Shalise jumped to her feet, ready for another attack. Lynn was at her side in an instant.
It was somewhat off-putting. Lynn’s lightning and fire was far more effective at dealing with the enigmas than anything Shalise could put out. Sure, her muscles were strong and afforded her a certain level of toughness that she would otherwise lack, but not a single one of the creatures had actually made it within grappling range since Eva had brought along Lynn.
She shouldn’t be complaining, but Lynn just looked so exhausted. Dealing with the constant attacks kept her from having a proper sleep schedule.
This time, however, both women sagged in relief as they spotted just who it was approaching the alternate women’s ward.
Zoe and Eva were walking slowly, carrying something heavy between the two of them.
“She actually got it,” Lynn mused under her breath. “I half expected to never see her again.”
Shalise gave Lynn a frown, but didn’t respond. She threw open the door to the women’s ward and ran out across the closed trap doors to see if she could help out in any way. They were carrying her salvation, supposedly.
Salvation? You were not complaining while using me to escape from the prison.
Shaking her head with a frown, Shalise shot a mental glare at Prax. She was fairly certain that she had been complaining. Even before he had taken over her body.
That was entirely unintentional. I did not intend for us to become stuck this way.
“Sounds like you’re complaining about what might get us unstuck.”
There was an uncomfortable shift in the back of her mind. Between Zagan and the dolls, he started. Whatever he was going to say vanished with a spike of annoyance.
“Well, I can’t stay here. Even with Lynn here, those things will eventually kill me. Then you’ll be stuck dealing with Zagan and the dolls anyway.”
Brushing off the resignation from Prax, Shalise raised her voice to more conversational levels. “Is that the obelisk? Do you need help?”
“Just hold the door and show us where to put it.”
Eva’s words came out quick and strained, so Shalise wasn’t about to argue. She ran up to the door and kept it from swinging shut on them while Lynn directed them to the circle she had drawn.
“Set it down here,” Lynn said. “The corner needs to point towards the center of the circle.”
Zoe and Eva complied without complaint. Once the obelisk was in place, they both heaved out great sighs of relief. Eva collapsed into the couch that had been shoved against the far wall while Zoe just leaned against its armrests, sheathing her dagger as she panted.
Pathetic. Prax’s amusement was almost palpable. We could have lifted that with one hand.
“Shalise,” Lynn said, “strip down while I get everything set up.”
Feeling the heat in her face, Shalise almost protested. Zoe and Eva were still at the couch, now talking softly to one another while Zoe pointed at the ritual circle. Lynn had already moved on to the backpack that Eva had slung on the floor. She pulled a white feather out of the bag and placed it carefully within a small circle at the side of the larger circle.
No one was paying attention to her.
I am paying attention.
“Don’t be a creep,” Shalise hissed as she pulled off her shirt.
Despite his words, Shalise couldn’t feel a hint of interest towards herself from Prax. It was just him being annoying again. A way of protesting his imprisonment within her body without angering her too much.
Maybe he wanted her to summon him once they got out.
That wouldn’t happen, though Juliana had offered to summon him back at the prison. If Shalise never interacted with him again, she wouldn’t be too upset.
But he hadn’t been that bad. He did get both herself and Juliana out of the prison safely and with their souls intact.
And the conflicting combination of anxiety and eagerness towards the ritual had Shalise feeling just a little pity for him.
He would be back in his own body, but had Zagan and the dolls to worry about, as he had just mentioned a short while ago.
Setting her folded clothes neatly to the side of the room, Shalise sat at the edge of the circle, trying and failing to cover herself as much as possible.
Why bother? Everyone in this room has seen you in various states of undress.
“Not this undressed.”
Mortal sensibilities, he scoffed.
Shalise kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to encourage his antics. He was just as nervous as she was, but his way of relieving that tension did not agree with her.
“Center of the circle, Shal. Remain standing and face me.”
After jumping slightly at being addressed, Shalise stepped into the circle. She moved to her spot, making certain that she didn’t scuff any of the markings on the floor.
Facing Lynn meant facing the door. Her back was to the obelisk.
An assortment of items lay out in an array around her. Sigils and markings were covering the floor, all designed to direct the magic in certain patterns, to make them flow through the objects, and all sorts of things that Shalise didn’t pretend to understand.
Both Eva and Zoe moved to stand near Lynn at the front of the circle, though Lynn moved back as soon as they came near.
Taking a bag of white powder in her hands, Lynn moved around to the obelisk behind Shalise.
Craning her neck to see, Shalise watched as Lynn opened the top of the obelisk and started pouring the powder inside.
As she did, the markings and sigils on the obelisk started to glow. It was a pale, white light that sent a shiver of disgust through her body.
Once full, Lynn replaced the cap of the obelisk and returned to the head of the circle.
“We’re going to start now,” she said. “Try to remain standing. Everything will be alright.”
