Author Archives: TowerCurator

About TowerCurator

Author of Void Domain

Vacant Throne Update

Hello again!

Dead Language has finished its run of seven chapters, the first (and only at this time) arc. It’s a military fiction I announced some time ago now.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today!

Vacant Throne is a new project that should be live right now over on the Preview Site. It follows Alyssa Meadows as she returns home from a night at the gym to find her home being robbed. If that wasn’t bad enough, things take a turn for the strange when an angel appears before her and whisks her off to a strange world filled with magic and monsters. There will be two chapters a week following the Monday and Thursday update schedule that Void Domain had.

This has the highest likelihood of any of my projects to become a new web serial. After about fourteen chapters, I think I will give it is own site, similar to this one, and continue publishing chapters there. Why wait? Well, first I want to make sure nothing changes and that I truly want to do this. Secondly, the initial chapters are rather short and I’d like there to be some meat for first time readers to sink their teeth into. Since anyone reading this likely read through Void Domain, I figured I would post and offer the chance to read from the very beginning. I will make another post if and when a proper site goes live for it, so if you want to wait until then, no harm done.

Anyway, if you are a Patreon, the first 14 chapters are available as an epub. Have fun reading!


Dead Language Update

Hi everybody! It’s been a while. This is just a quick note for if you haven’t subscribed to my non Void Domain preview and update site: I am releasing seven chapters (a complete story arc) of a work titled Dead Language. There will be one chapter released a week on Thursday for seven weeks. If you’re a Patreon, there is both an epub and a pdf of the entire seven chapters up right now.

Will there be more after those seven chapters? Don’t know yet. We’ll see how it goes.

Dead Language is a “””realistic””” military fiction set in the (mostly) real world. It deals with a mercenary group traveling around, doing jobs and maybe getting into some wider intrigue and/or conspiracies. I will make a note that this is somewhat stylized, hence the quotation marks around ‘realistic’. People in the story might be better at their jobs or more eccentric than anyone in real life has any right to be.

Anyway, do give it a shot. And I post updates every month over on my other site on other projects I’m currently working on, so if you’re interested, there should be RSS buttons or updates via Twitter or what have you.


010.037

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Devon stalked around the prison courtyard, staring at the ritual circle drawn out where there had once been a basketball court. Eva’s treatment circle. Likely the very final one. He doubted that it was truly necessary. Taking a sample of her blood and examining it with a few spells, Devon had found nothing human about her. He couldn’t be sure if it had been her actions during the ritual—which he hadn’t seen with his own eyes—or if Void had interfered after pulling her down to Hell. Or perhaps it was merely some sort of metastasis. In the time since the last treatment, Eva’s body could have cannibalized itself in a benign or even beneficial manner. The whole reason for the delay had been because her body hadn’t been stable at the appointed time for her treatment.

However, this was his project. Though it had encountered a great number of bumps along the road, he intended to see it through.

If Eva didn’t require this final treatment, then it would harm her no more than Catherine had been harmed by her own experiments. Not that Devon was particularly concerned for Eva’s well-being.

Devon glanced to the side. A young boy sat in a wheelchair, arms and legs atrophied to the point where they were little more than skin stretched over his bones. Devon didn’t know exactly what was wrong with the boy. Some disease that kept his body from properly processing food and nutrients. He didn’t know the boy’s name. Frankly, he didn’t want to know. His biggest failure in Eva was becoming far too personable with her. Though he thought of her as a test subject, that had merely been a title he had attached to the person.

This boy was nothing but a test subject.

Truly, Devon didn’t know if he would survive. His health, despite his emaciation, was better than that of the other subject Devon had brought in not so long ago. Not by much. The treatment, especially the first treatment, was harsh. Eva had come though alright as a stroke of luck; hale and hearty, her only problem was that she had run away from home—police tended to worry more over healthy people than those already on Death’s doorstep. An easily remedied problem by simply ordering her to attend school and to not raise suspicion much.

So he already had a potential new subject lined up. Since tying up the mess with the Powers, summoning demons was once again possible. He was free to summon entirely new demons with no relation to or even knowledge of Eva. Or anyone around Brakket for that matter.

But first, Eva.

Devon scowled as he stared at the three– No– Four demons. Catherine knelt in one circle. For the other two slots, Devon hadn’t bothered with summoning any demons. The carnivean took one spot. The waxy ruax took the other, forced into its place by Devon’s domination. He didn’t want to use the ruax, and hadn’t used any dominated demon for any previous treatments, because of the concentration it took to keep it sitting still. Concentration he could be using to watch Eva.

There wasn’t all that much to watch. At the end of her previous treatment, Eva had the beginnings of horns poking out of her forehead, right around her hairline. Two bumps on her back that might have been the sprouting of wings had manifested as well. As of right now, several minutes into the ritual, neither had changed much at all. Her hair, short though it was, still covered what might be horns. Nothing had poked through yet. Her back was utterly smooth without even the hint of budding bat wings.

Again, Devon wasn’t sure whether that was the machinations of Powers, something with the ritual involving Powers, or even Eva herself. For all Devon knew, Eva had been capable of sprouting horns and wings for months and simply hadn’t noticed. Just as Catherine hid them from view while masquerading as a human, Eva could be keeping them suppressed.

Which all cycled back into his conclusion that Eva wouldn’t become a proper demon until she thought of herself as such completely and thoroughly. An idea Devon had considered was that she had nubs of horns simply because she thought that her treatments should have some alteration to her physical features. Her teeth and tongue were definitely inhuman, but they were different. Something easily hid simply by not opening her mouth.

Her eyes would have been a different matter entirely. Devon had been expecting them to change and had even gone out of his way to get her contact lenses that she could use to hide said changes. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen how that played out. Her eyes had been plucked from her skull and eventually ended up replaced by the carnivean’s eyes.

All the more reason to try again on a less adventurous test subject. Though to be true to the original tests, he would have to use the original treatment circle. However, it would be far easier to keep a test subject contained for two years while he used the version developed with Catherine’s aid rather than the one he had started Eva out on several years ago.

Slowly, the ritual circle wound down. The light in the lines of the circle started to dim and peter off. None of the demons looked altered at all, not that the three of them should have changed.

The moment the ritual finished, Devon uttered a few words and banished the ruax back to Hell. It had served its purpose well enough over the past few months, but the strain on Devon’s mind while he was dominating it simply wasn’t worth the effort anymore. The only reason he had put up with it as long as he had was because he hadn’t been able to summon a replacement. That and the solitary confinement building offered breaks where he could release his domination and rest for a short time.

He considered banishing the carnivean as well.

Later. Its… dismissal from his services would need a bit of care due to their contract.

Instead, Devon stalked around the circle. Though his focus was on Eva, he paid a little attention to Catherine as the succubus got to her feet.

“I can’t tell the difference between now and before the ritual,” she whispered as she moved closer to Devon.

“Eva didn’t get stronger? More demonic?”

“I didn’t say that.” Catherine crossed her arms, curling her fingers over her elbows. “Would you notice the difference before and after dumping a glass of water into an ocean?”

Devon ran his fingers through his beard, making an idle note that he should shave or at least trim it one of these days; it was starting to get out of hand. In the center point of the ritual circle, Eva lolled around. Still conscious, which Devon found slightly surprising. Treatments usually made her pass out. It looked like a precarious thing though, as if she could topple over at any moment.

For a few moments, he just watched her struggle with herself. She slowly stabilized into a more lucid state. Her eyes grew sharper and the stubs of her limbs sprouted black blood to support her. It took several minutes, but she eventually clambered to her feet.

“Any changes?” Devon asked as soon as she looked steady enough.

Rather than answer, she moved one of her liquid hands to her forehead and started caressing it. Not the horns hidden in her hair, but just above her eyebrow like she had a headache. “A bit woozy,” she said, taking in a deep breath of air. “Did it finish properly? Or did you interrupt it.”

“No interruptions.”

“Oh good. I was a bit concerned that you had stopped it out of fear for my wellbeing. Glad I didn’t die again.”

Devon narrowed his eyes, glancing aside to Catherine only to receive a shrug. “That was a concern?”

“Had I passed out fully, yes.” Eva shook her head and pulled her hand away from her head. Somehow, she managed to avoid leaving a big streak of blood running down her face. “Still no natural wings,” she said with a halfhearted glance behind her back. “Or tail or horns, for that matter.”

“Feel any different?”

“Not particularly,” she said, rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck. “Aside from the headache. That will probably go away on its own, right?”

“Probably,” Devon grumbled. His earlier theory looked like it was right. For a moment, he considered asking her if she could try to grow wings and such, but eventually shook his head. “Blood,” he said simply. There were still a few tests to do before he completely signed off his research.

Eva held out her arm. A narrow cylinder stretched out of her wrist, roughly the same size as a vial. With her other hand, she plucked it off and tossed it to Devon. “Break it open if you want liquid blood.” Her arm had no evidence that anything had come from it, returning to the slowly churning black liquid that it had been since her return from Hell.

It was a neat trick, but… “I prefer blood untouched by your blood magics.”

“Not a single drop of my blood is ‘untouched’ right now. Nor will it be for the foreseeable future. You’ll just have to make that work.”

Devon grumbled under his breath, but pocketed the false vial anyway. He had expected something like that. The way she used her blood as limbs meant that there wasn’t much in her that couldn’t be used.

“So when is my next treatment? Three months? Or another long delay?”

“Next treatment?” Devon curled his lips back into a sarcastic smile. “What next treatment? You’re done. Congratulations. You’re a demon, Eva.”

“What– But– That can’t– I don’t even have horns,” she finally said after sputtering for a minute. For emphasis, she waved her hand around just above her head.

