Tag Archives: Anise

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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010.011

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Zoe sighed as she walked down the streets of Brakket. Eva insisted that nobody walk around alone. Which, honestly, was not poor advice at the moment. However, she needed time to think. Teleporting straight to Genoa’s house wouldn’t give her enough time. Or any time, really. Teleporting was near instant. Barring any sudden wards popping up, teleporting would be a perfectly viable escape from any dangerous situation.

And she was keeping careful watch for any sign of a ward.

A cold wind picked up, sending Zoe’s hair whipping around her face and threatening to steal the papers tucked under her arms. Not bothering to fight the wind, she brushed her fingers over the hilt of her dagger, stilling the air in a small bubble around her.

Tightening the folds of her thick jacket, Zoe resumed her languid walk.

Genoa wouldn’t rush forward and try to destroy the ritual circle. Carlos might, but likely not without his wife agreeing as well. Eva was correct in that regard. Genoa knew about the truth behind the violet streaks in the sky as well. She shouldn’t be overly difficult to convince.

But that was the biggest question. Should she even convince people that the ritual was needed? Telling Wayne, Zoe had essentially received the go-ahead. Maybe she wasn’t looking to convince anyone after all. She might just be looking for a way to convince herself.

Zoe wasn’t certain which way she was trying to convince herself.

Really, she wished that Eva had just told her about it sooner. It would have given her more time to think. Now, Catherine and Eva were all but ready to start the ritual and Zoe still wasn’t sure what she should do.

On one hand, summoning Void to close off and shore up the weaknesses between Life’s domain, the mortal realm, and Hell was a given. And Zoe fully agreed with Eva that Void would succeed. People didn’t usually put forth great plans to do great things if they thought that they might fail. Of course, Void wasn’t a person. She might be completely off the mark. However, she doubted it.

No, Void would likely stop the current apocalypse situation without much trouble.

What happened after was the frightening part. Would Void be content to head back to Hell? Or would a new sort of apocalypse rise up from the ashes of the averted one?

Zoe shook her head with another sigh and looked up at the overcast sky. Even with the clouds, the shimmering streaks were still plainly visible. Pretty yet ominous. Whatever Void did couldn’t be worse than sitting back and allowing Life to continue its plan uncontested.

Turning down Genoa’s street and walking up to the Rivas’ house, Zoe found herself frowning. The frame of their front door looked like it had been hit with a giant fist. Splinters of wood littered the porch. Yet the door looked brand new. Even the paint looked like a fresh coat.

All except for the purple ooze leaking out from under the crack in the deformed frame. The broken wood would have been worrisome enough on its own. Ooze only added to her concerns.

Zoe hammered her fist against the door. As it turned out, the paint was dry.

“Genoa?” she shouted out. “Carlos? Juliana?”

Some rustling and mumbled arguments made their way through the door. Nothing that Zoe could understand, but enough for her to hear both Genoa and Carlos. The tones were panicked, but both seemed alright. She couldn’t hear Juliana’s voice from behind the door, however.

Before she could contemplate what that might mean, the door opened without a sound.

It didn’t open all the way. Just a tiny crack. Enough for Zoe to see the gleaming blade of Genoa’s focus between the battered frame and the brand new door.

“Zoe?” Genoa said, voice full of caution.

“Did something happen? The doorway–” Zoe pulled back, rushing a hand to pinch her nose closed. A foul scent rather like a poorly maintained butcher’s shop wafted out. Even with her nose pinched, she just about gagged. She might have cleared the air with magic had she not had a focus pointed right at her face. Reaching for her dagger might startle Genoa. With everything strange going on lately, Zoe doubted that she could even blame the former mage-knight should she attack. “What is that smell?”

It took almost a full minute before the door swung open more than a crack. Genoa took a step back. She still had her dagger in her hands, but it was no longer pointed directly at Zoe. Her hair was frazzled out, sweat held it together in clumps. The longer portions that she normally kept tied up in a ponytail had lumps of dried blood—human blood, or some other terrestrial creature if the color was any indication—sticking them together and keeping the hair matted against her shirt. But overall, she didn’t look too injured. In fact, Zoe couldn’t even see where the blood might have come from.

The blood certainly hadn’t come from the creature at her feet.

Zoe’s eyes only stayed on Genoa for a few seconds.

The floor right in the entryway was covered in… viscera. There was really no other word to describe it. Aside from the obvious bones, organs of all shapes and sizes lay within a puddle of violet goop. The heart—at least, she was mostly certain that it was a heart—was still beating.

Zoe pulled out her own dagger and cleared the air with a small burst of magic, allowing her to breathe without gagging, though it did nothing for the actual mess.

“What happened?”

“Not entirely sure. There was a knock at the door. Thought it was you. Before I could even open the door, a hand burst through, grabbed me, and threw me back against the wall. Might have gotten a few slivers as well.”

Finally tearing her eyes away from the remains of whatever was on the floor, Zoe looked up. The wall directly opposite from the door had a distinctly Genoa-shaped outline pressed into the drywall. She must have hit it with some force.

“And how did–” Zoe started to look back down at the mess before her feet only to freeze up again when she noticed Carlos and Juliana near the stairwell. Or rather, Carlos cradling Juliana in his arms. She didn’t look like she had any injures. That didn’t mean that she didn’t have injuries. And there were plenty of ways to harm someone without leaving a single mark, as Zoe well knew.

But Genoa waved a hand back and forth, apparently noticing Zoe’s gaze. “She just fainted. We’re pretty sure, anyway. We’re mostly basing that off her bug-eyed stare at the remains just before her eyes rolled back into her head,” she swept her free hand towards the floor. “Juli has never had the strongest stomach.”

“I see. And you… dealt with the intruder?” Zoe had to ask. Genoa, as far as Zoe knew, didn’t usually melt her opponents to puddles of intact organs and unbroken bones. There was a distinct lack of earthen debris around the area; which was a fairly distinctive sign of Genoa’s fighting style. A lack of collateral damage that was normally present around Genoa was missing as well.

And the door that she had just said had a hole in it looked awfully intact.

“I’m not sure. One moment, I was lying on the ground with half a door stuck in my chest. The next, the door was back on its hinges and the thing just started falling apart.”

Zoe rapped her knuckles against the wooden door, listening to the wooden knocks echo back to her. Everything looked and sounded normal. “Strange.”

Strange,” Carlos said with a huff. “Everything about this town is strange. Tell us something we didn’t know.”

Zoe stared for a moment as Carlos averted his eyes to look at his daughter. He brushed a lock of Juliana’s hair back behind her ear. With a slight sigh, Zoe knelt down, careful to keep her shoes out of the mess on the floor. Her fingers continued flicking her dagger, cycling the air so that she didn’t have to hold her breath as she looked over the remains.

She was not a forensic expert. Yet she could tell some things. For example, if she found a body with a bullet hole in its head, she would assume that it had been shot. Of course, guessing wasn’t infallible. If someone had been strangled and still had a bullet hole in their head, she would still assume that they had been shot.

Neither really applied in this situation. She had no clue what had caused the thing to fall apart. More, not only was the heart beating, but the lungs were expanding and contracting as well. The muscles appeared wholly intact. No rips or punctures that might indicate any sort of combat had taken place. Even the veins and arteries leading out of and into the heart were unbroken.

It really looked as if its skin had peeled off then the rest simply fell off the bones. Or perhaps it had been turned inside out, as there wasn’t skin littering the floor, yet something fleshy was deep within.

“It is an enigma, right?” The purple blood might not entirely be unique to the enigma’s species, but they were the only things with purple blood that had been showing up on a regular basis. In its current state, it was difficult to tell exactly what shape it would have taken while whole. Though most enigma that Zoe had seen had six primary limbs. She only counted two arms and two legs, though she supposed some could be hidden beneath the pile of viscera.

Genoa stepped forward and nudged the pile of organs with the tip of her boot. “I thought it was a human. Granted, I only saw it for a few seconds and they weren’t a few clear seconds either. And then I had slivers of the door in my chest at the time. Something I found ever so slightly more concerning than getting an accurate picture of the thing.”

Zoe sighed as she stood up. It might be time to call Lynn in. She had done more research on enigmas than anyone. Catherine as well. The two of them might be able to tell her why it had fallen apart. As for how or why it had come to the Rivas’ home, it could simply be that it had fallen nearby and they were the first inhabited dwelling it had come across. Eva thought that she had killed the last enigma that was free roaming, but she also mentioned how difficult they were to detect.

Though this one wasn’t dead yet, despite its current unfortunate state. If she stomped on its heart, would Hell open up and take it back, leaving a part of itself behind? It might be best to scrape it up and move it somewhere where such a thing wouldn’t impact the Rivas’ home.

“Let’s move it out of your house,” Zoe said. “Carefully. It doesn’t look dead yet. It would be best to keep it that way as long as possible. One of these died the other day and the area around its death is… less than pleasant at the moment.”

“Should we be expecting more?”

Zoe paused. She had been just about to wrap up the remains in a bubble of solidified air, but Carlos’ question made her stop and consider. “Possibly. Though I doubt it was directly targeting you. I could ask Chelsea to put up some wards around your house. I’m surprised you don’t have any already.”

“I was generally the one taking down wards,” Genoa said with a slight huff.

“In any case, let’s get rid of this. Then, I think we might have some things to talk about. Something that might prevent more enigmas from coming to Earth at all.”

— — —

Two young nuns, probably the youngest Nel had ever seen, walked into the great hall of the Elysium Order’s tertiary headquarters. The same building that Eva had broken into and stolen from not so long ago. Something the Elysium Order hadn’t forgotten. Guards lined the walls. Most wore the white habits of standard Elysium nuns. Two full chapters had probably stopped by just to provide security for two little girls.

Only three of the nuns wore the black and gold inquisitorial habits. Nel couldn’t be sure why there were only three. They might still be rebuilding, but a decent chunk of time had passed since Ylva destroyed the previous chapter of inquisitors. There should be more than three.

Perhaps another augur had run away and the majority was off hunting her down.

In focusing on the two younger nuns, Nel couldn’t help but frown at how obviously scared they were. One, the one with curlier hair, couldn’t keep herself from looking at the nuns that lined the walls. And she had to stare at each one of them. On both sides. Her head snapped back and forth to each side of the hall with every step.

The other kept her head facing forwards at all times. Her eyes might have darted around every now and again, but her neck may as well have been in a brace. She was much more disciplined in that regard. But the way her clenched fists shook betrayed her true feelings.

At the very end of the long hall, a makeshift courtroom had been set up. Makeshift was the wrong word to use as it implied a haphazard mishmash of parts that didn’t fit together aesthetically yet still functioned well enough. The table set out was anything but haphazard. Ornate wooden pedestals sat before a large table filled with a number of important people. The pedestals weren’t wide enough to hold a sheet of paper. Maybe a pen if turned horizontally. They were little more than markers for where the two girls were to stand.

Of the people seated behind the wide table, Nel could pick out and name just about every one. Even though she hadn’t met some of them in person, almost all of them were important enough to be well-known. Provost Willem sat front and center. Two silver candlesticks framed his stick-thin body. To his right side, Company Captain Shika sat, twiddling with a pen in her lap without her eyes even twitching up to look at the two approaching girls. She was the head of all chapters within the Elysium Order, the one Sister Cross used to report to. Almost all chapters, anyway.

Cloaked in the black and gold of the inquisitors, someone who Nel didn’t recognize sat to the left of Provost Willem. Likely the new leader of the inquisitor chapter. Whoever they had found to replace Brother Maynard. Despite his position to the left of the provost, he probably wasn’t all that important at the moment. Not without any real power base within the Elysium Order to support him.

Further out on the right side was the head of the local cathedral, Vicar Leah. She clutched at a small golden pendant while her lips moved in what was likely a prayer of some sort. Not many people within the Elysium Order were all that religious as far as Nel knew, despite the outward appearance of the Order as a whole. Some obviously were.

On the far left, Saint Adal sat. Though only barely. If it weren’t for the straps holding her to her chair, she likely would have fallen to the floor long ago. Adal was only aware of her immediate surroundings on the best of days and, judging by her lolling head and the twitching of the countless eyes implanted on every inch of bare skin, today was not one of her best days.

Really, it was a wonder they even brought her out. Especially for an occasion like this.

Five extremely important members of the Elysium Order had been brought out to frighten two little kids who should still be in school. Despite all the bad things that had happened to Nel, leaving the Elysium Order and finding Ylva was one of the best moments of her life. She had had reservations about serving Ylva initially—mostly thanks to being told that she would be a servant—but looking back, she couldn’t be happier.

“The two girls just reached their podiums,” Nel said, pulling herself out of her augur haze and back into her actual surroundings. Lady Ylva sat on a chair far too small for her size just on the other side of a bowl of burning incense. She gave a slight nod of her head, stood, and reached for Nel’s hand.

The moment her fingers brushed over Nel’s glove, the world fell apart. A brief sensation of cold followed before the world returned to normal. The world just outside the giant wooden doors leading into the great hall. Two nuns on either side of the doors jumped. Their eyes burned white in an instant.

And the white died off without so much as a glance from Ylva. She placed her hands on the doors. With what was apparently a light shove, the doors flew open. Doors that had to have smaller doors built into them because of their size crashed into the walls with a resounding thud. Ylva just marched in as if she had done nothing more than simply open a small closet door.

Along the walls, the guards’ eyes lit up in pairs. The first two closest to the doors, then the next two, and so on until the entire hall was filled with burning eyes. Just as they lit up, they went dark again. A silent few seconds passed by where nobody save Ylva moved. Panic descended on the gathered Elysium Order quickly after.

A definite uncertainty took hold. Nel imagined that most of the Elysium Order had been informed of what had happened to the original inquisitors. Now, a statuesque woman marched right into their stronghold without a hint of fear, disabling their ability to use their powers. It probably stirred up memories, if not their own memories then memories of likely exaggerated stories and rumors.

At the front table, both Provost Willem and the head inquisitor stood. Fury lined Willem’s face while the inquisitor just about tripped over his own decorative chair as he tried to backpedal away. Being unable to accept implants, they would be the least affected by Ylva’s presence.

“What is the meaning of this?” Willem shouted, slamming his lithe hands on the table before him. His circular glasses jolted up and down on his face as he did so.

Nel, walking alongside and one step behind Ylva, called out. “Do not be alarmed. Lady Ylva will merely be overseeing this… interrogation. Though attempting to fight her may not go over so well. For you.”

“You cannot– You,” he said, pointing at Nel. “I know you.”

“We’ve met once or twice, Provost Willem,” she said without a hint of respect that her voice might have once carried for the man. “Though I’m surprised you remember a lowly augur such as myself.”

“Nel Stirling.”