Shalise took a deep breath, nodding.
As she nodded, she caught sight of her shadow. The light of the obelisk filled most of the room, so it wasn’t unusual that she would have a shadow.
But the shadow looked like Prax. She could see his hooves, his horns, and his muscles. Concerning, as Shalise’s arms were currently her own. No Prax’s muscles bulging through her skin. It was also far taller than it should have been, given the angle of the light.
Glancing up, Shalise frowned.
Neither Sister Cross nor Zoe had any shadow to speak of, as if the light was passing straight through them.
“Huh,” Eva said, back turned to Shalise to look at her own shadow.
Things sprouted off the back of Eva’s shadow. Like oddly angled wings made of bones. Except they couldn’t be bones. They were far too fluid. Liquid dripped off the tips of the bones to rejoin the mass of shadow making up the rest of Eva’s body.
There was more to the shadow. Shalise couldn’t see it very well. Eva’s body stood in the way to obscure most of it.
Without a word or glance at the others, Eva walked out the door and disappeared around the side of the women’s ward. Shalise didn’t see her pass by the window, so either she was walking straight out or she had chosen to rest against the wall.
Zoe started to follow, but appeared to change her mind as she set her eyes on Shalise.
Lynn took a step back. She looked over the circle, double checking everything for the hundredth time. Once satisfied, her eyes lit up like they did anytime she used her powers. She started chanting.
Shalise didn’t recognize the words. They weren’t English. Probably–
Latin, Prax confirmed. She could feel an air of dread coming from the back of her mind. I do not think that either of us are going to enjoy this.
Shalise couldn’t get her question out before the pain started.
A tearing, ripping sensation pulled at her back. Prax’s dormant muscles spasmed. They grew under her skin, then shrank, then grew again. Every time, they seemed to be just a little less attached. Her natural muscles strained as they pulled against each other.
All the while, Shalise screamed. Like the rest of her body, her brain felt like it was being torn apart.
Prax’s screams faded in and out of the back of her mind. Unlike her, he needed no air to continue his screams. His vocal chords weren’t wearing and tearing from the stress. His screams came in a constant tone.
Shalise couldn’t say how long it lasted. She was fairly certain that her consciousness lapsed more than once, only to be brought back by the crescendo of pain.
It ended with a sudden thud and a hot, wet, and sticky sensation against her chest.
Shalise slumped forward. The ground was quickly approaching.
She stopped inches away as a pair of arms caught her and pulled her into a tight embrace.
“It’s alright,” Lynn’s voice came faint and distant. “Shal, you’re okay. It worked.”
Shalise blinked twice, trying to clear her mind of the lingering pain. She was pressed tight against Lynn’s body, her head resting on the older woman’s shoulder.
Behind her back, Prax–red skin, horns, bulking body and all–lay face down on the ground.
Eva stood over him, nudging him slightly with her foot while Zoe stood to the side with her dagger out. When Eva had reentered the room, Shalise couldn’t say. She had no idea how long that ritual had lasted. Her muscles screamed at her as if she had been running three marathons in a row, but it had only felt like a moment or two.
A splattering of red and black blood lay about between Shalise and Prax.
Seeing Prax, Shalise’s eyes felt heavy. She tried to keep them open. She wanted to stay awake.
After two more blinks, she found it too difficult to lift them again.
“We’ll let her rest for a few hours,” Lynn’s voice came, distant and quiet. “Then we can return.”
“Fine with me,” Eva said from even farther away. “Keep watching her and don’t worry. If any of the enigmas attack, I’ll deal with them.” A certain violence entered Eva’s voice, one that Shalise couldn’t recall hearing before. “I hope more of the enigmas attack.”
There was a sound not dissimilar to the cracking of knuckles.
“I could use a little cathartic release at the moment.”
Her voice trailed off into a deep silence as Shalise lost consciousness.
— — —
Nel jumped at Ylva’s words. She had been concentrating.
Sawyer was on the move. At least, she assumed that Sawyer was on the move.
It was just her luck that he would have noticed that his augur shield wasn’t working. After preparing the salt for Eva, she had immediately returned to watching him.
He had been in the middle of surgery on the little girl when Nel got to her altar. While the girl had torn off the violet-colored organ attached to his hand, there were still traces of it left. Veins, purpler than they should be on a person, bulged from his skin.
He didn’t seem to pay it much mind, choosing to focus on the surgery. In just a single half hour, he had done something that caused everything to go dark.
Likely by repairing whatever he had done with Nel’s eyes.
But all was not lost. After a few minutes of experimentation, Nel found them again. She couldn’t actually see them–anything within a few mile radius just vanished from her sight. But she could monitor that blotch of darkness. The edges of it moved around. Not much, it presumably moved as the little girl moved.
Still, it allowed Nel to track their general movements, if not their exact position.