“I can see the obvious, girl. I expect they’ll grow in over time—perhaps all at once far off into the future.”

“I don’t feel like a demon. I’m just… me. Shouldn’t there be some big… I don’t know. Something.”

“What. Want a birthday party?” Devon snorted. “I don’t do parties. Ask the succubus. She’ll be happy to oblige.”

Eva blinked and glanced towards Catherine, who blinked and glanced towards Devon. Both spoke at the same time.

“What?” “What.”

“Perhaps not a birthday party, but I expected you to be ecstatic over Eva. Aren’t you wanting to use her in your own treatments?”

A certain hunger lit up in Catherine’s eyes as she slowly nodded her head. Looking back to Eva, she said, “That is a good point. Perhaps later, however. After everything, I think I’ve earned a few days rest. Besides, I might have to devise something special for Eva. Yes,” she said, starting to walk away. “Something special indeed.” She snatched up her cell phone from where it lay on a chair just outside the treatment circle.

Devon turned, not quite to follow her—she was heading back towards the women’s ward building. He only stopped when Eva called out to him.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“Back to my building,” he grumbled. “I’m not abandoning you. Not just yet. If you have any problems, I’d like to know about them before I get too invested into another test subject,” he said as he wrapped his hands around the boy’s wheelchair handles.

Eva, who had hand outstretched from when she had called to him, let it drop to her side as Devon started wheeling the boy away. She stayed right in the center of the circle, just standing there. Even the carnivean passing by to follow after Devon didn’t cause any reaction in her.

He turned once, then twice until he reached the iron door to his cell block. He had to step around the wheelchair to open the door before returning back to the other side to push it through. Annoying, but his newest test subject couldn’t run away so long as it was bound to a wheelchair.

All the while, he considered Eva’s situation. Plans ran through his mind, possibilities and variables as well. Had he missed anything important? Was there a need to do another treatment? Some of his questions would be answered after he finished examining Eva’s blood, but for the moment, he couldn’t think up any reason to speak with her again barring sudden problematic developments in her physiology.

“Is that what’s going to happen to me? Are my arms and legs going to be like that?”

Devon blinked. It took him a moment to realize where the noise was coming from. The boy. His test subject. “No,” he said. Immediately, he regretted his words. If, as he had all but confirmed with Eva, the transformation was at least partially mental, he shouldn’t be coloring its expectations with absolutes. He probably shouldn’t be speaking to it at all, but he had already broken that rule. “Or rather, probably not.

“But who knows. Demons come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and… materials.”

— — —

Brakket City wasn’t the sort of place that normally drew much attention. It was hardly qualified for its name. Brakket Town was even too big. Located in the middle of nowhere Montana with a population rivaling the most rural of farming communities, it had but one attraction to entice people to visit. Brakket Magical Academy. Brakket Academy or simply Brakket for short.

For the school was the city.

Though given a scholarship that covered many necessities of school life, the students also brought in outside funds. Some things simply weren’t covered by the school. The students acted as a lifeline. Their outside money didn’t allow the city to thrive, it wasn’t enough for that, but it gave the city an intravenous drip while the school administrators worked out a proper revitalization plan.

That plan had probably almost succeeded. With the publicity Brakket had received from the tournament between magical schools, they could have avoided scholarships the following year. Tourism would have grown. Especially from mundane humans expecting to see something supernatural.

Eva leaned back, sitting on a chair in the middle of her domain at the center of Brakket City. A very abandoned city. With the ‘attacks’ and twelve deaths, including four mundane humans, people were giving the city a wide berth. It probably wouldn’t last. Anderson didn’t seem the type to give up. Not with how much he had invested into the school in the first place.

However, the city was silent for the moment.

A silence Eva enjoyed.

There were no necromancers kidnapping, dissecting, and torturing her. No nuns patrolled the streets, looking like they wanted to take her out behind a barn and put her out of her misery. Zombie-like demons weren’t chasing after her and absurdly powerful demons weren’t making everyone’s lives miserable. Demon hunters stayed away, too afraid to enter after so many of their kind had met their end within the city limits. The tournament—a surprisingly less annoying event when stacked up with everything else that had happened—was still going on, just not around Brakket.

Of course, the Powers that be were leaving the city alone as well.

Eva was surprised about that last one. She kept expecting Void to whisper something to her. Maybe promises of power, maybe offhanded insults. Maybe just a quick question about how her day was going.

Her mind remained utterly silent to outside influences.

So Eva leaned back in her chair and stared at the stars with a tall obelisk glowing bright red at her back. She could live out at the prison. Devon and Catherine were both there. But she didn’t really want to. Devon wasn’t a good conversationalist. In fact, with how he had simply walked away from her after her final treatment, she figured that he would be far less willing to entertain her than ever before. Catherine might be more willing to talk, but it would probably revolve around rituals or games.

Eva still didn’t understand the latter and she had been involved with quite enough rituals for a few lifetimes. If Catherine needed help, she would be willing, otherwise Eva intended to stay far away from that branch of magic.

Without any company she wanted at the prison, there was no reason to stay. Her domain could provide anything she wanted at a thought. So long as it was on Earth, she would abuse it to the maximum extent possible.

In order to further that abuse, Eva had started pouring magic into the obelisk once again. She doubted that there would be another sudden explosion of Hell merging with Earth. In pouring magic into the obelisk, she could feel her domain slowly expanding. Her island along with it.

It served two purposes. First, it let her control her surroundings farther out. Eva held no doubts that the current peace would last only as long as other people let it. If she controlled the entire city, it wouldn’t matter how many demon hunters got brave enough to show up or how many necromancers decided that her eyes would make great reagents. Once they stepped on her domain, she would be free to deal with them as she saw fit.

Secondly, Eva could entirely revitalize Brakket City on her own. Obviously, Brakket wasn’t the most ideal of locations for her to attach her domain. She would have preferred Florida, some larger city with plenty of distractions. Until she figured out how to move it, Brakket would have to work. She would make it work. People would be free to live anywhere within her domain. She could build buildings, create food, and so on and so forth. Eva might be a little sneaky about it; food appearing on people’s tables might freak them out. It wouldn’t be much trouble to create a store that endlessly resupplied itself with a variety of products—clothing, food, tools, and anything else she could think of—managed by a construct of her design. She wouldn’t even need it to be permanent. Just something to get people back into town. From there, she could hire real people.

The peace wouldn’t last. Nothing could remain copacetic indefinitely. Eva was counting on it not lasting. She needed bloodstones until her heart healed and for that, she needed people. While she could leave and head to Chicago, Detroit, or anywhere else she was likely to find valid targets for bloodstone creation, she was hesitant to leave.

Arachne would be back. One day, Arachne would be back. The first place she would check for Eva would be in her domain.

Until then, Eva lay back in her chair and counted the stars. She could wait. Arachne would be back. She would wait right here.

END

>>Author’s Notes 010<<

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010.036

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“You really can’t leave?”

Eva shook her head. Taking one step forward, she fell through the asphalt as if it were nothing more than an illusion and splashed into the waters of Hell. Zoe blinked, glancing left and right to try to find out where she went. Eva took a step back before her professor could panic, she moved back onto the island proper.

Which only caused Zoe to jump back with a slight gasp. Closing her eyes momentarily as she let out a short sigh, she said, “You aren’t just blinking away and back, right?”

“I don’t know why I would do that.”

Zoe just shrugged. “That’s what it looked like from my perspective. I haven’t forgotten how you disappeared when we very first met each other.”

The shrug made Zoe’s shoulders rise and fall. Shrugs tended to do that. However, the motion made Eva’s eyes follow her profile down to her missing arm. Eva had seen it before. Obviously. She had formed a cap of her own blood around the end to keep Zoe from bleeding out. Doctors or Zoe herself had managed to remove the blood, but they hadn’t replaced it with a proper arm.

Eva couldn’t say why. She wasn’t a medical professional. Though it had looked like a clean cut, maybe it had been damaged too much. Maybe the wound was cursed. Maybe reattaching an arm wasn’t as easy as slapping the two ends together with some thread and super glue.

Since Zoe hadn’t brought it up, neither had Eva. If she had a more normal set of arms, Eva might have considered chopping off one of her own the way Arachne had done for her. Unfortunately, Eva didn’t really have any arms. Unless Zoe had a bloodstone hidden in her chest somewhere, Eva really doubted that her arms would work properly for anyone but her. They would just make a mess.

Which brought up another problem. She had turned her heart into a bloodstone. While nothing had gone poorly so far, that wouldn’t be the case indefinitely. She needed to find a way out of her entrapment within approximately three months. If she couldn’t make another bloodstone, she would probably die. Her absent heart was regenerating, she could tell that much, but not as quickly as she would have liked. Void had apparently accepted her as a demon, so death wouldn’t be permanent, but it would be annoying. Her choice was to either get to Florida and find some thugs, or to start asking for human sacrifices.

For some reason, she doubted that the latter would go over well with many people she knew.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true. Catherine would likely have no qualms about finding her someone to turn into a bloodstone. However, she would likely be far less discerning of individuals to be sacrificed. Eva would probably end up with someone a bit too innocent for her liking.

Another possibility was to simply locate her dagger. Which didn’t sound like it would be too hard so long as it wasn’t lost to the void of Hell. Unfortunately, she wasn’t exactly in a position to wander around and search for it. Everyone else was busy with their own things in the aftermath of everything that went down.

Alternatively, she could figure out how to create the everlasting bloodstones herself. Which probably wasn’t something she could get done in a mere three months. It was true that she had never sat down and just dedicated three months to researching bloodstones, but she still doubted her ability to do so. That was assuming that she were left alone for three months.

