Abominations this, sacrifice for the people that. Does Brother Maynard never tire of hearing himself speak?
Standing at attention while listening to speeches about the glory of a combat death in the service of fellow men was possibly one of the most tedious things Ali had ever experienced.
Especially when, despite the necromancer being present, their primary goal was the hunting of one of their own. The rogue augur Nel Stirling would surely be comforted by the false sorrow projected by Brother Maynard in having to terminate her.
“Go, my sisters, and do your best endeavors.”
It took real willpower not to roll her eyes. As it was, Ali still glanced up to the overcast night sky and let out a small sigh through her nose.
There hadn’t been any big speeches prior to assaulting Ylva’s compound. No time.
Apparently, there was time now.
Ali much preferred it without. The speeches might have been intended to motivate, but they had the opposite effect. Brother Maynard had to know how it sent her fellow sisters’ hearts into their boots. There were only so many times one could hear about the heroes of the grave before adopting a fatalistic outlook.
Maybe that was the intention. Maybe not.
Either way, it didn’t matter to Ali. She didn’t have any plans to stick around.
When she turned her eyes back to Brother Maynard, he wasn’t talking. His eyes were locked on Ali.
She licked her lips and swallowed.
After a moment, he finished what he had been saying. “…we’ll sever. But your foes will be fierce and ruthless. Most importantly, they’ll be unknowns. The Source will be analyzing the necromancer’s constructs. We currently believe that they will behave as regular flesh golems, but be prepared to use your own judgment.”
At least it isn’t raining, Ali thought as her mind wandered away from the speech once again.
She felt her before she saw her. A warm, comforting feeling centered around the skull implanted within her chest. Ali started to smile before she caught herself.
Brother Maynard cut off his speech a moment later. As one, he and the nuns turned to look down the street.
A giant stood out, silhouetted against the dark alley.
As one, the inquisitorial squad’s eyes burned white. All of them raised their arms.
All except for Ali. She hadn’t even connected. There was no point. Nothing they did would be able to harm Lady Ylva.
Ylva proved that by raising an open palm. She clenched her grip and tugged.
As one, the burning eyes died out.
Gasps echoed around the assembled inquisitors. Two fell to their knees. One, a certain Sister Beck, actually threw up.
Only two were unaffected. Brother Maynard did not possess the necessary implants to connect. Ali did not connect in the first place.
“Your magic was a gift. A privilege. Privileges can be revoked.”
Ali watched out of the corner of her eye as Brother Maynard’s crystal thaumaturgical focus slipped down his sleeve and into his hand. He twisted the crystal and pointed it at the demon.
Water formed around Ylva, encapsulating her.
He intends to drown her? Ali actually started laughing, drawing a few looks from the nuns. Several of them had pulled out their spare foci, but none moved to attack.
The outside of the water capsule frosted over with ice.
From within the water, Ali could see nothing had changed about Ylva save for a slight quirk of her head.
Brother Maynard was not finished. He conjured several sharpened rods of ice and plunged them into the sphere.
One pierced through Ylva’s arm. Another entered her stomach and exited her back. Both legs were pinned to the ground by two more.
All-the-while, Ylva did nothing. The only movement was at the corners of her mouth. They tipped downwards.
Ali shivered, barely noticing that several of the nuns had followed Brother Maynard’s lead in piercing the snow globe. No fire or lightning, they weren’t taking chances with melting the shell. They stuck with stone and extra ice.
Ylva could escape. Ali knew she could. This was a daughter of Hel for God’s sake! Ali had done her research since returning to the Elysium Order. She knew what those touched by Death could accomplish. If Ylva possessed even a sliver of her mother’s power, she should be able to wade through the assembled chapter of inquisitors without a scratch.
So why didn’t she?
Was she actually that weak?
Or… no. Ylva had turned her eyes to Ali.
They stared. A wordless communication passed between the two.
And Ali realized the truth. That probably wasn’t even the real Ylva. Some effigy in her likeness was trapped in that bubble.
No. This was a test. For her.
Ali broke eye contact with Ylva to look at Brother Maynard.
And she hesitated.
She held no particular love for Brother Maynard. He had all but admitted that there were no plans to rescue her after she was captured. She had been left for dead. Or worse.
