.
Lynn interrupted whatever she was about to say.
“No arguing. Sisters Peep, Griggs, Lamb. You three are to retreat and evacuate the moment your shield fails.”
“It has been an honor serving with you, Prioress.”
“I am not planning on dying just yet,” Lynn said. “But I can’t leave until you’re all gone. So get a move on it and launch a flare when you’re on your way.”
Hurried footsteps sounded behind her as the winged bull took a step forward. How kind of it to allow me to finish ordering my sisters, Lynn thought with a sardonic frown.
Every step it took left a small pillar of green fire. The rotten egg stench of brimstone filled the air as it neared. A snort of flames erupted from its nostrils, further tainting the air with brimstone.
Her three sisters stood behind her with bated breath. They kept the shield running full without falter as the devil approached. Their nervousness radiated off of them in waves.
The longer the bull took to approach, the longer Sister Cole would have to relay her orders, and the shorter Lynn would have to fight the bull.
If she didn’t think it would immediately cease all its posturing, Lynn might have tried banishing it. The source informed her that it would remove the shield near instantly if she tried.
It stopped just in front of the shield wall. It stopped and stared.
Lynn stared back. Her anger leaked away into the sea of the source. A calm settled around her. No rash actions, she promised herself with a deep breath.
The bull threw back its head. Fire and smoke vented from its nostrils as it bleated. The sheer noise caused small cracks to appear on the shield.
One crumpled horn struck the shield. Cracks grew and fractures formed. One of the nuns behind Lynn crumpled to her knees.
Shards of magic flew out from the shield as the bull rammed into it. They dispersed into motes of magic the moment they were far enough away from the main wall. The holes in the shield slowly tried to reform. The nuns behind Lynn strained themselves and the source trying to close the gaps.
It wouldn’t hold. One more good strike would see the shield shattered. Lynn could add her own willpower to keeping the shield up, but that would only add two more strikes worth of stability according to the source.
She’d need that energy in a moment.
There was a brief pause before that moment came. The bull spewed out another stream of fire from its nostrils. The streets were washed in sickly green light as the flames overpowered the few streetlights. As the light dimmed, the bull pierced the shield with its straight horn.
The shield shattered. Shards broke away, dispersing into motes.
“Get out of here,” Lynn said with far more calm than she should have felt. She turned her head slightly but kept her eyes on the demon in front of her. “You’ve done all you can, my sisters.”
Ignoring the few words said to back her, Lynn turned her full attention back to the bull. Despite the source’s warnings, she attacked first.
White fire burst from her fingertips. A stream of flames spread through the air. The street brightened to near daylight levels as the bull was engulfed by holy fire.
All but the strongest vampires would be rendered nothing more than ash within seconds of coming into contact with the Elysium Order’s flames. The strongest might hold on for a minute. A human would be scorched and burned as if they touched regular fire.
The bull–the devil in front of her screeched. It reared back onto its hind legs and flapped its wings, shaking the white fire off. It wasn’t entirely successful. Flames spread out along the ground, but the beast remained entirely contained within the deluge of ever-growing fire.
And it was all for show.
Nothing more than superficial damage, according to the source. Its skin reddened, bubbled, and boiled. Screeches that it let loose rattled Lynn’s eardrums as it landed on all fours.
At the very least, Lynn hoped its pain was real.
The demon scratched its front hooves on the ground. A trail of green flames burst forth from the asphalt. Green tainted the pure, white light of Lynn’s fire.
Lynn started to jump out of the way.
Realization from the source stopped her.
If she moved, nothing would stop the bull. It would continue straight through the warehouse doors. A massacre against her unprepared subordinates.
Lynn steeled herself. Plans raced through her mind as she considered her option.
The source helped her decide. Trickles of simulated plans passed by her mind until, together, they selected one with a high probability of a positive outcome.
Every drop of her concentration went into strengthening her shield. It normally reacted to threats automatically, thanks to the source’s backseat casting. Here, she’d need every scrap of magic she had going into her shield.