Despite everyone being busy with their own things, Eva had a strange feeling that she would be kept busy. If not with Zoe, Devon, and Catherine, then with the demon hunters that would undoubtedly be arriving now that all the demons and people were gone. Their arrival was almost assured, the question was whether they would search around for any demonic books and beacons or if they would simply try to torch the entire town.

However, Eva doubted that any of them would be quite as tenacious as the hunters she had already killed. And if they stepped onto her domain to attack her, they would find the very world set against them.

Maybe she wouldn’t need to visit Florida for bloodstones after all.

“None of the other remnants have…” She trailed off, glancing around Eva’s domain. “Have done anything like this yet. We need to figure out a method to counteract and dissolve them.”

“I thought Devon said that he would work on that?”

“So he said,” Zoe nearly spat. Apparently, she still didn’t like Devon even though he had closed off the portal to Life, cutting off the flow of enigmas. “It is merely something to keep in mind.”

“I hope he doesn’t come up with a solution that would cancel out my domain,” Eva said, more as musing to herself than to Zoe.

“You are one thing, but imagine if one of those remnants connects to Willie’s domain.”

“Then he would be trapped in his own as I am, unable to properly interact with the outside world?”

“You’re willing to take the chance that a far more experienced demon than yourself will not be able to escape?” Zoe shook her head. “I’m sorry, but that isn’t a chance that I can take. If we can’t be discerning, cutting off all of Hell would be for the best.”

Eva harrumphed, feeling a tinge of mild annoyance even though she fully understood Zoe’s fears. Clasping her hands behind her back, she started heading away from the edge of her domain and towards the center. Towards the buildings that had all been partially destroyed by whatever—the obelisk, apparently; it had been out in the real world as well as her domain before the two connected. Which made Eva wonder if anyone would have been able to see her had she stood right up against it for long enough. Of course, the buildings weren’t still destroyed. Or maybe they were, but they didn’t look it.

Since everything around was within Eva’s domain, she had control over it all. A simple thought restored the destroyed portions of the buildings back to their working state. Shattered glass was whisked away, turned into the sand of her beach. Which then formed back into smooth panes of glass to fill the vacant holes where windows had once been. Brickwork mended itself much the same way. Even the mildly damaged ovens inside the pizza place had all been fixed up.

Her fixing everything didn’t make the people come back, however. Zoe had said that most of the city had been evacuated entirely when the obelisk lit up with only a handful holding out and weathering the metaphorical storm.

“What’s going to happen to Brakket?”

“The academy or the city?” Zoe asked as she walked a step behind Eva.

They weren’t really walking anywhere in particular. There was nowhere to go aside from around the sandy dunes that made up her domain. Eva had considered turning it all into asphalt and cement to match the street and the sidewalk, but found she liked knowing exactly where her domain ended. Had she still had Arachne’s legs and hands, she probably would have done so in an instant. Sand was coarse and rough. It had a strange property where it managed to get in all the nooks and crannies of anything it touched which tended to cause an unpleasant sensation everywhere.

So long as she kept her current limbs solid, sand didn’t bother her much anymore.

“Both,” Eva eventually said.

“Not sure about either in the long term. For now, Anderson made a deal with Nod Complex. They will house and instruct Brakket’s displaced students for the remainder of the year. The remainder of the tournament will be held out in the Nevada desert near their school.”

“That’s still continuing? Don’t you need to be down there to commentate or whatever your job was?”

Zoe gave a wan smile behind Eva’s back. “I’ve been replaced. With Nod being the new hosts, they wanted one of their own people doing the commentating. Likely for the same reason Anderson wanted the tournament and mundane news networks around Brakket in the first place; publicity and money.

“As for the tournament itself, it is still going, though enthusiasm for it has drastically dropped off since the ‘terrorist attack’ on Brakket Academy.”

Eva blinked. Stopping her aimless wandering, she turned to face Zoe. “The what?”

“Brakket Academy’s official position and statements on the New Year’s events are that they were attacks carried out by degenerates and isolationists, designed to drive a wedge between mundane and magical communities. Everything in the sky was an illusion and the monsters were just that, monsters. Released to inspire terror.”

Scratching at her head, Eva lifted an eyebrow. “He knows what actually happened?”

“Wayne and I told him mostly everything.”

“Huh. If I were Anderson and I wanted good publicity, I would have claimed that Brakket Academy, its students and professors, defused a potentially world ending threat.”

Eva sank down into a seat that appeared beneath her, gesturing for Zoe to join her in her own seat. Teacups and a pot of tea molded themselves out of sand on a table between them. A good host offered refreshments, right? And she was technically a host.

Zoe seemed to mull over her thoughts while partaking of the tea, not responding to Eva right away. Eventually, she set her teacup down on the table and folded her hands in her lap. “I think it was a bigger picture situation. Brakket Academy may have received some praise and prestige, but it would have introduced the concept of literal apocalypses into the minds of mundanes who had only just become fully aware of the magical world.”

“He was concerned about panic.”

“Indeed. We spoke afterwards. While I believe it is unlikely, an extreme he mentioned was that mundanes would attempt to completely eradicate magic through killing or destroying magical people, creatures, and items in the hopes that if there was no magic, there wouldn’t be any world-ending situations.”

“A flawed reasoning,” Eva said immediately. “As soon as mundanes tried any offensive action against mages, everyone would go into hiding. It would be quite literally impossible to kill everyone. That’s not even going into the fact that other planes of existence exist and they would have no access to them. The whole spat between Void and Life would have happened regardless of whether mortals knew of their existence or not.”

“You know that and I know that, but frightened people are far harder to convince. Already people are using the incident here to stir up fear mongering and to rally support for actions against mages; mandatory registration, a cataloging of all known magical creatures, restricted sales of wands and other foci, and so on and so forth. That’s not even mentioning more violent actions. There haven’t been any large incidents yet, but…” She shook her head with a long sigh. “I have a feeling that it is only a matter of time.”

Eva leaned back in her chair. That sounded incredibly annoying. While it probably wouldn’t come to pass anytime soon simply because of the red tape involved, Eva would definitely end up on the wrong side of the law should it pass. Solely due to blood magic, entirely discounting the fact that she was a demon. Because she was a demon, however, she was far less dependent on society. She didn’t need sleep, food, or even a focus. Avoiding government registrations wouldn’t be difficult. No different from her living off the grid as she had been between her prison here and the abandoned hospital in Florida.

Thinking about the hospital in Florida had Eva frowning. Not because she missed the place. It was kind of a dump in retrospect. The women’s ward at the prison was far more habitable. Rather, thinking about it had her thinking about Florida in general and her time there with Devon and Arachne.

Though it had been a week and several days, she had still heard nothing from the spider-demon. No sign that Arachne had returned. No word from Void either, not since the ritual. Even before her domain got merged with the real world, it hadn’t said a word to her despite the occasional questions or comments that she shouted out to nothingness.

“I heard a little from Catherine,” Eva said, mostly to distract herself from her thoughts of Arachne. “Shalise is alright, right?”

Zoe nodded her head in the affirmative. “I was still at the circle, but I heard afterwards that she was found confused and apparently couldn’t recall how she arrived in the infirmary, but otherwise unharmed. She’s currently at Nod Complex, finishing her schooling.”

“Juliana’s with her as well, I assume,” Eva said to herself. She had been somewhat hoping that someone would be around to talk to. One of her friends, maybe someone willing to live inside the domain if only to keep her company for the time being while she figured out how to get out of her domain.

Watching Zoe go silent with her lips tightly pressed together made Eva a little uneasy.

“Zoe?”

“Nobody knows where Juliana is,” she said, voice far more terse than it had been just a few moments ago.

“What do you mean, nobody knows? Nel should–”

Zoe shook her head. “She can’t see anything but darkness when she tries to look for Juliana. Though I don’t know how much she had actually tried; Nel and Ylva have been busy running the Elysium Order. Genoa found a note on Juliana’s bed three days after everything that simply stated that Juliana was off in search of adventure, not to worry, and that she would check in from time to time.”

“Just like that?” Eva asked with raised eyebrows, to which Zoe gave a shallow nod. It must have been Zagan. Or related to Zagan at least. According to Juliana, he hadn’t spoken once since the night she summoned him. Something that had Juliana constantly worried about their agreement. Maybe he had said something or maybe she had simply let her paranoia get the better of her.

Either way, Juliana would probably be fine. With Zagan’s power, Eva couldn’t imagine her dying anytime soon. She had probably used Zagan’s power to keep Nel from locating her in the first place. Unless she got it into her head that she couldn’t use Zagan’s power in some attempt to amuse him.

Worrying wouldn’t help, but Eva couldn’t help but worry. A little.

“Nel isn’t the only way to locate someone. Since we know her name and face, we could send a haunter after her. Of course, if she doesn’t want to be found, I doubt anything we do will work.”

“Genoa and Carlos are running themselves ragged,” Zoe said with a sigh. “I’m sure they would try just about anything up to and including summoning a demon.”

“She has the most powerful demon I’ve ever met with her. They shouldn’t worry too much.”

“That might be exactly why they worry. I–” A light beeping from Zoe’s pocket cut her off. She blinked twice, apparently trying to reach for her phone with her missing arm before remembering that she had put her phone in the opposite pocket. “Phones didn’t work in Ylva’s domain,” she said idly as she pulled the phone out.

“I don’t think this place is connected in the same way that Ylva’s domain was. Or even the bit of my domain that was in my dorm room. It was a remnant of killing an enigma, forced onto the world. Catherine was freaking out about it when she realized.”

“Doesn’t that make Hell and Void vulnerable?”

Eva shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think Life is in any position to capitalize on it though.”

