Tag Archives: Baxter

008.007

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“Welcome. To some of you, this will be a welcome back. To others, an initial greeting.

“This year, we will be making history with our students and among other schools around the country. We will be blah blah blah.”

Eva filled in her own words in place of the new dean’s speech. She already knew what was happening. For the most part, at least. Really, she didn’t know why she had bothered attending. Beginning of the year speeches were never interesting, this one least of all because of her foreknowledge.

And yet, Juliana and Shalise had dragged her into the auditorium for the assembly.

There was one thing that might get her to listen. If he started explaining how he was planning on summoning demons while Devon couldn’t, she would start paying attention. That seemed far too specific for a speech like this.

No new demons had popped up around the academy since Martina Turner’s demise. If he had success in summoning any, he had sent them back while Eva was off at the prison or otherwise gone. More likely than him having any success was that he was either hoping to get lucky or hadn’t even tried yet. Eva was leaning more towards the second option of him simply not having tried in a while.

While there weren’t any new demons, there also weren’t as many professors sitting up alongside the dean. Zoe and Wayne were there of course. Bradley Twillie, the magizoologist was there as well. But Yuria and Alari Carr were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had resigned. Whether because of fear or because they didn’t want to support Anderson’s plan, Eva couldn’t say without asking.

At least, Eva assumed that Anderson had told the staff what was going on. It was possible that he hadn’t, but hopefully he had planned for more resignations when he revealed it all.

To her sides, Juliana and Shalise were paying a great deal more attention than she was despite Eva having explained this year’s ‘contest’ and new demons to them. Dean Anderson hadn’t actually mentioned demons yet. He had barely touched on the contest, choosing to start with a far more generic greeting.

More of Eva’s friends sat slightly farther away. Irene was next to her sister, chewing on her thumb as she glanced between the dean, Jordan, and Shelby. For her part, Shelby appeared at ease. Far less worried than Irene at the very least.

Eva’s eyes met with Irene’s for just a moment. For a bit of reassurance to the obviously distressed girl, she gave a closed-lip smile—something she had taken to doing since the treatment.

No one had mentioned her teeth. Or her mouth, for that matter. Eva was still not sure if they were being polite, too scared to say anything, or honestly hadn’t noticed.

Irene shook her head before looking back to the front of the room.

Next to her, Jordan was sleeping. Leaning back in his chair, he had his eyes closed as he took in deep breaths.

Eva wasn’t the only one looking around. They were sitting as far back as possible which gave her a decent view of everyone. And everyone had a decent view of her. If she had to guess, hardly anyone was actually paying attention to the dean.

It probably had something to do with Arachne and how she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed just behind Eva. She was only in her humanoid form, so it wasn’t like she was a gigantic spider hogging all the attention.

No one was particularly fearful. A few, obviously. That was to be expected given Arachne’s look and the look Arachne gave people who stared too long. The simple fact of the matter was that all the squeamish people had been filtered out. They were all off attending different schools.

Which made it somewhat amusing that this contest was starting up. They would be meeting with schools—hosting events even—where former Brakket Academy students who had fled or who been pulled out of school would be forced to confront their fears.

Another portion of the student body was staring at the figure next to Arachne. Specifically the figure. Eva doubted that anyone even realized that she was a demon. And that was in spite of the horns, wings, and tail. Catherine’s physical appearance hadn’t changed. It didn’t really need to in order to draw the eyes of pubescent humans.

Eva wasn’t sure what she was doing at the school. Showing off, perhaps. Anderson had to know that Martina was dead and Catherine unbound by her familiar bond.

Now that Eva thought about it, Lucy’s contract had likely terminated with Martina’s death as well. Something should probably be done about her. While Eva doubted that she would go on a rampage, it couldn’t hurt to be safe. But such a thing could probably wait. Lucy wasn’t the malicious type. She was just curious about the world outside her domain.

The real question was whether or not Anderson realized that anything was different about Catherine. She didn’t look different.

She felt different.

Before her ritual the other night, Catherine had had a presence to Eva’s senses. Nothing big. Eva could pick her out from the other demons so long as Zagan wasn’t too close. Now she was different. Bigger. Zagan would still overpower her entirely. Even Ylva was far greater than Catherine.

But Catherine was crisp and clear. A sort of sultry presence filling the auditorium.

While there hadn’t been any physical alterations like Eva had gained, Catherine had certainly not come out of her ritual unchanged. Even discounting her new emanating presence.