Five days after Sawyer had repaired the girl, they had started moving north. Not quickly. They made frequent stops in areas that held tiny towns. Perhaps ones that were just large enough to have a motel or some other hostel.
After three days of travel, they had crossed the Nevada border into southern Idaho.
Nel had a feeling that she knew their final destination, even if they weren’t heading towards Brakket Academy in a straight line.
She had been hoping that Eva would be up to enact their revenge on Sawyer sometime before Ylva closed off her domain, but that didn’t seem to be all that likely anymore.
Nel glanced up at Lady Ylva and gave her a resigned nod.
“Shall I stay here? Or do you need me somewhere specific?”
Ylva stared. She didn’t blink or tilt her head to either side, she just stared in silence.
Anyone else might have missed it, but Nel knew her mannerisms well enough after a year and a half of being constantly in her presence.
Lady Ylva was confused.
“You wish to stay?”
Ice cold fear gripped Nel’s heart. This was it. She had allowed herself to grow complacent–comfortable even–as Lady Ylva’s aide.
Now she was being thrown away. Dismissed.
Nel could feel her breath quickening.
No. Not killed. Sister Cross had tried to kill her. Discretely, true, but the evidence was plain to see from her position.
If Lady Ylva wanted her dead, she would be dead. There were no superiors to hold Lady Ylva accountable for the death of an augur. No one to complain about all the effort it took to replace an augur.
But Ylva was sending her back to Earth?
Nel wouldn’t miss it. She hadn’t stepped outside of Ylva’s domain more than three times in the past year and not a single one of those times had anything good happened. Generally, it was the exact opposite.
No. Nel wanted to stay.
Nel’s eyes flicked from Lady Ylva’s face to just over her shoulder.
Alicia stood a step behind Ylva, still wearing the dark robes that Nel wore. Her eyes were narrowed in Nel’s direction, but her face was otherwise impassive.
Had she been asked to stay in place of Nel? Or had she chosen to stay?
Was it a choice?
“I want to stay with you,” Nel blurted out.
Lady Ylva nodded. A faint smile touched just the very edges of her lips.
That had been the expected response? Or it was a test?
Nel sagged in her seat at the altar as the tension drained from her body. She spent a moment trying to get her hyperventilating under control.
“Very well,” Lady Ylva said, taking no apparent notice of Nel’s distress. “Gather everything that cannot be left behind. Join Us in the throne room after.”
Nel’s breath hitched in her throat. She glanced up with confusion in her eyes.
Lady Ylva had already turned. Her long platinum hair and low-cut dress swung in the air, trailing after her as she left the room.
Alicia shot a look before turning to follow. Nel wasn’t quite certain what to make of it. Amusement? Ire?
With every passing day, Nel found herself liking the other former nun less and less.
Maybe I misunderstood the question. She was suddenly extremely relieved that she hadn’t said that yes, she wanted to stay.
But she had been left with an order.
Nel did not have much. She came to Ylva with nothing but the tattered remains of her Elysium Order habit. Everything she had, everything she wore, everything she ate, all of it was provided by Lady Ylva.
Aside from a few spare changes of clothes, there was only one thing that she could think to take.
Most had containers already. Only the one she had most recently been using, Sawyer’s hand, was out of its jar. Nel wasted no time in sealing it up and dropping it into a bag.
She glanced around, ensuring she had everything. Several strands of hair, Sawyer’s hand, the little girl’s friend’s blood. She hesitated in taking the brass sphere that the devil had given her, but decided that throwing away a fetter wouldn’t do anyone any good, even one as disturbing as that.
And that was everything Nel could think to bring. She headed out to the main throne room.
Lady Ylva stood near the exit doors alongside Alicia and one of the professors.
It took a moment to understand the reason for the professor’s presence. Her apartment had been connected to Ylva’s domain as well.
“Ready,” Nel said as she ran up to the group.
“Let Us proceed,” Ylva said, moving to leave her domain.
The two former nuns and the professor all followed her out, with the professor watching Ylva like a hawk.
Once everyone was outside, Ylva gripped the handle of the door and swung it shut. She held on for just a moment longer than necessary.
“It is done.”
“That’s it?” Zoe asked, her voice carrying a hint of disbelief.
Ylva gestured one arm towards the door.
Accepting the wordless invitation, Zoe stepped up and opened the door once again.
Gone was the gigantic room, the pit, the throne, and the storm clouds overhead. What lay behind the door was indistinguishable from any other cell block in the compound.
“What do you intend to do now?” Zoe asked without taking her eyes off the interior of the building.
“The necromancer is still at large. We would stay near your presence until his termination.”
“Because of the ring,” Zoe said, thumbing the black band on her finger. With a slight jump in her stance, she tore her eyes from the cell block and stared at Ylva. “Juliana still has hers. She’s been gone all this time.”