But that wasn’t unexpected. Ali held no special position. A new internal affairs inquisitor could be trained as her replacement. They had probably already started before Ali returned; a few others had died in that failed assault and would have needed replacing. What was one more?
Ali’s eyes twitched back to Ylva.
Just in time to watch a rock enter the front of her skull and exit the back of her neck. Her eyes never wavered from their position on Ali.
The nuns and Brother Maynard continued pelting her with projectiles.
The demon–for she was, without a doubt, a demon–had tortured her.
Brother Maynard had never done that. At least not so obviously. Some of the punishments for various transgressions in the order skirted the lines.
If Ali considered for a moment, Ylva hadn’t actually hurt her. Ylva’s presence had always been a comfort. She stopped the turning, and the clicking. So long as Ali remained cordial, Ylva gave her a reprieve from the wheel.
Really, all the torture was her own fault. Ali had to be restrained. She was a danger to others and herself. All the time she spent refusing Ylva or otherwise annoying her–which inadvertently led to the wheel starting up–had been entirely her fault. She was still berating herself about the time she spat in Ylva’s face.
And wasn’t the situation now the exact same thing in reverse? Ylva was taking a beating. Being punished–no, punishing herself for what Ali forced her to do inside the torture chamber.
Within the ice-covered sphere, Ylva smiled. A kind and understanding smile.
Ali smiled back.
Ylva wanted her to be happy. Whatever choice she made.
A few giggles escaped Ali’s smile as she turned her eyes towards Brother Maynard.
With a thought, Ali connected to the source. Power and information flooded through her veins.
There it was. The information about her target. “Subject: Brother Rudolph Maynard,” she said.
Several of the nearby nuns turned her way with wide eyes. A few realized that she had connected and attempted to connect on their own, if their clutching at their chest and falling to their knees was any indication.
Ali paid them no mind as she continued to read aloud from the source. “Crime: Transgressions against the property of Lady Ylva, daughter of Hel. Response: Termination.”
Brother Maynard, so concentrated on attacking Ylva, turned to Ali only after she had finished her announcement. His eyes started narrow. They widened as he raised his focus in her direction.
It was too late.
The holy flames that Ali had conjured were upon the Elysium monk in an instant.
His screams resonated with Ali’s uncontrollable giggles.
Ylva wanted Ali to be happy. She made her choice.
She wanted Ylva to be happy too.
— — —
“So,” Catherine said, breaking the ice.
She allowed herself to smile at her own internal joke.
On the streets beneath them, Ylva’s ice ball shattered. A mostly whole and healthy Ylva joined up with the mad nun in mowing down the inquisition. The show was somewhat fascinating to watch. The way the nun continued to laugh while killing her former comrades… she was beyond broken.
Whatever tricks Ylva had done to avoid having her skull crushed had piqued Catherine’s interest.
She quickly squashed her curiosity. As a succubus–and not even a ‘real’ one at that–there was nothing Catherine could do to match something like Ylva’s power.
Again, her mind wandered back to that question Eva had asked.
What options are available for you gaining ‘power?’
The girl didn’t know what she was talking about. A lesser succubus didn’t just become a real succubus. Learning the paltry magic tricks used by mortals wouldn’t change her into a higher tier of being. Nothing she ever learned could ever compare to something like Zagan and his ridiculous ability to alter reality itself.
The only thing that was within her reach that might surpass Zagan was her being touched by Void himself. And that was so far out of her reach that thinking about it was nothing more than wasted time.
There were rumors that Zagan, along with several others among the royalty, were gods and goddesses of Void, but Catherine did not believe that if only because they weren’t powerful enough.
Shaking the thought from her mind, Catherine realized that she hadn’t followed up on her little icebreaker.
She glanced up at her–ugh–partner. Not a partner partner. The thought of that made her want to vomit. And vomiting was something demons simply did not do.
“Why are we here?”
Golden eyes flicked over, meeting hers.
Catherine went very still until Zagan turned back to the battle below.
As soon as he did, she let out a soft sigh of relief and withdrew her cellphone from her pocket.