Catherine stood against the back of the room, chin high as she drank in the attention the students were giving her. She kept a haughty air about her, never quite glancing at any one student in particular.

Her attitude wasn’t anything new. Ever since the completion of her ritual, Catherine had been absolutely insufferable.

Being unable to sense her own presence, Eva couldn’t say how she stacked up to Catherine. Arachne insisted that Eva was far higher than Catherine in terms of power, but Eva wasn’t sure how far she could trust her friend not to exaggerate. Catherine hadn’t shown off any greatly enhanced abilities, so Eva wasn’t sure what she was acting superior over.

Initially, Eva had been somewhat put off by Catherine’s new haughty attitude. After thinking about it more, perhaps even a slight change was worthy of celebration after an eternity of stagnation. Because of that thought, Eva had decided not to complain too loudly. Catherine could have her moment of happiness.

For a while at least. Insufferable Catherine could only last so long before Eva took the word literally. If she kept it up… well, supposedly Eva was kneel-worthy now. Getting Catherine to kneel might be enough to knock the smug superiority out of her.

As for Eva herself, she didn’t really know if she had any new special abilities, but walls had bled around her multiple times in the past. Trying to consciously make that happen was her current project and an ability that still eluded her.

Arachne saying that she had been stuck in her largest form for a hundred years before figuring out how to shrink into a humanoid form hadn’t helped Eva’s mood.

“They are demons.”

Eva’s attention snapped to the dean, breaking her out of her thoughts. Whereas before only the few rows in the back had been facing in Arachne and Catherine’s direction, the entire auditorium swiveled around to gawk at Anderson’s words.

It wasn’t hard to guess what he had been saying immediately before, but Eva still wished she had heard what he had said. Probably just pointing out their guests to anyone who hadn’t noticed. The ones who had already been seated and forward facing when Eva, Catherine, and Arachne had come in towards the end of the seating.

“You need not fear,” Dean Anderson said, voice extra loud through the microphone to talk over the crowd’s growing noise. “Demon is a poor word filled with all sorts of negative connotations. They are beings from another plane of existence, true, but not necessarily evil and certainly not about to steal souls.”

Eva rolled her eyes. Most of the faces still turned in her direction paled at his words, turning all sorts of sickly colors.

More than a few gazes went from Arachne and Catherine straight to Eva.

Great job reassuring them, she thought, glancing off to one side to avoid all the eyes.

“In addition to the interscholastic contest of ability, we will be taking this year to assist in integrating a number of demons into human society around Brakket. Some as students. Others merely as residents. A few have expressed interest in more… contractual bonds with students who have the permission of their parents.” He added the last line after a brief glance towards Zoe.

The theory professor gave a firm nod of her head.

Eva frowned, staring at Anderson as he went on to quell more fears of the student body. Or attempting to, at least. He even took a few questions from the front row.

She didn’t need her fears quelled. She just needed to think for a few moments.

Maybe he didn’t need to summon demons at all. His words sounded like he already had a warehouse full of them that he’d be distributing around the city later on. Which, now that she was considering it, might make a great deal of sense.

It would be foolish in the extreme to just summon up a host of demons and expect them all to play nice. If he summoned them in advance, it would have given him time to watch them. Any that seemed unstable or overly hostile towards humans could have been sent back before even bringing them to Brakket. Assuming he didn’t want to kill the entire student body. But as long as he was careful in picking demons and had warehouses full of Lucys and Catherines, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Were they all under contract to not harm anyone?

But Eva wouldn’t like to see an assortment of Arachnes running around. One Arachne was fine. Eva trusted her not to act out against people. However, that likely depended on Eva. If Eva were gone or were to say that she didn’t care, Arachne might not be so kind to those around. She would probably still ignore humans for the most part, but ones that particularly got on her nerves might find themselves in the infirmary.

If they were lucky.

Zagans would be even worse. Hopefully Anderson wasn’t so foolish as to summon more pillars of Hell.

Some demons that Eva had summoned in the past weren’t ones she would like to see around regular people. Some she wouldn’t want to be around herself. The haunter, for instance. Just about anything that Devon summoned as well. If Anderson was planning on having a dozen of those waxy demons running around the place, Eva might just skip school for the rest of the year.

“Lynn wouldn’t be happy about this,” Shalise said in a near whisper.

Eva glanced to her side but didn’t say anything. Shalise was right, most likely. Eva could ask after school if she really felt like having a conversation with the former nun.