Turning to face the inquisitor who had just spoken, Nel cocked her head to one side. “I don’t recognize you. Glad to see my reputation precedes me.” She might be getting a little confident. A little too cocky. But she couldn’t help it. Everything was going so well so far. Nobody had tried to stop them. The guard nuns were still mostly against the walls. A couple had moved forward, but not far enough to actually get in Ylva’s way. More had pressed themselves against the walls and held still as if Ylva were some sort of dinosaur.

Everyone was too uncertain about how to proceed to do otherwise.

So Ylva continued her forward march through the hall. In a few short steps—or rather long steps with the length of her legs—she made it up to the pedestals before the long table.

The curly-haired girl looked absolutely relieved. Though she wasn’t quite smiling. Still, her eyes weren’t twitching around quite so much and she didn’t look about ready to cry. Her friend still had her hands clenched into tight fists.

Really, Nel didn’t know what she was so upset about. Did she want to be excommunicated? Nel had personally experienced having eyes torn from her body. It had not been a pleasant experience. And if she ran away, the inquisitors would be after her.

Which hadn’t been fun either.

Standing directly between the two girls, Ylva bent as if to sit down. As she did so, a brief tinge of white accompanied her throne appearing just in time to catch her. Though the table containing the heads of the Elysium Order was raised over the rest of the hall, Ylva still managed to be at eye level with those sitting. Between her natural height and the size of her throne, she got away with resuming her usual slouch.

“Sit.” The simple command from Ylva had Provost Willem and the inquisitor back in their seats in an instant. And not just them. Around the hall, everyone sat down flat on the ground. Everyone except Nel, who remained standing just to the side of the throne, and the two young nuns at their podiums. “We will observe the proceedings overseeing those who have asked for Our protection. Afterwards, We will be entering a discussion regarding the unfortunate direction this organization has taken and possible reformations.”

Provost Willem tried to stand. He actually made it all the way to his feet, but he only lasted a few seconds before his shaking knees sent him back to his seat.

“You have no authority here, demon.”

Ylva lifted her head off her curled fist. “We,” she started, slow and steady, “act in the authority of Death. No other authority is needed.” As she dropped her head back onto her fist, her voice rumbled through the halls. “Continue as normal.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Thanks for all the votes on top web fiction! I appreciate it.

As a side note, I may not be around to respond to comments for most of the day. (Which I half don’t do anyway. I always respond to typo reports, but speculation is kinda hmmm to comment on; I usually like to see readers commenting on each other’s speculation rather than me coming in and giving any definitive response).

My family and I are driving for about two hours to get a full minute of totality in tomorrow’s eclipse. Apparently some roads will be packed hard enough that those two hours will actually be seventeen hours, so we’re leaving a little early and are expecting to be back a little late. Personally, I’m hoping for the two hour version.

Seems like an awful lot of hassle for what is essentially a big shadow, but who knows! Maybe Thursday’s chapter will come and I’ll say what an absolutely amazing and life changing experience witnessing the eclipse was.

Guess we’ll find out.


010.006

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Snow had finally fallen on Brakket Academy this year. Halfway through December, but it finally happened.

Eva trudged through the Infinite Courtyard, spreading a path of heat along the ground in front of her. It managed to melt the snow off. Unfortunately, the ground wasn’t quite as hard as Eva thought it should be after a snowfall. Mud and grime stuck between her toes, made all the worse from the melted snow. Really, for as much as she hated snow, walking on it might have been better in the end. At least her feet wouldn’t be quite so dirty.

Maybe shoes would be a good investment.

Too late now.

Of course, she hadn’t been able to clear the way from the beginning. Only once they got deeper in. Walking into the Infinite Courtyard and finding a long trail would have been conspicuous in the extreme. Even footsteps in the snow would have been a bit much.

Yet, thanks to her companion’s ability with water magic, none of Eva, Arachne, Anise, or Chris had left so much as a dent in the freshly fallen snow for the first ten minutes of walking. Only when she finally got tired did Eva break out the fire magic.

At least nothing worse than snow had fallen from the sky. Not since the enigmas had crashed down three days ago. Apparently one was still unaccounted for. Nel had seen eight things fall. Between Ylva, the Brakket security, Genoa, and Eva’s own enigma-demon creature, they had only dispatched seven. However, nobody around the city had mysteriously disappeared. Nobody had reported anything wrong. Not even pets had gone missing, apparently. Of course, nothing said that wild animals and birds weren’t being consumed in droves.

While she wasn’t too worried, the missing creature was cause for some concern. It was the other demon-feeling creature. She had tried to track it, but the feeling was so faint that she could hardly tell it existed, let alone where it existed. If it was anything like the other one, it would be fleeing from people rather than trying to eat them. So that was a plus. If it had tentacles on its back, it might even be trying to eat itself continuously, preventing it from causing any trouble.

She still had warned Anderson and his security force. They would try to locate it.

Eva wasn’t holding out much hope.

More importantly, she had arrived at the ritual circle. And found a single butterfly fluttering around in her stomach upon seeing it.

Her ward had held. In fact, it was still holding.

The hemisphere that was her ward had a thin layer of snow coating the entire thing. A giant dome of snow. It was thinner in some parts than others. The base where the dome met the ground was especially thick. But because of its size, it had a fairly gradual curve to it. Plenty of area for the snow to land on and not slide off. There were probably ways to prevent the dome from forming—infusing the ward with some heating element would probably work to melt it all off—but Eva hadn’t constructed it with that in mind. Truthfully, she hadn’t even considered that it would dome up like it had.

Raising a hand, Eva sent out a wave of fire magic-powered heat. Enough to form a decently sized doorway. Her melting disturbed the snow above the doorway for a good few feet, sending it all crashing down onto the ground. Thankfully, the ward worked perfectly fine on water as well as snow and kept the rapidly liquefying snow from pouring into the ritual circle itself.

Which meant that the ice-cold water ran right over her feet instead.

Eva hopped back, taking in a slight hiss of breath as she lit her feet on fire. Maybe a bit of an overreaction, but she really didn’t like the cold.

With dry though still slightly dirty feet, Eva stepped into the dome.

Her jaw just about hit the floor. Few things could actually make Eva stop and stare. Especially not general scenery. But the interior of the smooth crystal dome stopped her cold. Sunlight filtered through the layer of snow in thin rays. Weak sun, as it had already been stopped from its full brightness by the somewhat overcast sky outside the dome, but that was fine. If it were brighter, it might ruin the effect. Where the rays didn’t pierce the thin layer of snow, the sunlight diffused across the entire dome. It was like looking at a night sky except inverted from pitch black to brilliant white.

Pretty, but it really had to go.

Snapping out of her reverie, Eva turned slightly towards the entrance she had made and watched as her two followers stepped inside with the same slack-jawed gazes that she had initially walked in with. Luckily, she had been at the head of the group and therefore had not shown off her face to any of them. So she put on a slightly condescending smile instead.

“It’s beautiful,” Anise said. Her voice snapped Chris out of her gaze. Though Anise stayed staring at the ceiling, Chris turned to stare at Eva.

“Bit conspicuous, isn’t it? Giant white dome in the middle of the forest? You did mention that you wanted to keep this place a secret from others.”

Eva grinned as Arachne moved up to her side. “I’ve actually told a few people, getting second opinions on the project as well as double-checking that there are no errors in our work. However, you’re right,” she said with a nod of her head. “I’ll be spending some time walking around the thing, melting off the snow.”

“Aww,” Anise said, drooping her shoulders. “But it looks so pretty. I can’t believe I’ve never seen it around a weather ward before.”

“That’s because regular weather wards aren’t supposed to do this. Miss genius over there screwed up in her casting,” Chris said, waving her hand in Eva’s direction.

“Hey, it was my first time casting a ward of this type and of this size. Before this, a dinner plate was about the largest I had tried. I think I did pretty good.”

Chris crossed her arms, staring at Eva while making a slight ‘uh huh’ noise without opening her mouth. After a moment, she shook her head. “But you have some explaining to do.”

Eva sighed. She turned away and moved over to the makeshift resting area they had made up out of a tipped over log and a few plastic chairs they had borrowed from the school. It was just outside the main circle so that nobody had to worry about messing up part of the already constructed area while taking a break.

She had known that this would be coming. Anderson had released a slightly more detailed public statement regarding potential hazards around Brakket Academy. It mostly dealt with describing the enigmas and what they could look like, but it had mentioned a few other things as well. Namely, numerous uses of the word ‘appearing.’ He hadn’t explicitly mentioned enigmas falling from the sky, but between the odd shimmering in the violet streaks, the earthquake, and all the creatures showing up, rumors had been spreading. Even if most people had been focused on the ground, all it took was one person mentioning that the sky had been disturbed to diffuse that concern among the students.

Initially when recruiting Anise and Chris for the ritual project, Eva had explained it as them trying to replicate part of the magic involved in the streaks overhead.

That seemed to backfire a bit with the recent developments.

Sitting in one of the plastic chairs, Eva sank into it with her eyes shut. Behind her, Arachne stood with her arms crossed, doing her best to not glare at the nuns as Eva had asked.

No need to antagonize them. Yet, Arachne really wasn’t that good at not glaring. She had eight eyes, after all!

Devon, Catherine, and Lynn were all out at her prison dealing with their newest resident. Yet here she was, having to entertain these two nuns in order to keep them from telling about the ritual circle. Of course, she would have needed to come anyway because of the snow. The giant dome just stood out too much to be left alone.

She stayed still for just a moment before snapping her eyes open.

“What do you want to know?”

Telling them everything would be a risk. Zoe at least knew about the impending apocalypse and was open to suggestions for resolutions. These two didn’t. She could tell them, but that would rely on them believing her. Chris obviously didn’t like her much even after getting Ylva to help the two of them. Anise might be more receptive. It was really hard to tell. She didn’t speak all that much when Chris was around, choosing to let the latter handle most of their conversations.

If Eva asked them what they wanted to know rather than freely offer up information, maybe they would be vague enough that she could be vague back to them. The fact was that while Juliana was essentially grounded, Eva needed their help more than ever. Doubly so if Eva absolutely needed to use the ritual in the near future. She had wanted to use the ritual by the third event, but now that enigmas were falling from the sky, she might have to use it.

So she sat in her seat, arms crossed and staring as the two nun trainees exchanged looks with each other.

“What exactly happened the other day? The school got put on lockdown, then the earthquake. Creatures running around? He didn’t say demons, but they were, weren’t they?”

“Actually, no. I call them enigmas, but they don’t have real names as far as I know. The fact is that they don’t come from… originate from Hell. Therefore, they aren’t demons.”

Eva then went on to a slightly more detailed explanation. Their tendency to become what they eat was her primary focus. She carefully left Life out of the picture. They were Elysium Order nuns, but did they believe in Powers? Not if their previous conversation had been any indication. But it would be better to avoid mentioning Powers or the apocalypse if possible anyway. All they really needed to know was that they were fairly nasty beings and trying to invade Earth—she skipped over them invading Hell as well.

“Invaders?” Chris said, one hand on her hip. “What, like aliens wanting to conquer the planet?”

“I guess?” Eva didn’t really get what she was trying to say. Her tone, however, wasn’t as believing as she would have hoped. A thought that was confirmed when Chris glanced at Anise with a hefty scoff.

“There were only like five of them, right? Not much of an invasion. I don’t think anyone even got hurt.”

Anise stuck a finger in Chris’ side, causing the latter girl to jump sky-high. Chris whirled around and swatted away Anise’s finger with a glare.

“Weren’t you listening?” Anise asked. “She just said that they don’t die. Even if that’s wrong, what if they were just a scouting party?”

“Then they did a poor job of reporting back their findings. But,” she paused, pointing a finger towards Eva. “Let’s say that you aren’t lying. Again. How does that relate to the thing in the sky?”

“A tear in the fabric of reality or something. I’m not much of a theorist. You would have to ask Zoe—Professor Baxter—but they can use it to come to Earth.”

“Then why aren’t they constantly raining on us. We’ve been here for what, nearly two months? This is the first incident. Have there been previous ones?”

“Not like this one. And they aren’t raining on us because we’re actively pushing back against them.” Which wasn’t true in the slightest unless she included Void in the definition of ‘we.’ “This ritual circle is meant to permanently seal the hole. In a manner of speaking.”

“In a manner of speaking?”

“Well, I’m the construction contractor, not the architect. The exact details are a bit of a mystery to me.”

Her proclamation was met with a moment of silence between the two nuns. It only lasted a few seconds before Chris narrowed her eyes. “You’ve had us working on a ritual circle that you don’t know the specifics of?”

“You worked on a ritual circle that you don’t know the specifics of. I don’t want to hear your hypocrisy. Look,” Eva said, standing. Both girls actually took a step back as she moved. Eva ignored them. “I’m not the bad guy here. I’m trying to keep the world intact and whole. Bad things are afoot that I–we are trying to stop.

“But I can’t do it alone. I mean, I could probably grab a shovel and finish the ritual circle on my own, but even then, I need demons and humans placed around the circle to help power it.”

Eva paused, sighed, and sank back into her seat. She had gotten a little heated there and might have said slightly more than she originally wanted, but neither nun was running away or trying to destroy the ritual circle, so it was probably fine.

“So really, mind helping me finish this? I know we’re not the best of friends. Or friends at all. And you might not be extremely enthused with the help I got you for your excommunication problem. Not that you were very enthused with being excommunicated in the first place. But I digress. In light of the creatures appearing around, I would like to get this ready to go as soon as possible. I have third parties—including a professor here at Brakket—investigating the ritual to make sure it does what it’s advertised to do, but if another, larger attack happens, it needs to be ready.”

Speech finished, Eva crossed her arms and stared, looking at the two nuns with the most sincere face that she could muster.

If the two nuns backed out, she might need to talk to Juliana again. Something to keep them from talking like she had done with the vampire—though Eva still hadn’t seen any evidence that Zagan’s magic had worked. And, Eva might need to get Juliana out from under her mother’s eyes long enough to finish the circle. It shouldn’t be more than a few days worth of work. Especially not for Juliana, who was much more used to ritual circle construction than either of the nuns.

Failing that, Eva might have to resort to asking Juliana to use Zagan’s magic to complete the circle. If that happened, Catherine would need to take new pictures of the entire thing and double-check it all over again. Eva didn’t trust Zagan’s magic further than she could throw it. And that was before knowing that it wasn’t infallible. Apparently he had gotten an unexpected result when trying to change the color of Juliana’s clothing back in Hell. And, of course, he had lost against the armored hunter. There may have been extenuating circumstances. He may have been messing around. It might have even been intentional. Eva didn’t know. But she didn’t want him screwing over two planes of existence because he wanted a little more amusement in his life.

No. Actually, that was a terrible idea. In the span of one thought trail, Eva had reaffirmed her decision to not have Zagan finish the ritual. Shovel it was.