She had made the most amazing discovery not five days prior. A most fascinating method of distracting oneself from any ongoing duties–such as being dragged out to some no-name city to watch a few nuns die.
Games had been around in some form or another since ancient times, but nothing from her last visit to the mortal plane could match up to electronic games. She could only hit a hoop with a stick so many times before going insane.
It took only a handful of hours to discover games on her work computer that allowed her to play with real humans in real time. Her demonic nature gave her several advantages in terms of reflexes and dexterity and Catherine ensured those pathetic mortals knew of her superiority at every available moment through liberal use of her computer’s microphone.
“We are here,” Zagan said, startling Catherine enough that she nearly dropped her phone, “because something has been happening down in Hell. Something strange. Violent tremors tear through domains heedless of the owner’s desires. Just the other day, there were about five or so very close to one another.”
Catherine frowned. “You were in Hell the other day?”
“Every day, for two weeks now. I have a sort of experiment that I am running to determine the–”
“You’ve been in Hell? Martina has been flipping her lid!”
Zagan turned to her with one eyebrow raised.
Clearing her throat, Catherine revised her statement. “I mean, she has been concerned about your absence. It is ruining some plans for some new club of hers.”
“Ah yes, the demonology club. Would you believe that she wanted to hire the embryonic girl’s master to teach children a few nuances of diablery? Now she wants me to do it.”
“Sounds like a terrible idea. Or great. Depends on how much you care about mortal children.”
“Oh, I’m not opposed to it in concept. I have no desire to be the instructor. Seems like a waste of my time, yeah?” He paused and turned to Catherine with a golden glint in his eye. With a silver voice, he said, “you might make a good–”
“Suggest me to Martina and I’ll–”
“What? Hurt me?”
Catherine turned away with a bad feeling about the future. In a mad effort to change the subject, she said, “but that doesn’t answer the question. Why are we here, now, watching this massacre?”
He turned back to face the streets. “The hel seems odd to me. Why is she here? Interacting with mortals on a daily basis? Protecting them?”
Frowning, Catherine looked down at the streets herself. Only six of the nuns were alive. It looked like they might stay that way. None of them had a weapon in their hands and all of them were cowering together.
Ylva was holding the half-crying half-laughing nun against her very voluptuous chest. Catherine crushed the flicker of envy with a disgusted shake of her head.
“And then she goes and does that. Kills a good fourteen Death worshipers.”
Catherine frowned as she glanced around. “Probably not very good ones then. Or this is sanctioned. Someone would be hunting her down by now. The Baron himself maybe.”
“Possibly,” Zagan hummed. “I’ve never heard of a rogue Hel. And these were human hunters rather than undead hunters. Despite being part of the same organization, they may not count for much.
“Either way, I’m not certain that Ylva is related in the slightest to what is occurring with Void.”
“Wait… Void? As in, our Power, Void?”
“I said that there were tremors–earthquakes, if you will–in Hell. And Hell…”
“Is Void,” Catherine said softly. Her breath caught in her throat as she made the connection. “Someone is attacking Void Himself?”
Zagan shrugged. “Maybe He just came down with a little illness.” He turned away from the sight of Ylva ordering the six survivors to deliver a message to their superiors. “Come,” he said. “We shall stop by Martina’s office. I’ll check in before returning to hell. And maybe remind her about your upcoming position as head demonologist.”
Catherine sighed, but did not protest. Her mind was too busy racing over what Zagan had said.
— — —
Arachne swung out of the elevator shaft, landing in front of the two humans. Both backed up partially down the hallway they had just come from.
She kept her eyes locked on the widely grinning male, Sawyer.
The little girl with the stitched shut mouth did not even register as a threat.
“Look who we have here, Des.” There was a subtle twitch of his fingers, disguised by waving his hand as he spoke.
Arachne did not miss it. She reacted immediately, jumping to the side. As she jumped, the extra legs jutting from her back swiped through the air she had just vacated.
Ethereal mist scattered. It reformed into an old man at Sawyer’s side. He hovered half a foot off the ground. All of him–clothes, skin, and hair–glowed pale white and semi-translucent. With vacant eyes, he stared into empty space.
Sawyer clicked his tongue without letting his smile slide. “Distasteful beings. Weilks was always better at commanding them. Much faster.”