To the best of Eva’s knowledge, Lynn hadn’t actually gone to visit Shalise even once after her little rescue from the forest. A simple letter to say that she was alright was the extent of their communication. She had spent the rest of the time around the prison.

Much to Eva’s chagrin.

Lynn had decided to be useful by continuing her research into enigmas and Life itself—as strange as that sounded. Though cordial at the moment, neither liked or got along with the other. Eva tried to avoid her as much as possible and, judging by the fact that Eva had barely seen Lynn since chopping off her arm, Lynn was doing the same.

“Just wait until my family hears about it. I’m going to be grounded for sure. Or have dad escort me everywhere. He already threatened to do so, you know.”

This time, Eva raised an eyebrow as Juliana groaned. “They already know, don’t they? That was the whole point in having a meeting with Anderson and your mom.”

“He didn’t mention a word about ‘integrating’ demons into society. There are going to be demons everywhere. It’s going to be impossible to hide it from them.”

“Maybe he means only one or two,” Shalise said, voice lacking any sort of conviction.

“There are twelve.”

As one, everyone turned their heads to glance at Jordan. Even Irene and Shelby turned to look.

“Though seven are looking to find a suitable master for a familiar bond. Eagerly looking.”

“You’ve met them then?” Eva asked. “Any that seem… troublesome?”

“I can’t say for sure. None have been homicidal in my presence. Most were content if given tasks by my father. Busy work, things to pass the time. Of course, they might be deceiving me for all I know. Father has a contract with each of them at the moment to dictate their behavior while around the academy, so we shouldn’t have to worry too much.”

“At least until one manages to get out of its contract.”

Arachne had managed to get out of her contract with Devon and create one with Eva thanks to a wording error on Devon’s part. If Devon, the master of demonology, could make an error like that, who was to say that Anderson couldn’t?

Of course, Devon had likely been lax in his vigilance. Arachne was a demon who he had frequently summoned in the past for more than just Eva’s treatment. She was the only demon that Eva had known him to have summoned, allowed out of the shackles, and not dominated. At least until the carnivean. Had he used another demon that night, he would have probably been more careful about the wording of the contract.

Jordan didn’t respond to Eva’s suspicion. He just shrugged his shoulders before looking back to his father up on the stage.

“None of them are named Willie,” Juliana said after a few moments, “right?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Good. Then I’m fine with it.”

Anderson continued his speech, never quite giving out enough information to interest Eva while still allaying fears of the rest of the students. It took a while, but he eventually moved off the subject of demons. The rest of his speech consisted of simple announcements and notifications that would be standard for any school. Changes in staff and important dates.

Whatever was happening with the interscholastic contest was still to be decided.

The only thing that immediately stood out to Eva was the date the demons were arriving.

Two weeks from now. Halfway through September.

— — —

Catherine grit her teeth together. The moment Anderson’s speech had ended, swarms of mortals encircled her, blocking off any and all avenues of escape as they invaded her personal space. Their mouths opened, spilling forth inane questions and comments.

None were showing her the proper fear and respect that she deserved.

Even Arachne had taken on a more respectful tone while speaking to her. Somewhat. Probably.

It was really hard to say. They didn’t speak all that much. Before or since.

Glancing to her side, she found Arachne gritting her teeth almost as much as Catherine was. Maybe more.

The children were mostly avoiding the armored spider. That was to be expected. Even before the ritual, few demons could hope to attract as much attention as a succubus. Even one as lowly as Catherine had been. It was only natural that she be the center of attention.

But whatever Arachne’s opinions towards Catherine were, they barely mattered. The ritual had worked. Catherine could feel it deep within her chest. A swelling of something more than she had been before.

The thing that did matter was Arachne’s slowly clenching and unclenching fists. She was about to tear somebody apart. While Catherine really didn’t care what happened to most of the mortal children, she really didn’t want to get into a fight. She had ritual circles to improve and maybe a game or two to play.

Now that this first ritual was complete, she felt like she deserved a little bit of unwinding downtime.

Letting out just a hair of that swell within her chest had the entire auditorium falling silent. The children looked at her with lovestruck eyes, mouths still gaping open yet silent.

“Do me a favor,” Catherine said, injecting just a hair of magic into her voice. “Go to your classrooms and leave me alone.”

A few vacant nods followed before the children started scrambling off to follow her orders.

Catherine started chuckling. She couldn’t help it. The spell would wear off after a few minutes, but she had just charmed an entire auditorium full of mortals like it was nothing.

