Three things made getting into the Elysium Cathedral much easier than it had any right to be.
The first was the map. Drawn by Nel both from memory and from scrying, it had possible routes to the relic chamber along with some annotations about which directions would have them encounter how much resistance. Most of it was guesswork and estimations. Nel had to remain behind to prepare the salt, so she couldn’t give real-time updates. The nuns could and would move around and invalidate most of her efforts.
But that was the second thing. For whatever reason, there were hardly any nuns about. A handful of guards was about all that they had to sneak by. They hadn’t passed the sleeping quarters, so it was entirely possible that the majority were asleep. Nel had mentioned that there should have been more guards, so Eva wasn’t about to question their luck.
Eva wanted to say that the third thing was her own blood sight. The ability to effectively see through walls, see which direction guards were facing, and to tell whether or not a guard was asleep at their post was an amazing asset on a job like this. Something that Eva wished she had figured out back when doing odd jobs with Devon.
However, while it helped, Eva had to begrudgingly give a nod to Serena and her unique abilities.
Two guards stood alert outside of the doorway leading to the basement of the cathedral.
There was another way inside, but they would have had to backtrack through a good portion of the building, negating much of their work so far. And, if this one was guarded, that door was likely guarded as well.
Turning to the others, Eva said, “Arachne can handle this.”
At hearing her name, the spider demon poked her head out from under Eva’s shirt.
They didn’t actually need to be silent. Something that Eva was beyond grateful for. Part of her reason for wanting to go in alone was that it was far easier to be stealthy with fewer people. Arachne had shrunk and latched onto Eva’s chest just to help reduce their total footprint. More people meant more noise, no exceptions.
Except when Zoe was part of the group. She just twisted her dagger and the air itself didn’t allow sound to pass beyond a small radius around their group. The vibrations froze in mid-air.
That hadn’t made Arachne unshrink. A group of people was already a larger visual target than a single person, and Arachne was larger than any one person in their group. Zoe’s air magic couldn’t hide them from sight.
“How?” Serena asked with a wide smile.
The tone of her voice wasn’t hostile and it was a fair question. It still sent Eva’s eye twitching. Not only was it a question that Eva had been about to answer on her own, but it was Serena asking.
She wasn’t certain that she liked the vampire. Every time she glanced in Serena’s direction, she found the vampire staring at her. Every single time.
To Eva, it didn’t feel much like a friendly stare or even one of the curious stares that her classmates often gave her hands and eyes. It was of the hungry variety of stares. Like the vampire was just waiting for her to let her guard down so she could have a quick snack.
“Arachne climbs on the ceiling–no one ever looks up,” Eva said, glancing up herself.
If asked, she would say that she had glanced up as emphasis on her words. It was definitely not because she too never bothered to look up. While her blood sight worked in a sphere around her, there could be nonliving concerns on the ceiling.
Looking up only to find a trapped ceiling slowly descending to crush them would be terrible. She did not want to become an Eva sandwich.
Bringing her eyes back down to Serena after finding nothing, Eva said, “Arachne then drops on their heads, bites them, injects venom, and then we walk past two recently deceased nuns.”
Zoe shifted, probably about to say something about killing people.
Serena beat her to the punch. “Buut, that will leave two dead nuns.”
She shrugged. “I’ve no love for the Elysium Order. However,” she held up a finger, “what if the changing of the guards happens or someone walks by? Even if we hide the bodies, the lack of guards will alert the others. If there is an augur here, and there probably is, the entirety of the cathedral will be on alert near instantly. That makes our job far more difficult.”
“Fair points,” Eva said with a frown. “But you can’t just complain without putting forward a suggestion of your own. What’s your plan?”
“Hmm,” she tilted her head back and forth a few times. “Something like this.”
Before Eva could so much as react, Serena had jumped around the corner, extending her arm out like she was holding a pistol.
Through her blood sight, Eva could see the guards’ eyes widen a fraction of an inch.
Neither of their hearts had the chance to spike in pace before Serena’s invisible pistol sent a recoil up her arm.
As her wrist flicked back, a dark beam erupted from her eyes.
Both guards slackened slightly, but not enough to topple over.
“Hurry,” Serena said, already taking off running towards the door. “Not much time.”
Wayne and Zoe were already in motion, apparently having experienced such antics from the vampire in the past. Eva scrambled after them a moment later.
Both guards had a dazed look on their faces. Neither was quite focusing on any one thing in particular.
“Locked,” Wayne grumbled from ahead of the pack.