“So,” Eva said, “what’s the verdict? If you want to leave, I’m not going to kill you or anything. I’m sure Ylva will still help you out even.” Mostly because Ylva wasn’t acting on Eva’s orders. She just collected nuns for the fun of it. “Of course, I can’t allow you to go around telling everyone. There’s a reason for all the cloak and dagger secrecy around this project.”

Anise took a step forward, moving alongside Chris. “Can we talk about this?” she said, grabbing Chris’ wrist. “Alone?”

“Go ahead,” Eva said, waving a hand. Maybe they would be more open without Arachne glaring at them anyway. So Eva leaned back, staring at the snowy dome. “I suppose I should get this cleaned up. Shame, but necessary.”

As the two nuns left the dome out the entrance Eva had made earlier, she stood and approached the same entrance. Except she stopped just to the side. Raising her hand, Eva sent out a blast of heat. Much like the doorway, the snow collapsed down and melted to water before either dissipating into a fine mist or running off into the ground. Unfortunately, the entire slice of snow on the dome didn’t collapse. Even waving her arm around still left a huge amount of snow up towards the top of the dome. And then, it was only a tiny slice of the entire dome. The new sliver combined with the entrance she had made only cleared a fraction of it off.

It was clear that she needed to try something new.

Moving back towards the small rest area, Eva approached the ward’s core. A central bank of magic for most greater ward schemes. It functioned essentially as the magical battery that kept the whole dome afloat, working just like the central orb of blood for her blood shields. Except this one was invisible to the naked eye. Without already knowing where it was, she would have been hard pressed to locate it. Presumably, others would be as well. There had to be some ways of locating them. So far, they hadn’t covered any possible ways in class.

Normally, the ward’s core was used solely to infuse more magic into the overall ward. Like a battery to keep the shield running. It was also the single point within the ward that Eva could use to collapse the entire thing instantly. No need to go through the fairly laborious effort of infusing her magic into the shell then ripping it away.

Eva didn’t want to destroy the ward, however. Doing so would ruin the entire ritual circle. Maybe even worse than if she had simply not used a ward at all with all the weight of the snow crashing down at once instead of as tiny flakes.

Modifying it, on the other hand, should be possible. She just needed to infuse a little heat. It didn’t need to be much. Just a slight increase in temperature to let the dome melt. The dome didn’t need to be taken down right this second after all. It had stood overnight. Another hour or two wouldn’t hurt.

She didn’t get the chance to actually enact the changes. The two Elysium Order trainees came back in just in time to stop her.

Which, after getting half a second to think about it, was probably for the best. While Eva knew the theory behind modifying a ward, actually doing so wasn’t something she had done before. Creating a small-scale replica weather ward and then modifying that would probably be for the best. A little practice lowered the chance of her ruining all their hard work so far.

So she paused and turned to face the two girls.

“We’ll continue to work on the ritual,” Anise said.

Chris huffed and crossed her arms. “Under one condition. You told us that we couldn’t look at the ritual while being connected. We’re going to do so and see what the Elysium Order’s best have to say about this.”

Eva bit her lip. Lightly. Not enough to puncture the skin.

But… was that wise decision?

On one hand, them looking at it might do Catherine and Zoe’s job even faster. They might be able to point out mistakes and anything else odd about the circle.

On the other hand, Eva didn’t know exactly how the Elysium Order’s eye things worked. They could stare at it which would allow others in the Elysium Order to know about it. Some of those others might not like it regardless of her good intentions. Then, the ritual circle could easily come under attack by who knew how many nuns.

“Nope,” Eva said with a smile.

“Good. We’ll–What?”

“You’re being fired. Don’t worry, like I said, I’m not going to kill you or anything.”

Anise and Chris looked to each other with open mouths before Anise turned to Eva. “What do you mean, fired?”

“How else can I put this… You’re being let go. Your services are no longer required. Your beliefs put us into opposition with one another. Take your pick, I’ve got more.”

“But–But you needed us to finish this.”

“Irene and Saija are still helping. And Juliana. It will be slower, but we’ll manage. Probably.” Eva glanced towards Arachne and shrugged. “If we don’t, well, you’ll know when the apocalypse hits.”

“You can’t just–”

“I can, actually,” Eva said as Arachne shifted. The spider-demon didn’t actually move her feet, she just leaned ever so slightly forward.

Both of the nuns took a step back.

“Now, as I said, you can go. Tell anyone about this before the sky is back to normal and I promise that you will regret it. I can’t kill you because of those rings on your fingers, but I’ll put you through Hell as much as I can manage.” She paused for a moment, looking between them with a stern expression. “Now get out! Or stay and help. But if I see your eyes flare in the slightest, I’ll tear out those eyes from your chests with my bare hands.”

Arms crossed over her chest, Eva watched the two nuns run out of the snowy dome. She let out a light sigh as she pulled out her phone and scrolled down to Juliana’s number. Hopefully Zagan’s magic worked to keep the nuns’ mouths shut.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.015

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Ylva and Nel popped into the room, hand in hand. Nel in her dark robes and Ylva in her white sheer dress.

Eva jumped. Still leaning back in her chair with her feet propped up, she just about lost her balance and fell backwards. She managed to save herself with a quick blink to her feet just in front of the table.

To the best of her memory, Ylva had never teleported on her own before. She didn’t know why she hadn’t expected her to be able to. Given Ylva’s power level, it would be more surprising if she couldn’t teleport. Even Catherine could teleport.

She had been expecting Ylva to walk over from her home. Something that would take a few minutes. Eva hadn’t even put away her cellphone yet.

The two nuns were faring less well. Eva had been planning on warning them of Ylva’s appearance. With how fast Ylva had shown up, she hadn’t had the chance.

Both had jumped back with their eyes burning. A battle-axe made of white light had formed in Anise’s hand while Chris had lightning crackling at her fingertips again.

Eva was just about to blink between them and Ylva to keep anything unfortunate from happening when Ylva’s lips twitched into a frown.

The light disappeared from the nuns’ eyes. The lightning and axe faded into nothingness. They both jolted backwards as if physically struck. Anise actually stumbled as she took a few steps backwards in an attempt to retain her balance.

Ylva drew in a deep breath.

Eva stepped between them before she could say anything. Knowing her, she was probably about to bellow out a command for them to kneel or some such.

“Wait wait wait,” Eva said, holding up one hand palm out towards Ylva and another towards Anise and Chris. “I didn’t get a chance to warn them that you were coming. And you just sort of popped into a tense situation. So don’t hold them being startled against them. They need help, not a fight.”

“Help?” Chris just about shrieked from behind Eva. Her teeth grit together as soon as she spoke. Both of her hands were pressed up against her eyes with her fingers rubbing her scalp. “That demon is the one who killed the inquisitors.”

“Yeah, she is,” Eva said. “Who better to protect Anise than someone who has already proven themselves capable?”

“Eva,” Ylva intoned with her deep voice. “Explain why you have brought these two before Us.”

Feeling her mouth dry out a little, Eva swallowed. Ylva did not sound happy. She hadn’t minded when Nel asked for asylum. Though had she made Nel kneel? Nel might have knelt on her own after prompting from Eva and Zoe. She couldn’t actually remember.

Maybe she should have just let Ylva kneel them.

“Alright,” Eva said slowly. Might as well start explaining from the start. “If you want to take a seat, it might be a few minutes.”

Eva had considered leaving. Juliana and Irene both were still out at the ritual field, after all. While they shouldn’t be expecting her right away because of her excuse to find more help, she still wanted to get out there and at least supervise if not help out as well.

She had been planning on leaving initially. Perhaps even before Ylva arrived. Her main goal in bringing Ylva to meet the two nuns had mostly been to dump the problem off on somebody else. But then Ylva had ordered her to tell the story of what was going on.

And now she had to admit that she also wanted to stick around just to find out what was going to happen.

Nel, a paranoid former nun and augur, had nodded her head every time Eva mentioned the possibility of the Elysium Order being mildly unpleasant towards its members. She would be doing absolutely nothing to convince either of the two nuns that they would be safe if they submitted to the inquest.

Especially because Chris seemed somewhat paranoid on her own.

Ylva, a demon and servant of Death, had something of a habit of collecting nuns. So long as Nel and Alicia were enough to form a habit.

At least Chris and Anise weren’t going to be tortured into serving her. Probably.

Eva would be lying if she said she was upset about Alicia’s death. Alicia had been… creepy. And not like normal creepy, which most people Eva associated with were. Eva had been almost certain that Alicia would snap some day and try to kill everyone. Especially Nel. Possibly including Ylva.

Throughout Eva’s explanation, helped along at certain points by Chris and Anise, Ylva had remained silent. Her cold eyes had followed Eva’s every move. She had only glanced away when Chris or Anise spoke up. They had never spoke for long. Never more than a word or two before Ylva’s glare had them falling silent and looking down at their laps.

Which Eva had found mildly annoying. This was their problem. Not hers.

But she made it through the explanation anyway.

“We see,” Ylva said slowly. She still wasn’t sounding happy. Then again, Ylva never sounded happy. At least she wasn’t sounding absolutely livid. “And these two children seek protection?”

Both shirked under her gaze.

Eva looked to both of them. She may have told their story, but they needed to be the ones who actually decided. They were perfectly capable of answering on their own. Not to mention, Eva didn’t want to assume. If they really wanted to, Eva wouldn’t stop them from going back to the Elysium Order. A poor idea in her opinion. Still, it was their choice.

It took a moment for them to realize that Eva wasn’t going to respond for them.

Anise looked up first. Blinking in confusion, she met Eva’s eyes with a slight tilt of her head.

Eva returned her gesture with a nod towards Ylva.

Meeting Ylva’s gaze lasted less than a second before Anise found her feet to be the most interesting things in the room once again. She stared for another few seconds before clenching her fists.

“I’m not going to sell my soul to a demon just to avoid the inquest.” Her eyes were still glued to the ground, but she spoke with a firm conviction.

Eva wasn’t sure if she was being literal or speaking metaphorically. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” Eva said, deciding to answer the literal worry. “Demons don’t care about your soul.”

“We could not claim a soul as recompense,” Ylva said. “Your soul is your own. Only Death may claim otherwise.”

“See,” Eva said with a smile. “No soul selling.”

“Payment to Us would be rendered through servitude.”

“I’m not going to be a slave,” Anise shouted. She actually stood up and turned a glare on Ylva, apparently more angry about that than about selling her soul. The glare only lasted an instant before she stumbled back. Chris pulled her back down to her seat.

Ylva didn’t react much beyond a simple frown.

Nel, on the other hand, went from slightly slouched to completely stiffening her back. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she narrowed her gaze. “I am not a slave,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. “I serve Lady Ylva of my own free will. Not because she forces me to, but because I am grateful to her. She saved me from a situation very much like your own.”

Her hand reached up to her throat. She brushed the tips of her fingers over the black band as her thumb ran over the small skull dangling from the front.

“If you want to go back and face the Elysium Order, that is your choice. Don’t disparage mine because of your ignorance.”

Eva found herself frowning as she stared at Nel. The augur was loyal to Ylva. Extremely so. Not a bad or fanatical kind of loyal either. For the most part, at least. But Eva hadn’t thought that she might get so upset about someone calling her a slave. Especially because, if memory served, Nel had thought the exact same thing upon accidentally indenturing herself to Ylva when they first met.

Obviously she had gotten over that little hang-up.

Ylva kept her face impassive and expressionless as she looked down at Nel. The two were seated side by side on the opposite end of the room from the nuns. Even seated, Ylva towered over everyone else.

For just a moment, nothing happened. Something passed between Nel and Ylva. Something that Eva was not privy to.

“They’re children,” Nel said after looking back to the two nuns. She shook her head. “They probably have family. Unless they’re willing to abandon everything, they won’t be able to work with us the way I do or Alicia did.”

After a curt nod of Ylva’s head, she stood. “Very well. We shall leave them be.”

“But,” Nel said with a slight sigh, “we should help them. If only because Eva thinks that the Elysium Order is biding its time until they can try to recover or kill me.”

Ylva went silent for a long minute. Nel shifted under her gaze, trying to look Ylva in the eye with confidence while fighting with her more subservient personality.

At least, that was what Eva got out of her expression.

The two nuns sat in their seats. Although they kept glancing to one another, neither made any attempt to speak. They looked more like two kids from Eva’s old school when they knew that they were in trouble and were sent to the principal’s office.

“What do you propose?”

Nel brightened, her fight ended as her lips curled into a small smile.

“We could go to the inquest in their place. Tell the Elysium Order, again, to leave us alone. Them as well,” she said with a slight nod towards the two girls. “Leave the inquisition with some ominous message like how we’re always watching them or something. That might discourage them from trying to come after me, at least.

“Of course, the Elysium Order probably won’t like it. They’ll probably be watching those two for a long time with a great deal of suspicion. But it is better than having their eyes torn out.”

“Acceptable,” Ylva said after another long silence. “Though We still require some payment. If they do not wish to serve Us, they will report to Us. Any rumors of the Elysium Order acting out against Ourself, you, or them.”

She clasped her hands together, not really in a clap, just cupping them as if she were hiding something. Both hands went palm down on the table. When she pulled back, two black rings with faint skulls engraved on the front had appeared on the table. A flick of her fingers sent them skidding across the table.

“Place them on your fingers,” she said as they came to a rest in front of the two nuns.

The two stared at the rings, then at each other, then back to the rings.

“Is it really that simple?” Anise said, holding her hand out in front of her as she examined the little black ring. “We put this on and all of our problems go away?”

Chris didn’t look half as convinced. She kept putting the ring on then taking it off, as if checking that such a thing was even possible. She almost tripped over a small depression in the dirt because her focus was on her ring.

Eva shook her head. “Nope. Not that easy. The ring won’t actually do much except ward off a few demons. Unless, of course, Ylva did something different this time. Maybe you can talk to her through them. You need a way to report in, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re spying for a demon of all things.”

“Yeah,” Eva said with a slight shrug, “It isn’t that weird. The Elysium Order are undead specialists. I don’t see why you can’t work with a demon who also fights against the undead.”

What is Ylva?” Chris said, finally taking her attention off the ring. “What makes her trustworthy? Why does she fight undead? I saw it. It was just for an instant right when she appeared, but she was a skeleton. At first I thought it was just because of teleporting, but thinking back, Augur Stirling appeared like a normal person.”

Eva gave Chris a pointed look. Had she worn glasses, she probably would have been looking over the top rim. “Those are all questions you should have asked before accepting the rings. But,” Eva said, raising a hand before Chris could open her mouth, “Ylva is a hel. One ‘l’. A daughter of Hel, one of two demons who are Gods of Death.”

Both girls stilled. It was subtle as they both were still walking alongside Eva, but still noticeable. Especially to her sense of blood.

