Catherine’s heels clicked in a steady rhythm as she walked down the empty hallway of Brakket Academy.
She considered running. The quicker she made it home, the sooner she could join in on her clan’s planned raid against those pathetic humans and elves. Well, they were all humans–probably–including her own team. But her team had chosen the demonic race, so their hearts were in the right place.
As it was, she was already a full half hour late because of ‘secretarial duties’ that she had been purposefully neglecting.
Thanks, Martina, she thought. Because of course Martina would choose today of all days to check up on my work.
Filing paperwork in its proper place had cost her dearly.
She wanted to teleport. It would have been so much simpler. Not to mention faster.
Again, Martina was standing in her way. The paranoid woman had banned everything that could potentially hint towards demonic activity around Brakket Academy. That, naturally, included the method of teleportation that both Martina and Catherine employed.
The one consolation Catherine had was that Martina had condemned herself to walking about like a common plebeian.
What she was afraid of, Catherine couldn’t even begin to fathom. Demon hunters were ruthless, no arguing that. However, Martina had Zagan on call. If he wasn’t around to swat annoying flies away with the back of his hand, what good was he?
Surely he wasn’t being kept around for his teaching skills.
Catherine shook her head. The idea was laughable.
Mid-head shake, Catherine stopped. Just in time to avoid three people coming around the corner.
“Ca–Professor Catherine,” Irene’s twin said as she jumped back. “What are you doing here?”
Ignoring the improper title–Catherine was not a professor, the diablery class did not count–Catherine eyed her student. Irene’s sister looked… worried. Perhaps just shocked at meeting someone in the hallway, but probably not. Moving on to the spawn of Governor Anderson, Catherine’s frown deepened. He was calm, but still had jitters.
Something must have happened that rattled them.
And then they ran off to get a professor. Wayne Lurcher didn’t look worried so much as he looked annoyed. So either he hadn’t seen whatever had startled the children, or he didn’t care.
Possibly both, it was hard to tell with him.
“I,” Catherine said, turning her gaze back to the sister, “happen to work here. I am allowed to be within the school after hours. You two lack that excuse.”
“Something is wrong with their dorm,” Wayne said, interrupting the girl. He continued with a sneer. “In fact, probably something more suited to a secretary than a professor. You would know how to contact the proper custodial or maintenance personnel.”
Catherine’s heel clicked as she stepped forwards. “You’re not foisting more garbage off on me. I’ve got to get home and–and do important things.”
That got a scoff from the professor.
“As I was saying,” the Anderson spawn cut in, “I don’t think it is that kind of issue.” He glanced up to Catherine. “We’re heading to Eva’s room. Irene is keeping an eye on it.”
“An enigma?” Catherine frowned as no recognition lit up in the kids’ eyes.
Though that made sense after a moment of thinking about it. Irene wouldn’t be able to say anything about them without violating her contract.
“Where is Eva?”
“She doesn’t stay in her dorm much these days. Less than once a week, I’d say.”
Wayne pulled out his phone and started tapping away. A moment later, he dropped it back into his pocket. “Zoe will check her other residence,” he grunted. “In the meantime, let’s take a look at whatever mess the menace has caused this time.”
Catherine stood still as they all started to move. For a moment, she considered just ignoring the problem. Most problems had a tendency to resolve themselves or just go away if they were ignored long enough.
Unfortunately, she doubted that she would hear the end of it if Martina found out. And besides, it was a good opportunity to see her student and how she handled herself. Considering Irene’s performance against the other enigma, it would be something of a wonder if the girl hadn’t killed herself.
It didn’t take long to get to the dorms. They were, after all, just a stone’s throw from the school building itself.
All the while, the kids and the professor were talking quite animatedly amongst themselves. Arguing over some mortal problems, Catherine assumed. She really didn’t care enough to listen in.
