Nel huddled in the corner of Devon’s cell house while the two argued out a plan.
A seizure ran through her body. Nel avoided collapsing thanks solely to her already being crouched down. She tried hard to keep her eyes off of all of the demons they had summoned. It wasn’t easy. Her eyes wanted to look.
It’d be worse if she connected to the source. As it was without being connected, she retained some control.
The female was the easiest to look at. Although whatever she was made from was inhuman, nothing about her triggered any sort of negative response. Nel tried to avoid her anyway. From the vague explanation of that demon’s power, it would be nearly impossible to avoid her eyes.
A hazy figure moving through Nel gave her a start. She cupped her hand over her mouth, not wanting to make another noise. The first time it had happened was understandable. To Nel at least, not so much to the others. Shouting out again would only garner more strange looks.
It wasn’t a ghost. It was too real to be a ghost. Her regular eyes couldn’t see a thing, but it was there all the same. The false-ghost moved up to stand next to the masked demon. A few stood around him and several more were scattered around the room.
As far as Nel could tell, neither Eva nor Devon noticed even when the ghosts moved through them.
A small seizure racked Nel’s body again. Just thinking about the first two had her subconsciously send her eyes to look at the third. That one was where all her problems started.
She could see–through her normal eyes no less–a fang filled maw, hard skin coated with black tar, leathery wings, a tail tipped with spikes, lizard-like legs, its beating heart, lungs, the insides of its stomach, and plenty more.
It wasn’t transparent. Nel could simply see the entire thing, inside and outside, at once. And any time an eye that wasn’t on her face saw it, something broke in her mind.
The demons were on her side–until Eva and Devon deemed her not worth the trouble–but that gave her no solace. She didn’t need them to be killing her. Her augur condition felt like it was actively trying to drive her insane.
“Alright,” Devon said.
“Demons are covering us. We get the nun to Ylva’s domain. Once she is safe, we can move to rout the inquisition.”
That was a good plan. Amazing even. It would have been a better plan if she’d never have had to leave, but Nel valued her spine’s current location enough to not complain about that.
“The Lord of Slaves will put itself between us and the Elysium Order. His minions will be our escort.”
At his words, the masked demon reached out and tapped the nearest three ghosts on their shoulders. The wispy forms solidified into people from the point of contact.
One looked like the stereotypical knight in shining armor–if such stereotypical knights wore rusted iron that had been battered out of shape.
The second wouldn’t have looked out of place in a civil war reenactment troupe. He carried an old-fashioned rifle and had a slightly curved sword attached to his side. His uniform was marred by several holes that were still bleeding.
The final ghost wore burlap clothing and a straw hat. His hand gripped a flaming torch that gave off no smoke and no light. Blood dripped from one of his temples.
Devon didn’t react to the sudden materialization of the ghosts. He simply looked them over before giving a reluctant nod.
Eva launched herself away from the ghosts. The two orbs of blood darted around wildly as if she were trying to decide which to attack. Only when none of them made any movement did she calm down.
“You need to stop springing things on me. Something is going to end up dead that we don’t want dead.”
Devon gave her an almost mocking smile. “In addition to not shaking its hand, don’t die around a Lord of Slaves. You’re less useful, but bodies can still serve.” His smile slipped into a frown. “Though, I suppose if you died, you might not care what happens to your body.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The three slaves moved as one towards the exit to Devon’s cell house. Nel watched as they walked past, carefully keeping her eyes on them and them alone.
They appeared undead. How much good they would do against any members of the Elysium Order was somewhat suspect. The order’s primary abilities were tailored specifically to fight undead. But there was something odd about them. They might be more akin to golems or some other construct.
Connecting to the source would tell her, but she wasn’t that curious. Her eyes would undoubtedly be drawn to the other demons in the room. Not to mention that giving the source time and information to formulate a plan would help their enemy.
The knight exited first, moving with his shield up and his head low. The other two followed behind him. Nel started to follow, but stopped as she realized she was alone.
No one else moved. Not the demons, nor Devon and Eva.
Nel shifted her weight from foot to foot and back again. Why aren’t we going back yet? They were just standing there while the ghosts got further away.
Neither had glassy eyes or any other sign of mental manipulation. At least no sign that Nel was aware of.
“Shouldn’t we be moving?”
“The slaves are moving to engage and distract. Eva’s wards are still active. With their interference, they may just stay up.”
Nel frowned. There were thirty members of the inquisitorial team. What were three ghosts supposed to do?
“But shouldn’t we be running to Ylva’s domain while they’re distracting? They have augur support. They know we’re hiding here.”
“After they engage, more will appear to escort us. We don’t want to be caught outside if her wards fail. This building is far more defensible than open courtyards.”
“Why just three? He has a whole army of ghosts!”