“Death?” Anise said in a barely audible whisper.

“Powers are a myth,” Chris said with a wave of her hand. “A tale to tell children to get them to behave. ‘Oooh, better be good or the leprechauns will drag you off to Knocknasheega.'” Rolling her eyes, she scoffed. “Please.”

Eva couldn’t help the grin that grew on her face.

“We live in a world full of demons and undead, dragons and magic, and you don’t think that there can be something else out there? Something larger than all of that? You don’t think Death takes offense to liches when they seal their soul within golden idols?”

“Of course there can be. But they aren’t watching us. A being equivalent to the mythical Powers wouldn’t care about Earth or people. Death wouldn’t care about a handful of random undead.”

Eva shook her head with a slight chuckle. “I wonder how long ago the Elysium Order was founded.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Oh just something I was told about their origins. More specifically, from where they first got all those eyes in your chests.”

“You aren’t going to say a Power did it, are you?”

“Yes, actually. How do you think Ylva, a servant of Death, shut down your magic so hard that you actually physically felt it?”

Chris scoffed again. “She’s a demon. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had some anti-magic field that she could activate at will.”

Anise, trailing slightly behind, took a few quick steps to catch up. She cleared her throat. “Why was she able to block our connections?”

“That would probably be because the power that powers your power is the Power known as Death.”

“Preposterous.”

“Well,” Eva said with a shrug, “believe what you want to believe. But since you’re so adamant about not believing in Powers, perhaps you might help me construct a large ritual circle designed to do absolutely nothing at all?”

Both of them stopped cold and exchanged a look with each other.

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked. While her tone had been conversational, she had taken on a somewhat hostile stance. Her eyes were narrowed to thin slits.

Did the talk of a ritual circle spook them? Or the Powers? Both put together?

Eva wasn’t sure.

But she pointed at Chris. “You said you would do whatever I asked if I helped you with your problem. I’m in the middle of constructing a large ritual circle and could really use some help with it. So you’re going to help me. Right?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Anise said, backing up a few steps. “We never agreed to anything. Except the spying.”

“Nope. I distinctly heard Chris saying she would do whatever I wanted. What I want is for you to help me with this thing. One of you has to be at least mildly proficient with earth magic, right?”

The two looked at each other. Neither confirmed it, but neither denied it either. Unless they were both air mages, one of them should at least have the capability to manipulate earth, even if they couldn’t match Genoa or even Juliana.

Really, what she was doing was risky and dangerous. For all Eva knew, they would try to destroy the ritual circle upon seeing it. She was counting on them to be at least somewhat grateful that she had helped out, even if Ylva was the one who was going to be doing all the work.

Even then, by Ylva showing up in their place and threatening or potentially killing everybody, Eva was really doing nothing at all to dissuade them of their belief that Eva could mind control anyone that came near.

Which wasn’t that bad of an idea, now that she thought about it. If sending more people after her wound up with them ‘mind controlled’ then they would stop sending people at all sooner or later. Hopefully. She might be giving the Elysium Order too much credit.

As for Anise and Chris, Eva had definitely learned from Irene. No mentioning the apocalypse or Ragnarök or Armageddon or any other end of the world scenario. In fact, she might be a little stingy on exactly what the ritual circle was supposed to accomplish as well. She wasn’t quite sure what to tell them instead, but she was sure she could come up with something.

Maybe looking through a ritual book might give her some ideas. But were there even other kinds of ritual circles this large?

Eva leaned back, staring up to the sky. Despite the purple streaks still hanging overhead, not many from the other schools seemed to even notice. She certainly hadn’t heard murmurs about it from all the other students wandering the halls these days. Did they all believe the made-up story given by Martina?

Her smile widened as a thought occurred to her.

“Well, we’re already out here. Might as well show you the ritual circle.”

Anise blinked and glanced around. She almost looked like she hadn’t even realized that they had been walking through the Infinite Courtyard.

After leaving Ylva and Nel, Eva had started walking off mostly on her own. It wasn’t her fault the two decided to follow after her with all their questions and concerns.

“What are we doing out here?”

“Not much farther,” Eva said as she walked up a short incline. The top of the ridge led out to the area she had cleared away for the ritual. “Irene, Juliana! I brought help!” she called out.

Only to frown as she looked over the football field sized clearing.

Irene was out in the middle of the clearing with Saija walking alongside her. But no Juliana and no Arachne. No Srey either, but he hadn’t been around near as much since the hunters stopped spying on them.

She looked up at Eva’s call and started walking, only to get swept up by Saija. The small cry of alarm as they flew over was something Eva almost wished she had been able to record, if only to play it back for her own petty amusement.

“Juliana went off to fight Arachne again,” Irene said once she got her feet firmly on the ground. Her eyes flicked over to the two nuns as she leaned in to whisper. “What are they doing here?”

“They are going to help out,” Eva said, turning to the two girls and pointing at the sky. “I assume you’ve seen the purple streaks.”

Chris nodded. “Hard to miss. Some agriculture project, right?”

Eva didn’t answer. She simply smiled. “We’re trying to recreate part of how that came to be,” she eventually said with a wide grin.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.014

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Oh no,” Eva groaned.

At first she had thought it was mere coincidence. People around school, especially those in her age group, often went to the same locations. As such, it shouldn’t be too odd if some people followed her around all day. They visited the same classrooms or simply had class nearby.

However, most people wouldn’t walk around the school after class had ended for the day. Neither would they make three complete circuits without finding their destination. Even if they were from a foreign school.

Eva sighed, coming to a stop in the middle of the hallway. It had been a good two weeks since she had gotten the Elysium trainees to stop following her around. A time that, unfortunately, had been too good to last.

She considered just confronting them in the hallway and finding out what they wanted as soon as possible. The thought never made it past the consideration stage. Other people wandered the hallways even though school was out for the day, visiting clubs or professors. Depending on what they wanted to harass her about, Eva didn’t want the whole school knowing about it.

So, with a sigh, she continued down the hallway until she found an empty classroom. She lingered outside just long enough to make sure the two girls saw her enter.

Arachne wasn’t around this time to give her support. She, Irene, and Juliana were already out at the ritual field. Apparently Juliana wanted to get out there early for a quick sparring session with Arachne. Irene didn’t have much else to do and still didn’t know the way properly even after three days of heading out there, so she had followed the two of them.

Eva had decided to stay behind and see if she couldn’t recruit anyone else to help out. Irene hadn’t been quite the force multiplier that Eva had hoped she would be. Overall, work was proceeding faster. However, she wasn’t quite up to Juliana’s level.

Not to mention Saija’s almost constant distractions.

Though, Juliana offered a number of tips to try to help Irene carve out segments faster. Which made Eva quite happy as she hadn’t even been lying when she said it could count as training for the next event.

Who she might recruit to help out, Eva couldn’t decide. Irene hadn’t reacted all that well to being told the world might be ending. Someone else might react worse. That pretty much limited Eva to people who knew her decently well. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby… and that was about it. Only one of whom were earth mages. Jordan. And Eva wasn’t so sure about bringing him in on the project given his ties to Dean Anderson.

Anderson might not be too happy with her creating a large ritual circle on school grounds. Especially not during this whole tournament. People might get nervous about Brakket if word got out about it all. So he was out.

Maybe Genoa. She already knew that Void was under attack and such. Of course, she could probably wave a hand and turn the entire field into the proper ritual circle all at once. Her drastic help would be appreciated.

Unless she tried to stop the ritual circle. In that case, she could wave her hand and destroy all the hard work they had put into it thus far. Eva hadn’t brought it up with Juliana yet and she couldn’t guess at how Genoa might react on her own.

But, finding help would have to wait until later.

Eva took a seat on top of a table, crossed her legs and her arms, and waited.

The door burst open an instant later, slamming into the wall, bouncing off the doorstopper, and almost smacking the first angry nun right in her face.

Shoving the door back with slightly less force, she continued into the room as if nothing had happened. Her eyes flared white as she marched up to Eva with her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

Anise followed the first nun inside. Unlike her companion, Anise was almost tiptoeing. After her initial glance at Eva, her eyes drifted down and to one side, avoiding eye contact.

Chris—if Eva remembered the name Anise had given for her companion the other night—was obviously the more agitated of the two and the more dangerous, so she chose to focus on her. The lightning crackling over the nun’s clenched fist had Eva sitting slightly straighter. She was almost wishing that she could freely use blood magic. A shield would be most welcome at the moment.

Blinking out of the way the second the nun moved her hands would have to suffice.

“Alright,” Eva said. “What is it this time?”

“What did you do to her?” Chris asked, voice low and menacing. As menacing as a girl a year older than Eva could get, anyway.

Eva blinked and glanced to Anise…

Who just sighed and shook her head without meeting Eva’s eyes.

“I don’t know what–”

“She,” Chris shouted, thrusting a lightning tipped finger at Anise, “comes in after the event all like, ‘Oh, maybe demons aren’t so bad,’ and ‘Maybe it was all a misunderstanding,’ and ‘I really hate tentacles.'”

“Well, none of that sounds wrong to me. Except, I’ve heard that massages–”

“Of course it is wrong. You’ve poisoned her mind.”

Eva held up a hand, finger in the air. “One point before you continue: I have absolutely no magical abilities that let me alter people’s minds in any way shape or form.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?” Chris said, thrusting her hands to her hips.

“Well, yeah. Otherwise you wouldn’t be bothering me. I’d make you think I wasn’t here or something. I do have things to do that don’t involve entertaining your outlandish conspiracy theories, after all.”

Chris clenched her teeth. Her arms shook at her side as she struggled with herself.

After a moment of remaining silent, her hands unclenched and she let out a soft sigh. The lightning trails disappeared from her fingertips as the flames in her eyes died down.

“Please,” she said, voice much more subdued. “Please undo whatever you did to her. I’ll do whatever you want, take me instead.”

Eva blinked in confusion. She glanced over to Anise—who was now rolling her eyes—before blinking a second time.

“What?”

“I told you,” Anise said, stepping forwards and placing a hand on Chris’s shoulder. “She didn’t do anything to me. And I don’t think that demons aren’t so bad.”

Chris ran the sleeve of her shirt across her face.

Is she crying? Eva thought, trying to keep her face as blank as possible. She wasn’t sure what to think about that. Maybe if she had actually done something, she would feel slightly guilty. But she hadn’t.

“Right,” Eva said. She blinked straight past the two nuns, reappearing next to the door. “You two clearly have things you need to work out between yourselves, so I’ll just be seeing myself out.”

“She’s facing an inquest!” Chris shouted before Eva could wrap her hand around the handle.

For a moment, Eva considered ignoring her and continuing on her way. She had already been involved with the Elysium Order enough for a lifetime or two. An inquest sounded particularly troublesome. Though, to Eva’s knowledge, the Elysium Order still had yet to remake an inquisitorial chapter. Whoever was doing the inquisitoring was probably a single individual or small group that hadn’t been part of Ylva’s massacre.

She had a feeling that they were still mad about that. That and the theft of their obelisk. If they were just biding their time until they found a good time to strike, it would probably be best to know about it sooner rather than later.

So Eva turned with a mild sigh. Anise still refused to meet her eyes while Chris was glaring with just as much intensity as she had before. Except her eyes had a slight sheen of liquid over them instead of the previous flames.

“And?” Eva said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What does her inquest have to do with me?”

“They–They want to recall her. Both of us, though I’m not under any suspicion. The entire Elysium Order watched the event the other night. They saw her listen to and take orders from you without significant questioning. She never fought back or tried to make an advantage for herself.”

Eva glanced to Anise with a frown. “As much as I appreciated not being stabbed in the back, that’s her fault, not mine.”

“I know.” Chris looked over her shoulder. “Anise is… a nice girl.”

“That doesn’t sound like a compliment coming from you,” Anise mumbled under her breath.

Chris acted as if she hadn’t heard, not even glancing towards her partner. “But the higher-ups saw what they saw.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with me. Can’t she just go tell them she isn’t being mind-controlled and be done with it all?”

“You don’t understand. We–People–Students are not normally implanted with the Eye of God. You know about them, right?” she said, tapping at her chest just above where her eye was fused into her skin.

Eva shrugged and nodded her head. “Yeah, they’re how I noticed you two were part of the Elysium Order.”

Chris narrowed her eyes but, after a moment of consideration, did not press the matter. “They’re valuable. Extremely valuable. Almost impossible to grow healthy ones and time-consuming to boot. They can make a mundane human capable of casting magic. Several of them can allow someone to see anywhere on the planet with only a few things being able to stop their sight.

“We were given them while still students specifically to watch you,” Chris said, pointing a finger right at Eva. “To observe you and gather data for the Elysium Order as a whole. All so that we could use them to form better tactics and plans.”

Outwardly, Eva kept her feelings hidden. Her face became a plastic mask with no twitching of her lips or even a slight narrowing of her eyes. She kept her arms crossed. Even her lightly tapping finger continued tapping at the same pace.

But she had half a mind to reach forward and tear the eyes from their chests where they stood.

“If we fail,” she said, voice solemn and slow, apparently failing to notice Eva’s inner feelings. “If they decide to revoke the Eye of God, we won’t just lose access to the Elysium Order magic.”

Eva didn’t ask whether that meant their lives or something else. She didn’t quite trust herself to speak without lashing out at their mission just yet.

“However,” she said, “the higher-ups have grown nervous after watching the event. Sisters who have come into contact with you have had a habit of… going rogue,” she said, almost whispering. “Sister Cross, Sister Heiden, Sister Cole, and, of course, Augur Stirling.”

Eva almost opened her mouth to say that she had no idea who two of those were. But one was probably Alicia. The other… maybe one of the nuns who had been stationed at Brakket Academy during her first year.

“The three would be bad enough on their own. Especially given Sister Cole’s theft of several Elysium Order secrets. Sister Stirling is the one who really set them off on the warpath. Once it came to light that she had lost a small portion of her eyes to a necromancer of all things, they only grew more concerned. Yet they cannot move against her so long as she is with that demon.”

Before the trainee nun could go off on too much of a tangent about Nel, Eva interrupted her with a wave of her hand towards Anise.

“Now they’re worried that she’s falling for my irresistible charms?” Technically, Ylva had been the one collecting all the nuns.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Anise grumbled with a mild glare. She only kept her gaze up for a few moments before sighing and dropping her eyes back to the floor.

Maybe she hadn’t been intentionally avoiding Eva’s gaze. She could just as easily be depressed to the point of despair.

“Still don’t know why she can’t say that she’s not being mind-controlled. Because she isn’t. None of them are. Sister Cross has a kid she’s worried about. And Nel? She’s just paranoid that the Elysium Order is trying to kill her. Which seems fairly reasonable, actually, given what I know about your Order. Alicia… well, she did get her head screwed with. But that wasn’t me. I was mostly dead at the time.”