The moment they reached the third floor of the Rickenbacker dormitory, a wave of nausea hit Catherine. She doubled over, one hand braced against the wall to keep her up. She couldn’t recall ever even imagining the sensation that caused mortals to vomit, but this had to have come close.
Brushing off a suddenly concerned group of mortals, Catherine pulled out her cellphone.
Rickenbacker. Third floor. You’ll know it when you feel it.
She sent the message off to Zagan as she shoved the Anderson boy off of her.
“I’m fine,” Catherine snarled.
The feeling had been growing since entering the stairwell, but she was caught entirely unawares by just how pungent the very air felt on the top floor. It was similar to the feeling she had felt upon first seeing the enigma that Irene had summoned, so she hadn’t paid it much mind while it was a minor effect. She had already assumed that there would be an enigma around anyway.
Catherine’s heels clicked against the floor, unsteady as she half-stumbled her way to the source of the feeling.
One of the dormitory rooms had its door wide open. At least, she thought it was one of the rooms. The number outside listed the door as three-thirteen, though part of the lettering had worn off.
Moving to check the adjacent doorways, Catherine found that they were regular dorm rooms. Logic held that three-thirteen was supposed to be a room as well.
Or at least a broom closet of some sort.
She stepped into the room, heels mushing against the sand covered flooring. The sharp spikes making up the heels of her stilettoed boots barely encountered any resistance for the first few inches from the surface. Even with sand over the floor, they shouldn’t have sunk in so far. The solid floor beneath should have held firm.
But, other than a light stumble, Catherine barely noted her feet. Her attentions were drawn straight up. There was no roof. No ceiling. No lights, wiring, or structural support for the building.
There was nothing. A pitch black lot of familiar nothingness.
Forcing her gaze off of the emptiness, Catherine glanced around. There were no waters. In fact, there was nothing but a slice of the beach. It cut off sharply where the walls of the room were–for they were in their normal spot.
Irene stood a few steps forward, enraptured by the void overhead.
“You shouldn’t stare.” Catherine placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Or even be inside. There are enigmas somewhere in here.”
Blinking three times, Irene shook her head. The glazed look over her eyes subsided. “Wha–what happened?”
“I guess that you came inside, a stupid move, and proceeded to look up for far too long. Another stupid move. Get out of the room and draw the highest tier shackles you can remember how to draw correctly just in front of the doorway.”
“What about you?”
What about her? There were enigmas somewhere around. Perhaps on the other side of the walls, or underground. Sticking around didn’t seem like the best of ideas.
Catherine shrugged. She had already sent a text to Zagan, this seemed more like his job anyway.
“Probably go home. I have other things to do.”
— — —
“For the last time, she didn’t attack me, dad.”
Juliana wanted to slam her head against the window of their tiny car. Every clank of her father’s cellphone as it knocked back and forth in the cup holder only increased her irritation. A cloudless starry sky hung cheerily overhead in stark contrast to her current mood.
Brakket City was slowly shrinking into the background. Along with it went her school and her friends.
She didn’t even get a chance to visit Shalise before her father ushered her off into the car.
“And she didn’t attack you either,” Juliana said, sticking a finger in Erich’s arm.
Calling him up had been a mistake. She had thought that he would be worried about their mother. Turns out that was wrong.
Basically, it was the opposite. Erich had barely said two words to their mother. Even taking into account her few periods of wakefulness during the first few months, that was far too few in Juliana’s opinion.
Instead, he had spent all of his time babysitting her, complaining about her parents when they weren’t in the room, and making things awkward when they were in the room. Juliana knew that he had poor relations with their mother, but there was a point where it got ridiculous.
He could at least pretend for her sake.
“It doesn’t matter what Eva did or did not do, Juli. I finalized my initial report and sent it off to her. I sent a copy to Zoe and the Dean as well. My job was done, it was time to leave.”
“You mailed them. You could have at least given them in person.”
Juliana crossed her arms in a huff. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get back to her mother. She did. Even though her mother had doctors to keep her healthy, they didn’t exactly keep her company.