Serena whipped her head to one of the guards, staring at the nun for a moment.
For a bare instant, the nun’s eyes refocused. Eva tensed, ready for a fight.
But the nun just turned without actually seeing any of them. She pulled a key from her pocket and unlocked the door, tapping the lock with a wand before returning to her position at the side of the door. As she retook her position, her eyes lost their focus once again.
Wayne and Zoe charged through the door. Serena gave a little pat on the shoulder of the nun. “Thanks,” she said before following the other two.
With one last look at the glossy-eyed nuns, Eva ran through the door.
“A little warning next time,” Zoe said as she shut the door and flicked the deadbolt back into place.
“Ohh, but there’d be no fun in that.”
Zoe ignored her, clicking the locks on the door shut. “The nun touched the door with her wand. There was probably a magical lock in place. I hope it wasn’t tied to any alarms.”
As they spoke, Eva watched the other side of the door through her blood sight. Both nuns shook their heads slightly as they lost the sag in their pose.
Eva waited at the door, preparing to charge through and stop the nuns from running to get help. Serena was right in that killing them would be troublesome. They could at least restrain them. That would give them plenty more time than having them run off right away.
Neither made a move for or away from the door. Each simply resumed her guard without so much as a word to the other.
“Eva,” Zoe called up from the bottom of the staircase, “we’re not there yet. Best to keep moving before they notice the spells on the door are gone.”
“What was that?” Eva asked anyone as she reached the others. She paused for just a moment, looking around. “People inside the large room on our right. Only three. A meeting of some sort?”
Eva wished that her blood sight could provide more details. Or maybe she needed to get good at reading lips through blood veins. As it was, all she could tell was that three people were seated around a table, discussing something. Two of them were augurs, judging by the copious amount of eye-shaped organs dotted around their bodies.
They were fairly far away. Just at the edge of her range.
The end of the stairs opened up into a long hallway that, after a curve, followed back along the hallway they had just been in one floor up. The main chapel room sat directly adjacent above, though if there were a replica down here, they hadn’t gone down enough steps for it to copy the vaulted ceiling.
Unless the room had been partitioned off, the nuns would be sitting in the far corner from where Eva was.
Perhaps much of it had been made into a storage area? There were doors on either side all along the hallway. Offices? What did the Elysium Order need with such a large space?
And they still had to go down one more floor before reaching the room that contained the obelisk.
“That,” Serena said from the head of the group, “was just a figment of their imaginations. Staring at a wall for hours on end has a habit of playing tricks on the mind. Whatever they thought they saw was probably nothing.”
“‘Probably nothing’ unlocked the doors?”
Serena shrugged. “Not my fault that she had a sudden pressing need to open the door and forget about it afterwards.”
Frowning, Eva glared at the vampire’s back. “If you can do that, why are we bothering with all this sneaking around? We could just walk up to a nun and have her go get the obelisk.”
“Ah, but it doesn’t last that long, does it now? And if their eyes are glowing, forget about it working entirely.” She glanced over her shoulder as she walked. Her stormy eyes made contact with Eva’s as she flashed a grin. “Learned that the hard way.”
Eva was about to ask a few other questions about her ability. It seemed a neat trick to have and definitely warranted learning, if she could.
The three nuns moving in the far end of the room gave her pause. She waited just long enough to be certain that they were headed towards the hallway before alerting the group.
“Heads up,” she said. “Three nuns incoming from the far door. Serena?”
The vampire shook her head. “If they come out one at a time, I might get the first one but the other two will notice. If I try to wait, I might not get any of the three.”
“Hide then,” Wayne said from behind. He and Zoe had fallen a fair distance behind Eva and Serena during the short walk through the hallway.
As one, they turned and moved towards one of the rooms that Eva had presumed to be offices. Eva expected it to be locked for a moment, but Wayne turned the knob and walked right in.
Eva and Serena started towards a closer room to where they were. Serena stopped partway and vanished from Eva’s sight. She was still there in her blood sight, unbeating heart and all.
At least she can’t sneak up on me, Eva thought, taking the disappearance in stride. It wasn’t until Serena backed away from the door to position herself at the wall directly opposite that Eva hesitated.
Through her blood sight, Eva glanced through the walls towards Zoe and Wayne’s hiding spot. They had positioned themselves behind where the door would open, ready to ambush anyone who entered. There must not be any good hiding spots in the room itself. For a moment, just a single moment, Eva thought to go and join them in their room.