The bull hammered into her.
Lynn stumbled backwards as her shield shattered.
Shards of her shield exploded inwards. More than a few tore into her. Her habit and, in some places, her skin underneath received small cuts. A few buried themselves into her chest. Luckily none burrowed in too deep before they vanished into motes.
One shard slid across her cheek, just beneath her right eye.
Had her head been tilted just slightly, she would have lost the eye completely.
Lynn did not dwell on the thought. She did not have time to dwell.
Reaching forwards, Lynn gripped the bull’s horns with her gloved hands. She concentrated for a split second.
The street, the warehouse, the buildings, everything fell away. The pure white of the sea of the source replaced everything except herself and Zagan.
Reality reasserted itself a second later. She and the bull reappeared out in the center of the street, far from the warehouse headquarters. It would stay that way if Lynn had anything to say about it.
The bull snorted out another spew of green flames. The front of her habit caught fire.
Lynn released the bull and staggered backwards. She replaced the green fire with her own white flames before extinguishing the spell.
It wasn’t fast enough. The entire front of her habit had burned away. Her skin started to blister and crack. Lynn shunted the pain off to the source and cursed her momentary distraction.
Distractions could kill.
As she looked back at the bull, the vague sense of fright from an attack while distracted vanished and was replaced by confusion.
The bull had collapsed on the ground. It lay on its side, shaking and convulsing. Snorts of green flame spewed from its nostrils.
Lynn felt the source analyzing everything. It ran through possibilities, trying to discern what happened. Hopefully, it would draw conclusions that would keep Lynn alive.
It had something to do with teleporting. The bull reacted poorly to the sea of the source, or perhaps Lynn’s own problem with the teleport. She had been distracted, upset, and in pain when she initiated the teleport.
And she had almost failed. Her concentration had wavered as the world fell apart. She was nearly stuck, trapped forever between realities with only Zagan for company.
The horror of the thought gave Lynn a small shudder.
Lynn pushed the thoughts aside. The source would work it out. Now, her opponent was down, though she doubted it would stay there.
Not that she wouldn’t try to keep it down.
Lynn gathered magic in her core. As much as she could. Electricity crackled at the tips of her fingers.
The Elysium Order’s lightning disrupted magic. Skeletons would fall apart just being grazed by it. The lightning would keep them from reforming. Its disruption lasted long enough to allow any lingering magic to dissipate.
With hope that the disruption effect would keep the demon from recovering or healing, Lynn attacked.
Lightning thundered from her fingertips.
It crashed into the bull’s side with all the force of a wrecking ball. The bull slid halfway up the street before skidding to a stop.
Lynn wasn’t about to give it time to rest. Bolt after bolt coursed over its body. None were as powerful as the first, but the speed made up for it.
She did not stop until the bull was crackling with white lightning on its own. Arcs of electricity ran up and down its body even without her casting.
The source was telling her to run. To teleport while she had the chance.
Lynn stayed where she was. There was no chance the Charon Chapter nuns had managed to get away with all the important artifacts in the short amount of time she had been outside. She would stay until the flare went up.
Wiping the sweat and blood from her face with her sleeve, Lynn took just a few seconds to catch her breath. She hadn’t thrown around that much magic since her days at the abbey. The Eye of God embedded in her chest needed a moment to recover from her magic expenditure as much as she did.
As she rested, the bull let out several, irregular snorts. Green flames accompanied each one.
Lightning lanced towards the bull.
It struck and struck.
The demon did not seem to care. It picked itself up to its feet with only small shudders as each bolt hit. Snort after snort of green fire accompanied its rise.
And it clicked in Lynn’s head. She took half a step backwards.
It was laughing.
It laughed at her. At the damage she was, or was not, doing.
It laughed and laughed.
And it continued to its hind legs.
Lynn watched as the body of the bull folded in on itself. The great wings unfurled to their full wingspan. Parts of them were still lit with holy fire. They shrank in as a more humanoid torso was molded from the meat of the bull.