Humming a thoughtful hum for a moment, Zoe glanced down at her phone and read through a message. “It’s Wayne,” she said. “He still hasn’t been able to find Serena.”

“Serena is missing too?” Eva said with a frown, leaning forward. “I meant to thank her for intervening with Life’s tentacles. I know her suit got all torn up during the ritual. Hopefully she’s alright.”

“Me too. Despite how Wayne acts, I’m sure he’s concerned as well.”

“Nel can’t locate her either?”

Zoe blinked, tearing her eyes from her phone to look at Eva. “I don’t think Nel has anything of hers to focus on.”

“Ask. We took a road trip together. You know how paranoid Nel is. I’m willing to bet that she snatched a strand of hair that got stuck to the seat just in case she ever needed to use it.”

After taking a long sip of tea, Zoe nodded her head. “I’ll mention it to Wayne. Thank you for the tea,” she said, standing up. “There is still much work to be done, but I should be going. I’ll stop by tomorrow to check in on you. Is there anything you need that I should bring by?”

Eva stood as well. As she did, the tea set in front of them turned into a four-poster bed, an ornate marble bathtub filled with water, and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. “I think I’ll be fine.”

“Then–”

“But, there is one thing I wouldn’t mind if you took with you.” Eva held out a hand, palm down with her fingers curled together. Despite holding her hand out towards Zoe’s only remaining hand, Zoe still started to reach forwards with her severed arm before catching herself. An unintelligible curse escaped her lips as she switched arms, pocketing her phone in the process.

“Can I actually take things you create out of your domain?”

“Not sure. We could try. But this is a bit different, more of a gift for myself than anything.” Eva opened her hand, letting a small black sphere drop onto Zoe’s palm. A red streak shone brightly on one side.

Zoe turned it around, staring at it for a moment before looking up to meet Eva’s eyes. “Your beacon?”

“I consumed my old one to get back after I died. Honestly, I don’t know if this will work. Things are,” she paused to glance around her domain, “a little strange. No harm in trying though. If you just carry it out of here, I can try escaping.”

Zoe rolled it between her fingers for a moment before clasping her hand around it. “I can do that. Might as well see.”

Eva watched, waiting, expecting something to happen as Zoe walked away and crossed the threshold of sand and asphalt. When nothing did, Zoe held up the beacon to show that she still had it before tossing it down the street. It rolled to a stop a short distance outside her domain’s boundaries.

Closing her eyes, Eva prepared to teleport to her beacon.

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010.035

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Finally

Blood flowed out to fill the vacancy where Eva’s legs used to be. Enough time had passed that she could form nearly full legs with the amount of blood that she had. They might have been slightly thinner than Arachne’s legs, but that wouldn’t impact their ability to carry her around in the slightest. After a few more days, she should have enough blood for a proper set of arms and legs.

Eva glanced to the side of her leather seat—modeled after the most comfortable chair in Brakket Academy’s lobby—and checked the time. Seven days since she awoke and began her work on the obelisk.

Aside from the chair, a tall grandfather clock was the sole decoration on her island domain. That she had created, anyway. Obviously the obelisk still stood not far from her chair and the little tree without leaves was still around. She hadn’t tried doing anything with the latter; and for the former, she was still pumping as much of her domain’s magic into it as she could.

Nothing else existed as far as her eyes could see. She hadn’t bothered recreating the alternate women’s ward building. Shelter didn’t do much here. It wasn’t like she would suddenly be caught out in the rain. Eva highly doubted that it would rain in her domain without her permission. Same with wind or temperature. Nothing would change unless she wanted it to change. Not needing to sleep or eat, she didn’t have much use for a bed or kitchen.

Of course, she hadn’t been idle for a full week. Eva had conducted numerous experiments in an attempt to escape Hell; most of her experiments revolved around teleportation. So far, she hadn’t been able to force herself into the tunnel of flesh that normally ferried her between her prison and the Brakket dormitory.

Obviously. Or she wouldn’t be inside her domain.

It wasn’t just that they were unsuccessful, but any attempt at teleportation worked instantly. One moment she was seated in her chair, the next she was falling on the ground on the opposite end of her island having forgotten to make legs first. She didn’t pass through any tunnel. The world didn’t fall away to reveal that blinding white place she saw when Zoe teleported her. Neither did she feel even the slightest sensation of movement like she did after blinking. She was just there.

Unless she tried to teleport outside her domain. In that case, it simply failed. No headaches or running into brick walls like had happened on occasions where she had tried to teleport out of anti-teleportation wards. Just nothing at all.

But now, finally the obelisk was reacting. She had been thinking about diving into another demon’s domain if it stayed inert for much longer.

She stood. The hardened soles of her blood feet pressed into the sand as she walked closer to the obelisk. Moving closer, she could feel an air of magic about it. Much like how wards felt, though far less directed and controlled. At times, the obelisk felt almost full of magic. Only for it to feel vacant a moment later. No matter how full it felt, Eva had never stopped pressing magic into it. Some of that fluctuation might be the magic leeching into the air.

It wasn’t like the ambient magic would harm her. Her domain absorbed it all without issue when the magic haze got far enough away from the obelisk.

While most of the island’s sand was lighter in color—not quite the earthy yellow of normal sand, it was a bit grayer than that—the sand immediately around the obelisk was a darker hue. And it was spreading. Grain after grain of the tan sand turned dark.

A crack echoed off the nothingness in her domain. In an instant, the black sands covered every inch of her island.

Her attention, however, wasn’t on the sand anymore. As soon as the dark sand spread out beneath her feet, she noticed a set of bodies and quite the assortment of rubble appearing around her domain. Four bodies, to be precise. Three demons and a human. One looked like a reject from a wax museum. Another was human save for the thick tentacles on her head. The last demon was the most traditionally demonic of the three, complete with wings, horns, and a spaded tail.

But Eva ignored them for the moment, squatting down near the human. Garbed in a trench coat, he had a long beard that had been a goatee at one point. He really needed to shave it down. A bit of red blood matted it against his face, but the injury wasn’t too severe. He had no internal bleeding, just a fresh cut on his forehead and a couple of bruises. She reached over and poked him in the shoulder. “Devon?”

His eyes snapped open. With a hiss of pain, he closed the one on the same side as his cut. Getting blood in the eye wasn’t much fun. Eva had some first hand experience. His still open eye darted about, only staring at Eva’s face for a moment before glancing over her shoulder towards the obelisk, then around everywhere else as he propped himself up on his elbow.

“Thought you were in Hell,” he said as he pressed his fingers up against his cut.

“I am in Hell. Or… I was in Hell…” Eva trailed off as she glanced around once again. No matter where she looked, she couldn’t see the waters. Buildings had replaced much of her sandy beach. Buildings that looked an awful lot like a bomb had just gone off in the middle of the street.

Then there was the sun in the sky. She had tried to make one earlier, not long after making the grandfather clock, but it hadn’t worked. She wasn’t quite sure why. Perhaps it was because of how difficult it was to visualize the distances between the Earth and the Sun. Either way, there was one up in the sky now, although it was slightly obscured by a few winter gray clouds.

However, all was not normal. While there was a proper sky and buildings—was that a pizza parlor?—the ground was still sand. The obelisk still stood tall not far away. The little tree without leaves was just beyond that.

She slowly stood, conjuring up a set of clothes using her domain’s magic—she hadn’t bothered before, but probably should now if she was back on Earth. Conjuring a black skirt and a white button-up shirt worked perfectly. So did providing a couch identical to that of the women’s ward for Devon to rest on. Yet she could see down the sandy street, past the blown-out buildings. This was definitely Brakket City.

Or some deep delusion she had subconsciously built in her domain.

Frowning, she stepped away from Devon as he started fussing with his eye and approached Catherine. It took more than a poke in the shoulder to wake Catherine up despite her lack of apparent injuries compared to Devon. Dumping a portion of her arm’s blood onto the succubus as one might dump a bucket of water over a sleeping person worked well enough. She started coughing and sputtering as if Eva had gotten it in her mouth and nose despite taking care not to.

Eva pulled back as much blood as she could. It wasn’t a hundred percent of it all, Catherine’s skin and other contaminants prevented that, but it was enough to form her arm back into its proper shape without any noticeable deficiencies.

“Oh my head,” Catherine groaned, flopping over on her back and pressing the palms of her hands to her brow. “I feel like… like someone took the most magically potent wine, filled it with even more magic, then bashed me upside the head with the bottle.”

“How would you even know what that feels like?”

Catherine moved her hands just long enough to shoot Eva a glare. Apparently realizing how undignified and ungraceful she was being, she shot up, moving to a sitting position then standing. She didn’t stay standing for long. Catherine wobbled back and forth, almost toppling to the ground until Eva caught her.

“Are you alright?”

“Were you not listening a moment ago?” she asked with a mild groan. “I’m surprised I’m alive.”

“None of you look particularly hurt,” Eva said as she glanced around. Devon’s small cut aside, everyone looked hale and hearty to her sense of blood. At least, everyone except for the ruax looked normal. It was a bit difficult to get a read on the waxy demon.

Not wanting to hold on to the surprisingly heavy succubus forever, Eva conjured up another chair. The sands around them rose up and formed into a soft leather. Lightly nudging Catherine sent her falling into the seat. One of her wings bent slightly in a way that made Eva wince, but Catherine just leaned forward, rearranged herself, and leaned back again with her wings pressed tightly against her back.

There she sat, once again moving her hands up to rub her forehead. Devon was doing the same thing not far to the side. Maybe he wasn’t fiddling with his cut after all, maybe he had a headache as well. Eva considered waking up the two other demons before realizing that she really didn’t like the carnivean all that much and the ruax would be better off asleep until Devon was feeling positive that he could fully control her.