The two glanced at each other, Chris looking mildly smug at the admission.

“I should be able to do just that,” Anise said. “The question is whether or not they’ll believe me.”

“So what, you need proof or something? Should we go pretend to fight where some cameras can see us?”

“It isn’t that simple,” Chris said. She tapped at her chest again. “It isn’t sapient, but it will definitely be able to tell the difference between serious fighting and a mock spar.”

“Surely your superiors don’t want a school associated with the Elysium Order to be caught actually trying to murder another student, even if it is an enemy. Otherwise you would have killed the vampire by now.”

Eva walked back around the pair as Chris shifted uncomfortably where she stood. So long as she was actually going to stick around for a short time, she might as well relax in a proper chair. It didn’t seem like either of the nuns were going to attack her.

Still, what an annoying situation.

The Elysium Order really needed to learn when to quit. She had thought they learned after Ylva destroyed their inquisitors. Obviously not. They had just been biding their time. Though Eva did admit that she might have kicked their hive when she stole the obelisk.

“So,” Eva said as she sat down and kicked her feet up on the table. “What do you want from me? I’m not mind-controlling her, so don’t ask me to make that better.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Anise said with a shake of her head. “I told Chris. She’s just being unreasonable.” Pinching her fingers around the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, Anise turned towards the door. “This is my problem.”

Chris slapped Anise’s hand away as she faced her. “They’re going to excommunicate you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“They don’t want another traitor to go turncoat in the middle of a mission. They won’t take the chance.”

“You don’t know–”

Anise stumbled backwards, hand pressed to her cheek.

Chris nursed the palm of her hand as she glared up at Anise.

You need to take this more seriously.”

“You think I’m not?” Anise shouted, voice hard. “You think I want to go before the inquisitors? You think I want to get this eye torn out of my chest? They aren’t going to be nice about it. They weren’t nice putting it in. Hell, I’ll be lucky if they don’t kill me.”

Eva, who had been sitting still and silent while they had their little fight, blinked. “Seriously? Kill you? For not attacking me during a friendly event between schools? I wasn’t even the one to suggest the truce among our group. That was Emily.”

Chris looked back with a start, almost like she had forgotten Eva was in the room. After a short stare, she shook her head. “The Elysium Order is very black and white. An ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mindset.”

Eva opened her mouth to argue, but a little consideration had her stopping and snapping her mouth shut. Nel had been convinced that the Elysium Order was out to kill her. Or at least Lynn Cross. Then the inquisitors had attacked the prison and made an attempt to get to her while in the hands of Sawyer. Nothing had happened since, but Ylva had effectively taunted the entire Order.

Of course, Nel was an augur. She was somewhat special.

But then, Lynn Cross had probably not been hiding halfway around the world in the middle of nowhere because she had been worried that Eva would be coming after her. And, by her own admission, the Elysium Order had locked her up before she managed to escape.

So really, Eva had no argument against them trying to kill Anise, though she felt locking her up would be more likely though still extreme.

“You know what?” Eva said after a moment. “I’ve got someone you might like to speak with.”

— — —

Nel walked alongside Ylva, each step slow and somber. She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead. It wasn’t easy. Everywhere she looked, something strange waited in the shadows. Things that she couldn’t quite name, but were there, watching her. It had been that way ever since Ylva tapped her on her forehead.

Ever since Alicia’s death.

To her left, an elderly man sat patiently on a bench. A faint ghost of a smile lingered on his face as he watched the people around him.

The people around him were far less serene. Paramedics ran around his body, sprawled out before the park bench. One placed a clear mask over his mouth and began squeezing down on a flimsy plastic tube attached to the mask. Two more helped him up on a stretcher while a third attached medical electrodes to his chest.

Yet the elderly man continued to watch with his peaceful smile.

To his side, a short girl only ten or eleven years old with brilliant gold hair watched with him, absolutely undisturbed by the body lying at their feet. She turned to him and opened her mouth. Soundless words passed over her lips.

“The reaper is offering a choice,” Ylva said, coming to a stop a short distance away. “His time is not yet up. He may choose to return to his body or he may pass on his remaining time to a close relative. His wife or children. Even grandchildren.”

Despite Ylva wearing her sheer dress and Nel having strange robes on, nobody glanced in their direction. People who happened to look in their direction failed to notice. Their eyes merely slid off the two to look at whatever they wanted to see. Which was probably a good thing if they wanted to avoid people panicking. It was broad daylight out. As such, Ylva wasn’t just a giant woman. She was a skeleton.

Only the young girl managed to see the two of them. She gave a light nod of her head towards Ylva as she spoke to the elderly man.

“A choice very few receive.”

“Theoretically,” Nel said, “couldn’t someone achieve very long lives if others, maybe relatives or friends, figured out what happens with near death experiences and the offer made? They could decide to pass before their times and offer the rest of their lives all to one person. I mean, they would be sacrificing their lives, but I imagine some people out there would be willing to do so for others.”

“A choice very few receive,” Ylva said again, though she had a slight smile on her face as she glanced towards Nel. “There are systems in place to prevent abuse. And, should he return to his body, he will remember nothing of his choice or near death aside from a few faint delusions.”

“I see,” Nel said, voice soft.

They continued watching for another few minutes. As his body got placed on a stretcher and loaded up in the ambulance, the little girl—the reaper—moved over to sit on the bench to his side. His faint smile slowly faded as she spoke a few more words.

“What is he unhappy about?”

“His body causes him near-constant pain. At the moment, he is feeling none of it. However, he makes a great deal of money for his family, giving his children and his wife comfortable lives. At the same time, he won’t always be making money. At some point in the future, his life may become a burden on his descendants.”

Ylva turned her body fully to face Nel.

“Being asked to make such a choice is not easy for most mortals. Even now, essentially dead, he does not truly comprehend what lies beyond life. Compounding the problem, he does not have long to make the choice. The reaper has given him an ultimatum. He must choose before his body reaches the hospital.”

Nel let out a small breath.

When she had asked about reapers and valkyrie, she had thought that she would be training. Learning to magically fight at a higher level or otherwise increasing her magical abilities.

Ylva had nothing of the sort in mind.

Instead, they had gone on field trips. Every few days, Ylva would announce that they were off someplace. She never gave any warning. The time of day varied. They had gone in the middle of the night and they had gone at noon. Ylva never cared if Nel was sleeping or eating or bathing.

And Nel hadn’t complained once.

A beep from her pocket broke Nel out of her reverie. Her brand new cellphone—one Zoe had gifted her—had a new message.

“It’s Eva,” Nel said after reading through the contents. “Not an emergency, but she has people who want to talk to me.”

The phone beeped again.

“Us,” she corrected.

“Very well,” Ylva said. “We have seen enough. Tell her that We will meet with her.”

Nel nodded and sent back a message. Less than ten seconds later, her phone beeped again.

“She’s currently at the school but can meet us anywhere.”

“The school will suffice.”

After sending the message, Nel looked up. The old man had yet to make his decision. Or perhaps he had made it and was just enjoying a pain-free existence for the moment, unfettered by his body or what lay beyond. She thought to ask Ylva if they might stay long enough to hear his response.

But reconsidered.

His choice was obviously not the reason they had come out here.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.011

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva didn’t sit around to chat with Randal. A more in-depth questioning on what abilities his bound demon gave him could wait until after they had won this thing.

She had a bad feeling. Nothing with any real reason behind it, just a chill up her spine.

Blinking to the base of the pyramid, Eva hesitated for a second. The stairwell was still a smooth earthen slide. Rather than wait and see if Emily would reverse the staircase, she jumped.

The bottom segment of the pyramid was the largest. She couldn’t jump it all in a single bound. She could, however, dig her hands and feet into the wall. After making a sufficient platform for leverage, she jumped the rest of the way up.

And landed right between Anise and Emily again.

Compared to how she had seen them a mere minute ago, roughly calm but worried about Randal and the Faultline student, they both looked at Eva with some trepidation.

Eva opened her mouth to speak.

Anise beat her to it. She clasped the sides of her head with a loud groan. “I should have attacked you. Or your friend. Now there’s two of you and I still haven’t seen anyone from my school. Ah, I wish Chris were here. She wouldn’t have hesitated to attack you.”

Unless she attacked me right at the start and I knocked her out then, Eva didn’t bother saying. Instead she said, “We’re not going to attack you or anything. You two come up with us and who knows, maybe your schoolmates will show up and you can attack us. Or we activate some trap before winning and get knocked out, leaving you two to take over.”

“I am perfectly content with that plan,” Emily said after a moment of silence. “I mean, I don’t want to speak bad about my school… but I’m probably the only one left. They… we aren’t…”

Eva glared. She wasn’t angry. But she was on a time limit.

“That’s great. We can all have a heart to heart and be friends later. I left Rachael up there with the dryad and I’ve got a bad feeling. Let’s go.”

She took a step, preparing to jump up the stairs to the top, but paused and turned.

“Though if you could turn the stairs back to normal, I’m sure Randal would appreciate it.”

Randal was still within her blood sight range. He was struggling. A lot. He was trying to brace himself against where the stairs would be and the decorative slope between the stairwell and the main pyramid walls. Every now and again, he slid down.

Eva didn’t wait to see if Emily would comply. She half expected Rachael to be watching from the top, yet there was no silhouette against the moonlight sky. They might try attacking Randal, but he could probably handle it if they did. Especially if his magic canceling orbs worked on Elysium Order magic.

She hopped and hopped and hopped until the topmost plateau came in range of her blood sight.

A swear escaped her lips that would undoubtedly be censored over the airwaves.

Eva hopped to the top of the pyramid. Before her feet even touched the ground, she blinked and reappeared next to the vine-wrapped pillar.

A swipe of her fingers had several vines snapping, freeing Rachael. She slumped forwards. Only the tension of the vines had been holding her upright. Her hand pressed up against two bleeding holes in her shoulder.

“He was just waiting for you to leave,” she said, voice soft and lethargic.

Eva didn’t need to ask who ‘he’ was. The vampire had taken more blood than Eva would be comfortable with. Rachael should be fine. Potions could have her fixed up without trouble. Her neck was only lightly bleeding, so her life shouldn’t be in danger as long as she didn’t make the wound worse. Which made sense. The vampire wouldn’t want to kill anyone just as much as Eva didn’t want to.

Probably.

Rachael’s wand was missing as well. Stolen or perhaps flung off the pyramid along with the Faultline wand. Eva had spares from the other members of Faultline. Unfortunately, they were worthless unless Rachael was actually up to the task of wielding one.

“I knew I should have thrown that dryad off the pyramid.”

Rachael let out a few low chuckles. “There are slots for the marbles,” she said, pointing towards the center of the pyramid. “It opened up into an elevator. They went inside. You might be able to catch them before they win this.”

“I hope so,” Eva said as she looked to where Rachael had pointed.

Sure enough, there was a shallow indentation right in the center that looked like it would be the perfect size for the marbles they had received to determine their teams.

But they must have gone pretty deep into the temple. Eva could see the dryad having slipped by her blood sense, but the vampire stuck out like a sore thumb. She hadn’t sensed either of them on her ascent back up the pyramid.

Eva’s first instinct was to run to the elevator, drop her marble in, and give immediate chase.

But then it would be her versus the dryad and the vampire. Alone. Exactly the situation she had been trying to avoid by dragging along the trainee nun this whole time.

Eva blinked to the edge of the stairs.

At least Randal and the others weren’t fighting. And they were hurrying up the stairs. But, only being halfway to the third landing, they were going far slower than Eva needed. Despite having started all the way at the base, Randal had passed by the two girls.

Cupping her hands to her mouth, Eva shouted down at them. “Move it people!”

Both Anise and Emily looked up at her with identical expressions on their faces.

They stared up at her with open mouths, panting as they used her shout as an excuse to stop moving.

It isn’t that far, Eva thought with a groan. Sure, the temple was probably twice the size of the absurdly large ritual circle. But they only had to go half the length of it. Uphill. Rather, upstairs. Which was probably worse if she thought about it for a moment.

But they didn’t have to be so slow about it.

That simply wouldn’t do.

Eva blinked straight down to Anise. Ignoring her yelp, Eva gave her a light shove. Just enough to knock her off-balance. Once off-balance, Eva scooped her up into her arms and started jumping back up the pyramid. Her hops up were shorter than they could be while on her own, but still much faster than Anise climbing unassisted.

“Don’t drop–”

At the top, Eva ignored Anise’s complaints and unceremoniously dropped her on the ground. She ran back to the stairs…

And considered leaving Emily behind once again. Randal was hightailing it up the pyramid and would be at the top soon enough. Even if they left her behind, Emily could still come down the elevator. Probably. Assuming it wasn’t limited in its uses.

If the first to use it was the only one who could, then Eva had already lost. She had to believe that the game wasn’t over yet.

The simple fact of the matter was that Emily didn’t offer all that much to the team. Randal was from her school and therefore a trusted ally. Not to mention his demon bond that gave him more power than the average thaumaturgical mage. Anise had an Elysium Order eye implanted in her chest. Her magic was the ultimate anti-undead. Almost to the point where Eva was concerned she might kill the vampire on accident.

It wasn’t super concerning. If the vampire died, Eva wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. And if somebody killed the vampire who wasn’t her, then all the better.

Emily was just a regular thaumaturge. Not even an experienced one. She was about the same age as Eva, even if she seemed to have a decent handle on both earth magic and fire magic.

However, she wasn’t from the Nod Complex. For the moment, that was good enough for Eva.

Eva blinked again.

“Wait! Don’t–”

Eva knocked her to the side just as she had with Anise, scooped her up, and started hopping up once again.

Randal made it up to the top before Eva did. Not by much. If she hadn’t hesitated in retrieving Emily, she might have made it back first. Or at least at the same time.

“No ride for me?” Randal asked with a mild chuckle. He started to move towards Rachael.

Eva pinched the hem of his shirt without setting down the somewhat squirmy Emily. She dragged him over to the center where Anise was already waiting. As with Anise, Eva dropped Emily on the ground and ignored her groan.

Fishing her marble out of her pocket—which was thankfully still intact despite the holes in her clothes—Eva dropped it into the indentation.

Which promptly opened up and swallowed the marble.

Eva waited. She was expecting the entire platform to move. Or at least the part between the pillars. There was a faint seam where she though the floor might drop out from the rest.

But it wasn’t moving.

“Rachael?” she said, turning. “How long did it take?”

“Only a second or two, but they both put their marbles in.”

Eva looked around her group. “Well? You heard her, what are you waiting for? I hope none of you lost them.”

Anise and Emily both pulled theirs out without complaint and dropped them into the hole. Randal pulled his out and held it in his hand.

He didn’t bend down and put it in the hole. His eyes narrowed as he watched the other two drop their marbles.