But she also wanted to say goodbye at the very least.
“You know,” Erich said as he moved to rest a hand on her shoulder, “when I went to school here… it was a calming center of learning and research. No zombies or monsters attacked the school.”
“The point,” he said, “is that you should be learning in a safe environment.
“You’re a powerful mage and Genoa has taught you well. But you are still a child. You’re inexperienced and still learning. There will be plenty of time for danger and adventure later. When you are better equipped to handle it.”
Juliana shrugged off his hand and went back to leaning her forehead against the cool window. Yeah, right, she thought. Not if the world ends soon.
That was the one thing that she hadn’t told anyone. Her mother might know, depending on how conscious she had been while Zagan was talking to Eva in Willie’s domain. If she did know, she hadn’t said a word.
Juliana was leaning towards her not knowing. She hadn’t started up an extensive training regimen. Neither had she insisted on bulking up their already massive food storage. Bedridden or not, Juliana knew her mother and her mother would not just lie down and not prepare.
Getting her own training in had become a daily routine for Juliana. She tried to think up what her mother would have her do and then double it. It probably wasn’t close to what her mother actually would do, but it kept her from becoming rusty. Unfortunately, Juliana doubted that thaumaturgy would be enough.
Her excursions with Ylva served a dual purpose. It was true that she was searching for references to Willie and talkina in general, but if Hell merged, it probably wouldn’t matter much. A good portion of her time went into seeking out weapons. Anything that could be used effectively against demons.
Her findings weren’t the most heartening of things. Shackles were easily the most prevalent defenses against demons. But there must be more. Demon hunters had to have proper tools for actually hunting them.
Juliana thought that they would be more publicized.
And then there was the ‘domination’ that Devon apparently used. Juliana had never seen it in person, but Eva had mentioned it on occasion. How to do so was not listed in a single book.
“The classes and professors that have come on since I graduated are less than reassuring as well,” Erich said, bringing Juliana’s attentions off of the fast-moving scenery. She turned just in time to watch his face darken considerably. “That’s to say nothing of your… friend.”
“Don’t you dare. I would be dead several times over if not for her.”
“And that,” Carlos said from the front seat, “is exactly why we’re looking into alternate schools. I’m thankful to Eva, I really am, but you should never have almost been dead even once. If Scotland is too far, why not Charmbridge? The dean there is a strict woman and would never allow all of this,” he paused to wave one hand in the vague direction of Brakket Academy.
Rolling her eyes, Juliana kept silent. Protesting would lead to another argument. Agreeing was exactly the opposite of what she wanted to do.
Though, Erich and dad are in agreement. The world really is ending.
As she was staring out the window, Juliana gave a start. The normal sky wasn’t quite so normal any longer.
Streaks of purple cut through the sky like jagged clouds. The purple pulsed lightly to some unheard beat. Every pulse spread the streaks out like lightning made of molasses.
“I see it.”
Though her eyes were glued on the heavens, Juliana’s peripheral vision caught the ground moving much faster beneath their car.
“We’re not stopping?”
“The sky is clear up ahead.”
“But what about–”
“Juliana,” her father said, voice firmer than she had ever heard it. “This city has come so close to taking away everything I hold dear. I’m not giving it another chance.”
“But my friends… Zoe…” Juliana bit her lip. The way Zagan and Eva had talked about Hell being brought to the mortal realm sounded much farther off than now. It hadn’t even been half a year. But if that was what was happening, driving away likely wouldn’t save them.
Her lip-biting turned to grinding her teeth as anger welled up within her. She was running away.
“Mom would go back.”
“Genoa isn’t here,” Carlos said softly, his speed only increasing.
Gripping the door handle with white knuckles, Juliana watched the speedometer pass one hundred. It won’t matter what’s going on behind us if we crash into a mountain.
Shaking her head, Juliana reached forward and pulled her father’s cellphone from the holder.