The adults at the far end of the room were still around. Catherine had specifically excluded them from her spell. Some were staring at her with mild disapproval. Others were the opposite; perhaps because she hadn’t killed anyone.

Really, it was absurdly easy to exceed expectations when expectations couldn’t possibly be any lower.

Zoe had her lips pressed thin. Despite her obvious disapproval, she gave Catherine a brief nod of her head.

Catherine rolled her eyes. She didn’t need the professor’s approval.

There were a few others in the auditorium. A couple of the students who had participated in the diablery class the previous year. They would have spent enough time around Catherine to understand what she had done and were able to resist it. Catherine had no doubts that she could ensnare them should she wish. All it would take was a little more power.

Eva and her group of friends hadn’t moved either. Catherine had not expected her spell to work on Eva and wasn’t sure that more power would be the answer. Though Catherine had become stronger, Eva felt stronger still. Even if the girl didn’t act like it.

More worrying was that Devon said that there were still treatments to undergo. At least one though possibly as many as three. His original schedule had been thrown off with the death of Arachne. He hadn’t locked down the exact functions or limitations of the new one just yet.

And if Eva decided to perform more rituals of the type that Catherine was doing…

Catherine shuddered. She didn’t want to think of what might result. There had to be a limit to the power one could gain. But where was that limit? For all Catherine knew, it was far enough out that it wouldn’t really matter that there was a limit because nothing but a Power would be able to stand up to Eva.

Of course, if Catherine continued with her rituals, maybe that would be her instead.

Whatever the future held, Catherine was still just a little giddy at the moment. She walked up to Eva and glanced around.

Jordan, Irene, and Eva had all come out of that unaffected. Irene had her arm clamped around her sister’s shoulder, keeping her from wandering off to class. Eva’s blond friend was rubbing her forehead while Eva had an arm on the other’s shoulder, similar to Irene.

Catherine didn’t much care for any of them. She looked right towards Eva and grinned. “Did you see that? The whole room fell under my sway in an instant.”

“You couldn’t do something like that before?”

“Maybe to a small group of people. This was a whole auditorium. At least a hundred people, right?”

Eva glanced over to her friends before she shrugged. “No idea. Do that many people even attend Brakket?”

“They do. Trust me. I used to be the secretary here.”

“You never even did your job. You just played games the whole time.”

“She did enough of her job to cause trouble now that she is gone.”

Catherine scowled as she turned to Anderson. He had left the stage and was walking straight towards her. Or as straight as he could walk with all the auditorium seats in the way.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come back?”

“Quite certain,” Catherine said. “Replacing me cannot be that difficult. A monkey could do the job.”

“Even monkeys get nervous when hearing about demons around. Truly an unfortunate name for your species. Imagine if you were named ‘hoogoozlaps’ instead of demons. No one would fear you or take you seriously in the least.”

Catherine, and the children still around, stared. Anderson wasn’t one to make a joke. At least, Catherine hadn’t known him to. Perhaps he had always been so ticked off with Martina that his humor had fled.

That was something that Catherine could understand.

But if this was his sense of humor, perhaps he should have left it alone.

“I think I will stick with demon,” she said after a moment of awkward silence.

“Very well. Anyway, thank you for coming. I know you don’t have to follow my directions at the moment.”

Catherine narrowed her eyes. She didn’t much like his phrasing. At the moment sounded like he intended to get her under his thumb. “I don’t appreciate being made into a zoo animal for your students. I came solely because you offered a computer.”

“Don’t worry. You served your purpose well enough. Dismissing the students as you did helped immensely as well. It calmed a great deal of my professors, though I did hear a comment demeaning mind control. But I can see that this does not interest you,” he said as Catherine just glared. “If you’ll follow me, I can get the computer I promised you.”

Finally, Catherine smiled. She took a single step before a thought crossed her mind.

“Eva,” Catherine said, “if you and Arachne would accompany me. Perhaps along with your mortal friends.”

The semi-demon in question blinked before slowly nodding her head. “I don’t have a problem with that. Zoe is my first class and I’m sure that she would understand. Why?”

“Computers have many small components. I’m strong enough to carry just about anything, but carrying so much can be tedious. A few extra hands would be appreciated.”

So Catherine said. In truth, she did not want to be alone with Anderson after that comment of his. It might be completely innocuous, but Catherine was unwilling to take chances.

Anderson didn’t look upset in the slightest, lending credence to the idea that it had been an innocent comment.

Their entourage had made it through the school and into the offices area unmolested. With the classes starting, the hallways were empty.