Unless the ruax was the cause of their headaches. But… no. The ruax’s face was pressed into the sand, half buried even. Devon had said that she required eye contact to work her debilitating ability.

If the ruax did wake up and wasn’t under Devon’s control, Eva was fairly confident in her ability to contain or kill it. With the area around her acting like her domain, as evidenced by her clothing and the seats she had created, she had tools at hand.

Tools that Catherine stared at with a curious look on her face. Her fingers traced over the top of the leather armrest as she inspected its surface. Without any warning, she dug the sharp tip of her nail into the leather and peeled it back to reveal a padding underneath. She plucked some out and stared for a moment more before her red eyes flicked towards Eva.

“What did you do?”

Eva blinked. There was a harsh accusation in Catherine’s voice. If anything, she would have expected a note of thanks for the seat, but apparently that wasn’t a concern at the moment. So Eva shrugged. “Made you a chair. Thought you might want somewhere comfortable to sit rather than the sandy ground.”

A jolt ran through Catherine as she turned to look over the edge of the chair. Eva followed her gaze, but found nothing other than the sand. The obelisk, now dark and back to its smooth obsidian, was the next object of Catherine’s scrutiny. Then the tree, until she finally looked down the road towards Brakket Academy, though the school building wasn’t actually visible from the street.

“We’re in your domain,” she said with a slight note of fear in her voice.

“Something like that, I assume.”

“How? It shouldn’t be possible?”

“Why not? Ylva’s domain was connected to Earth for a year or more. And then there was my dormitory room a while ago. It got connected on accident roughly when the sky first turned purple.”

“Ylva was given permission, was she not?” Eva winced slightly but nodded her head; Ylva’s domain being connected to Earth had been her fault even though it turned out alright in the end. “Your room at the dormitory was given permission by the school, even if it was a vague sort of permission. The other demons residing there were given specifically worded housing permits to prevent them from connecting domains. The same went for me when I was working for Martina.

“Nobody gave you permission for the middle of a street.”

Eva blinked and stared a moment as her mind churned. “A street is public property, isn’t it? I don’t need permission to use it as I see fit.”

Really, Eva didn’t have a clue what was going on. She was taking things in stride as she usually tried to do. If Void decided to drop an obelisk into her domain that let her forcibly connect to Earth as thanks for her fixing everything, she wasn’t going to complain.

Complaining might make it take its gift back.

However, public property seemed like a good explanation. At least, it did until Catherine started shaking her head.

“It doesn’t work like that. If it did, every demon who ever got summoned would have covered the Earth with their domains long ago.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“I… well, no,” she said slowly and with a slight uncertainty, quickly adding with a glare, “Because it wouldn’t work. How did you even get here? Was the remnant of Hell always your domain?”

Eva blinked and stared around again. Remnants of Hell were what they were calling the bits of land left behind when demonic enigmas died. And this one… Ah, she thought, recognizing her surroundings. She had missed it the first time because it looked like a bomb had gone off, but one of the blown out buildings was clearly the pizza shop she had killed an enigma near.

She was about to answer that no, it hadn’t always been part of her domain and it must have been her charging the obelisk that connected it, but that wasn’t accurate, was it? “Shortly after killing the enigma here,” she said to Catherine, “I walked up to the sand and pulled out a metal bar.” Holding her hand to the side, the sands jumped up, forming into the cold iron that could be found everywhere in her prison, mostly on doors to cells.

“So it was always yours,” Catherine mumbled, closing her eyes and pressing her hands to her head once again.

“I guess. Didn’t really think about it at the time. Neither do I know how it happened, so don’t bother to ask. More importantly,” Eva said, pausing a moment as she turned her gaze upwards. She had noted before, but just wanted to make sure. There were no purple streaks lining the skies, no giant eyeballs crying out enigmas, nor any lightning bolts or earthquakes. Not since she had arrived, anyway. “How are things around Earth?”

“Tedious,” Devon grumbled the instant Eva asked. “But that describes life in general. It’s always an awful bore. If you’re asking about Life, also tedious, though in a different manner.”

“A large number of enigmas have yet to be terminated,” Catherine said. “Though I don’t know what he thinks is tedious. He hasn’t lifted a finger to help. Most of the work is being done by Ylva and her nuns.”

Her nuns?”

Catherine shrugged. “Not sure what she did with the ones who disagreed with her.”

“Ominous.”

“I’m not crying over it.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.”

“Lynn completed her research. Killing enigmas permanently is a possibility now. With their semi-shared memory, the Elysium Order are the best cleanup specialists for enigma-related matters at the moment.”

“Except the damn demon ones.”

“Except them, yes,” Catherine said tersely. “We hope you don’t mind, but the prison is something of a zoo these days. Killing the demonic enigmas still results in remnants of Hell spawning around their bodies so we needed to contain them. The prison worked the best given it was already set up to handle a few and we knew how to handle more. Although…” Catherine trailed off as she looked around the sandy area of the street. Eva could almost see the gears grinding in her head.

“Don’t even think about it,” Devon snapped. “You’ll wind up making an even bigger mess than this.” He waved his hands around, splattering a little blood from his fingertips over his seat. Not that it mattered. Eva could easily remake the seats blood free later. “I expect messes from Eva, but you’ve always been tidy.”

“Hey!”

Devon ignored Eva’s outburst, continuing to glare at Catherine. “We continue with our original plan. Gather them up then use a transference circle to make them someone else’s problem.”

“If my domain had a connection point on Earth, we could simply throw them into the waters of Hell and be rid of them,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the weather.

To which Devon scoffed. “Even if that would be significantly less troublesome than a transference circle, which it isn’t, it is also wholly unnecessary now.” He waved his arms in a wide circle around him again. “Eva’s domain will suffice. We can disconnect it later.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, there are no waters around.”

Devon opened his mouth, then snapped it shut as he slowly scanned around the street. As soon as he had finished, he looked back to Eva with an accusatory glare.

Eva spoke before he had a chance to berate her for something she probably had no control over—though, being her domain, she probably had more control over it than anyone else. Maybe she could make a small pool somewhere just to toss enigma bodies into.

“As cute—or disturbing—as it is to watch you two playfully argue with each other, I really am more interested in the goings on outside this street.” She ignored both their glares and continued. “Where is everyone else?”

“Gone.”

“Evacuated.”

“Brakket is abandoned.”

“Not likely to reopen anytime soon.”

“Your obelisk,” Devon thumbed over his shoulder, “scared most everyone away.”

“Anderson was quite upset given all the work he put into the tournament and the academy. Quite the embarrassment,” Catherine said with a vicious grin.

Eva snapped her head back and forth between the two, staring at each until the other began to speak. When it seemed that they weren’t going to continue their routine, she blinked. “Juliana? Shalise?”

“Both gone. Don’t know where they are,” Catherine said with a shrug. She was starting to get a little more animated, leaning forward and stretching out her wings. Perhaps her headache was going away. “I assume they both went home to wherever they lived before attending Brakket.”

Devon, on the other hand, still cupped his face in his hand, barely looking towards Eva even while speaking to her unless he really felt the need to glare. “Which I find concerning. If the girl truly has one of the seventy-two in her head–”

“She does.”

“Then who knows what kind of trouble they are getting themselves into.”

“Better to cause trouble away from us than live around here.”

Devon opened his mouth, but hesitated, considering Catherine’s words for a moment before he ended up nodding his head in agreement. “Can’t argue with that.”

“Zoe,” Catherine said, “is still around. She spends the nights either at the dormitory or her office. A few mage-knights wander around along with a few members of the Elysium Order. I’d be watching out for them if I were you. You’re obviously not an enigma, but they get jumpy sometimes.”

Good news. Zoe was still around. While Devon grumbled and Catherine was mildly helpful, Zoe would help her get in touch with Juliana, Shalise, and everyone else. Before handling the Avatar of Life, she hadn’t had much of a chance to ensure that everyone was alright. Catherine wasn’t mentioning any deaths, but she just might not care enough.

“Right. Going to visit Zoe then. Come find me when you two are feeling better.” She started to walk away, only to stop as a thought occurred to her. A small table built itself up between the two of them with a few glasses of water sitting on top. Sand had formed the water which Eva found somewhat strange, but shrugged her shoulders. It probably wouldn’t hurt either of them. Shalise and Lynn had drunk and ate things provided by her domain for months in the former’s case. Neither had turned out wrong in the end.

With them having a bit of water in case they needed it, Eva took off in a light sprint towards Brakket Academy. She considered blinking, but didn’t want to accidentally leave her legs behind in front of Devon and Catherine. Old-fashioned walking would have to do.

The moment she crossed over the threshold where sand met asphalt, something felt wrong. Just a queasiness in her stomach. Another step and she felt her foot starting to erode away as water splashed against it, dissolving the blood. A quick thought hardened the liquid all the way up to her knees as Eva scowled at the sight before her.

Gone was the asphalt of the street. Before her lay a black void, stretching on for eternity, filled with the familiar waters that surrounded her island.

She turned back to find Devon, Catherine, and the other demons still right where she had left them, along with the half-destroyed buildings in the immediate vicinity of the obelisk. Grinding her teeth together, Eva took a few steps back from the waters of Hell. The sky went back to a sky familiar to Earth. The rest of the street reformed behind her.

Stepping onto the asphalt, her foot plunged straight through as the street wavered like a mirage, splashing into the waters of Hell once again.

“Great. Just great.”

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010.034

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Devon stalked down the deserted streets of Brakket City. The streets were more deserted than normal. Few people remained in the city. Only a handful stayed. The brave or the foolish. The apathetic as well. A few stubborn townsfolk hadn’t left yet. They had nowhere to go or perhaps they figured that they had weathered everything else, what was one more thing?

