Nel paced in front of the door that led out of Ylva’s domain. The last time she left the domain, a series of bad things happened. Mostly to her.
But this time was different. Right? Lady Ylva had threatened the Elysium Order, so they shouldn’t come after her. Eva had her blood wards up around the entire prison, so no one should be able to teleport in and kidnap her.
And if someone started unraveling the wards, Nel was going to sprint at full speed for Ylva’s domain, sky cracking or not.
Nel stopped pacing and let out a long sigh.
What was the Elysium Order’s reaction to Nel and Ylva? Would they actually leave well enough alone, or would they redouble their efforts?
Not for the first time, Nel wished she hadn’t spent so much effort in avoiding Sister Cross while she was a prisoner. The nun had to have at least a few answers.
Nel would have asked Lady Ylva to accompany her had she been around. Unfortunately, she was once again missing. Along with Alicia.
That was another point of concern for Nel. The idea that she could be replaced was absolutely terrifying. She didn’t think it would come to that–Alicia lacked the augur abilities and the potential to become an augur–but the fact remained that Nel was being left behind from whatever activities they were up to.
Maybe she had offended Ylva by being captured. A servant of the regal Lady Ylva should be better than that. Her lady had been forced to act for the first time–at least since Nel took refuge within her domain.
Though that wasn’t actually true. It was Sawyer who made her move to the professor’s house and Sawyer again who sent monsters to attack the school that Ylva had decided to defend. But all of that was reactionary–they came to her. Ylva hadn’t taken an active hand in seeking out enemies until…
Until she went to rescue Alicia.
Though it was part of the same operation, and the Elysium Order’s inquisitors running around inside the hotel would have complicated matters, Ylva hadn’t rescued Nel. That had been Arachne along with the school professors.
Nel clutched her forehead, gritting her teeth. Maybe I really am being replaced.
“No, I’m not,” Nel said as she shook the paranoia away. Even if she was going to be replaced, she hadn’t been yet. That meant she still had a chance.
She could still prove to Lady Ylva that she was worth something. That she shouldn’t be thrown out on the streets.
Nel threw open the door to Ylva’s domain and marched out. She tried to keep her head held high in a confident pose.
Within ten steps her head was on a swivel as she searched and glimpsed for any sign of an attack. She didn’t glimpse very far, very often, or for very long. Being exhausted and full of all the headaches had led to her capture more than anything else, in all likelihood. But it was enough that she might have some early warning if anything happened.
Just before opening the door to the women’s ward, Nel glimpsed inside.
Her hand froze on the handle.
The professor stood off to one side, well away from a ritual circle on the floor. Her face looked like she had just finished sucking on an extremely angry lemon. One of her feet tapped against the floor with fervor rivaling a nervous rabbit.
Most of her anger appeared to be directed at Devon. The man stood in a state of undress within the circle.
In front of him sat both Eva and Arachne. Both were hooked up to one another with small tubes.
It wasn’t the first time Nel had seen such an event. The first time she had seen it was while she still worked under Sister Cross. Since then, it occurred on a fairly regular basis. Every three months or so.
Though an audience was rare. Eva, Devon, and Arachne were normally the only ones attending. Ylva occasionally stopped by to watch, but never did anything but stand in a corner.
Nel ceased her glimpse and merely stood outside the door. Intruding on a nude Devon, angry professor, and the unconscious Eva and Arachne wouldn’t get much done except embarrass herself. She had more than half a mind to run back to Ylva’s domain and call it a day.
A tiny sliver of her mind argued that if she returned, she probably wouldn’t leave again for a long time.
But she still wasn’t keen on walking in on them. Especially Devon. She got enough of an eyeful to last a lifetime with just her near-instantaneous glimpse.
Turning from the women’s ward, Nel started wandering. It was aimless for the most part. She wasn’t about to leave the prison walls–even if she wasn’t worried about being hunted, there wasn’t much outside save for a small ghost town that originally housed whoever worked at the prison. At the same time, she didn’t return to Ylva’s domain.
As she walked around the prison yard, Nel slowed and eventually ceased her glimpsing. Her headache was slowly growing and there was still no sign of any Elysium Order inquisitors. If they were going to do something…
Well, they were probably in the middle of doing it.
Nel wanted to believe that they couldn’t do anything. Ylva had decimated the inquisitorial chapter. Unlike other, undead hunting chapters, there was only the single chapter of internal inquisition.
Not many left the order. A good portion of the Elysium Order’s recruits came from places that undead had overrun. Few of those were actually capable of casting magic naturally. Once they had a taste of being able to use magic, few ever chose to return.