There was a cardboard box on top of Catherine’s old secretary desk. From a brief glance inside, she found it to be full of her the secretary computer. That suited her just fine. Everything was already customized for her.

Though her excuse for having Eva come along with her now sounded somewhat weak, but Catherine really didn’t care what they thought so long as she was left free.

“The other reason I asked you here was to ask a favor,” Anderson said. “I wanted to ask if you might meet with the demons I have coming in. Address a few questions and concerns.”

“Demons have concerns?” Catherine didn’t believe it. A nervous demon? Preposterous.

“This is something of a special batch. Selected specifically with the help of Zagan before his untimely disappearance.”

That had Catherine on edge. Anything Zagan came up with had to have some catch.

But maybe some of them would work well for her next ritual. Zagan had been the initiator for her ritual research. Perhaps he had thrown in a few demons that had special characteristics.

“What would I have to do?”

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008.004

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Coughing twice, Zoe waved a hand in front of her face. A quick order shield had been enough to deflect most of the debris. Dust still made it through. While it was possible to make a shield airtight, it generally wasn’t a good idea if she wanted to breathe for more than a few moments.

Of course, she hadn’t anticipated all the dirt being thrown up into the air, effectively blocking off her breathing anyway.

With a whip of her dagger, Zoe quickly cleared away the dirt around her, filling the space with fresh air and letting her see once again.

She almost immediately wished that she hadn’t.

Not much of the campsite remained. Shalise’s tent had been knocked over by part of the makeshift bench while Lynn’s tent was completely gone. A small crater had taken its place, as if a meteor crashed down right on the camp. A mass of tentacles attached to an oversized dog writhed from within the crater.

One of the enigmas.

Zoe didn’t know where it had come from.

At the moment, she didn’t care. She was a bit too busy to think.

Zoe jumped backwards, flinging off a few gusts of razor wind at the tentacles stretching towards her. One of her wind blades caught a tentacle right at the base, shearing it clean off. The tentacle flopped to the ground where it twitched and shook before finally falling still.

They couldn’t be killed according to Ylva, Carlos, and Eva. They could be damaged enough to resemble death. At least for a time.

Unfortunately, chopping off a single tentacle wasn’t enough to permanently hurt it.

That only angered it. It opened its rounded mouth and let out a high-pitched whine. The whine built up, growing louder to the point of sounding like a policeman’s whistle.

All at once, the whistle stopped. Zoe clamped her hands to the sides of her head as a cannon fired inside her mind. She just about skewered herself with her dagger. As it was, she was sure that her hair wound up trimmed just a tad on the one side.

Using the distraction, the enigma charged forward before Zoe could respond. It managed to get one tendril wrapped around her wrist, knocking the dagger out of her hand while yanking her towards its gaping maw.

Never one to travel without a backup, Zoe pulled out the wand that she normally used in the classroom. Another blast of razor-sharp wind sliced through the tentacle holding her wrist. Again, Zoe backed away, feeding the creature a few lightning bolts to cover her escape.

Another whistling whine started up. Zoe didn’t let it get any further. With a flurry of arm movements, Zoe sent out a wave of lightning bolts and a deluge of wind. The whistle cut off partway as the enigma was knocked clean on its back.

Six stubby legs wiggled in the air, failing to gain traction. The mass of tentacles on its back took up the position of legs. Rather than flip around, the enigma scuttled forward across the ground.

With grit teeth, Zoe unleashed a blast of fire at the enigma. Not her specialty, but the lightning and wind just didn’t have enough force behind them.

The flames surrounded the enigma, engulfing it in a bright orange ball. With a thought and a twist of her wrist, the flames collapsed inwards to both crush and burn the enigma at the same time. It took time—Zoe didn’t have the spell prepared in a tome as Wayne undoubtedly would—but the enigma was no longer charging forward. If anything, it was shrinking in on itself in an attempt to keep away from the flames.

At a critical moment, Zoe ceased channeling her magic into the flames and brought up an order shield again.

The collapsing flames exploded outwards, filling the air with fire. The explosion took with it Shalise’s tent and the rest of the wooden bench and table.

And a good portion of the enigma.

Though most of its body was still lying on the ground, the tentacles lining its back were all but gone. Vanished, turned to ash, or otherwise removed.

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Zoe quickly voided the oxygen from the surrounding air, freshened up the air again, and finally breathed back in. Fire had a tendency to consume most everything but the oxygen served as fuel. Removing it even momentarily kept everything from catching on fire. Less to put out later.