Some of Brakket Academy’s staff had remained behind. Or so he had heard from one of the professors that stopped by the prison on occasion. A skeleton crew. Not even enough to properly manage anything save for ward upkeep and various enchantments around the school. Those people and the researchers. The professor with one arm he had spoken with in particular.

Aside from the stubborn and the fools, there were a few guards. Mage-knights down on their luck and unable to find alternate contracts. Devon had seen a number of members belonging to the Elysium Order. They had sneered at him—or at his company—but hadn’t otherwise attacked.

He honestly had no idea what they were doing here. Their little club hadn’t fared too well during the initial incident with the Pillar of Hell. If anything remotely as challenging showed up, they would be decimated. The only thing they were good for was getting rid of enigmas.

As for his company, three demons flanked him. Each followed along a step behind. One was under his direct control. The waxy ruax, aside from the occasional fighting against his domination, had proven handy. Those fights against his control were weak and short-lived. Apparently it took a great deal of time to build up the strength to try. Minor nuisances that he could ignore for the most part. Its debilitating effect against anything that attacked him made it more than worth the effort of keeping it around.

One demon following him was merely under contract—a fairly tenuous contract that very well might wind up annulled before long. Not only was the carnivean not performing its duties as a fill-in for Eva’s treatment, but requesting the presence of a fairy queen was not something anyone did lightly. Luckily, he had written enough loopholes into their contract that he should be able to find an out easily enough. It might upset the carnivean, but losing it wouldn’t be that big of a loss.

The final demon was a succubus. Or perhaps she had been a succubus at some point in time. He wasn’t so sure anymore. The rituals Catherine designed and had performed on herself were similar to Eva’s. Superficially, at least. In reality, they were designed to change Catherine on a far more subtle level. Eva had slowly been changing even before coming to this school and having her arms and legs exchanged for Arachne’s.

Catherine had hardly changed in appearance from when Devon had first encountered her. Her hair might be a different length or color, or her eyes just a few shades brighter, but she was a succubus. Her body was easily malleable. All the better to adopt an appearance appreciated by as many people as possible.

Rather, the change had come in how she held herself and how those around her reacted to her presence. Even walking behind Devon, she strode with the confidence of a leader. He could almost feel the aura of command rolling off her shoulders. Other demons would look to her, be more willing to agree to her demands, and other such deferences.

And that was after only a few treatments. One right before all the mess with the tear and one earlier on with Eva and the Pillar of Hell. There might have been a third, Devon couldn’t recall. He honestly hadn’t been paying too close attention to her rituals. Not as close as he should have been, in any case.

Eva hadn’t ever changed like that. Her appearance showed signs of demonic traits. Especially after the recent three-way treatments. Other demons had commented on her feeling strong. Yet Eva had never acted strong. Sure, she had killed the demon hunters. That had taken some strength, Devon was sure. But she hadn’t commanded legions of demons the way that Catherine might if the succubus had the inclination.

Before Catherine’s treatments, the only one who had commanded that sort of presence had been the Hel. Not even the Pillar forced people to take note of him, though that may have been personal preference on the Pillar’s part rather than any lack of ability.

Devon was extremely thankful that Catherine was more like he was in that research held a value on its own. Had Catherine acted anything like the carnivean—or pretty much any other demon he had encountered in recent years—he probably would have killed her before the first treatment.

After observing Catherine closely over the previous few months, Devon had a mild idea of why Eva had turned out the way she had.

Eva was human. Obviously not mortal. There was a definite difference. But Eva was human. She bothered to attend this school despite not necessarily needing what it taught. Because that was what humans did. Especially human children. And, though she had grown older, she was still a child compared to most of humanity, let alone demons. She interacted with humans and demons alike, but most of the demons she interacted with were pretending to be human. There likely was little functional difference in Eva’s eyes.

School, friends, eating, sleeping. All of it Eva did because that was what humans did.

Because Eva viewed herself as human.

That might change in the future. Humans had an expiration date. Even with necromancy, phylacteries, phoenixes, and various other methods of extending that date, it still ran out eventually. Eva wouldn’t. Not so long as she finished her treatment—if such a thing was even necessary anymore; Catherine’s description of what had happened during the ritual to corrupt a Power had been slightly worrying in that regard. But eventually, Eva would be left bereft of those she knew now.

She might befriend other humans, but how long would that last? Another century or so?

Eventually, Eva would be left with nothing but demons. Arachne and Catherine. Probably a few others as well. Eventually, she would decide that maintaining relationships with humans was more trouble than it was worth and slowly associate with only demons. Some amount of time after that, she would stop viewing herself as a human. Then and only then would her transformation be complete.

It was somewhat disappointing to reach the conclusion of his experiment without having technically finished it. Though it was nice to know the answer. He doubted that he would be around to see Eva’s final transformation.

“We’re here,” Catherine said, coming to a stop.

“Obviously.” Devon curled his lips back into a sneer as he took in the sight before him. The obelisk. The thing that had everyone running away from the academy and the city. Devon couldn’t exactly blame them. It didn’t look like rainbows and unicorns.

Though if anyone around here had actually encountered a unicorn before, they would probably have run just as fast.

“It’s been like this for a week now.”

“All glowing and red?”

Catherine nodded her head. “We first noticed it shortly after you sealed off the tear in realities. It spent three days inert before lighting up like this.”

“And you waited this long before telling me about it?”

Her eyes flashed for just a moment with some slight hint of irritation. “I am not beholden to you. We have worked together as colleagues on occasion. Nothing more.”

“So why bring me here now?”

Catherine shifted. This time, she didn’t look angry. Merely embarrassed. A slight loss of her earlier confidence. Devon curled his lip into a small smile as she struggled to find the words to answer.

“I’ve exhausted my investigative skills and magical knowledge,” she eventually said. Devon waited for just a moment longer, prompting her to cross her arms with a scowl. “I don’t have the slightest idea what that is,” she said with a nod towards the obelisk. “I don’t know why it is glowing. I don’t know what made it start glowing in the first place.”

“You think I do?” Devon looked back to the obelisk. The veins of red that branched off from the top until red covered the entire thing vaguely looked like actual veins. Or perhaps tree roots. But he hadn’t ever seen something like the obelisk before.

“A human might have a different perspective. Given our research together, I know you are knowledgeable about many demonic matters. Most diabolists I have known merely summon a demon for a task then dismiss them immediately after. None ever do actual research into what demons are and other matters of Hell. In that regard, you’re the best diabolist I know.”

“Demonologist,” Devon grumbled as he walked up to the obelisk. A wave of his hand stilled two of his three followers. If the obelisk was some sort of beacon of inexorable power, he did not want either the ruax or the carnivean to get their hands—or tentacles—on it.

It definitely had some power about it. Just breathing, the air felt thick and heavy with magic. It wasn’t the easiest thing to be around; like breathing in a sauna, except less moisture and more ambient energy. Or perhaps it was more of a sharp smell. Something not dissimilar to chlorine.

Whatever it was, it was unnatural.

Devon made a circuit around the obelisk, briefly examining all four sides. They were identical to one another on a superficial level. He did spot a few differences in how the vein of red coming down from the peak branched outward.

He reached out, about ready to brush his fingers over the surface. It looked like the veins were merged with the obsidian background. At the same time, there was a vague shadow like they stood out. However, a subtle stiffening in Catherine’s back in his peripheral vision had him withdrawing his hand.

“Something bad happens if you touch it?”

“Haven’t tried since it lit up. Before then, it just felt like a smooth pane of glass.”

Devon hummed as he bent over. He scooped up a small pebble from the road, took a step back, and tossed it towards the obelisk.

The pebble flung backwards over his shoulder with a crack as it shattered the sound barrier. The brick wall of a nearby pizzeria caught it. It stuck in the wall, half embedded as it radiated a certain heat that he could feel from across the edge of the sidewalk. The pebble glowed a bright red, though one of heat and nearly molten rock rather than the magical red of the obelisk.

“Good to know,” he said as he took a short step away. He eyed the carnivean, considering ordering it to move a dozen steps away. While their contract should prevent it from killing him, he couldn’t discount the possibility that it had slipped a loophole into their contract that would allow it to bump him into the obelisk, letting it kill him through a proxy.

He pulled a small card out of his pocket. One with a prepared ritual circle already inscribed on one side. A simple ritual circle. One for a simple test. No need for some large-scale carvings.

“There are ways of telling where demons come from,” he said, partially for Catherine’s sake. “Not so long ago, I scraped up a bit of ash and found it came from a Pillar, one of the seventy-two.”

“Zagan.”

“Just so. It burned a brilliant purple. A sign of royalty.” For a moment, Devon considered asking Catherine for a drop of her blood. Normal succubi would cast flames of a pink-hued red. He wasn’t so sure what hers would indicate.

But he only had one indicator paper. It wasn’t difficult to create another one, but this one would be best put to use on the problem at hand. He could always ask Catherine for a drop of blood later.

He took the card between his index and middle fingers of his only proper hand. A flick of his wrist sent it flying. The card landed with its back flat against the obelisk. Frankly, Devon was surprised it hadn’t spontaneously activated just walking up to the obelisk. But it hadn’t.

Unlike the pebble, it didn’t fly away; the magic had a constructive path to travel along inside the card. The obelisk activated the circle drawn on the front through sheer ambient magic. All the lines lit up in an instant, glowing a faint neutral amber. The actual paper of his card wasn’t holding up well. Flames appeared at the corners, slowly eating their way inwards. They didn’t quite make it to the center.