Again, Arachne was forced to spin to the side. Her legs acted as scythes as they disrupted another ghost.
“But if being possessed is your weakness, well, let’s just say that I have been expecting you.”
A chill penetrated her legs. All of them. Arachne twisted out of her spot and slashed through a whole batch of ghosts.
One of her legs didn’t react in time with the other three. It pulled back before plunging straight through her exoskeleton.
With a growl, Arachne reached behind herself and tore the offending limb from her back at the joint.
Sawyer let out a small chuckle. “Self mutilation? I hope you are prepared to tear the rest off.”
Arachne was moving before Sawyer finished a single word, running straight at him. Whatever he was using to control and tether the ghosts had to be on his person. Nothing big and obvious. He was a slim man wearing slim clothing. There were no bulging pockets on his jacket or his pants.
Something smaller then.
He had a gold ring around his ring finger and a silver necklace with a pendant on the end. Both were possibilities. Unfortunately, the ghosts could be tied to a flat card in his pocket as well.
A wall of ghosts appearing in front of Arachne had her skidding to a stop. While she could disrupt them, charging through that many would be foolish.
“Des, my sweet honey, be a dear and collect that leg for me.”
Through the hazy wall of ghosts, the little girl’s eyes went wide. With slow, jerky movements, she stumbled forwards.
Possessed as well? And fighting it by the looks of things.
She felt a sudden pressure to her left. With a snarl, Arachne jumped to the side.
An expanding gust of air caught her at the edge of its blast, sending her off-balance.
Arachne flailed her limbs around her to disrupt any ghosts that might take the opportunity to invade as she regained her balance.
In the short moment her eyes had wandered to Des, Sawyer had pulled out a… spinal cord? He had it aimed straight at Arachne’s chest.
A glowing ball of electricity crackled on the end.
Normally, Arachne would ignore such a pathetic threat. The nuns’ lightning was far worse and she had been hit by that without much trouble.
Arachne dove out of the way, rolling on the floor before jumping to her feet. Her limbs whirled around her to keep the ghosts at bay.
The lightning thundered past a split second too late.
If her limbs started spasming, it could provide opportunities for the ghosts.
Arachne wasted no time in planning her next move. The wall of ghosts still surrounded Sawyer.
They weren’t around the little girl.
Moving, Arachne gripped her arm and yanked her back.
A light snap came from the girl’s shoulder as Arachne flung her through the wall of ghosts. Whatever had been holding the arm to the rest of her body had broken. Arachne found herself the proud owner of a freshly unstitched arm.
Not what she had intended. Still, it was the perfect thing to swing around without risking any possession.
Following in the wake of the girl, Arachne charged in. She batted away ghosts with the girl’s arm while bobbing and dodging the various air-based attacks Sawyer sent her way.
His smile slipped. It didn’t quite make it to a frown or even a neutral expression, but it definitely lost some of its wideness.
Arachne’s own grin appeared on her face, mirroring his former smile. If there was any contest in their grins, she was beyond certain that her best would beat his. Her teeth were just too perfect.
She clamped down on his ring hand. Her sharp claws shredded the meat and bone. With a tug, the whole hand tore apart.
The ghosts did not stop. Rather, they increased tenfold. They shook and jittered as they lurched towards her.
Taking the scrap of flesh from Sawyer with her in one hand and the girl’s arm in the other, Arachne used her mighty legs to catapult herself to the edge of the elevator landing.
Arachne lowered the makeshift club, assessing the situation. The limbs on her back kept in constant motion to protect from any unseen ghosts from behind.
There were too many. Just too many. Arachne found herself wishing that she had dragged some backup up the elevator shaft. They would have just gotten possessed, but tossing their possessed body at Sawyer might have disrupted the ghosts long enough for her to dive in and tear out the man’s throat.
For a moment, she actually entertained the idea of taking a step backwards and falling thirteen stories to the ground. She had seen the demon-golems and had no desire to become one–even if her actual consciousness was off in the Void.
But she couldn’t do that. Nel was the thing that would save Eva. If she backed off, Sawyer would collect Nel and undoubtedly escape before anyone could catch up to him.