The final part to change was his head. It pressed in on itself until a brown-haired, human head with sharp features emerged from the molten flesh.
A half-man, half-beast stood in front of Lynn. The legs hadn’t changed much and he retained his wings and horns, though they shrank to more proportional sizes. His bare chest held no injuries from flame or lightning.
He stood, brazen in a lax stance, in front of Lynn.
With a glare and a grin, Zagan raised his head. Golden eyes glinted against the flames and streetlights.
“You can’t win, nun,” he said with a silver voice. “You know this. Your powers are ineffectual against me.”
Lynn remained silent. She didn’t need to win. She needed to delay.
“I find myself fond you. You’re putting up a fiendish fight in the face of futility.” He took a few steps forward, still leaving columns of green flame where he touched the asphalt. “I like you, so I will make this offer once. Kneel before me. Kiss my hooves and beg to become my slave.”
The source screamed at Lynn to run. To escape.
There were still no flares in the sky.
Lynn said the only thing she could.
“Pity,” he said, “I think you’d enjoy it. Or learn to enjoy it, at the very least.” His eyes glinted once again against the background lights. “I think I shall have to teach you anyway,” his voice dropped low, barely loud enough for Lynn to hear, “teaching you will be good practice for the future.”
Lynn blinked, but did not have time to process what he said.
Zagan launched himself forwards. His wings beat and he lifted off the ground. Long streaks of fire rose from the ground as his feet skimmed over the surface of the street.
During his conversation with himself, Lynn had not been idle. Every second he talked was a second of preparing lightning. It wasn’t as powerful as the first blow that had knocked his bull form across the street.
It was a close second.
Lynn released the lightning, straight at him.
Just before crashing into him, the lightning swerved. It passed just between his body and his wing. A building in the distance behind him received the bolt instead.
Her eyes went wide. Some kind of a shield, Lynn thought. The source was already denying that opinion.
It took a moment for her brain to reboot. He didn’t slow in the slightest.
She dived out of the way at the last second. Lynn rolled along the ground, away from the trail of green fire. The hard ground opened up more skin as her exposed stomach scraped against the asphalt. Her habit further descended into tatters.
“What is the difference,” a silver voice said from just behind her, “between ‘lightning hitting me’ and ‘lightning not hitting me’ hmm?”
Lynn turned and fired another bolt. Like the first, it curved and struck the second story of a building.
“I’ll tell you,” he said with a grin.
From this distance, Lynn could see his incisors were far longer than normal. They brought up memories of vampires.
Without waiting for him to continue, Lynn fired jets of her holy flame. White fire rose up and spread over his body.
No screams echoed through the night air. No writhing or turning to ash.
The source insisted that her fire wouldn’t work. The flames ceased coming from her hands and Lynn saw that the source spoke the truth. Just once, she wouldn’t mind it being wrong.
Zagan stood just a few steps away. Not a lick of flame touched him. It spread over and around him, burning on the streets and buildings.
He stood, brushing a finger against his long goatee.
That infernal grin flashed on his face again. “Are you quite finished? I’ll tell you the answer. It is the word ‘not.’ That answer also works for ‘burned’ versus ‘not burned’ in case you were wondering.” He looked off to one side, smiling more at himself than anything. “I think I’m a natural at this teaching thing.”
A white flare rose high in the sky behind Zagan just as he finished speaking. The sign from her sisters.
Immediately, Lynn attempted to teleport. She felt the magic build up for the few seconds it took and then…
It all vanished. Unsuppressed fear gripped her as the connection to the source vanished.
“Nope, sorry.” He held up a long nailed finger and shook it as if admonishing a child. “‘Not’ going to escape now, are you?”
The nails on his fingers dug into her throat as he lifted her into the air.
No lightning, no fire, no connection, no source. Lynn reached for her wand. She could cast, though far less effectively. It would be sufficient for teleporting out.
Zagan gripped her arm and squeezed. “No escaping,” he said. “You still have much to learn.”