“And they’ll be used later. The marksman–”
A high-pitched whine interrupted Devon. It was a somewhat familiar noise. Nel couldn’t quite place it.
It grew louder and louder as he, Eva, and the demons all looked around for the source of the noise. A blackish-red shield sprung up around the two of them.
Nel was too far away, being much closer to the door than they were.
A mounting horror grew in the pit of her stomach as Nel realized what the noise was.
Nel threw herself to the ground as far from the open door as she could reach in a single leap.
White light scarred several eyes that had stubbornly refused to shut. Her eardrums rattled in her skull as a piercing shriek tore through the air. The eyes that had remained open were crying tears of pain. And those were slowly blinking away the white spots.
Dragging herself to her feet–wobbling all the while–Nel patted herself down. Nothing was missing. Ylva’s robes weren’t even burnt. The cell house hadn’t collapsed either–they probably thought the prison was too sturdy to fall.
Their plan was probably to trap her inside this building, away from the one the augurs couldn’t pierce.
Not wasting her good fortune, Nel ran straight for Eva and Devon. The former let her shield down long enough for Nel to get inside.
“…said: what the hell was that?”
His voice sounded like a television’s white noise grinding on brillo pads. It took another minute and his hand gripping the front of her robes for Nel to realize that voice was directed at her.
“Th-they cracked the sky!”
“That means nothing to me,” he shouted. “What is it and how do we stop it.”
Nel pushed away from Devon. Being so close that the unkempt whiskers of his beard were touching her face was not something she wanted to experience anytime soon. He let her go without the expected fuss. As such, Nel bumped her head on the shield.
She winced, rubbing the spot as she answered him. “They fell to their knees before an idol, beseeching the Lord Himself to smite their foes. Us! They got authorization to crack the sky to get at us.” Nel started chewing on a thumbnail. Through her glove.
Devon let out a soft snort. “Got bad news for ya girl, your ‘Lord’ doesn’t give a damn about what happens around here.”
He rubbed his forehead before shaking his head. “No. This idol, it is a legendary artifact, isn’t it. Maybe a grimoire? Channel magic into it and get laser beams from the sky. Sounds familiar, but can’t quite remember. But, we blow it up and it stops. It has a range, what is it?”
Nel blinked. He wasn’t wrong, at least about the last part. “It’ll be nearby. Protected near the rest of the inquisitors… probably.”
“Don’t just stand there. Find out where.”
Nel was about to protest about the lack of frankincense on hand, but he immediately turned to Eva. He wouldn’t listen anyway. Nel closed her eyes.
Glimpses of the surrounding area flickered through her mind. Maintaining any one vision was impossible without frankincense, but quick flashes were within reach.
Starting where she last saw the inquisitors, Nel flickered her vision around. Four of the inquisitors, low rankers by the single bar of gold on their shoulder, held their hands outstretched towards the walls of the prison. Red-black particles of magic siphoned into their hands.
Nel made a note of their location, but moved on. The command tent was easy to locate–it was the only tent for miles. They had a map inside along with another augur. A red dot lay exactly where Nel herself was. A few other-colored dots surrounded her.
An altar had been set up behind the command tent. A statue of a man made from petrified wood rested on top of a velvet cloth. His arms were thrown to the sky as tears ran down his face. Four nuns prostrated themselves before it.
Nel stumbled as she ceased the rapid fire glimpses. She rested one hand against the shield wall, glad that it was both solid and not disintegrating her. The last time she overtaxed her glimpses, she had passed out for three days.
She had been heavily injured then. Hopefully her passing out was due more to that than abusing her augur abilities.
“That way,” Nel said, only moving her hand a small fraction. She didn’t want to tip-off any watching augurs that she was pointing out a direction. “Beyond the prison wall, there’s a tent a half-mile out. Behind it an altar has been set up. The idol is there.”
Devon rubbed his hands together as a small grin spread across his face. “Excellent.”
“You better hurry,” Eva said with a small stumble of her own. She had her eyes shut and her face in a grimace. “I can feel my wards unraveling. It isn’t pleasant.”
“There are ward breakers, four of them. I don’t want to point. It might tip-off the augurs. They’re south of the tent near the wall.”
“We’ll worry about them after we get rid of the bigger threat. The wards going down is not the end of the world. Them deciding to hammer the building over and over again with that sky-beam could be..”
The Lord of Slaves reached out and touched another handful of specters. As they materialized in the mortal realm, the large, fractal demon started moving towards the exit. Three slaves ran out ahead of it.
They simply stood outside. Waiting.
Nel caught a quick glimpse of their command tent. All the little dots on the map had moved around. “They see you moving the big demon. Probably waiting for it to come out before they crack the sky.”