Shaking the notion from her mind, Eva entered the door before her.
Running down to their room would be cutting it too close. The nuns were almost to the hallway.
“Arachne,” Eva said to her one companion as the door shut behind her with a soft click, “ceiling. Keep quiet and don’t attack unless the situation looks dire.”
If Zoe and Wayne were setting up an ambush, she would take their lead.
The spider-demon gave her a quick tap on her right shoulder before climbing out the top of her shirt. Leaping from her shoulder to the wall, Arachne skittered up to a corner of the ceiling where her dark carapace blended in with the shadows.
Arachne in place, Eva looked around the room in an attempt to find her own place to hide.
There weren’t many options. The room was not an office as she had initially suspected. There was a single altar in the center of the room along with a small closet to one side. The room looked an awful lot like the room Nel had set up for herself within Ylva’s domain, if a far less gaudy version of it.
The thick wooden citrus of frankincense hung in the air like smog, reinforcing Eva’s growing fears.
These rooms were not safe places to hide with two augurs walking down the hall.
With nowhere better to hide, Eva moved to the opposite side of the altar. It was thick, heavy, and solid stone of some sort. Marble, probably. Sitting was all that was required to hide behind it, and she was left with plenty of space to spare overhead and to the sides. With a large pillow between the altar and the door, it was fairly obvious that the augur would sit with her back to the door. She wouldn’t come around the side.
Eva withdrew a vial of Arachne’s blood as she watched the two augurs walk down the hallway alongside the regular nun. No sense in not preparing for the worst.
The group stopped outside of a room a few doors down, opposite of the direction that Zoe and Wayne were hidden. They spoke a few words to one another before one of the augurs split off and entered the room. The other two continued on down the hallway.
Continued towards her.
Closing her eyes, she hoped that they would just pass by. Surely only one augur needed to be on duty at such a late hour. The other should go to bed.
Serena did nothing but lean against the wall, head turning to follow and watch the two nuns.
Couldn’t she just use her magic trick right now?
No. They were both looking at each other. One would see her before the other saw leading to the second turning on their power.
Eva stifled a groan as they stopped outside of her door.
Of course, she thought as the door cracked open.
“–allowed to roam free, Sister Abbey,” the non-augur said. “We must–”
“If you wish to pursue demon hunting,” the augur spat, “I will look the other way. But I will not accompany you. A few rogue sisters will be overlooked in this time of crisis. A second rogue augur will be hunted down by the few remaining inquisitors without question.”
Chagrin filling her voice, the non-augur all but whined at the augur. “Sister Abbey–”
“And, Sister Cole, I trust I do not need to remind you of the last time your chapter encountered demons. What was the casualty rate for that mission, forty percent?”
The augur shook her head as she turned to the altar.
Eva stilled her breathing as much as possible. Please leave, please leave. She wished she had possessed the foresight to stab her own chest with her dagger. Oxygenating her blood through exposure to the air was far quieter than breathing.
The other nun stayed in the doorway. Her hands, balled into fists, trembled. “Thirty seven percent. And we are far more prepared. We’ve had time to analyze and employ better countermeasures. And this time, we won’t have Cross and–”
“The former prioress’ faults are well-known,” Sister Abbey said with a glance over her shoulder. “It is amusing to me that you wish to repeat her mistakes so soon after gaining her title, Prioress.”
Sister Cole grit her teeth. Even had she not been able to see her muscles clenching, Eva would have heard the grinding.
“You are just an augur. You’ll be–”
“Looking the other way. If you continue pressing the matter, I may find myself in a more active role of alerting the inquisitors before they find cause to go after me.” Turning fully from Sister Cole, Sister Abbey knelt down at the altar. “This conversation has been most enlightening. If you would remove yourself from my presence, I have work that must be done.”
Clenching her fists again, Sister Cole turned from the door, slamming it shut in the process. She stormed towards the staircase.
At least they would know if the nun noticed those missing spells. If she came running back down the stairs, she would probably have spotted them and alerted the two guards. Hopefully her anger would cloud her perception.
Unfortunately, Eva had a more pressing problem.
The augur sighed. A long, drawn our, exasperation-filled sigh. She reached up and pulled her habit’s cap off, setting it on the altar with reverence. With a sudden clenching of her fists, she stood up, walked to the door, flicked the deadbolt into place, and sat down.
“And stay out,” she murmured.
Outside of the room, Serena walked up to the door and pressed her ear against it.