No. She had to hold out long enough for the others to put the pressure on Sawyer. To force him to flee without reclaiming Nel.
Arachne gripped the detached arm in her hand. A thin strand of thread wove itself around the arm’s wrist. Her thread. Thin as it was, Arachne was beyond confident in its durability.
With a swing of her own arm, the arm flew through the air. The strand of her own webbing slid through a gap between her fingers. Her thread would be too thin to disrupt any ghosts it passed through.
The arm, however, was not. It punched through the face of one of the ghosts, scattering it into a puff of mist.
Swinging her arm around sent the arm at the end of the thread moving in a quick arc, scattering another set of ghosts.
Arachne charged forward. Her own arm dispersed a ghost on her way as she yanked the arm back to her.
She was forced into something of a dance as the ghosts circled around her. Her makeshift club swung around on its rope, darting this way and that. She interposed her own body between the thread, catching the it on the tips of her limbs to alter the arm’s direction and to keep its momentum moving.
The flurry with which it moved kept the ghosts at bay. The few that did slip past were so infrequent that it was barely a concern to swipe at them with one of her legs.
A lightning bolt crackled past her. Not dodged out of any real intention, it simply missed because of her erratic motions.
All the while, she continued her slow yet inexorable march forwards.
Until Sawyer changed tactics.
A cold tingle spread out through the bottom of her feet.
Arachne jumped off the floor just in time to watch a pale form float up through the tiles. She landed heavily a few feet forward, cracking tiles.
Thanks to her sudden movement, the arm smacked her across the face.
Growling, she tossed the arm again, setting it in motion.
More started to rise through the floor while others descended from the ceiling.
This had to end, and soon. She could feel ever more chills at her back as her limbs lashed out to strike at them.
Lightning crackled across her chest. As expected, it was more like a tickle than any real pain. The distraction was enough to cause the chills to gain a stronger hold.
Arachne tossed the arm straight forward, running behind it. She dropped the thread attached to the arm and stretched–stretched her arms to their limits in order to reach Sawyer that much sooner. Her body went almost horizontal, kept up by her extra legs marching forward, in her attempts to glean a slight extension.
She stretched her fingers to their limit.
The tip of her pointed black finger snapped the necklace from Sawyer’s neck, cracking the gem in the center.
That did the trick. The eyes of the ghosts gained awareness for a split second before all of them turned to fog. Even the little girl was getting to her feet after vomiting out a pale mist.
Arachne knocked the spine-focus out of his other hand as she pulled herself back to her full height. Her maniacal grin widened to touch both sides of her head as she locked eyes with Sawyer.
And she stared. Her eight eyes bathed his face in a faint red glow. The pathetic meat sack would cower before her.
For a moment, Sawyer almost looked like he was going to frown.
The moment didn’t last. A defiant grin spread across his face.
Arachne spun just in time to receive a knife in her stomach. It sunk in right through where her leg had carved a hole earlier.
The little girl stepped backwards, leaving the knife where it was.
Unsheathing the knife from her belly, Arachne took a step forward to return it to its owner.
She faltered. A chill ran through her carapace.
“I’ve been experimenting on demons lately,” Sawyer said.
Arachne tried to reach out, but her arm just wouldn’t move. She tipped forward and hit the ground like a statue toppled over.
“I don’t expect that to hold you for long, but it will be a decent test anyway. Des, we are leaving.”
There was a bit of motion in her peripheral vision as the little girl bent down to pick up her arm.
“Unfortunately, we have been prevented once again from testing out our little toys to their full potential. But I must take care of my hand before I bleed out. Farewell for now, Arachne. I’ll be practicing my ghost control for next time.”
With that said, two sets of footsteps petered off towards the elevator.
All the while, Arachne was thrashing about within her own skin, trying to get herself moving.
As her carapace started to unfreeze, Arachne managed to tilt her head just enough to look back at where Sawyer had been.
If she had the capability to laugh, the deranged bout of laughter she would have erupted into would have landed her in Bedlam.
Now, all she had to do was find Nel alive. For her Eva and for her Eva’s revenge.
Clenched in her off-hand, Sawyer had left behind his fingers and his ring.