“Why are we taking these two with us?”

“Randal,” Eva said, keeping her voice cool. “Put your marble in the hole. If the elevator ride is long enough, maybe I’ll tell you. Nod Complex students are already down there. We don’t have time to sit around up here fighting.”

He hesitated for another moment before tilting his head. “Alright,” he said with a half-sigh.

The second he placed his marble down, the entire platform jolted. Another second and they were moving downwards.

“Good luck,” Rachael shouted just before their heads dipped below the surface of the temple.

Reaching into her pocket, Eva pulled out one of the wands and tossed it at Rachael. “Just in case,” she called out as two stone doors closed over her head.

Randal had his eyes on Eva as soon as the last vestiges of light were pinched by the doors. They snapped shut with a thunderous crash. Beyond that, Eva couldn’t hear much of anything. The elevator was near silent. Maybe a slight grinding of stone against stone if she really strained her ears, but that could just as easily be her imagination.

Not that she needed to hear anything. Randal’s stare was loud enough on its own to make up for the lack of noise around.

She couldn’t actually see his eyes. No new lights lit up inside the slowly lowering chamber.

Well, none save for two bright white lights flaring up where Anise’s eyes should be. They didn’t provide nearly enough illumination to brighten up the entire elevator however.

So Eva decided to help out. She ignited both of her claws, brightening her flames until she could see not only her companions but the moving walls as well. The platform was fairly spacious. Eva couldn’t stretch out her arms without hitting someone else, but she wasn’t up in their faces either. Even still, she took a step closer to the center.

Being able to see the walls moving up while in the elevator unnerved her for some reason.

Interestingly, she couldn’t see any cameras around. The drones had been circling around outside the temple, but none had followed them into the elevator shaft.

“So spill. Why are we not taking their wands. Or kicking them off the top of the pyramid?”

“First,” Eva pointed towards Anise, “she doesn’t need a wand for her most dangerous magic.”

Anise took a step back as Randal turned to glare at her. Though she still had at least two steps to go before hitting the wall, Eva couldn’t help but wince. What if her curly hair snagged on the rough stone walls as they rushed past?

“Second, we’re going down into this temple with who knows what waiting for us. At the very least, there is a dryad and a vampire.”

“You don’t think we can take them?”

“I think I could take them with my eyes closed. While the vampire isn’t necessarily the most powerful representative of his species and the dryad might be a little underwhelming, I still would rather not find out they’ve been hiding all their tricks right at the last moment.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Randal said, eying the other two girls. “What’s the third reason?”

“What makes you think there is a third reason?”

He turned back, looking at her as if he were offended she had thought so little of him.

Eva sighed.

“Alright. I really don’t want the Nod Complex to win. Like, at all. We have a better chance at stopping them with four of us.”

Turning her attention to Emily, she smiled a nice, closed mouth smile. “I don’t know what your deal with Faultline was, but all three of their people lost their wands. Thanks to yours truly. They can’t win anymore. I expect equal help in keeping the Nod Complex from winning.”

Before Emily could agree or disagree, Eva turned to Anise. “And you’re part of the Elysium Order. Say what you want about demons, but you hunt undead. Think of what an embarrassment it would be if a vampire were to win.”

A jolt almost threw all of them to the ground as the elevator slammed into the ground. It hadn’t slowed down in the slightest before stopping cold. Eva actually had to extinguish her hands in a hurry lest she accidentally burn Randal by bumping into him. When no further jolts came, she moved a step away and reignited her hands.

One of the four walls wasn’t a wall anymore. A doorway had opened up in place of the wall leading out into a long corridor. A camera was mounted on a track along one of the walls, staring right at them.

Eva almost glowered at it. Instead, she grinned and gave it a little wave. Despite their disadvantage in getting down the elevator second, she might as well be a little confident.

As for how far they had gone down, Eva couldn’t say. Rachael’s circulatory system had gone out of range a short while ago. They had traveled for a time since then. For all Eva knew, they could be halfway up the pyramid, level with the ground around it, or even deep underground.

Just beneath the camera was a small tray. Three violet marbles and one yellow were ready for collection.

Eva picked up one of the violet ones, the one furthest from the elevator which should be hers, as did the other girls. Randal picked up his yellow marble.

Based on how they were keys to get down into the pyramid, they were probably used elsewhere inside as well. Maybe keys for doors. Maybe winning the whole thing. Whatever the case, Eva wasn’t about to throw it away.

“Alright. Time is running out.”

With one final glance towards her companions, Eva took off running.

She did not handicap her speed to keep as a group. So long as there was nothing but a single hallway, there was no need. No one would get lost and the vampire should be up ahead.

Though, she was the group’s light source at the moment. The others might be able to get their own light going, but so long as she had her hands aflame, she might as well help out. Eva trailed a finger along the wall opposite from the camera—which was racing along with her—and left fire sticking to the wall in a long line.

So long as she had her spell right, it should burn for several minutes with a decent brightness. Even ten-year-old light bulbs would be better, but the small trail of flames was better still than nothing at all. As long as it stayed lit. It wasn’t something she had done before, but she was fairly confident in her ability.

She was moving fast through the corridor. Her flames only left a thin trail of fire behind her that failed to light up the entire hallway. Ahead of her was dark enough that she nearly crashed into a wall. The hallway looped around, turning straight back the way she had come with a slight incline up a ramp.

Eva only hesitated in continuing for a brief moment before charging forwards. She continued her trail of fire, though she absently noted that the camera decided not to follow her onwards. It went backwards at the turn, perhaps giving the others some screen time.

The inclined passageway wasn’t half as long as the one from the elevator to the turn.

It opened up without a door into a wide and well-lit room. Wide might have been an understatement. As far as Eva could tell, the entire pyramid was hollow. There was a single column in the very center of a gigantic space where the elevator must have been. Cameras lined it up and down, some able to move around on large robotic arms. More cameras hung off the sloped walls of the pyramid, though she couldn’t see any real light sources.

Or do the walls count as a ceiling?

Eva shook her head.

It didn’t matter.

What did matter was the absolute forest that had grown inside. It couldn’t be a natural forest. The flowers and vines and even a few trees had broken away the stone flooring to grow. Maybe Redford had done it, but Eva’s money was on the dryad.

There was a slight decline leading down into the forest bowl that had Eva wondering just how badly space had been twisted inside the temple. It was probably meant to give a view of the area before one actually had to tread down there.

The opposite end of the room looked like a large golden shrine. Two pillars of gold covered in ornate carvings of blocky-looking people surrounded a mural of a sun. She actually had to move a little to see it properly as the large elevator column was in the dead center.

And the vampire stood in front of the mural, pacing back and forth.

Eva tried not to sigh in relief. People who paced back and forth with a scowl on their face generally weren’t about to win a contest. She still had time to get to him.

Better yet, he hadn’t looked back yet. He wasn’t aware of her presence. If his sense of smell was even mildly good, it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long, but Eva held the advantage for the moment.

Perhaps the dryad hadn’t grown the forest. Redford might have planted it all to slow people down and obstruct the pyramid floor. Or the dryad had done it to slow down anyone who might be following the Nod Complex. If they needed to reach the opposite end of the room, either case made perfect sense.

But where was the dryad? Shouldn’t she be up with the vampire? Had he decided that he didn’t need her help and attacked his own teammate?

Before Eva could move even a single step more, her theory was crushed.

Along with the poor dryad.

A massive serpent flew out of the denser section of the forest close to the golden shrine. The shine on its silver scales actually forced Eva to momentarily raise a hand to protect her eyes. Wings made of pure gold carried it through the air.

And a screaming dryad was caught between two blunt antler-like horns coming off its head.

It reared up high in the air before flinging the dryad off.

A gaggle of trees caught her, though still with enough force to make Eva wince. She wasn’t quite sure what it took to kill a dryad—termites maybe—but that had to have been painful no matter what.

At the noise, the vampire gave a callous glance over his shoulder, paying attention for a mere instant before returning his focus to the golden mural.

Eva took a step forwards.

The moment she did, the serpent snapped its head to look at her.

Her eyes locked with the serpent’s massive eyes. She couldn’t tell exactly how large they were, but given the size of the dryad against its horns, each one might as well be as big as Eva was. One was a deep purple with a golden pupil. The other, a dark green with a black pupil. It almost looked as if there was a hexagon inside the green eye. Just lines connecting the edges of the iris.

The gaze lasted only a few short seconds, but Eva found herself gasping for breath at the end of it. She shivered. A chill ran up her spine. She felt a strange sensation as if she and everything about her had been on display like the pages of an open book.

But the silver-scaled serpent did not charge at her. It flicked its long tail straight towards the vampire.

Despite his back being turned, he managed to jump out of the way. It did force him back down into the forest and away from the mural.

Trees came to life as the serpent chased after him. Thick branches reared back and struck the serpent.

Doing little damage as far as Eva could tell. The opposite end of the pyramid was too far for her blood sight, so it might be getting a few bruises beneath those glittering scales. Eva wouldn’t be too surprised if it was entirely unharmed.

By the time Eva was ready to try moving again, all three of her companions showed up in the opening. All three stood and stared with their mouths wide open.

Eva hoped that she hadn’t been quite so slack-jawed. There were cameras watching.

“Know what it is?”

Anise jolted at the sudden address. She quickly shook her head. “I’ve never seen something like that before.”

“Well, it doesn’t look undead. Probably shouldn’t be surprised,” Eva said as she glanced towards the other two.

Neither gave her anything more than a shake of their heads identical to Anise’s.

“Right, well, I have a feeling that those plants are going to be attacking us as soon as we head down there. I don’t know about you, but if those trees are meant to fight that thing,” she said, pointing a long finger, “I don’t really want them attacking me.”

“We could burn our way across,” Randal said.

Anise crossed her arms with a slight huff. “Unless you have really fast acting fire, we’ll just have burning trees attacking us.”

Eva opened her mouth, held up a finger, cocked her head to one side, and snapped her mouth shut. She nodded slightly in agreement before perking up as an idea struck.

“How about this. We set Basila down and have her clear us a path, barreling over all the trees in our path,” Eva said with a wide grin.

“Basila?”

Eva extinguished the flames around one hand and held it up, showing off the stone-like snake coiled around her wrist.

All three of them stared at her with blank looks.

With both the vampire and the dryad either fighting or fleeing from the giant serpent, who—Eva assumed—would go after whoever was closest to the golden shrine, she felt like she had a few moments to breathe. And, so long as she had a moment, she might as well put on a little show for the cameras.

Genoa, assuming she was watching, might get a little amusement out of it anyway.

“Basila!” Eva said, voice slightly raised. She scratched the little snake beneath the chin to wake it up. “These foolish mortals are mocking your brilliance.”

Its tiny little jaw opened up into the cutest little yawn before its steely eyes turned to stare at her.

Eva quickly pulled the little basilisk off her wrist, setting it on the ground. As she did so, she tore a potion flask from her hip, uncapped it, and upended it over the snake.

She had already ‘fed’ it some blood earlier. Blood she could control. If worse came to worse, she could help direct it to where she needed to go.

As soon as the potion touched its black scales, it started growing.

Eva didn’t bother waiting for it to reach full size.

“Go, my pretty,” Eva said, nudging it along with the blood. “Go and trample this forest. Find the vampire and contain him.”

With one last look towards Eva, it slithered off into the forest, still growing larger and larger.

Now the others were looking at Basila with impressed looks on their faces. Or… maybe that was fear. Anise’s lower lip was trembling and her hands were shaking.

“Th-that’s a basilisk.”

“Yep! Let’s go. Use Basila as a shield. Fight off the vampire if you can. Distract him. Whatever. The dryad is a secondary priority. I’m heading for the shrine.”

Eva blinked away.

Basila, rapidly approaching hallway size, charged through the forest without a care in the world. Vines never got a grasp on her, seeds bounced off her scales without her even noticing, and the trees were shattered at the trunk as she rammed into them. A few of the trees whacked into her with a disturbing amount of force before she could destroy them, but they had nothing like nun lightning. Her natural regeneration—or unnatural, given the ritual Eva had performed on her—helped to counteract the damage a great deal.

Eva didn’t actually need to hide behind Basila. So she didn’t. She just kept blinking straight across, leaving the others behind.

She did ensure Basila stayed well within her range, however, just in case the snake decided to coil up around one of her teammates. It did take a nudge every now and again to keep her moving in the right direction.

By the time Eva crossed enough distance to see the vampire, he had obviously noticed her as well. He angled his sprint away from the giant serpent to put them on a collision course.

Eva curled her fingers, conjuring explosive balls of flame between each one.

She tossed them out well ahead of when the vampire would have made it to her, conjuring up a second set the moment they were out of her fingers.

The vampire shifted course to avoid the series of explosions. He ran straight past Eva.

As he did so, he took the serpent with him.

Eva paused for just a moment, inspecting it with her sense of blood.

Though it was roughly a snake, it had a drastically different circulatory system when compared with Basila.

Basila was a golem. Originally, she hadn’t had a circulatory system. After the ritual, she got a single tube of blood running from nose to tail. There were no real veins or capillaries.

The serpent had all that and more. She could see organs. A heart, stomach, lungs, tongue, eyes, and anything else one might expect to see in a living creature. That didn’t really tell Eva much aside from the fact that whatever it was, it was real.

And, so long as it was focused on the vampire, Eva had an opportunity to inspect the mural.

Two more blinks through the fake forest had her at a small set of stairs leading up to the shrine.

They were as gold as the pillars and wall.

Eva jumped straight to the top, frowning slightly as her feet dug large gouges into the floor. They were sharp and gold was soft, but this whole thing couldn’t be real gold.

Not that it mattered, though if it were a prize for victory, that would slightly sweeten the deal.

At the very front of the mural was a small pedestal stretching up to her waist with the top shaped into a shallow cup. The perfect size for a marble.

Of course, dropping her marble in the slot did nothing. If it was that simple, the vampire would have won already. The marble didn’t even stay in the slot, it rolled out despite the depression where the marble should have stayed.

From afar, she had only been able to see the sun. Which was truly massive. Up close, Eva had to crane her neck just to see the top of it. Down closer to the pedestal yet still high above it were two circular moldings protruding from the wall.

Eva shuddered as she looked at them.

One was a set of concentric rings. The other had less rings, but also had lines in the shape of a hexagon.

The serpent’s eyes.

Eva turned back to the forest with grit teeth. Were they supposed to kill the serpent and take its eyes? Put them somewhere around the platform. That seemed a bit violent for live television.

Besides, there wasn’t anywhere to put them even if she did have them. Maybe if the protrusions were deep carvings instead.

Turning back to the arena, Eva quickly surveyed the area. If the trees were gone, everything would be much easier. She could clearly see the trail that Basila was carving through the forest. Even more devastating than a hallway-sized snake plowing through everything were black orbs eating and consuming all the plant life around the area.