At the very least, she could warn Zoe and Wayne, both of whom were in his contacts list. To her surprise, the dean and Catherine were entered in as well. One of them had probably seen the sky and already alerted the others, but Juliana sent off a group text anyway. If they were asleep, maybe, just maybe her text could save someone’s life.
Turning in her seat, Juliana watched helplessly as the purple lightning-streaked sky shrank behind her in the rear window.
“This city is cursed,” Erich mumbled under his breath.
— — —
Staring at the inky blackness of nothing became tedious after a while.
Actually, it got tedious after a matter of seconds. There was no one to speak with, nothing to look at, nothing to do save for wander her own mind. Unfortunately, Nel felt that she was reaching the limits of even her own thoughts.
There were only so many things she could think about. After weeks and months of nothing but blackness for most of every day, Nel was starting to worry for her own sanity. She had already thought about everything she could think of.
Other augurs didn’t have to deal with an empty target under normal circumstances. There weren’t many things that could block out the scrying of an augur. In fact, apart from Ylva’s domain and a few higher-ups in the Elysium Order like Sister Cross, whatever Sawyer had done with her eyes was the only thing that she had ever encountered that could block her sight.
There were probably more things. Nel had only been an augur for a year prior to entering into Ylva’s service. The more experienced sisters had probably encountered at least a handful of things that could block out their sight.
For a moment, Nel wondered what the nuns did to occupy their time.
Shaking her head, she realized that she knew the probable answer.
Any long-term observation would have multiple augurs assigned to the task. They didn’t have to deal with such things.
Unfortunately for Nel, she lacked any companions to foist the responsibility off to. Any breaks she took to sleep, eat, or just stretch her legs would gnaw at the back of her mind until she returned to the altar.
What Sawyer did might have been permanent. In which case, she was entirely wasting her time. But there was a chance that he had to consume the remaining eyes that he had stolen to power whatever he had done. Or that it couldn’t be moved easily.
All she needed was a sliver. A slight glimmer of where he was. Even if he occluded himself immediately after, it would give Nel a starting point. A point where she could look around, find street signs or other landmarks. Maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to follow the disturbance around. If she got a good enough sense for what the disturbance was, Nel was hoping that she might be able to lock onto that. Even if she couldn’t see what he was doing, seeing where he was could have infinite value.
Of course, none of those thoughts were things that Nel hadn’t already thought before, furthering her own opinion that she was slowly going crazy. Her thoughts were just cycling around themselves, never going far in one direction or the other.
“Eva really needs to finish her project with his blood,” Nel mumbled to herself for what had to be the hundredth time.
Originally, Nel had wanted to be the one to locate Sawyer. Partially out of pure revenge, but also because she had a feeling that it would be her only real contribution to bringing him down.
She wasn’t much of a fighter and she knew it.
Nel nearly fell from her seat as a sudden image filled her vision. A quick burst of fear-filled adrenaline was all that gave her the reflexes to catch herself on the altar.
She did not want to miss out on what could possibly be the sliver she had been waiting for by falling and losing concentration.
Her vision came into focus. Blurry at first, but it slowly sharpened as time dragged on.
As it cleared up, Nel tried to glean as many details as was possible. There was a lot of red. Blood, Nel decided. It would fit with the more fleshy tones surrounding the red. Violet was another predominant color, though Nel couldn’t tell what that was. Perhaps a cloth draped over a table–she was fairly certain there were tables.
While everything cleared up, Nel moved her vision outside of the building. It was a large warehouse built out of rusted metal. Or rather, it had probably been built out of regular metal that had rusted through time and disuse. Either way, there were no large signs indicating what the structure had been originally intended for.
Everything outside was clear instantly, so she wasted no time in maneuvering her view to the nearest crossroads. Nel scrambled for a pad of paper and proceeded to write down the road names.
She would be able to come back to those later to find the state or country, if he had left the states. The signs looked like they were from the United States, but Nel hadn’t been to every country.
