“Oh no,” Eva groaned.
At first she had thought it was mere coincidence. People around school, especially those in her age group, often went to the same locations. As such, it shouldn’t be too odd if some people followed her around all day. They visited the same classrooms or simply had class nearby.
However, most people wouldn’t walk around the school after class had ended for the day. Neither would they make three complete circuits without finding their destination. Even if they were from a foreign school.
Eva sighed, coming to a stop in the middle of the hallway. It had been a good two weeks since she had gotten the Elysium trainees to stop following her around. A time that, unfortunately, had been too good to last.
She considered just confronting them in the hallway and finding out what they wanted as soon as possible. The thought never made it past the consideration stage. Other people wandered the hallways even though school was out for the day, visiting clubs or professors. Depending on what they wanted to harass her about, Eva didn’t want the whole school knowing about it.
So, with a sigh, she continued down the hallway until she found an empty classroom. She lingered outside just long enough to make sure the two girls saw her enter.
Arachne wasn’t around this time to give her support. She, Irene, and Juliana were already out at the ritual field. Apparently Juliana wanted to get out there early for a quick sparring session with Arachne. Irene didn’t have much else to do and still didn’t know the way properly even after three days of heading out there, so she had followed the two of them.
Eva had decided to stay behind and see if she couldn’t recruit anyone else to help out. Irene hadn’t been quite the force multiplier that Eva had hoped she would be. Overall, work was proceeding faster. However, she wasn’t quite up to Juliana’s level.
Not to mention Saija’s almost constant distractions.
Though, Juliana offered a number of tips to try to help Irene carve out segments faster. Which made Eva quite happy as she hadn’t even been lying when she said it could count as training for the next event.
Who she might recruit to help out, Eva couldn’t decide. Irene hadn’t reacted all that well to being told the world might be ending. Someone else might react worse. That pretty much limited Eva to people who knew her decently well. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby… and that was about it. Only one of whom were earth mages. Jordan. And Eva wasn’t so sure about bringing him in on the project given his ties to Dean Anderson.
Anderson might not be too happy with her creating a large ritual circle on school grounds. Especially not during this whole tournament. People might get nervous about Brakket if word got out about it all. So he was out.
Maybe Genoa. She already knew that Void was under attack and such. Of course, she could probably wave a hand and turn the entire field into the proper ritual circle all at once. Her drastic help would be appreciated.
Unless she tried to stop the ritual circle. In that case, she could wave her hand and destroy all the hard work they had put into it thus far. Eva hadn’t brought it up with Juliana yet and she couldn’t guess at how Genoa might react on her own.
But, finding help would have to wait until later.
Eva took a seat on top of a table, crossed her legs and her arms, and waited.
The door burst open an instant later, slamming into the wall, bouncing off the doorstopper, and almost smacking the first angry nun right in her face.
Shoving the door back with slightly less force, she continued into the room as if nothing had happened. Her eyes flared white as she marched up to Eva with her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
Anise followed the first nun inside. Unlike her companion, Anise was almost tiptoeing. After her initial glance at Eva, her eyes drifted down and to one side, avoiding eye contact.
Chris—if Eva remembered the name Anise had given for her companion the other night—was obviously the more agitated of the two and the more dangerous, so she chose to focus on her. The lightning crackling over the nun’s clenched fist had Eva sitting slightly straighter. She was almost wishing that she could freely use blood magic. A shield would be most welcome at the moment.
Blinking out of the way the second the nun moved her hands would have to suffice.
“Alright,” Eva said. “What is it this time?”
“What did you do to her?” Chris asked, voice low and menacing. As menacing as a girl a year older than Eva could get, anyway.
Eva blinked and glanced to Anise…
Who just sighed and shook her head without meeting Eva’s eyes.
“I don’t know what–”
“She,” Chris shouted, thrusting a lightning tipped finger at Anise, “comes in after the event all like, ‘Oh, maybe demons aren’t so bad,’ and ‘Maybe it was all a misunderstanding,’ and ‘I really hate tentacles.'”
“Well, none of that sounds wrong to me. Except, I’ve heard that massages–”
“Of course it is wrong. You’ve poisoned her mind.”
Eva held up a hand, finger in the air. “One point before you continue: I have absolutely no magical abilities that let me alter people’s minds in any way shape or form.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that?” Chris said, thrusting her hands to her hips.