Which, if they were made up of magic, made sense.

Eva couldn’t see the dryad anywhere around. Given how well she blended in with the trees—both visually and through her nearly impossible to see blood—Eva doubted she would be able to spot her without her being obvious about it.

The vampire still had the serpent after him. He dashed between the trees, using them as cover and platforms to spring from.

Which had Eva narrowing her eyes.

She was up at the gold shrine. Why hadn’t it switched to her?

Had he stolen something from up here? Had he provoked it?

Despite the white lightning that occasionally fired off in the vampire’s direction and missed, none of her teammates had hit, or even attacked, the serpent. Though maybe someone had while her back had been turned, but she doubted it.

Flying through the air, the vampire reached out. His hand dug into one of the thick branches as if he had Eva’s claws. Doing so stopped him short of a bolt of lightning, but allowed the serpent to close distance.

Something he had apparently planned on.

The tree swung its branch backwards, flinging the vampire on a collision course with the serpent. Both of his hands spread out, intent on gripping onto the serpent.

Or maybe clawing into it.

Not willing to let itself be attacked, the serpent spun around. Its tail whipped into him, sending him flying across the room straight towards the golden shrine.

And, consequently, straight towards Eva.

He twisted in the middle of the air, angling to properly attack her.

Eva ignited every part of her body that wasn’t covered in clothes. Flames dripped from her hands like globs of burning tar, spreading across the platform. They wouldn’t last long, but she only needed them to last long enough to ward off the vampire.

His eyes went wide as Eva’s smile widened.

Even if he could hop around without getting hurt, he couldn’t fly. Physics still carried him straight to her waiting arms.

Her burning arms.

Eva’s fist connected with his stomach. Flames from her arm launched forwards when her arm found itself unable to continue, coating the vampire’s shirt in the sticky flames.

He jumped away before Eva could follow up. His shirt flew off his body as he grasped one of the pillars, keeping high and out of Eva’s immediate range.

“Will you desist,” he snapped at her, not really asking a question.

Eva didn’t bother answering. The vampire was already leaping towards her.

More, the serpent was on a collision course with the mural. The mural she just happened to be standing in front of.

Eva jumped, letting the vampire take the blow. She landed just between its horns, grabbing onto one as she extinguished her flames.

Amazingly enough, she didn’t go flying into the wall when the serpent hit it.

In fact, the serpent didn’t hit it at all.

The vampire caught the serpent, one hand on each of the person-sized fangs. Normally, such a thing would have had Eva staring. Even for a vampire, that was an impressive display of strength. The serpent was at least twice the size of a hallway-sized Basila. Probably bigger.

But Eva’s eyes were glued to the mural.

Before, it had been a solid sheet of gold. Slight lines formed the pattern of the sun, but they were engravings rather than any other sort of material.

As the vampire held the serpent, the mural lit up. The lines that had previously been mere indentations in the gold began radiating light. The two eye shaped constructs lit up purple and green, identical to the serpent’s eyes.

Everything clicked.

The vampire threw his arms to the side, sending the flying serpent off towards one of the walls. Eva had to grab on tight as it lifted high in the chamber to avoid crashing.

Twisting her neck to see behind her, Eva found the mural back to its default state. No lights and no colors.

Eva looked down. Spotting Basila near instantly, she blinked.

“Anise,” Eva said, dodging the nun’s glowing battle-axe, “I need you to get to the vampire and just hound him. Make him absolutely unable to do anything.”

“Wha–”

“No time to argue. Basila will help keep the plants off your back. Just find him and lock him down.” Eva used the blood within Basila to send her off in the direction of the vampire. He was fast. Far too fast for her to expect Basila to get a hit in, let alone coil around him.

But that was what Anise was for.

“Follow Basila, she’ll lead you to the vampire.”

Anise hesitated for another moment, opening her mouth.

A single glare from Eva had her moving after the basilisk.

“Randal,” Eva said, turning to face him. “Get to the big golden shrine and get your marble ready. You can’t put it in until the shrine is active.”

At least, that was what Eva was assuming. It seemed logical, but she hadn’t really been in a position to try while the shrine had been active.

“Sounds easy. You just taking a nap while we’re doing all the hard work?”

Eva looked up to the serpent as it drifted about overhead, looking for something to attack.

“I’ve got a snake to wrangle.”

“Fair enough. I suppose I’ll leave you to it.”

Eva turned, about to blink away as Randal ran off. Emily gripped her hand, stopping her cold.

“What about me?”

“Help Randal, I suppose,” Eva said after a moment of silence. Really, she wasn’t quite sure what Emily was going to do that Randal couldn’t, but at least it gave her something to do.

She nodded, offering a smile before running off.

Left alone, Eva gave herself a moment to concentrate. Blinking onto a moving target, especially one higher up, was near impossible. Not without losing a leg or worse. However, she could blink to a point in front of it and hope she could grab onto its horns.

Horns? Eva thought with a frown. Snakes didn’t have horns. Not even basilisks. Neither did they have wings. Maybe it was actually a Chinese dragon, though why it was in the middle of a pyramid was anyone’s guess.

Not that it mattered at the moment.

Eva blinked.

Staring at a creature with a mouth twice her size coming straight at her as she fell had Eva wondering if it was such a good idea after all.

She landed hard on its forehead, bouncing slightly and letting out a groan even as she tried to get a grip on its antler-like horns. Even with Arachne’s claws, there wasn’t much more than a light scrape on whatever they were made out of.

“Great job Eva,” she mumbled to herself, face down on the platinum scales with her arms wrapped around one horn. “Now what?”

Now she had to wrangle it.

Easier said than done.

Using the horn for support, Eva slowly made it to her feet.

White flashes of lightning and fire lit up a section of the forest. Anise must have been doing her job properly. She was slightly out of range of Eva’s blood sight—as was Basila—but Eva couldn’t see the vampire anywhere. Emily and Randal had both made it up to the shrine and were doing nothing more than standing around.

The perfect time.

Eva gripped the horn. With all of her body weight behind it, she yanked it to the side.

The dragon’s gaze crossed the shrine, but only long enough to cause a faint glow. Something that had probably happened numerous times and yet had been too subtle to notice.

Eva’s grip nearly came loose as the dragon shook its head. She grit her teeth and wrapped her legs around the horn for extra grip until it stopped bucking.

When it did, it faced away from the shrine.

Which wasn’t bad.

If it kept going straight, she could loop it around the elevator pillar. If she could even its flight out afterwards, that would give it a much straighter path and, more importantly, a longer path than the simple turn of its head. Its gaze would be on the shrine for longer.

Eva carefully leaned back and forth, never putting too much force in her attempts to steer the dragon for fear of it suddenly bucking again. She kept it going straight until it had passed the pillar.

Only then did she shove against its right horn.

Almost immediately, she let go of the right horn and barreled into the left, leveling it out.

The shrine lit up in a brilliant gold. In front of it, Randal started to reach his arm towards the pedestal.

“Randal!” Eva shouted.

A moment too late.

Vines snapped out of the dryad’s wrist and wrapped around Randal’s arm. She yanked his arm back even as she ran forwards with her own green marble in hand.

He spun, stumbling twice before gathering his wits about him and casting one of his orbs at the vines.

Eva tried to slam her body against the dragon’s horn again to break contact.

But it was too late.

A hand slammed a violet marble down into the slot, just before the dryad could reach the pedestal.

The golden mural exploded into a rainbow of colors, forcing Eva to shield her eyes.

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009.010

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“And there goes group indigo.”

“A shame,” Zoe said with a shake of her head. “They looked like they were doing so well.”

“When the tail swiped the… elf into the tree, I think the other two lost their nerves.”

“Indeed. Dragonkin are not to be taken lightly. Their scales can take a beating that even the finest suit of armor would have trouble holding up against. The students got a little overconfident when they managed to push it back. But if they would have stuck to their attacks rather than turning to flee, they might have forced it into a retreat. Especially the water mage, he should have used water rather than ice. Dragonkin don’t like their scales getting wet.”

“Right,” Hank said with a quick nod of his head.

Zoe doubted he really understood. At least, in general. Her previous statement had been simple enough. But the idea that it would be better to fight many of the things out in the forest rather than run probably didn’t mesh with his general worldview. Or that of most mundane people for that matter.

If they saw something scary, their first instinct would be to run. Even if they were running from something that was obviously faster than them.

Hank did manage to act like he knew what he was talking about. The narrations he gave were mostly play-by-plays, repeating what he was seeing on screen. It gave him the illusion that he was talking about something important, even though everyone could see what he was saying on their own screens.

He let Zoe handle explaining most magical aspects of the fights, of course, and asked intelligent questions when something was particularly odd to him.

“Still, getting slammed into the tree like that had to have hurt.”

“Probably,” Zoe admitted. “But the medical team is already on site and none of the three students were hurt too badly. They’ll be able to patch up any injuries in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s true. I think I’ve seen high school wrestling matches with worse injuries,” he said with a chuckle.

Zoe wasn’t sure if she believed that, but maybe he was trying to play down the violence for the viewers.

Even though more violence would probably mean more viewers. Humans were… attracted to that sort of thing for some reason.

“For those of you who are just joining us or otherwise missed out,” Hank said, sitting up straight as the cameras switched to them now that there was a lull in the action, “you can catch the replays and highlights on the website listed at the bottom of your screens. A quick recap of where each school stands.

“With the indigo group’s summary defeat, five students have been removed from the event. Isomer Holy Academy is down to a single student, currently in group violet. As is Mount Hope, their single student also in group violet. The Nod Complex is down to two students. Brakket and Faultline Academies are the only ones still at full steam.

“Now, two groups have reached the center of the event. Violet is closing in quick, delayed a short while by their encounter with…”

He stumbled, trailing off with a glance towards Zoe.

“Let’s just call her Lucy.”

“With Lucy. Don’t touch that channel. We’ll be back with more excitement from the magical world after a brief message from our sponsors.”

— — —

“Ugh. Blech.”

“Yes, we get it,” Emily said, looking over at the nun with a shake of her head. “You had tentacles in your mouth. You’ve been whining about it for the last five minutes. It’s gross. Can you just stop making those noises?”

“You don’t even know,” Anise snapped. “You only had a few tentacles around your waist. I was completely wrapped up.” She tugged at her shirt, still slimy from being wrapped up in Lucy’s tentacles. “That thing was probably venomous.”

“Poisonous,” Eva said, glancing back over her shoulder with a wide grin. “Venomous is when they bite you. Poisonous is when you bite them. And you were definitely doing the biting.”

Anise groaned.

“But don’t worry. Though she can be toxic, it is an optional sort of thing. With her orders not to actually hurt people, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Why me? Neither of you got wrapped up so much.”

“I got my wand knocked out of my hand and all she’s got are fire spells,” Emily said with a finger pointing towards Eva. “Obviously you are the most dangerous of the three of us.”

Eva twisted her face into a scowl. Anise did just the opposite, brightening up for the first time since having her mouth stuffed full of tentacles.

She was just about ready to turn around and remind the two of them that, even with Lucy barely fighting back, they would both have been carried out of the arena if it wasn’t for her. However, she felt her breath catch in her throat as she walked up a short ridge.

There was no forest ahead of her. No trees and hardly any brush. There was grass, but it had been clipped short. The clearing was far larger than the area Eva had coopted for her ritual. At least twice as large. Possibly more.

Of course, a clearing wasn’t all that shocking. The Infinite Courtyard had a number of clearings dotted around. None as maintained as this, but they probably weren’t used for events very often.

No, it was what occupied the majority of the clearing that had Eva’s jaw dropping.

“You all see the giant pyramid in the middle of the forest, right? It isn’t some illusion.”

“It’s the Pyramid of the Sun,” Emily said, voice soft. “The plateaus on the sides… the stairs running up the middle. Ancient mages would conduct rituals at the very top. But why is it here?”

“I doubt it is the original,” Anise said with a scoff.

Could have fooled me, Eva thought. The brickwork looked haggard and rough, weathered by time and… well, weather. Green vines grew up alongside the stairway, though the stairs themselves were clear of any plant life.

Anise had to be right. Eva didn’t know what the Pyramid of the Sun was, but if it was a real building actually used by ancient mages, it was probably some protected structure like the pyramids in Egypt. For cultural heritage if nothing else. Redford had probably built this version specifically for the event.

Narrowing her eyes at movement on the staircase, Eva’s lips curled into a frown.

“We’re not the first ones here.”

Two figures were sprinting up the staircase as fast as their legs could carry them. Though the moon lit up the area, it wasn’t enough to tell who they were. Their hats were a decent giveaway for which school, however.

“Faultline,” Emily hissed—almost snarled.

Eva had to take her eyes off the temple to glance at her face.

Her teeth ground together, bared in full. Her eyes burned… she wasn’t a demon or a nun, but they were almost glowing as they caught the moonlight.

Glancing over at Anise, Eva nodded her head towards Emily with raised eyebrows. All she got was a shrug from the other girl.

“There are others scaling the pyramid,” Anise said as her eyes went back to the temple.

Eva spun around.

The trainee-nun was right. Another two were running up the stairs. Their silhouettes lacked the pointed caps that the Faultline crew had. She honestly couldn’t identify them. One might be a girl. It could be Rachael. It could be the other pair that had Mount Hope students. Or it could be the other group of three with one member missing for some reason.

It could even be two separate groups that got rid of their partners and had met up.

“Let’s go help them,” Emily said, already starting towards the temple.

“You don’t even know who they are.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, breaking into a run. “They’re not Faultline.”

Again, Eva glanced at Anise. Again she got a shrug in return.

“I guess we better go after her.”

“We are enemies, you know.”

Eva smiled. Not a wide grin, just a polite one. “After all we’ve been through together? How can you say something so cruel. I even rescued you from that evil tentacle monster.”

“That tentacle monster was only there because of you,” Anise said with a scowl. “She said your name, she walked up to you, you two talked. If you had been in a different group, I would never have…” she trailed off, bringing a hand up to her mouth before shaking her head.

“Not necessarily. That could have been her assigned area. Then you would have been antagonizing her without me there to keep her from doing anything worse.”

“That’s… not just…” She shook her head. “Emily is already at the base of the pyramid.”

Eva spun around and moved a single step forwards before hesitating. “I’m trusting you to watch our backs,” she said. “Especially for any vampires. Keep your guard up.”

With that, she blinked forwards three times, crossing the distance to Emily in almost an instant.

And just about got a fireball to her face for her troubles.

Emily spun around the moment Eva appeared, lashing out with flames from the tip of her wand.

Eva slid to the side. She didn’t retaliate. The blast of fire—a good twice as hot as the flames Eva had used on Lucy, at least—blew past the side of her head. Stepping backwards, Eva held up her hands.