Even then, many who left the order did not warrant being hunted down. Most who did leave had their eye surgically removed, ready to be implanted within another recruit.
Because of that, there wasn’t need for more than a single chapter of inquisitors. And because of that, they hadn’t had time to train up a whole new chapter.
Nel really should be spending some of her time spying on them.
But for now, she was taking a brief break.
February’s air was cold enough that Nel could see her breath. Oddly enough, none of that cold penetrated her robe. Lady Ylva must have placed some enchantments on the thin garment.
She walked on through the cold air, musing about her station in life and wondering just what, if anything, lay in her future. Lady Ylva, obviously. But would there be anything more?
Nel never had many aspirations. None she could remember, in any case. Since becoming an augur, she had spent most of her time being used for her abilities. The rest of her time had been focused on not being killed.
Eva had once called her paranoid.
Maybe. Maybe not. As the saying went, it isn’t paranoia if they’re actually after you.
And, as an augur, a number of people could and would be after her at any given moment in time.
Not having anything for herself, and given Lady Ylva’s presence in her future, Nel asked herself one question aloud, “what does Lady Ylva need?”
With just how much the domain provided, Nel was having trouble coming up with anything useful.
“What, indeed, does any demon need?”
Nel connected to the source without the slightest hesitation. Lightning arced off her fingertips, flying into whatever was behind her.
The last time an unfamiliar voice sneaked up behind her, it was Sawyer just before he kidnapped her. She was not going to make that mistake again.
In the brief instant it took for the lightning to leave her fingertips and reach their destination, Nel glimpsed that which lay behind her.
Hoofed feet, bare chest, thick arms, wings, and horns. Flames and smoke lit the area where his feet connected with the ground. Two bright gold eyes didn’t so much as glance at the lightning as he casually swatted it away with the back of his hand.
Nel gasped, throwing herself to the ground. She wasn’t quite fast enough.
Lightning sparked against her backside, burning a hole straight through the seat of her robe. Luckily, it wasn’t that painful. Not only did her connection to the source take much of the pain off of her mind, but she hadn’t put much power into her attack. Just in case whoever it was had a reason to be at the prison.
She was relatively certain that the devil that had very nearly killed her was not one of those people.
Nel’s heart was halfway out her throat before she shunted a good portion of her emotions away to the source. A moment of clarity overcame her utter panic.
Before, she had managed to escape. Sure, she might have been nearly dead for three days, but she still lived in the end. And she would again escape. This time, she just needed to make it to Ylva’s domain and pray that the devil wouldn’t enter.
Nel started crawling on the ground, trying to clamber to her feet somewhere along the way. She let out a strangled cry–the women’s ward was on the opposite end of the prison, but maybe someone would come and help–before a heavy hoof impacted the small of her back, sending her flat against the ground.
Her cry turned to a scream as the flames accompanying his hooves seared into her backside. The eyes implanted within her body squirmed, pressing up against each other in their mad attempts to flee from the heat.
“Such a strange greeting you nuns have. I can’t recall a single one I’ve met that hasn’t tried to kill me the second they saw me. And you didn’t turn to look!”
The hoof keeping her down disappeared from her back. Nel tried to move again.
It came back, hitting her in the side of her chest. She flopped over onto her back with the force.
Again the hoof came down on top of her. This time, she could see it coming with her regular eyes.
Despite the brief warning, bracing her stomach did nothing. Her cry of pain cut off as the air was forcibly evacuated from her lungs.
“It’s almost as if you lot are completely suicidal.” He let out an exasperated sigh before drawing in a deep breath through his nose. At that, he blinked and quirked his head to one side. “I know you, yeah? You smell,” he paused to take another breath, “familiar.”
Nel was in far too much pain to even consider responding. That pain also prevented a proper reaction to him gripping the neck of her robes and pulling her up.
They stared at one another eye to eye. Nel’s vision of his golden eyes was marred by a combination of a heavy squint and her own tears. Eventually, he stuck out his tongue, swiping it from her chin to her temple.
“Taste familiar too.” He blinked, recognition lighting up in his eyes. “Oh. You’re that nun. Did I threaten your life the next time we met, or anything similar?
“I would hate to be found out as a demon that did not keep his promises.”
Nel grit her teeth, pulling away from his hot breath without saying a thing. He probably had threatened her–Nel couldn’t remember. She had been trying to repress those memories.
“Ah well, a matter for another time.” He shoved her back.