“Well, yeah. Otherwise you wouldn’t be bothering me. I’d make you think I wasn’t here or something. I do have things to do that don’t involve entertaining your outlandish conspiracy theories, after all.”
Chris clenched her teeth. Her arms shook at her side as she struggled with herself.
After a moment of remaining silent, her hands unclenched and she let out a soft sigh. The lightning trails disappeared from her fingertips as the flames in her eyes died down.
“Please,” she said, voice much more subdued. “Please undo whatever you did to her. I’ll do whatever you want, take me instead.”
Eva blinked in confusion. She glanced over to Anise—who was now rolling her eyes—before blinking a second time.
“I told you,” Anise said, stepping forwards and placing a hand on Chris’s shoulder. “She didn’t do anything to me. And I don’t think that demons aren’t so bad.”
Chris ran the sleeve of her shirt across her face.
Is she crying? Eva thought, trying to keep her face as blank as possible. She wasn’t sure what to think about that. Maybe if she had actually done something, she would feel slightly guilty. But she hadn’t.
“Right,” Eva said. She blinked straight past the two nuns, reappearing next to the door. “You two clearly have things you need to work out between yourselves, so I’ll just be seeing myself out.”
“She’s facing an inquest!” Chris shouted before Eva could wrap her hand around the handle.
For a moment, Eva considered ignoring her and continuing on her way. She had already been involved with the Elysium Order enough for a lifetime or two. An inquest sounded particularly troublesome. Though, to Eva’s knowledge, the Elysium Order still had yet to remake an inquisitorial chapter. Whoever was doing the inquisitoring was probably a single individual or small group that hadn’t been part of Ylva’s massacre.
She had a feeling that they were still mad about that. That and the theft of their obelisk. If they were just biding their time until they found a good time to strike, it would probably be best to know about it sooner rather than later.
So Eva turned with a mild sigh. Anise still refused to meet her eyes while Chris was glaring with just as much intensity as she had before. Except her eyes had a slight sheen of liquid over them instead of the previous flames.
“And?” Eva said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What does her inquest have to do with me?”
“They–They want to recall her. Both of us, though I’m not under any suspicion. The entire Elysium Order watched the event the other night. They saw her listen to and take orders from you without significant questioning. She never fought back or tried to make an advantage for herself.”
Eva glanced to Anise with a frown. “As much as I appreciated not being stabbed in the back, that’s her fault, not mine.”
“I know.” Chris looked over her shoulder. “Anise is… a nice girl.”
“That doesn’t sound like a compliment coming from you,” Anise mumbled under her breath.
Chris acted as if she hadn’t heard, not even glancing towards her partner. “But the higher-ups saw what they saw.”
“I still don’t see what this has to do with me. Can’t she just go tell them she isn’t being mind-controlled and be done with it all?”
“You don’t understand. We–People–Students are not normally implanted with the Eye of God. You know about them, right?” she said, tapping at her chest just above where her eye was fused into her skin.
Eva shrugged and nodded her head. “Yeah, they’re how I noticed you two were part of the Elysium Order.”
Chris narrowed her eyes but, after a moment of consideration, did not press the matter. “They’re valuable. Extremely valuable. Almost impossible to grow healthy ones and time-consuming to boot. They can make a mundane human capable of casting magic. Several of them can allow someone to see anywhere on the planet with only a few things being able to stop their sight.
“We were given them while still students specifically to watch you,” Chris said, pointing a finger right at Eva. “To observe you and gather data for the Elysium Order as a whole. All so that we could use them to form better tactics and plans.”
Outwardly, Eva kept her feelings hidden. Her face became a plastic mask with no twitching of her lips or even a slight narrowing of her eyes. She kept her arms crossed. Even her lightly tapping finger continued tapping at the same pace.
But she had half a mind to reach forward and tear the eyes from their chests where they stood.
“If we fail,” she said, voice solemn and slow, apparently failing to notice Eva’s inner feelings. “If they decide to revoke the Eye of God, we won’t just lose access to the Elysium Order magic.”
Eva didn’t ask whether that meant their lives or something else. She didn’t quite trust herself to speak without lashing out at their mission just yet.
“However,” she said, “the higher-ups have grown nervous after watching the event. Sisters who have come into contact with you have had a habit of… going rogue,” she said, almost whispering. “Sister Cross, Sister Heiden, Sister Cole, and, of course, Augur Stirling.”