Emily followed through on a second attack in a single motion of her wand before finally realizing who she was attacking.

She paused with her wand raised in the air, tip glowing.

“Truce still?”

“I wasn’t the one who almost broke it.”

Her wand arm dropped to her side as she grasped her chest. The tip of her wand was still bright red.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Just startled.” She paused, glancing over Eva’s shoulder. “Anise back there?”

“She’s a bit slower than I am. I told her to watch our backs.” Eva pointed her out to Emily just to prove that she hadn’t broken the truce already.

And really, she wasn’t that slow. Unable to blink, yes. But her sprint carried her at a brisk pace. She was actually almost to them.

But Eva turned and took the steep steps three at a time, leaping up more than stepping as she left Emily behind.

She had a feeling that there would be a fight at the top. Two Faultline boys and two other people, probably not even from the same school. If she had been wrong and one of them was the vampire, she needed to be there and ensure he lost.

Anise and Emily would both have to catch up. Neither had Arachne’s legs.

She passed the first plateau. It really wasn’t that large. More of a landing than a plateau. From the staircase leading down to the staircase continuing up, there was only a few feet of level space. So she continued on without breaking stride.

Neither of her companions were doing quite as well. By the time Eva made it to the second plateau, they had only gone halfway up the first. Their speed dropped drastically. Climbing stairs was never easy and these ones were steep to the point of insanity. Just standing on the edge had Eva feeling like she was about to go tumbling off.

Whoever built the place hadn’t even put guard rails in.

Eva hopped up to the third plateau in three jumps. From there, she was close enough to see everyone at the top through her blood sight. The two Faultline boys were in a fight with Rachael and… the dryad. She was pretty sure. If she hadn’t gotten a look at the dryad back when everyone had been assigned their teams, she would probably be a whole lot more confused.

She took the fourth set of stairs, being only half the height of the rest, in a single bound.

And landed right in the path of a lightning bolt.

Eva shuddered as the electricity ran through her body and out her feet. Steam rose from her shoulders in faint wisps. Her knees hit the stone top of the temple before she could stop herself.

A quick blink had her back on her feet in an instant.

That was probably the first time she had been hit with real lightning. She had been on the receiving end of Elysium Order lightning once or twice, but, although it looked like lightning, Eva didn’t think it really counted. Of course, even air mages didn’t put out a real lightning bolt’s worth of power in their strikes.

The bolt she had been hit with was probably somewhere around the output of a taser. A lower powered one at that. Getting hit with the bolt hadn’t given her a very good view of it. However, she was relatively certain that Zoe’s regular lightning bolt was a few magnitudes higher by default. That was just the impression she got from being in the area while Zoe casted.

Of course, the Faultline student who had cast the bolt could probably increase his output as well.

Four pillars stood around the top of the pyramid, one in each corner. Rachael and the Dryad had taken cover behind the ones opposite from the stairway. The two Faultline students were behind the closer pillars. Eva’s blink after being hit had carried her right next to Rachael, partially using the pillar as cover.

Both sides were flinging magic at each other as fast as they could, essentially at random. Mostly air attacks from one of the Faultline students and mostly fire—of the explosive variety—from the other. Both occasionally switched it up, but not enough for Eva to think they were anything but an air mage and a fire mage.

On her side of the fight, Rachael had a fairly constant wave of flames surrounding the air mage’s pillar. The only reason he hadn’t burned up was because the fire mage kept dampening the flames between his attacks.

The dryad was… doing something. Plants had sprouted straight out of the stone around her pillar and vines wrapped around it. A couple of the flower pods spat seeds around, but Eva wasn’t sure how effective she was actually being.

Having her brief moment to look at the fight, Eva realized that she really shouldn’t have landed between the two Faultline students. Her momentary pause had caused her to get hit. Either she should have attacked immediately upon landing or retreated behind the wall of flames. The air mage couldn’t even see her through the wall of flames.

Eva let out a low growl, igniting her hands as she blinked straight back to the other side.

Her foot stuck one of the Faultline boys in the side, knocking him out from behind cover and knocking the wind out of him at the same time. He wasn’t the one who had struck her, but he seemed the more dangerous of the two. Much like Eva, he was a fire mage. And, much like Eva, he had decided that explosives were the way to go.

Chunks of the pillar providing cover for the dryad were lying around the top of the temple. Enough so that Eva was worried it might collapse. The vines were probably the only reason it hadn’t.

They didn’t seem to like the flames much though.

Really, Eva should just let the dryad get taken out. She was part of the Nod Complex and ultimately allied with the vampire. However, she was currently allied with Rachael. Turning her into an enemy would make it three versus two at the moment. While Eva felt like she could take all three of them at once, she couldn’t be certain.

Best to take out Faultline first and then deal with the dryad on her own. Her seeds didn’t look dangerous, so she shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe the dryad would be more of a threat if they were fighting in the forest.

By the time the Faultline students would be incapacitated, Anise and Emily should have made it up the stairs as well. They could help out against the dryad.

So long as they were still allies.

A flower sprouted in front of Eva, just in time to intercept a lightning bolt from the Faultline air mage. Lavender petals exploded everywhere, creating almost a smokescreen between the two pillars.

Eva hesitated in delivering another kick to the flame mage’s chest. Accidentally killing him would probably actually be bad. Really bad. Especially with cameras watching.

Instead, she plucked up his wand and flung it as hard as she could. It disappeared from her sight off the edge of the pyramid. He might have a second, but the way his eyes widened and his arm trailed after it, Eva doubted it.

She might actually feel a little bad about it if she found out it was a family heirloom or something, but for the moment, Eva had other thoughts on her mind.

Namely, her temporary allies.

If her two companions made it to the top and saw Rachael, they might actually side with the dryad. A two versus three scenario in their favor. A preemptive attack to prevent Eva and Rachael from ganging up on them.

Eva still believed that she could take the three of them, but the Elysium Order magic would be far more dangerous than anything a thaumaturge could throw out. Hopefully she would tone down her lightning bolts below the level that hit Arachne, but Eva really had no idea how all that worked.

Of course, if another group showed up, everything would become much more complicated.

The cloud of petals slowly drifted down to the ground. The air mage tried flinging a few spells towards Eva. She had no cover over on his side of the temple, but she really didn’t need any.

She dodged the first lightning bolt, having seen where he was aiming while the petals were still up with her blood sight.

A second and third bolt followed much faster than Eva would have expected. The second hit her in the shoulder. She didn’t get a chance to dodge the third. Lightning caused too many jitters and the mage was casting too fast.

It struck her square in her stomach.

Taken down to a knee, Eva just smiled at the air mage.

She had no need to take another bolt.

The fight was over.

While he had been distracted with Eva, the flowers, and his fallen companion, Rachael had gone around the edge of the temple to come up behind him.

The tip of her glowing wand was pressed to his throat.

“Drop your wand,” she said.

He glared. Mostly at Eva. She could see the fight in his eyes and the tense muscles in his arms.

Gritting her teeth while keeping her smile as genuine as possible, Eva got to her feet.

“I hit you three times,” he hissed, throwing his wand to the floor.

Eva looked down, running a finger through one of the holes in her shirt. It was true, she had a hole in the chest, shoulder, and stomach of her shirt. Black scorch marks surrounded each hole. However, the first had barely hurt her, only bringing her to a pause because she hadn’t been expecting it. The second and third… well, Elysium Order lightning was still much worse despite the extra power he had put behind them.

A few more might have been enough to drop her for a time—or a good shot to her head—but he hadn’t managed that thanks to the flower from the dryad and Rachael’s flank.

“Yeah,” Eva said with a shrug, choosing to downplay exactly how harmful his bolts were. She stepped up to him, picking his wand up off the floor. “Kind of tickled,” she said, almost about to chuck the wand off the roof with the other.

After a moment, she thought better of it and simply slid it into her pocket.

Vines sprouted from the ground around his feet. He didn’t resist as they wrapped up around his legs and arms, binding him. Only when he was down on the ground and completely immobile did Rachael take her wand off him.

Eva had been about to ask her if she had seen Randal around when the dryad walked up. It almost startled Eva. She was just so hard to keep track of with blood sight.

The dryad stopped a good two arm spans away, staring with obvious caution, but also with a small smile.

Eva wasn’t sure how to react. Should she throw the dryad off the pyramid now, before Anise and Emily arrived? Wait?

Her plants shouldn’t be dangerous to Eva. At least not the ones she had seen. Even the vines shouldn’t pose any more of a problem than Lucy’s tentacles had. They might trip her up, but blinking would solve that problem easy enough. Or just igniting her legs. The vines wrapped around the pillar hadn’t taken the heat well.

“Thanks,” the dryad said, breaking Eva out of her devious plots on how to deal with the situation. “I thought that pillar was going to collapse on me. And then the fire–” She cut herself off with a shudder. “I don’t take fire well.”

Eva wanted to groan. Everything would be so much easier if the dryad just up and attacked her. Instead she decided to give thanks? And offer up an obvious weakness to go with it?

It was enough to make Eva sigh.

“No problem,” Eva said with another sigh. Rather than do anything else, she turned her head to Rachael. “Randal?”

“Haven’t seen him.”

“He’s got a demon in him. I doubt he would get taken out. Wonder what is taking him so long?”

“We ran into an earth mage. Some crazy strong lady. Pretty sure she let us go in the end, though she looked like she was pretty tired. He might have run into something similar and didn’t get so lucky.”

“My group ran into Lucy,” Eva said. “Speaking of, they’re still climbing the stairs.” Though it was taking them a really long time. Mortals. “I should probably check on them.”

Rachael stepped forward and dropped the volume of her voice. “We’re going to have to take them out at some point.”

“Yours too,” Eva said without glancing over her shoulder.

Rachael shifted her weight, looking off and down to the side. “I think she’s afraid of my fire. She has been very compliant of everything I ask. Makes me feel like the bad guy here.”

I know how you feel, Eva thought with yet another sigh. Raising her voice from her whisper, she turned slightly to address both members of the green group. “Stay up here, I’m going to find my companions. Keep them contained,” she said with a nod towards the Faultline students. “Fight off anyone else. If you can figure out what we’re supposed to do here, great. Though wait for me if you can.”

Without really looking at the plant girl, Eva walked over to the stairs.

And frowned.

The first plateau was fairly far away. It also had flashes of light coming from at least four different sources.

Blinking up the staircase was difficult. Because of the angles, it was almost impossible to see where to blink. There could be uneven terrain or plants growing that would splice her up if she teleported into them.

She was under no such limitations in blinking downwards.

Eva landed between Anise and Emily and promptly ducked to dodge a glowing white battle axe.

“Seems a bit deadly for a friendly competition,” Eva said, grabbing hold of Anise’s hand before she could try to swing again.

Recognition lit up in her already glowing eyes. She shook her head, pulling her hand out of Eva’s loose grip. “Tell that to those monsters.”

Eva moved slightly closer to the waist-high wall of stone at the edge of the plateau that hadn’t been there her first time up. Emily’s handiwork no doubt. A bit of cover for any spells that might come their way. Peeking over the edge, she realized that the stairs weren’t even there. A steep slope had replaced them.

Though he had lost his cap, another of the Faultline boys was flinging shards of ice around. Water appeared out of nowhere, rushing over the earth towards his opponent. All the while, he was doing flips and jumps that a trained gymnast might find troublesome.

Eva couldn’t think of a single other mage she had encountered that moved so much. Genoa came close, but even she was more like a rolling boulder than a circus performer. The demon hunter that Eva had killed moved fast, but lacked showy flips.

Actually, Eva thought, the other hunter might be similar. Eva had only fought with her once before Arachne paralyzed her. And even then, not for very long. But she had been fairly animated.

So he wasn’t the only mage. But a kid?

Then again, it wasn’t hard to see why he was moving so much.

Randal was at the base of the pyramid with him. Large black orbs flew from his fingertips, wilting the grass beneath them as they moved. If they came near any ice or water, it vanished in an instant. Everything thrown at him simply got eaten by the orbs.

Eva wasn’t sure what would happen if one of the orbs actually hit someone, but it probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight for the three camera drones circling over the fight.

“They ran up, flinging spells at each other. I managed to slow them down with a few lightning bolts.”

“And I turned the stairs to a slide.”

“After that, they just decided to fight each other down there.”

“What is that magic he’s using?”

Eva glanced to Anise, half expecting her to respond with some insight gleaned from her hive mind.

Instead, she shrugged and gave Eva an apologetic look.

“Your third eye doesn’t tell you?”

Emily blinked, turning her head. Eva ignored the other girl for the moment.

“I don’t think I can find out without getting closer. I don’t really want to get closer.”

“Fair enough,” Eva said. “It’s demon magic. I can tell you that much. No clue what it’s doing.”

“It’s like a black hole,” Emily whispered with a shudder.

“Demon magic,” Anise said with narrowed eyes. “Friend of yours?”

“He goes to my school. Be back in a moment.”

Eva blinked down again, making sure to land where the black orbs were not. She conjured fire marbles and flung them out almost immediately. They were even lower power than the ones she had first used on Lucy, but they were also surprise attacks on an unsuspecting target’s back.

At least, she thought she had been launching a surprise attack. The student flattened himself against the grass, rolling over to one side.

The marbles flew over him. Several were eaten by one of Randal’s orbs while the rest exploded harmlessly off to the sides.

Eva blinked, putting herself facing the pyramid with the student between it and her. Just a movement to keep him on his toes.

She was about to launch another volley of orbs when a crack split the air. White lightning struck him square in the back.

Eva winced.

He collapsed to his knees, moaning in pain.

As much as she could empathize with him, she didn’t hesitate. Personal experience taught her that as painful and debilitating as it was—and deadly if they meant it enough—he could very easily get up and continue fighting if he collected his wits enough. Devon had gotten back to his feet after being hit and Devon was a wuss.

She blinked up to him and pocketed his wand.

After ensuring that Eva had the Faultline student’s wand, Randal pointed a finger towards the pyramid.

Eva blinked to him, gripped his arm, and yanked it skyward.

A black orb flew from his fingertip, hit one of the circling drones, and… passed through without hurting it.

Eva shook her head.

“They’re friends,” she said in a rush. She needed to stop him before he killed someone.

He just stared at her.

Conceding the point, she added, “For the moment. I know we should have talked about this beforehand, but what are you throwing around? You can’t kill people.”

“It destroys magic. Most magic anyway. Wouldn’t hurt a person.”

Eva opened her mouth, paused, snapped it shut, and opened it again. “How were you planning on winning against that guy if you couldn’t hurt him?” Or anyone else for that matter. “You’re lucky he didn’t realize that.”

“It isn’t the only thing I can do. Plus regular thaumaturgy. Besides, I figured you would save the day.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Rachael is already at the top. We should hurry and win this thing.”

“Lead the way.”

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