A few trees would still need a quick dousing, but Zoe was far more focused on the scene in front of her.

She waited, watching he maimed enigma. If it did jump up and start charging her, she didn’t want to get caught with her pants down.

After a full minute, nothing seemed to be happening. The enigma grew still. Perhaps entering that dormant state that could be mistaken for death. Perhaps it was setting a trap. Either way, it wasn’t attacking at this particular moment.

Finally having a moment to breathe, Zoe found herself frowning as she took her eyes off the still-writhing enigma.

Her dagger was lying on the ground, half buried in the smoking dirt. She reached down and plucked it out. The blade was still its shiny silver self. The hilt was not quite so lucky. What had once been a sleek wooden handle was now a crumbly bit of charcoal.

It could be repaired. A quick test with a lightning bolt into the enigma’s side showed that it worked just fine. The silver was the focus, the rest was just for show and a grip. But it was still disheartening to see. Her dagger had been her constant companion since she was little. A piece of her old home that she always carried with her.

A cracking of a branch behind her had Zoe whirling around, sending out a blade of wind as she moved.

The wind crashed against a black transparent shield, scattering harmlessly into the air. The shield fell, revealing Eva with her hands on her hips. Arachne and Shalise stood right behind her as an orb of blood hovered in front of her.

“You’re lucky I had a shield ready,” Eva said with a frown. She took her eyes off Zoe, looking around with a slight whistle. “Guess Shalise won’t be staying here after all.”

“What happened? Where’s Lynn?” Shalise pushed around Eva, eyes frantically darting around the camp.

Zoe let her wand fall to her side. She was still ready to whip it up at the first sign of danger, but keeping it pointed at them wouldn’t help Shalise calm down.

With a deep breath, Zoe said, “I haven’t seen her. She wasn’t around the camp when that thing showed up.”

Stepping up to the edge of the crater, Shalise stared at the enigma with an ashen face.

Zoe quickly placed a hand on Shalise’s shoulder, keeping her from going any further. Shalise had fought a number of them and would certainly recognize it on sight, even in its burned state. She definitely knew how dangerous they could be. However, if she thought that Lynn might be in danger, she might not be thinking straight.

“Why is it here? They’re supposed to be in Hell. We haven’t been summoning demons. We fought so many back there and they’re still hounding us.”

Zoe pulled out her cellphone and pulled up the picture she had taken earlier. One hand still on Shalise’s shoulder, Zoe held it out in front of her. “I don’t suppose you know the purpose of this? It was drawn on Lynn’s window, casting a shadow onto the floor of her tent,” she added after a moment. The picture she had taken was up close of the pattern and didn’t really offer much context in terms of actual location.

After glancing down for a few seconds, Shalise shook her head. “It wasn’t there a few days ago. I would have noticed. I don’t inspect the tents every single day, so it could have been drawn on more recently.”

“Has anyone visited your camp lately?”

Shalise tossed her head back and forth. “No one has ever stopped by. Not until today.”

“We only showed up a half-hour ago,” Eva said, stepping up into the conversation. “How long has it been since Lynn told you to go hide?”

“A few hours? I don’t really have a watch.”

“Maybe she saw the mark and told you to run? Or wrote it herself.”

“Why?” Zoe said with a frown. “A trap for us?”

Eva shook her head. “I didn’t even know I would be here an hour ago. If she knew, she’s been hiding some amazing abilities. And should have probably predicted and prevented both her incarceration, defeat at my hands, and Shalise’s vacation to Hell.”

“Vacation?” Shalise snorted. “Hardly.”

“Well, you got out of schoolwork.”

“Lynn’s been teaching me. I don’t want to say anything bad, but I think I would rather have had a real teacher. Especially if it meant not going to Hell in the first place.”

“Well, for now,” Zoe said, “let’s get you back to Brakket. It’s safer there. Probably.”

“But Lynn–”

“I’m sure she’ll catch up with you.” Zoe rubbed her forehead. She had been doing that a lot lately, but there had been a lot going on that was headache inducing. “If we leave a message, she’ll know where you are.”

“In fact,” Eva added, “we’ll probably have to set up defenses to stall her until she calms down enough to not try to kill us all. Really says something about the one who has decided that she’s your guardian, huh?”

“She… means well.”

“She tried to kill me,” Eva said. She had a pout on, but it was obviously fake.

“Yeah,” Shalise said with a wince. “My statement still stands. She’s just a bit aggressive.”