Eva almost opened her mouth to say that she had no idea who two of those were. But one was probably Alicia. The other… maybe one of the nuns who had been stationed at Brakket Academy during her first year.
“The three would be bad enough on their own. Especially given Sister Cole’s theft of several Elysium Order secrets. Sister Stirling is the one who really set them off on the warpath. Once it came to light that she had lost a small portion of her eyes to a necromancer of all things, they only grew more concerned. Yet they cannot move against her so long as she is with that demon.”
Before the trainee nun could go off on too much of a tangent about Nel, Eva interrupted her with a wave of her hand towards Anise.
“Now they’re worried that she’s falling for my irresistible charms?” Technically, Ylva had been the one collecting all the nuns.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Anise grumbled with a mild glare. She only kept her gaze up for a few moments before sighing and dropping her eyes back to the floor.
Maybe she hadn’t been intentionally avoiding Eva’s gaze. She could just as easily be depressed to the point of despair.
“Still don’t know why she can’t say that she’s not being mind-controlled. Because she isn’t. None of them are. Sister Cross has a kid she’s worried about. And Nel? She’s just paranoid that the Elysium Order is trying to kill her. Which seems fairly reasonable, actually, given what I know about your Order. Alicia… well, she did get her head screwed with. But that wasn’t me. I was mostly dead at the time.”
The two glanced at each other, Chris looking mildly smug at the admission.
“I should be able to do just that,” Anise said. “The question is whether or not they’ll believe me.”
“So what, you need proof or something? Should we go pretend to fight where some cameras can see us?”
“It isn’t that simple,” Chris said. She tapped at her chest again. “It isn’t sapient, but it will definitely be able to tell the difference between serious fighting and a mock spar.”
“Surely your superiors don’t want a school associated with the Elysium Order to be caught actually trying to murder another student, even if it is an enemy. Otherwise you would have killed the vampire by now.”
Eva walked back around the pair as Chris shifted uncomfortably where she stood. So long as she was actually going to stick around for a short time, she might as well relax in a proper chair. It didn’t seem like either of the nuns were going to attack her.
Still, what an annoying situation.
The Elysium Order really needed to learn when to quit. She had thought they learned after Ylva destroyed their inquisitors. Obviously not. They had just been biding their time. Though Eva did admit that she might have kicked their hive when she stole the obelisk.
“So,” Eva said as she sat down and kicked her feet up on the table. “What do you want from me? I’m not mind-controlling her, so don’t ask me to make that better.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Anise said with a shake of her head. “I told Chris. She’s just being unreasonable.” Pinching her fingers around the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, Anise turned towards the door. “This is my problem.”
Chris slapped Anise’s hand away as she faced her. “They’re going to excommunicate you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They don’t want another traitor to go turncoat in the middle of a mission. They won’t take the chance.”
“You don’t know–”
Anise stumbled backwards, hand pressed to her cheek.
Chris nursed the palm of her hand as she glared up at Anise.
“You need to take this more seriously.”
“You think I’m not?” Anise shouted, voice hard. “You think I want to go before the inquisitors? You think I want to get this eye torn out of my chest? They aren’t going to be nice about it. They weren’t nice putting it in. Hell, I’ll be lucky if they don’t kill me.”
Eva, who had been sitting still and silent while they had their little fight, blinked. “Seriously? Kill you? For not attacking me during a friendly event between schools? I wasn’t even the one to suggest the truce among our group. That was Emily.”
Chris looked back with a start, almost like she had forgotten Eva was in the room. After a short stare, she shook her head. “The Elysium Order is very black and white. An ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mindset.”
Eva opened her mouth to argue, but a little consideration had her stopping and snapping her mouth shut. Nel had been convinced that the Elysium Order was out to kill her. Or at least Lynn Cross. Then the inquisitors had attacked the prison and made an attempt to get to her while in the hands of Sawyer. Nothing had happened since, but Ylva had effectively taunted the entire Order.
Of course, Nel was an augur. She was somewhat special.
But then, Lynn Cross had probably not been hiding halfway around the world in the middle of nowhere because she had been worried that Eva would be coming after her. And, by her own admission, the Elysium Order had locked her up before she managed to escape.
So really, Eva had no argument against them trying to kill Anise, though she felt locking her up would be more likely though still extreme.