“Juliana has had Our personal attention for a time,” Ylva said, holding up one placating hand. “For the time, We may send Ali to watch over her. It would be preferable were she to return.”
Alicia opened her mouth just a hair. She snapped it shut in an instant.
Nel didn’t much care. She was too busy staring into what used to be Ylva’s domain.
There was something that she had forgotten.
She could almost feel the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.
With a heavy heart, Nel wondered if she would ever see Lady Ylva’s bath again.
— — —
That was the only word that Riley Cole could think of to describe her situation.
Perhaps not her situation, but the situation of the Elysium Order.
They were an upstanding organization that hunted down the evils that lurked in the night. Anything that threatened human life or livelihood. Vampires, undead, zombies, liches, ghosts, ghouls, revenants, wights, wraiths, and even mummies. All fell in the name of protecting the living.
And yet, they had wound up a laughing stock. The inquisitors had been decimated. The few survivors claiming that a literal god of Death had stripped them of their powers. Scattered incidents around the country involving demons had further hampered their efforts to keep the living alive.
They had tried to keep the theft of the Obelisk of the Pure Moon quiet. The thieves had the gall to return it. When they did, they ensured that everyone in the area knew it was there.
Luckily, a stone obelisk with a handful of fireworks going off around it down the road from the cathedral had been passed off as a simple curiosity. No one who saw understood the significance of the obelisk.
Riley recognized the demon that had perished in the cathedral. As had a number of the Charon Chapter nuns. It had been standing on the roof overlooking their warehouse the night of the riot.
It all stemmed from here. Prioress Cross–Former Prioress Cross had antagonized the wrong people at Brakket City. They had spent far too much time around the city itself when they should have been hunting the necromancer. Their augur had been tied up spying on students rather than searching through caves, warehouses, and other necromancer haunts.
Given the demon infestation in the area, Riley could see the logic behind it.
But they were not demon hunters. They were undead hunters. Former Prioress Cross had failed to follow regulations. If she had truly been concerned about the demons, she should have put out the word for hunters to find. Otherwise, they should have stuck to hunting the necromancer and left the demons well enough alone.
Riley had lost more than one good friend to Cross’ madness.
The demons were the ones embarrassing the Elysium Order as a whole, now.
That could no longer stand.
“The tip was right. I would call this a ‘cursed city.'”
One of her companions–Riley restrained a sneer at thinking the word–had his head tilted towards the sky.
She couldn’t actually see his face. His entire body was encased in an armor that was, frankly, medieval. There was nothing to see of his face, the thin slit for his eyes was not wide enough to let any usable amounts of light inside. Faint clouds of mist curled off his armored back in the light breeze.
“We could have found this place on our own,” the woman at his side commented in a sing-song voice. She arched her back in a long stretch, jutting out an indecent chest as she moved. “This sky will be the talk of the nation if it isn’t already. I doubt that even the mundane news will leave it alone.”
Riley frowned. The woman had hardly glanced at the sky. Her sole eye had focused on the town below them and nothing else.
“Shall I cancel the payment?”
“Clement!” She slapped his armored side with her bare hand, not even wincing despite the loud noise it made. “If we don’t pay those who tip us, word gets out and we don’t get more tips. It’s bad for business!”
“I require no payment,” Riley said.
“Not you,” the woman snapped. Her head turned to face a single green eye in Riley’s direction.
Riley was somewhat glad that a simple black eye patch was covering the other side of her face. The sole eye had more than enough ridicule aimed in her direction.
“We only pay the first one to tip us.” Her sing-song voice took on a mocking tone. “Shouldn’t have sat on the information for a year.”
Riley started. That last word had come out harsh and throaty.
“You should leave,” the armored man said. “Gertrude and I can handle this. You’ll only get in the way.”
Narrowing her eye at the man, Riley said, “I’m not about to–”
“Let her stay,” she said, back in her sing-song voice. “She can watch.” Gertrude shoved one hand through her light red hair. Her green eye leveled back at Riley, cold and hard. “Someone has to show them how it’s done.”
Clement’s armor failed to make a single noise as he shifted where he stood. “Plan?”
“Investigate, poke, and prod. Find weaknesses, find domains, poke harder. Disconnect domains. Draw them out. And exterminate every last one of the bastards.” She looked up at the armored helmet with a disgusting smile on her face–it came to a sharp point in the center of her face with the corners drawing up far too high on her cheeks. “The usual.”
“Usually there are far less demons around.”
That already disgusting smile twisted into a too-wide grin.
Riley shivered as the two went back to staring over the edge of the cliff. The woman’s eye held a dangerous glint that forced her to take a step back. The two were absolutely insane. She had warned them about the devil and the death god.
And these two were excited. At least the woman was.
Taking up the armored man’s offer of leaving wasn’t looking like such a bad idea any longer.