His card exploded off the side of the obelisk, chasing after the pebble. To the untrained eye, it left a trail of dark smoke in its wake. Devon stared at it, following it to where the card had landed on the nearby sidewalk. It wasn’t smoke at all. Black flames hovered above the circle until the more natural flames that had been eating away at the corners broke the ring around the center. Dark smoky fire dispersed into nothingness.

“Huh.”

“‘Huh’ what? I assume the indicator paper was made up by humans, because its colors don’t mean anything to me. What would black smoke mean?”

“Not sure. I’ve never seen it before.”

“Is there no documentation involved with the spell?” Catherine walked around with clicking heel, pacing back and forth in front of the obelisk. “I suppose we could reverse engineer the spell and discover exactly what the smoke meant, but that–”

“Black flames, not smoke. And it shouldn’t have been a possibility anyway. I programmed in common colors; red, blue, green, yellow, and so on. I invented the spell, so I know a little something about its inner workings. Black doesn’t mean anything at all.”

“It’s not demonic in origin then?”

“It is, or there wouldn’t be a flame at all,” Devon said as he reached back into his pocket. This time, he pulled out a thin rod. “Take this,” he said, offering it to Catherine.

She didn’t move to take it, staying a few paces away from Devon as she eyed the offered rod. “A wand?”

“Nothing so pedestrian.” He tossed it towards Catherine, which made her catch it more on reflex than anything else. She narrowed her eyes at him, looking about ready to tear his head off. “If I wanted to harm you, I would have had the ruax debilitate you with a series of headaches. I need you to turn it into void metal.”

She looked down at the silver rod in her hands with a certain realization dawning in her eyes. Her fingers lightly brushed over the surface, leaving a trail of absolute black in their wake. Though she did miss a few spots and had to return to touch it up. It made Devon a little worried about the quality of the interior. A worry that definitely did now show on his face—he could give a poker champion a run for their money—yet Catherine somehow picked up on it anyway. “It would have been pure had you given me a golden rod rather than this impure silver,” she paused to hold the completed rod up. “But I made it work anyway. The question is how are you going to make it work? I had a decently sized ritual circle set up when I tried with Eva.”

Devon let a sly smile cross his lips. A wave of his proper hand sent a burst of thin green flames dancing about the street. His fire scorched a trail into the sand around the obelisk and the asphalt. Soon enough, he had scorched a fully-fledged ritual circle into the ground. Almost. He hadn’t completed it fully. Just in case the ambient magic did activate the circle.

It was somewhat haphazard and crude. Precisely the reason he would never try that trick on a ritual circle of any great importance. If this one failed, the worst that would happen would be them having to try again. Maybe a small explosion, but nothing too terrible. The ritual circle would only be active for a split second.

At least, that was the theory.

Catherine walked forwards and jammed the rod into the ground within what would normally be the recipient portion of the circle, easily understanding Devon’s intentions. He had gotten the idea from her, after all. It was a modification to the treatment circle. Catherine had used a variation while testing some of Eva’s more esoteric attributes not so long ago. A fairly brilliant idea, for a demon. Devon had almost exclusively been going off physical appearance along with a few tests on samples of Eva’s blood.

She hadn’t shared her results. Devon hadn’t really pressed that hard. He had intended to run his own version—the same thing he had drawn on the ground just now—after Eva’s New Year’s treatment.

Of course, she had to go and disappear before that could happen. At this point, Devon was fairly certain that she did things like that solely to be a thorn in his side.

As soon as Catherine ensured that the rod would remain upright, she took a few steps back. Devon fired up his green flames at his fingertips once again. He backed away, giving the ritual circle a fair space. A second thought had him backing even further away. Thirty feet should work fine. Both his demons and Catherine followed him back.

Once ready, he tossed out his flames.

The ritual lit up the moment his flames connected the circle together. Much like the card, he could see it trying to burn away under the stress of all the magic in the air. Ash, cement, asphalt, and sand tended to be a bit more resilient to burning away than a paper card. It would last long enough to get a clue as to what the obelisk was.

Hopefully.

The rod started to vibrate where Catherine had jammed it into the ground. A haze of heat surrounded it like a bubble, distorting everything around it. Which shouldn’t be possible. Void metal didn’t heat up no matter what forces were applied to it.

Devon actually took two more steps back as the onyx metal started changing colors, brightening first to a dull red before turning white-hot.

“Stop it,” Catherine snapped. “Quick.”

His hands had already been moving. A burst of green flame scattered across the ritual circle, scoring new lines into it not unlike an artist scribbling out a failed drawing.

The reaction was almost instantaneous. The magic, until he disrupted the circle, had been flowing along the proper paths as the lines dictated. Smoothly flowing at that, if a bit strained because of the sheer volume of magic being pushed around. His newest scorch marks didn’t disrupt the flow in anything resembling a controlled shutdown.

A high-pitched tone similar to a pin dropping echoed through the silence of the street. It was the only warning Devon had before the street was torn up and filled the air with chunks of rock.

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010.033

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Nel Stirling, formerly of the Elysium Order, augur to the Charon Chapter, stood in a position that she had never thought she would occupy.

She sat at the head table in the Elysium Grand Cathedral. Not the Salem Cathedral. Not any of their other training centers. The Grand Cathedral. To the Elysium Order, there was no place more central to their power. It was within this building that the leaders resided. Within this building was the vault containing a vial of every augur’s blood, ready to be given to the inquisitors should one go rogue. All the primary secrets and artifacts collected by the Order since their inception in ancient times were kept in the vaults as well.

Including the source of the Elysium Order’s eyes. Deep down in the bleakest basement vault, under twenty-four hour guard by some of the highest trained individuals the Elysium Order had ever produced, was the Skull of God. She hadn’t ever seen it with her own two eyes, but she had more than two eyes. She doubted it was the skull of an actual god in biblical terms. It looked like a human’s skull, sized like one too. Knowing what she now knew about the Elysium Order and the magic they used, perhaps it had originally been a part of one of Death’s minions. Someone like Ylva’s mother or the Baron.

Whatever it had been, now it was just a skull. A skull that produced two eyes every decade. No more and no less.

It was the primary reason for the Elysium Order’s Inquisitorial Chapter. A single nun going rogue represented a significant amount of time required to replace them. An augur, with their many, many, many eyes would take centuries to create from scratch. Thus recovering as many eyes as possible was vital to the long-term survival of the Elysium Order as a whole.

Nel couldn’t say she cared much about that. Even had she known exactly how long it took to create new eyes, she would still have run away. While it had a few bumps and bruises, her life had been drastically more pleasant since she had asked Eva for shelter.

Now she was back. This time on the other side of the table, looking down on all the nuns scurrying about rather than being looked down upon by leaders who hated augurs merely for the possibility that they might escape.

Nel tried not to look down upon her old comrades and coworkers in the metaphorical manner, most had never done anything to her, but avoiding looking down on them literally was a much harder task. Despite the table at the far end of the chapel being only a few steps higher than the rest of the hall, everyone seemed so tiny as they scurried about to carry out their tasks.

Maybe it was the lighting. The chapel had high ceilings, vaulted to the point where the only way anyone could change light bulbs was with magic. Yet there wasn’t a dark corner anywhere. Between the high-powered lights and the massive windows behind the head table, it was brighter than day inside. The vaulted ceiling just made everyone else look tinier in comparison.

Of course, Nel wasn’t sitting in the center of the table. Lady Ylva occupied that prestigious position. She had done away with Provost Willem’s ornately carved chair. It would have been too small for her even had she not preferred to slouch in her marble throne. To Ylva’s left, the two students sat, trying to keep from shaking in fear. They were probably the two newest members of the Elysium Order and they were already sitting at the table reserved for the most important members. It was almost enough to make Nel laugh at their predicament.

As for herself, Nel was feeling fairly good. Sure, her arm was still shriveled up. Even with the skull down below pumping out eyeballs every so often, she doubted that she would ever regain full use of her limb. It had simply been too long. In fact, it should probably be amputated. Who knew what kind of infections she could wind up with if something started festering in the vacant cavities.

But it was highly unlikely that any inquisitors would ever hunt her down in the future. Without that giant bag of stress weighing her down, she actually smiled on occasion.

Most importantly, she was seated at Ylva’s right hand side. Not only did that mean that she was the most trusted of all of Ylva’s contacts, but it meant she got to be a personal advisor. Probably. She hadn’t actually done much advising since Ylva performed her little takeover of the Elysium Order. Or much of anything.

Being an advisor would be a big turnaround from her earlier days as an effective slave to Ylva, but if she wasn’t actually advising her…

She might be replaced.

A jolt of fear ran up Nel’s spine and she suddenly started paying close attention to the goings-on before her. A nun, one of the chapter heads—Phobos Chapter, if she remembered correctly—was giving a report. On what? How could she advise if she hadn’t been paying attention to anything?

What a disaster.

Nel shook her head and stared.

“–Coven of vampires around the Liverpool area. They’re difficult to uproot due to the high population, but–”

“Enough,” Ylva said in a tone like marble grinding across granite. “Vampires do not concern Us.”

Prioress Daniella, whose arms and legs started shaking at Ylva’s voice, blinked and stared up at the giant. “But… But they’re a p-plague.” She paused, wincing slightly as if she expected to be berated for speaking against Ylva’s statement. When none came, her confidence grew. “They have been primary enemies of the Elysium Order since the Order was founded.”

“And that is precisely why We are here. The mismanagement of this organization cannot be allowed to continue. Vampires lack souls. Their existence is nothing more than magically animated masses of flesh deluded into thinking they have the autonomy a soul grants. They do not concern Us.