For the moment, Nel moved back inside. On her way back to the original point, she scoped out some of the rest of the warehouse. A good number of those creatures he was so fond of creating stood locked up in a makeshift cage. Skeletons patrolled the catwalks overhead, most armed with bows and arrows. One appeared to have a revolver bolted onto its hand.
Nel shook her head. Wouldn’t the kick of firing just send the whole arm flying off the body?
Then again, those skeletons could draw the string of a bow, and that wasn’t supposed to be easy.
A sick feeling welled up in Nel’s stomach as she spotted piles of bones. The piles formed four distinct pillars, each capped with a human skull, all positioned around a circular table. A sacrificial dagger lay between two basins. An assortment of rings rested on one side of the table.
It was something that all augurs had been trained to recognize. Bones dug from a graveyard built up to form the soul binding altar. One of the easiest signs to recognize budding necromancers with. They would use the altar to call and bind ghosts to anchors.
And, since moving in with Ylva, Nel had discovered that soul binding was the greatest affront to Death. Even moreso than sealing ones own soul away into an immortal object made of gold. The souls to create ghosts were stolen directly from his plane of existence.
Yet it was one of the easiest branches of necromancy to start off with. All it really required was digging up a graveyard. Even the more squeamish of necromancers could do it. No killing required.
Back at the origin point of the scrying, Nel couldn’t help but frown at what she saw.
Sawyer was lying flat on his back between two operating tables. His wide smile was missing from his face.
While covered in blood, he didn’t actually appear injured. Nel couldn’t spot a single injury. There was, however, a pulsing lump of violet fused with his hand.
That probably had something to do with his condition.
Nel almost wanted to cry out in frustration. He couldn’t just die. Not without being killed first. And made to suffer.
A slight movement of the collar on his button-up shirt quashed Nel’s rage. Moving her view closer, she could see that he was breathing.
Satisfied for the moment, Nel looked around the rest of the operating theater. One of those enigma creatures was dismembered on top of one table, mostly unmoving.
The other table held a far more gruesome sight.
The little girl who Sawyer referred to as ‘honey’ or ‘Des’ had her chest carved open. Eyes wide with panic, she was in the middle of swinging her ribcage shut. The bones appeared to be attached to the rest of her with hinges of some sort. As soon as she snapped it into place, the girl pulled a needle and thread off the side of the table and started stitching herself together with skilled fingers.
She had obviously done it more than once.
Before she managed to seal up her skin, Nel spotted something. She did not, in any manner of the word, profess to being an expert in anatomy. However, she was relatively certain that eyes did not belong on the inside of the chest. Whatever rapidly pulsating organ that they were connected to was probably not supposed to be there either.
It looked like a miniature brain.
Even for an augur, that would be strange.
Nel grit her teeth. Those are my eyes.
She must be the one preventing augurs from finding them. Her panic must have caused a lapse of concentration. Or perhaps Sawyer severed something he shouldn’t have when he fell–there was a bloodied scalpel on the floor near his hand.
Once Des finished sewing herself up, she jumped off the operating table and started fretting over Sawyer. An action that boggled Nel’s mind. Des had been as much a victim of Sawyer as she had been during her brief stay in his care.
After watching a bit longer–Des had apparently decided that amputating Sawyer’s hand was the best course of action–Nel pulled herself out of her scrying and got up from her seat.
It didn’t look like whatever was preventing her augur abilities would get itself fixed soon. If Sawyer regained consciousness, he would also have to realize that Des’ brain-eye thing was broken. That should buy time on its own. Even if he did notice, Nel had a good idea of the location. A sign welcoming visitors to Nevada had been a short way along one of the roads.
For now, Nel needed to find Eva.
Swapping fetters to the long strand of black hair, Nel frowned. More of the inky nothingness. A different inky nothingness, though no less familiar than that of Sawyer’s scrying protection.
Eva was somewhere in Hell.