Flailing her arms to keep her balance, Nel tried to turn and run. A hand clasped down on her shoulder to keep her from fleeing.
“I didn’t plan to meet you, but this is most fortuitous. I’m wondering,” he said, completely ignoring her efforts at escape. Rather, he pulled her in close with a glance from side to side. As if they were conspiring together. After satisfying whatever he was looking for, he pulled a small brass sphere from somewhere. “I’m wondering just what you can make of this.”
Despite her best efforts at escaping his grasp, Nel found her eyes drawn to the object as it cracked open with a small hiss.
Her slight curiosity vanished as she recoiled back from the slime contained within. Unbidden retching almost forced her to her knees. Had the devil not tightened his grip, she would have gone back down to the ground.
He just laughed and pushed her aside.
The pain in her back and stomach vanished as she stumbled. Nel glanced down at herself. Where there should have been charred skin, everything was fresh and new. Not the slightest hint of a burn.
Unfortunately, she could see her unblemished skin. The robes Lady Ylva had made for her were burned straight through.
“I imagine your owner wouldn’t be pleased with our little roughhousing session. Besides,” he tossed the now-sealed brass sphere towards Nel, “you need to be able to concentrate. Go perform your far-seeing upon the contents. I need to go visit with the little embryonic girl.”
Nel fumbled with the sphere. It took her three tries of accidentally knocking it higher into the air before she finally caught it. Her fear at the devil momentarily fled and was replaced by a fear of smelling that stench.
Blinking in confusion, Nel watched as the devil completely disregarded her. He turned and wandered off in the vague direction of the women’s ward.
He isn’t going to kill me?
The moment the thought crossed her mind, the devil froze.
Nel didn’t wait to see what he was going to do. She turned and ran.
“Take care not to touch it,” he called out after her.
The words barely registered. All of Nel’s concentration was centered around placing one foot in front of the other as fast as possible.
By the time she had crossed the relatively short distance to reach Ylva’s domain, Nel was panting and sweating. Only part of it was born out of fear.
The rest was simply because of the unexpected exertion.
Unlike the Elysium Order, Lady Ylva hadn’t imposed any stress filled exercise programs. No waking up in the morning to run several miles, no weight room, no sparring. Living in relative peace for a full year had done wonders for her sense of laziness.
As Nel leaned against the wall back in the safety of the domain, she considered restarting her old training. Surely she would be of more use to Lady Ylva if she had the physical capabilities to, at the very least, flee effectively from immediate threats.
Of course, none of that would matter if that demon decided to burst through the doors and finish her off.
Nel took several minutes to calm her pounding heart. In all that time, the devil never broke through the door.
He let her go. Again.
Sighing, Nel pressed her forehead against a cool marble column. She glanced down at the brass sphere in her hands. He would be back. While he didn’t come with her to watch her scry on the gunk inside and he hadn’t set a later date for her to deliver whatever information she gleaned from it, he would definitely be back.
Fondling the black skull attached to the band around her neck, Nel mumbled to herself, “where has Lady Ylva gone?” Nel would be feeling much better if she were around.
With a start, Nel glanced down at herself. Maybe it was a good thing that Lady Ylva was gone. She was in no way presentable as she was now. Her clothes were a mess, her hair was matted with sweat, and, though the devil had done something to remove her burns, he hadn’t done anything to remove the dirt that had stuck to her clothes and skin.
With renewed vigor, Nel headed straight for the bath.
After soaking away her harrowing experience outside the domain–a process that took a good hour, at least–Nel found a set of fresh clothing and retired to the throne room to await Lady Ylva’s return. As she waited, she went over exactly what she would say in her report.
Elysium habits died hard, when they weren’t about exercise that is. As an augur, Nel had given her fair share of reports to superiors. Mostly about things she had seen from afar. This time it was about something in person, and that changed things. There were so many personal things that she wasn’t sure she was going to share. Her worries about the future, for instance.
A clock struck somewhere within the domain–added for Eva’s friends, who had needed to know when to wake up and when to eat in the otherwise time-averse domain.
Nearly three hours since Nel had left the domain. A good two and a half since she had met the devil. An hour and a half since she moved to kneel at her place on the throne’s right side.
And almost a full day since she last saw Lady Ylva.
Biting her lip, Nel changed locations. She moved through the domain, passing over the bottomless pit and through one of the alcoves on the side.
The heavy scent of frankincense stung Nel’s nose as she maneuvered through the augur room to her altar.
Nel found herself at a loss.