“You know what?” Eva said after a moment. “I’ve got someone you might like to speak with.”
— — —
Nel walked alongside Ylva, each step slow and somber. She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead. It wasn’t easy. Everywhere she looked, something strange waited in the shadows. Things that she couldn’t quite name, but were there, watching her. It had been that way ever since Ylva tapped her on her forehead.
Ever since Alicia’s death.
To her left, an elderly man sat patiently on a bench. A faint ghost of a smile lingered on his face as he watched the people around him.
The people around him were far less serene. Paramedics ran around his body, sprawled out before the park bench. One placed a clear mask over his mouth and began squeezing down on a flimsy plastic tube attached to the mask. Two more helped him up on a stretcher while a third attached medical electrodes to his chest.
Yet the elderly man continued to watch with his peaceful smile.
To his side, a short girl only ten or eleven years old with brilliant gold hair watched with him, absolutely undisturbed by the body lying at their feet. She turned to him and opened her mouth. Soundless words passed over her lips.
“The reaper is offering a choice,” Ylva said, coming to a stop a short distance away. “His time is not yet up. He may choose to return to his body or he may pass on his remaining time to a close relative. His wife or children. Even grandchildren.”
Despite Ylva wearing her sheer dress and Nel having strange robes on, nobody glanced in their direction. People who happened to look in their direction failed to notice. Their eyes merely slid off the two to look at whatever they wanted to see. Which was probably a good thing if they wanted to avoid people panicking. It was broad daylight out. As such, Ylva wasn’t just a giant woman. She was a skeleton.
Only the young girl managed to see the two of them. She gave a light nod of her head towards Ylva as she spoke to the elderly man.
“A choice very few receive.”
“Theoretically,” Nel said, “couldn’t someone achieve very long lives if others, maybe relatives or friends, figured out what happens with near death experiences and the offer made? They could decide to pass before their times and offer the rest of their lives all to one person. I mean, they would be sacrificing their lives, but I imagine some people out there would be willing to do so for others.”
“A choice very few receive,” Ylva said again, though she had a slight smile on her face as she glanced towards Nel. “There are systems in place to prevent abuse. And, should he return to his body, he will remember nothing of his choice or near death aside from a few faint delusions.”
“I see,” Nel said, voice soft.
They continued watching for another few minutes. As his body got placed on a stretcher and loaded up in the ambulance, the little girl—the reaper—moved over to sit on the bench to his side. His faint smile slowly faded as she spoke a few more words.
“What is he unhappy about?”
“His body causes him near-constant pain. At the moment, he is feeling none of it. However, he makes a great deal of money for his family, giving his children and his wife comfortable lives. At the same time, he won’t always be making money. At some point in the future, his life may become a burden on his descendants.”
Ylva turned her body fully to face Nel.
“Being asked to make such a choice is not easy for most mortals. Even now, essentially dead, he does not truly comprehend what lies beyond life. Compounding the problem, he does not have long to make the choice. The reaper has given him an ultimatum. He must choose before his body reaches the hospital.”
Nel let out a small breath.
When she had asked about reapers and valkyrie, she had thought that she would be training. Learning to magically fight at a higher level or otherwise increasing her magical abilities.
Ylva had nothing of the sort in mind.
Instead, they had gone on field trips. Every few days, Ylva would announce that they were off someplace. She never gave any warning. The time of day varied. They had gone in the middle of the night and they had gone at noon. Ylva never cared if Nel was sleeping or eating or bathing.
And Nel hadn’t complained once.
A beep from her pocket broke Nel out of her reverie. Her brand new cellphone—one Zoe had gifted her—had a new message.
“It’s Eva,” Nel said after reading through the contents. “Not an emergency, but she has people who want to talk to me.”
The phone beeped again.
“Us,” she corrected.
“Very well,” Ylva said. “We have seen enough. Tell her that We will meet with her.”
Nel nodded and sent back a message. Less than ten seconds later, her phone beeped again.
“She’s currently at the school but can meet us anywhere.”
“The school will suffice.”
After sending the message, Nel looked up. The old man had yet to make his decision. Or perhaps he had made it and was just enjoying a pain-free existence for the moment, unfettered by his body or what lay beyond. She thought to ask Ylva if they might stay long enough to hear his response.
His choice was obviously not the reason they had come out here.