The map updated in real-time, though Nel kept her glimpses spaced apart. Small dots representing the three slaves moved out in all directions. Another few dots joined the first three in spreading throughout the paths in the prison. All were heading towards the wall closest to the order’s camp.
One of the leaders moved out of the tent. Nel increased the frequency of her glimpses. He spoke to the prostrated nuns before placing his hand on the idol’s head.
“They’re going to crack the sky.”
Nel opened her eyes to give Devon a glare. “I don’t know that.”
“Whatever. Keep watching.”
Nel shook her head and immediately regretted the action. It made her queasy. She pushed it down and alternated glimpses between the idol and the augur with the map.
A bright light shot off from the idol’s hands, aiming straight into the sky. A high-pitched whine started once again, but far fainter this time. With a screech, four dots disappeared from the map.
“They just fired.”
“I know,” Devon said right as a large black dot sped out of their cell house.
Nel opened her eyes to find the fractal demon was, thankfully, gone. She caught it in a glimpse. Rather than the expected seizure, Nel felt the tiniest tingle of something being wrong. Despite the lack of pain, she chose to go back to the map rather than risk collapsing.
The large dot representing the fractal demon circled around once, picking up a few of the smaller, slave dots on the way.
Both the augur and the high inquisitor started moving with haste not present in their earlier actions. The inquisitor all but ran out to the idol once again. Nel noted that all four nuns had more than a little sweat building on their faces. Some had small patches showing through their habits.
Nel smiled in spite of herself, glad she’d never wear one of the stuffy outfits again. “They’re preparing to crack the sky again.”
“Damn,” Devon said through grit teeth. “I’d hoped it had a longer refractory period.”
“If you can get it close enough to their camp, they won’t risk–”
“Nope. Not going to make it.”
All four of the smaller dots dropped off the larger dot before it zoomed straight ahead. The dot vanished from the map a split-second after.
Nel staggered back against the shield wall as Devon fell on top of her. Eva’s claws gripped his shoulder as both girls helped him get steady on his feet.
“Are you alright, master?”
Devon brushed her off. “It’s still alive.”
“They removed the dot from the map.”
“There isn’t much left,” he said. He shook his head at himself as both the Lord of Slaves and the waxy demon moved up to the cell house exit. “I don’t want to experience that again. I almost lost control.”
“Please don’t,” Eva said. “I can’t dominate these demons. And the wards are slipping more and more. I’d bet they could actually enter the prison now and only experience discomfort.”
“I’m concentrating on getting rid of the idol before that happens.”
Nel cut in to their conversation. “They’re moving out to dispatch the four slaves you dropped. On foot, not cracking the sky.”
“Let them come. If they move past where the demon is rebuilding itself, all the better.”
“The muskets won’t have an effect on our shields, nor can they catch the nuns by surprise so long as they’re connected to the source.”
Nel frowned. He was sending those men to their deaths. Though they were already dead. And they might not be real men.
Leaning back against the shield, Nel took one last glimpse of the map before starting a brief rest. It would be a minute or two before the nuns reached the slaves. Two dots representing slaves were moving along the walls, looking for the ward breaker nuns, most likely.
They’d only be a momentary distraction, unless Nel was grossly underestimating their abilities.
Constant glimpsing had her feeling more dizzy than she’d felt in a long time. She decided to carry spare frankincense pellets and find some sort of portable incense burner in the future.
Neither Devon nor Eva were moving much. A quick glimpse showed the slaves moving about, so he had to be managing that somehow.
Eva, on the other hand, looked to be both sick and deep in concentration. Her wards were blood based, using a combination of Arachne’s blood and her own. Nel wasn’t certain on the specifics, but the wards must be tied to her far deeper than any standard thaumaturgical ward scheme. She had never heard of standard wards causing discomfort when taken down.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out as a slow sigh, Nel started up her rapid glimpsing once again.
First the map. It was largely unchanged from her previous glimpse. The few ghosts near the wall had vanished and the nuns were nearing the four undead outside their camp.
Nel switched her view to the soon to be ensuing battle.
Two of the undead were knight types. One wielded a mace while the other carried a massive sword in both hands. The other two carried guns. One looked fairly new, perhaps as late as the second World War.
They crested a small hill overlooking a waiting group of inquisitorial nuns. Three of them had a single gold bar over their shoulders while the fourth had triple stripes. While that did not automatically mean that nun was more powerful than the others, it did mean she had a good deal of experience.
The slaves seemed close enough to vampire slaves that her experience was probably not going to waste.
Nel shook her head and focused.
The nuns wasted no time opening up with lightning. To Nel’s surprise, and the surprise of the nuns, the lightning did nothing. The armored knights continued their forward march without any reaction. Both soldiers did stop walking, but they didn’t appear any more injured than the knights. The only real difference was the smoke coming off their bodies.