Unless the vampire had unlocking doors as an ability, Eva doubted that she would be getting any help from there.
Down the hall, Zoe and Wayne had emerged from their room. Zoe had likely enhanced her ears beyond the point of safety to determine if the hallway was empty. They ran up to Serena–who must be visible again–and started speaking to one another.
No sound penetrated the door. Whether due to the door’s construction or Zoe dampening sound, Eva couldn’t say. Them speaking without her being able to listen did reaffirm her decision to figure out how to read lips through blood. They were probably plotting ways to get her out. It would help a lot to know what they were talking about.
Inside of her room, the augur didn’t actually appear to be doing any auguring. A lot of sighing and breathing exercises, but no scrying. Something of a shame. Nel tended to block out most of the surroundings when she dipped into her abilities. Maybe not enough for Eva to sneak out, but it couldn’t hurt.
Eva expected the closet to be filled with all the objects the augur would use to scry with, so it was a good thing that the augur wasn’t doing her job. If she went up to the closet, Eva would come into view.
It would be so easy to signal Arachne from where she was. Arachne had moved to directly over the augur. An angle from where she would definitely be able to see Eva.
But Serena was right. If the augur died, everyone in the area would know and be after them immediately.
Best to find a non-lethal solution.
Eva mentally cursed at her stupidity in not packing her poison satchel. Even a mild paralytic would keep her down long enough for them to get in and out. Probably.
Zoe and company were probably looking for a solution, but they didn’t know what the inside of the room looked like or really anything that would give them a concrete plan.
With a mental sigh, Eva started forming precise directions for Arachne out of blood.
As she finished, Arachne dropped. She dangled from the ceiling on a single thread. Her eight legs touched the ground behind Sister Abbey without the slightest noise.
Arachne sprung from the ground. Six of her legs latched around the woman’s chest–arms included–breaking at least one of her bones based on the noise. Arachne’s front two legs snapped up and positioned themselves at either side of the woman’s neck. They pinched her skin inwards, but managed not to pierce her throat.
“If your eyes glow, you die,” Eva said before anything else, even before the nun had a chance to cry out in pain from her broken bones.
While she wouldn’t put it past a member of the Elysium Order to go out in some suicidal attack, the augur had been worried about inquisitors; it was reasonable to assume that she feared for her life.
Eva managed to hold in a sigh of relief as the nun stilled. Her heart had jumped to a couple thousand beats per minute, but she clamped her mouth shut and did not ignite her eyes. Eva couldn’t actually see her eyes, but Arachne hadn’t killed her. Therefore, her eyes were normal.
“Congratulations,” Eva said without standing from her hiding position. “Through an inestimable amount of bad luck, mostly on my part, you get a choice tonight. One choice, obviously, is death. I do not think I need to explain that one.”
On the other side of the door, Serena was shushing the two conversing professors while trying to press her ear even further into the door.
Eva ignored them for the moment. It was a bit too late for anything they might do.
“The other choice: you can help save a little girl whose life is in danger.” Shalise probably wouldn’t appreciate being referred to as a little girl–Eva wouldn’t–but the facts were that she was not here and little girls were far more sympathetic than teenagers. “That could use some explanation, but I am pressed for time and really, what choice do you actually have?
“Rest assured, I am not here to hurt anyone. As I said, you’re only in this position because of bad luck. I’m just here to steal something. Hell, I don’t even need to keep it.” Unless an obelisk is somehow consumed during the ritual. “You can have it back in an hour.” Or however long the ritual lasted plus time to get back. “Maybe a day? Definitely less than a week. I’ll drop it off on the front lawn.”
Eva hummed for a moment, giving the augur time to process what she had said. “Saving the life of a little girl or having your own life extinguished. I intend to get what I came for either way, so I suppose those aren’t mutually exclusive. You only need to worry about your own life.”
The augur remained silent. Arachne pressed one leg ever so slightly deeper into her neck, causing her to jump.
“Go ahead, make your choice. I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day. If time runs out, the default choice is death, in case you were unsure.”
While the nun mulled it over, Eva took the orb of blood in her hands and formed it into a sort of mask and a pair of gloves to lessen the pointedness of her fingers. Serena had mentioned having masks on whatever previous experience she had with the Elysium Order, so it couldn’t be a terrible idea.
If she did end up agreeing, as Eva expected she would, Eva didn’t want to give any clue as to who she was. Given the distinction of her eyes and hands, it wouldn’t be difficult to find out who she was.