Lynn clamped her mouth shut. He would not get the satisfaction of her shouting out in pain. She glared, staring into his golden eyes with all the fury she could muster.
“That is a good look on you,” he said. “Gets me tingly in all the right places.” He leaned forward. A long and flat tongue slipped out of his mouth. It ran from her chin to her forehead, passing over the cut on her cheek.
A trail of slime was left in its wake. It tingled against her face but burned in her cut.
Lynn paid it no heed. She tried to continue her glare with one eye shut.
A white flash at his shoulder on the arm he held her with distracted both of them.
Lynn pinched her other eye shut to preserve as much vision as she could. She fell to the ground a second after.
When she reopened her eyes, Zagan had taken a step back, though his arm was still gripping her throat. Lynn tore the detached arm and flung it to the ground. She scrambled backwards at the same time, placing distance between herself and Zagan.
A black ring formed around the devil king’s throat. It spun around, picking up speed with every second.
Zagan did not look concerned. “Really?” he said, “I’ve survived decapitation before.”
That seemed to be the wrong thing to say. The ring split in two and formed rings that crisscrossed around his head. Spheres flew in from behind him and formed more rings to trap his head in a sort of cage.
Lynn felt the connection to the source return. She did not wait around to see what happened. The world broke apart and fell away. Spending only an instant among the pure white sea, Lynn returned to reality a few miles up the road the rest of Charon Chapter was supposed to be traveling on.
The road was just outside the city, just before the woods the road passed through. She quickly ran through an inspection of herself, before allowing the source to help her heal.
Cuts, scrapes, second or third degree burns on her chest, and a broken arm.
Not bad, she thought to herself. It definitely could be worse. It would have been worse if he hadn’t been toying with her.
Lynn felt the source chastise her for teleporting near her sisters rather than the middle of nowhere. She decided to ignore it for now. If Zagan was planning on pursuing, he’d be able to track the rest of the nuns down with little difficulty after dispatching Lynn.
She slumped against the ground, resting while letting the Psalm level healing course through her body. It wouldn’t fix her broken bone, or her larger cuts, or her burned chest. It was, however, an excellent pain reliever. At least for the minor injuries.
Soft, lush, roadside grass became Lynn’s cushion as she laid back and stared up at the night sky. She watched the stars with wonder. Nothing like a near death experience to make one appreciate all of existence. Not that Lynn ever wished for near death experiences. They just happened, and far too commonly for her tastes.
With a start, Lynn nearly teleported straight back to that street. Shal was still in that city. If that demon decided to go on a rampage when Lynn vanished… Thoughts swirled in her mind. She bit her lip until she bit through it.
Lynn slowly sank back into the grass.
Shal was friends with Eva. Eva had tricks of her own, and was probably in cahoots with Zagan. There were two academy staff standing with them. Those two, at the very least, wouldn’t allow the students to be harmed. One of them had thrown himself at her to protect a student.
On the other hand, Lynn returning could endanger her daughter if another fight started up.
She’d wait. It went against every instinct she had. Lynn would wait anyway.
And if anyone harmed Shal, she’d raze Hell herself using whatever means she could get her hands on.
Headlights in the distance broke Lynn out of her thoughts. She stood up and waved the truck down with a palm full of white fire. Of course, Lynn used her good arm to do so.
The eighteen-wheeler truck that carried artifacts and equipment slowed to a stop. Other, more habitable vehicles behind it followed its example.
Lynn walked up to the artifact truck and hopped into the vacant passenger seat.
“Sister Cross,” Sister Cole said with no small amount of surprise in her voice. Her eyes drifted up and down Lynn’s sorry state. “I didn’t–I mean, are you well?”
Lynn snorted. The snort turned into a full bout of laughter. What a stupid question. “Well enough,” she said. “Get us home.”
“Yes, Prioress,” Sister Cole said. “Of course. Right away.”
Lynn leaned back into the seat as the convoy started up moving again. It took mere moments before she felt sleep take her.