“Uh huh.” Eva kept her voice flat. “But you still asked to be kidnapped by us.”

“Camping is fine for a day or two. A month? More? I don’t even know how long I’ve been out here.”

“Then,” Zoe broke in, “as I said, let us leave.”

“Hold on, what are we going to do about the enigma?”

Zoe glanced first to Eva then to the crater containing the enigma’s remains. “We can’t leave it to regenerate,” she said after a moment.

While it might just run around the forest without causing much trouble for a while, eventually it could find its way to civilization. Or even another group of campers. While they might be able to eventually kill it, they wouldn’t know or be prepared for it to come back to life. Even killing it a second time could lead to people thinking that they simply hadn’t critically wounded it the first, resulting in a third attack before people finally took proper measures to contain it.

“I could send it to Willie’s domain through a transference circle,” Eva offered. “I’m sure Juliana would appreciate more complications in his life.”

“Is filling Hell with essentially toxic waste really a good idea?”

“It has got to go somewhere. Might as well be with people we hate.”

“There has to be a better option. Sending them back where they came from, for instance.”

“Figuring out how to do that would be your job. And unless you have figured it out, we need a more immediate solution.”

Without hesitation, she moved up and pulled out her dagger. She dug it straight into her arm and pulled out a long ribbon of black liquid. The blood immediately twisted around into a wide circle, large enough for a human to stand up fully within. Sigils and signs filled in the inside as it moved just above the enigma.

As Eva held out her arm, the circle filled in with a deep black void. So dark that it sucked in the surrounding light, darkening most of the crater. Eva and Arachne worked together to lift and toss the enigma into the portal.

Rather than sit around and watch, Zoe cast a quick telekinesis spell. Two severed and charred tentacles flew through the air, disappearing into the darkness of Eva’s portal.

After a quick double-check around the area for any other enigma parts, Eva collapsed the portal with a clap of her hands. The blood in the air flashed white before vanishing into nothingness.

“Alright,” Zoe said, turning to face the full group. “Any other reason to stay?”

“Just Lynn.” Shalise’s voice was quiet, barely above a whisper.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll catch up with us before nightfall.”

“Even if we wish she wouldn’t.”

Zoe rolled her eyes. Tightening her grip on Shalise, she started building up her magic for a teleport. “We’ll be taking off ahead of you.”

— — —

Eva stayed behind, watching the spot Shalise and Zoe had just been occupying for a moment. She couldn’t leave just yet. Arachne still had to shrink down before she could leave. However, there was another reason she couldn’t leave just yet.

Pulling out her vials of Arachne’s blood as she turned, Eva faced a still burning portion of the forest. Zoe should have helped to put it out before she left, but apparently she forgot. The task fell to Eva, but at the moment, she was more concerned about the circulatory system lurking behind one of the less flaming trees.

“How long are you going to skulk about?” Eva shouted as the orbs of blood started orbiting her.

A certain former nun slipped around the side of the tree. Today, Lynn wasn’t wearing her nun habit. She had a pair of jeans on while being wrapped in a heavier wool jacket. Her shorter hair hung free, unkempt and unbound.

“The last time we fought in a forest didn’t go so well for you,” Eva said. Arachne moved up around her, readying for combat with her extra limbs sprouting from her back. “And I was alone then.”

Lynn eyed Eva, staring first at her before glancing towards Arachne. Her gaze was dull, half lidded and almost bored.

“Have I ever called you a monster?”

Eva tilted her head to her side, half shrugging as she did so. “Probably. I imagine a lot of people have, though I don’t consider myself one. At least not morally. Physically?”

Eva held up a hand, inspecting her carapace. Doing so had become something of a habit of hers whenever her inhuman nature was mentioned. She couldn’t say exactly how her habit had come about. Sometimes she felt like showing off for whomever she was speaking with.

Other times, she almost felt as if she were doing it for herself. Her eyes were blood-red with black sclera, her tongue could stretch a good distance and was dark in coloration, and even her teeth weren’t shaped quite like human teeth anymore.

Yet, without looking into a mirror, her hands were her most obviously inhuman elements. Things that she could use to confirm for herself that yes, she was a monster.

“Yeah, I’d say that I am physically monstrous.”

Lynn shook her head with lips curled into a disgusted sneer. “To think I ever saw you as a child.”

Eva sighed, rolling her eyes. Readying some of the blood for a shield while the rest prepared a wire ball for an attack. “Are you going to fight me or not?”