Probably wouldn’t be difficult anyway, Eva grumbled to herself as she finished shaping the blood. The moment anyone noticed anything demonic going on, they would immediately turn to Brakket.
Perhaps shoving Serena in front of a nun would distract them for a few months while they hunted down some nonexistent vampire coven.
Unless she had an actual coven that they could locate. That might be something of a jerk move in that case.
Encountering augurs made Eva feel woefully unprepared. She would have to make sure that no significant part of herself was left behind. Nel used vials of blood and strands of hair to locate her targets.
They should have all worn hair nets. And bindings on their bodies to keep arm hairs and such things from falling out.
How small could augurs go? Flakes of dead skin? Individual skin cells? If so, it was far too late from the moment they walked inside without a hard suit and recirculated air.
With a sudden sinking in her stomach, Eva resigned herself to being hunted by the Elysium Order for the foreseeable future. Even if Ylva’s presence kept them at bay, that would probably not last through the week if she was serious about removing herself from the mortal plane.
Still, no need to make it easy on them. Eva attached the mask to her face, allowing the semi-solid blood to flow over her exposed skin. It was difficult to tell without a mirror, but she was fairly certain that she looked a lot like Arachne minus a few pairs of eyes.
Plunging her dagger into her arm, she quickly made three other masks out of her own blood. They would be thin and wouldn’t cover all skin, but it would be better than nothing.
“Alright.” The nun slumped slightly and her voice came out strained. Arachne might be holding on a bit too tight.
But whatever. She’d live.
“I’m glad you can see reason. Surprising in a way, but I suppose that all the augurs I’ve met have been far less trigger happy than the rest of your lot.”
Standing from behind the altar, Eva ignored the gasp as she stared the augur in the eye.
“If at any point your eyes glow, you will die. If you shout or try to escape, you will die. If the other members of the Elysium Order are alerted to our presence before we leave, you will die.” Eva paused as she thought of other circumstances, but there were far too many to list. “If you think something you do might possibly in some minor probability wind up with you dead, it will.”
Eva smiled behind her mask. A pointless exercise as the nun couldn’t see. Unless… Eva quickly manipulated the surface of her mask into a wide smile. Far wider than her normal smile. Much closer to Arachne’s smile.
In fact, Eva thought as she etched in sharpened teeth. She wasn’t sure that it would be visible as the light in the augur’s room was fairly dim, but it was the thought that counted.
“Aside from that,” Eva said, “Sister Abbey, welcome aboard. Now stay right here and don’t move.”
Stepping around the suddenly statue-like nun, Eva walked up to the door and flicked the lock.
Zoe and Wayne ceased their conversation, both jumping to high alert. Serena just casually walked away from the door with a grin on her face. She had probably heard everything.
Neither of the professors let their guard down. Rather the opposite. A dagger was thrust in her face while Wayne readied his tome.
Rolling her eyes, Eva allowed part of her mask to roll off of her face for a few seconds. “It’s just me. Put these on,” she said, handing her masks off to the three.
Zoe accepted one first, frowning at it. “Are these–”
“Made out of your blood?” Serena snapped between Eva and Zoe, wrenching one of the masks out of Eva’s hands. She pressed it up to her face, drawing in a deep breath.
Eva took the moment it was pressed to her face to remodel it slightly to better fit her face. The large bushy eyebrows and tongue sticking out that appeared on the front were completely unintended consequences of reshaping it.
“This is the best present anyone has ever given me,” Serena said with a mild glare towards Wayne. “I’ll cherish it forever. Not to mention, much better than the ski masks we wore last time.”
Or until I make it explode when we’re done, Eva didn’t say. She hoped that she remembered to tell the vampire to take it off first.
Wayne was the only one hesitating, so Eva tossed the last mask at him. “Put it on unless you don’t care if an augur sees you.”
“What did you do?” he hissed. Wayne hesitated three times, bringing the mask near to his face and pulling it away again before he finally placed it against his face.
Eva fit the masks to both Wayne and Zoe without any unnecessary additions.
“Sister Abbey,” Eva said with a turn of her head, “come introduce yourself.”
The augur, who had been sitting as still as she could manage with her heart beating as it was, jumped slightly at being addressed. After a slight prod from Arachne, she finally made it to the doorway.
Upon seeing the augur, the other three all took a step away. At least until their eyes dipped down to where Arachne’s legs were wrapped around her like some kind of ominous rib cage.
“What did you do?” Wayne grunted through grit teeth.
“I got us a door unlocker!”