Rather than continue forwards, both soldiers dropped to a knee and took aim. Nel wasn’t flickering her glimpse fast enough to spot any bullets, but she did catch the shields flaring up around the nuns. As expected, none of them looked concerned about the guns.
“Wards gone,” Eva said, interrupting Nel’s glimpsing.
Devon gave a small grunt. “Just another minute.”
Where there had been a steady stream of blood or magic or whatever the nuns were siphoning from the wards, there was now a dying trickle. Only one of the four was actually siphoning. Two stood around, watching for threats while the last one was missing completely.
Checking the command center, Nel found the missing nun. She was giving a report to one of the high inquisitors.
“We’re going to have incoming soon,” Nel squeaked out.
“Just a moment. Almost got it.”
Everyone inside the command center stumbled forwards. They recovered in short order and all save for the augur sprinted outside. The poor augur was in the midst of a seizure that looked far more intense than what Nel had suffered.
Again, Nel was glad she hadn’t connected to the source.
The fractal demon stood where the altar once was. Or what was left of it. Both legs and one wing were missing entirely, much of the rest of it was in scraps. And somewhere, Nel couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, it held a statue made of petrified wood between a set of teeth.
Nel watched with a small hint of sadness as the idol turned to dust.
“Unless they have other surprises, we should be clear. I’ve released the demon, so they should be distracted for a few minutes at least. Both of you get to Ylva’s domain.”
“I can’t enter, but between the abdoth and the ruax, and any other demons I summon, I should be fine.”
Eva gave Devon a dubious look, but nodded anyway. She gripped Nel’s hand tight enough that, under other circumstances, Nel might have been worried her bones would snap. Together, they started running towards the door. The shield turned back into a few balls of blood as they left.
Actually moving, Nel discovered, was troublesome. The first several steps were less steps and more stumbles. Eva actually wrapped one of Nel’s arms over her shoulders for support. Every step seemed to bring a pounding headache. Nel would have suspected the headache demon, but it wasn’t even facing them.
It was simply from overusing her ability.
A good number of slaves materialized around them and escorted them out.
It wasn’t far to cell house two, but the nuns weren’t going to stand by and watch as Nel made her escape. The inquisition’s augur had to be watching them, unless she had perished due to the fractal demon. Even if she had, a contingent would catch up to them with the poor rate at which they were moving.
Eight black-robed inquisitors teleported in just as the thought crossed Nel’s mind. They raised their arms and fired lightning with a speed only matched by Eva reforming the shield around the two of them.
Nel’s eyes widened as the black orb in front of Eva shrank noticeably. Their shield was hanging on by a thread by the time the slaves engaged with the nuns. That, at least, stopped the lightning. For the moment. For every body that turned to ash in white flames, another slave ran in to close range.
Without a single word, Eva dropped the shield and did not recover any orbs of blood. If Nel thought she was being rough before, that was nothing compared to now. She dragged Nel around the corner of Devon’s cell house.
The door to Ylva’s domain was in sight.
Nel’s laugh of stress and joy twisted into a cry of pain. Eva’s claw squeezed and dug into her shoulder.
The pressure vanished while the pain remained. Eva released her shoulder to fall straight forwards against the ground. She didn’t even try to bring her hands out to catch herself.
A bone jutted out of the girl’s back. It was sharpened into a serrated blade part way down before the rest disappeared into Eva.
Nel felt gravity take hold of her. Unable to balance herself properly, Nel raised her hands to cushion her impact.
A pair of hands caught onto her and pulled her back upright.
“Thanks,” Nel mumbled as she looked back.
A skeletally thin man smiled back as he moved his hands firmly on her shoulder. “Oh,” he said with a small chuckle, “don’t mention it.”
Eva gave a small wheeze. “You…”
“Yes! Me! Happy to see me again?” He gave another short laugh that sent the hairs on Nel’s neck to standing at full attention. “I’ll say, your eyes fetched four times the price I would have thought. My buyer was very interested. Some unique property or another.”
“Those golems… I knew it…” Eva’s breath rasped as she tried to push herself up. She didn’t even manage an inch off the ground.
“My work, not my plan,” he spoke with a hint of disappointment, but never lost a fraction of his smile. “And you should be more careful. I know the capabilities of your healing. Let’s just say you can keep that dagger. Call it my gift to you, if you survive.
“I’d love to stay and chit-chat, or even invite you back to my place. Sadly, I’ve only time for one. Getting caught up in the order’s inquisition is not a priority.”
Despite the raging headache and the slight dizziness, Nel connected to the source. She wasn’t a good fighter. Information from the source overwhelmed her in combat. She could still fill this guy with enough lightning that he would–
“Ah-ah, none of that.”
Nel felt a prick at her neck and everything went dark.