Nel chose that moment to clear her throat, hoping that she wasn’t out of line in interrupting. But it was a perfect moment to jump in and advise. “Lady Ylva,” she said, angling her body slightly in her seat to properly address the demon. “Most members of the Elysium Order joined specifically to hunt down vampires. Recruitment spiked especially after the Lansing Incident. For most nuns, I would assume that vampires represent a personal vendetta that they need to participate in hunting down. Even more members may leave if you shut down vampire hunts entirely.”

Contrary to Nel’s expectations based off her actions in dealing with the inquisitors, Ylva hadn’t slaughtered anyone who made to escape once it became clear that she intended to command the organization. Most of the high council and several dozen nuns fled immediately after the meeting with the two girls. And that was just the people around the Grand Cathedral. Given the Elysium Order’s status as a global organization, who knew how many overseas chapters would simply fail to report in.

Nel fully expected splinter organizations to crop up in the coming years. Possibly several of them. Whether they would simply continue with the Elysium Order’s mandate of hunting down undead or whether they would become enemies of Ylva and her faction remained to be seen. Optimally, they would just leave each other alone. Somehow, Nel doubted that would be the case.

Without a way to create new eyes, any splinter factions would eventually die off. The Elysium Order took great pains to salvage eyes. So long as these other nuns continued that tradition and kept the eyes from being destroyed in combat, other factions dying off could take a very long time.

In her private opinion, Ylva should have at least kept the high council from running off. They were the ones most likely to present a hostile front to Ylva. A single chapter running around after vampires in Russia wasn’t going to hurt anyone. It was the ones who had lost their power and would be wanting it back who were the real threats.

Only one of the high council had remained behind. High Inquisitor Witman, garbed in the black and gold of the inquisitors, sat to the right of Nel. She didn’t know why he was here. Perhaps he thought he might get fame, fortune, and power by working under Ylva. Perhaps he merely lacked the power and connection with the others on the High Council and had been left behind because of that. Even Saint Adal had disappeared–which disturbed Nel somewhat; Saint Adal had more than twice as many implanted eyes compared to any other augur and Nel had a feeling most of those would be removed to fashion into new recruits for the splinter faction.

Really, she couldn’t help but wonder how splinter factions would work given the shared consciousness within the eyes. If anyone developed a spell for countering magic of the Elysium Order, everyone else would know about it right away and be able to prepare countermeasures. With a bit of luck, everyone might be forced into non-hostilities simply because of that.

Whatever the reason for Witman’s presence, Nel didn’t like him. Since Ylva hadn’t made to get rid of him, he must serve some use. For the moment, Nel would pretend he didn’t exist. It wasn’t like he could harm her. Not with Lady Ylva at her side.

While Nel’s thoughts wandered to the council, Ylva had apparently mulled over Nel’s words.

“Very well,” Ylva said, voice dragging reluctantly along the ground like a quartz slab. “You are to deliver your reports on vampires to Witman.”

“Me?” “Him?”

Nel shot the inquisitor a glare, which he shrugged off as he turned to Ylva. “My… Lady, pardon my impertinence to your illustrious grace–”

“Your facetious flattery is unnecessary. Move on to your point or be silent.”

He jolted, obviously unnerved—it put quite the smirk on Nel’s face—but he ended up continuing anyway. “I had assumed that you would wish for me to form a task force for going after those who have fled from the Order. If I am weighed down with the hunting of vampires, I will be unable to find my former comrades.”

“Indeed,” Ylva said, entirely uncaring. A slow movement of her head had her staring back at the chapter head before the table. “Any reports dealing with vampires or mummies are to be given to Witman. Move on to your reports on liches. We are aware of thirteen roaming the Earth and find Ourself curious whether mortals know of any others.”

“I…” The nun looked down at the stack of papers in her hands.

A stack that Nel would bet her entire life with Ylva against it having anything but vampires. Liches were the rarest targets of the Elysium Order. If asked, the Elysium Order—the old version anyway—would have said that they hunted liches down. The truth was that liches tended to be exceedingly dangerous and often held grudges. If they couldn’t locate a phylactery, the lich would just come back with a chip on their shoulder. When phylacteries were located, they were quickly destroyed, but the Elysium Order tended to avoid them otherwise.

Sure enough, she glanced back up with a rapidly paling face.

“Necromancers?” Ylva said as her eyes half closed, making her look upset.

“I–I’m sorry, Lady Ylva. My report was too narrow in scope. I shall correct this immediately,” she said in a much higher pitched voice. Turning, she started to run.

Only for Ylva to say, “Stop.”

The nun’s feet locked to the ground as if magnetized, causing her to shout out a clipped scream. Or maybe it was Ylva’s voice that made her scream. Nel could almost see teardrops forming in the corners of the nun’s eyes.

“You are to gather your reports on liches and deliver them to Anise.”

The girl sitting immediately to Ylva’s left, who had been trying her hardest to avoid drawing attention to herself, sat ramrod straight with a slight squeak. “Me?”

“Nel will delegate a contingent of augurs to you for the purpose of locating phylacteries.”

“Yes, Lady Ylva,” Nel said immediately. Being the head of the augurs was nice even if several had run away. It meant that she could get others to slave over an altar for hours and days on end instead of doing it herself.

“Anise, you will prioritize liches and assemble teams to destroy them and their phylacteries.” Ylva turned her head ever so slightly without removing her chin from her fist to look at the now shaking girl. “If you require assistance, you need only ask.”

Without waiting for an answer, Ylva looked back to the nun. “All reports on necromancers are to go to Chris.” She turned her head to her left once again. “You will receive a contingent of augurs to assist with locating and prioritizing targets.”

Prioress Daniella trembled slightly as she nodded her head. “Yes. Of course. Right away, L-Lady Ylva.”

Nel couldn’t help but roll her eyes as the woman fled as fast as she could manage without actually looking like she was fleeing. Everyone was making such a big deal over Ylva. It wasn’t like she would kill them if they didn’t do their jobs properly. If they were really so scared, they could leave without any repercussions. She had already demonstrated that with the ones who had left. Ylva wasn’t even trying to get them back. During this very meeting, she had effectively disbanded the inquisitorial task force entirely and set them to hunting vampires.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Witman grumbling about just that under his breath.

She completely ignored him. He wasn’t her problem to deal with. Slightly more concerning was the two girls. Not even out of school and yet they were asked to organize some hunts for vampires and necromancers? Nel might need to speak with Ylva and see if she couldn’t get that assignment pushed on someone else. Someone older. Even though Ylva had given them both rings, Nel didn’t believe that they were any more trustworthy than various members of the Order who had stuck around.

But maybe Ylva knew something she didn’t. Whatever the case, it didn’t seem like a vital emergency that needed to be handled right away. Standing, Nel arched her back in a long stretch. Sitting still for hours on end had put several aches around her spine. Sometime soon, she should speak with Ylva about getting more comfortable chairs. Hopefully the constant meetings would lessen once things had a chance to stabilize.

Before Nel could head off to the baths for a nice relaxing soak—they weren’t as grand as the bath in Ylva’s domain, but still managed to be a far cry better than the cramped showers in Brakket’s dormitories—another nun approached the head table. A Sister Griggs, one of the sisters she had worked alongside in Charon Chapter. Nel had never really spoken to her, but she knew her face and name at least.

With a mild groan, she retook her seat. There weren’t any other scheduled meetings for the day, but if Ylva wasn’t getting up, she supposed she should stick around to find out what the nun wanted.

“Lady Ylva,” Sister Griggs started out with a slight bow and without a hint of nervousness in her voice. Nel had to wonder if everyone called her Lady Ylva solely because that was how Nel had introduced her as or whether they would have called her that on their own. “We captured an individual attempting to gain access to the cathedral,” she said. “When she mentioned your name, we decided to alert you as soon as your meeting was over.”

“In the future, any intruders are to be brought to Our attention immediately.”

Sister Griggs closed her eyes and slightly bowed her head. “Yes, Lady Ylva. Shall I have her brought before you? Or would you prefer to attend to her within the dungeons?”

“Here will suffice.”

“Very well.” With yet another bow, she turned and left the great hall.

While she took her time returning, Nel couldn’t help but wonder if she had bowed to Ylva half as many times in her nearly two years of working under her as Sister Griggs had in less than five minutes. She probably had. Recently? Maybe not so much. But Nel had been far more cowed in her initial few weeks—or maybe even months—of getting to know Ylva. She couldn’t help but wonder how the Elysium Order might act after a year. They were an organization and most of the members would probably have far less intimate relationships with Ylva than Nel.

Sister Griggs soon returned with a pair of other nuns who Nel didn’t recognize. She did recognize the nun between the pair, chained up.

“Sister Cross,” she gasped, leaning forward in her chair.

“Sister Cross,” Inquisitor Witman repeated in a much lower tone of voice. “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I’ll bet you have,” Lynn said with a snort. She gave a derisive shake of her head before looking straight at Ylva. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about the goings on in Brakket City at the moment.”

Nel blinked. That sounded important. And ominous. It couldn’t be anything too serious. Eva probably would have messaged her wanting her to spy on something or other as she usually did. A bit annoying but it did keep her and Ylva up to date on matters they might otherwise miss while off on their frequent trips.

“To be succinct, Ylva,” she said without a hint of the respect that the other nuns were giving or trying to give, “I have developed a method to kill enigmas more permanently than we have been able to in the past. However, I cannot do it alone. Brakket city is… infested with enigma. Many more are likely spread around the surrounding wilderness, getting further and further away every day. With the city all but abandoned, the situation is only going to get worse. The enigmas will spread. We can’t contain and kill them fast enough.” She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “So I figured I would ask for a loan of a few nuns.”

Ylva slowly leaned forward on her throne, staring down at Lynn. “Abandoned? Tell Us more.”

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