She lacked any sort of fetter for Ylva. Something within the domain would probably work. An item that Ylva found to be tied to her in some intrinsic manner, or perhaps a stray hair. Nel couldn’t quite imagine Lady Ylva leaving hairs lying around, but there might be something similar.
Neither did she have a fetter for Alicia. She would be the easier of the two to search out a stray hair, but Nel wasn’t fond of the idea of being caught snooping about the other servant’s things should they return.
With a groan of frustration, Nel decided to cycle through her existing fetters. She dismissed Shalise’s hair right out–seeing anything from that would require standing in the waters–and started with Eva.
Something she should have done as soon as she escaped from the devil.
Eva looked none the worse for wear. Tired by the looks of things, but otherwise unharmed by any devils that may have attacked. Arachne held her in her arms as they both slept on the couch.
Zoe was nowhere in sight, so Nel moved on to her fetter next. Like Eva, she was asleep. Unlike Eva, she slept in an actual bed.
After spending a moment looking around and making certain that there was nothing worth raising the alarm over, Nel moved on.
A handful of others cycled through with nothing of particular happening to note. Sawyer’s was blank as always, as was the boy known as Hugo.
She found Juliana searching through the shelves of a musky library. Unusual, but Nel couldn’t find anything worth watching after a minute. The girl was just reading. Diablery books, by the looks of things.
Really, Nel thought with a frown, you’d think she would have stayed clear of anything resembling demons.
Eventually, Nel was left with only a single fetter left.
A brass sphere she had clipped to her belt by way of the rotating rings.
Nel held it out in front of her. She didn’t want to expose herself to the vile stench, so she didn’t even try to open it–not that the devil had told her how it opened. Concentrating on the contents, Nel sought out its past and present.
A deep drain had her sagging in her seat almost immediately. It felt like she was looking farther into Hell, like when she had found the two children.
Wherever she was looking, it was far away.
Through the haze of her sudden headache, a picture started to form.
Something akin to a planet. From far away, it actually looked beautiful. The air was crisp and clear. Greenery everywhere. And everything on the planet’s surface was in a state of constant motion. There was a slight tinge of purple to everything, but that hardly stood out with everything else going on.
But when Nel zoomed in, she found her stomach churning.
There were plants, animals, monstrosities, and things she couldn’t begin to categorize. Every inch of the planet’s surface was covered in these things. For all Nel knew, there wasn’t even a surface to cover. It could have been just a massive ball of creatures.
Ones on the surface pranced around, treading on those beneath. More creatures exploded out of nowhere, landing on and crushing those too slow to get out of the way.
One particularly nasty set of animated teeth descended on a cat-like creature.
The cat didn’t stand a chance. It was torn to shreds.
Yet it didn’t die.
Despite not having a head or an upper back, the cat’s body sprinted away from the predator. As it ran, it started regrowing the missing parts.
A second cat, identical to the first, clawed its way out of the maw of the animated teeth after a few moments.
Nel’s sight went dark as she slumped over the altar. Maintaining that connection exhausted her. Yet despite her exhaustion, Nel had been unable to look away. It was a disgusting sight and horrifically enticing at the same time.
With shaky hands, Nel plucked the brass sphere out of the air. Taking great care not to jolt or otherwise disturb any part of it, she placed it within the safe that she used to store some of the more valuable fetters–Sawyer’s blood was among the residents. Once the sphere was in place, she shut the door, sealed it shut, and pulled out her gem focus.
Using every bit of her admittedly limited magical knowhow, Nel erected as many wards and defenses around the safe as she could fit. The air around it hummed with volatile magic from the somewhat conflicting wards she had laid around the safe. Anyone trying to unravel the wards would probably set off a chain-reaction detonating the leftover magic. That included herself.
Warding had never been Nel’s strong point.
But it would work. She couldn’t imagine anyone that both had access to Ylva’s domain and would want to steal her fetters, but she felt it all the more prudent to keep that sphere safe.
Lady Ylva would be able to undo it all with a thought should it ever need to be looked at again.
Nel desperately hoped that need never came about.
It took a moment to steady herself on her feet. Once she did, Nel headed straight for the kitchen. She moved past the main area and all its food and drink without a second glance.
After seeing the things she had seen, Nel felt she needed something a little stronger than water or juices of various types.
Nel removed the cork from a bottle of who-knew-what and proceeded to down a full half of the liquid. Her throat burned and some mild hiccups started, but Nel ignored it all.
“When are you coming back, Lady Ylva?”
The moment the words left her mouth, the ground started to quake.