“The enigmas. I’ve been doing research on them.”

Eva paused, narrowing her eyes. “Go on…”

She kept her blood at the ready, not discounting the possibility of a trick.

“They are sent by a Power. One at war with other Powers.”

Alright. Nothing new there, Eva thought as she calmed the flames using her thaumaturgy. If they weren’t fighting, there was no reason to let the forest burn down.

They had known as much since Zagan had given Nel the enigma fetter and she had scried on another plane of existence through it. They hadn’t explicitly known that it had been at war, but that was easy enough to guess.

“The Power creating the enigmas is one that has shown up in history on occasion. Every time it turns up, it manifests in some new form. Adapting or perhaps merely mutating.”

“So what? How does knowing that help us?”

“The problem is that these enigmas are not helpful towards humanity. They attack everyone without distinction. Human, demon, monster, mortal.”

“They don’t attack undead,” Eva said, thinking back to her memories of Sawyer. “Or, I know of a necromancer who tamed them. I don’t know if they tried to attack him before he tamed them.”

Eva had a whistle that she got from Sawyer. Presumably the one he had used to tame the creatures, though she hadn’t actually had a chance to test it out. Had she brought it with her, she could have tried it out on the one Zoe had incapacitated.

“Tell me, do you believe that necromancers worship Death?”

Eva rubbed the back of her head, moving her sharp fingers through her hair to massage her scalp with a practiced touch, glad she wasn’t still cutting her head. “Well, it made a certain amount of sense until you asked.”

“Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Necromancers go around killing people. But to power their constructs, they tend to use stolen souls. Either pulled directly from Death’s realm or from recent kills. Souls that haven’t been picked up by psychopomps.

“Necromancers, vampires, mummies, zombies, skeletons. The Power behind their reanimation is Life itself. To be clear, it isn’t entirely intentional. Merely a side effect of the undying nature of Life.”

“So what then?” Eva scratched her head. Knowing which Power had been attacking Void was an interesting bit of knowledge, but didn’t exactly help. No matter who Lynn named, it was still a Power. Too far above mortals or even demons to affect.

“Can something that embodies the very concept of life be killed?” Lynn shook her head. “I doubt it. And if it can be killed, is it a good idea?”

“But it must be stopped.”

“Agreed.”

“Especially if they’re going to be showing up in the mortal realm without being pulled through a demonic summoning circle.”

Lynn looked away and down towards the ground. “That might have been my fault. Shalise had been cleansed through the ritual with the obelisk. I was concerned for any taint that I had collected. I had been attempting my own ritual using natural moonlight. By the time I realized that something had gone wrong…”

She held out an arm, pulling back the sleeve of her jacket. Her dark skin was covered in violet bruises. Bright enough to be almost glowing. “I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I managed to prevent it spreading.”

“Would you like an amputation?” Eva asked, forming some of her blood into a small ring. When Lynn looked to be hesitating, Eva said, “Ylva mentioned corrupting effects of enigmas. Leaving it alone could be bad.”

“I believe that they become what they consume. Being touched or…” She held up her arm. “This isn’t corrupting me.”

“You’re willing to take that chance?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.003

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Just as Nel had described, the camp was deserted.

Halfway around the world, a small forest held a small camp. Two small-sized tents occupied a small clearing. A fire pit in the center still had some smoldering embers amidst plenty of ash.

A bench and a makeshift table looked as if they had been fashioned from the surrounding woods. That and magic. With Shalise being an air mage, she would be able to use blades of wind in place of an axe. Eva wasn’t sure if Shalise was adept enough at magic to do so, but whoever had sliced up the trees into planks had to be an amateur.

Just looking at the bench made Eva shudder. Sitting down would probably fill her whole behind with slivers.

The least Lynn Cross could have done was to stop at a hobby shop and pick up some sandpaper.

A good portion of the forest had been cleared away. And yet there weren’t enough wooden things around to make up for the trees. Eva found herself wrinkling her nose at the makeshift latrine. It was the only other wooden structure around. It was more of a hole in the ground with some wooden boards placed over top.

The rest must have all gone into the fire.

Not a hint of actual civilization was anywhere to be found. Lynn Cross might be crazy enough to live in a place like this, but how could Shalise?

It wouldn’t surprise Eva in the slightest if Shalise had run off.

“No sign of them?”

Eva glanced up to Zoe and shook her head. “Nope. No spilled blood anywhere either, so I doubt there was a fight. What about you? Hear them?”

“I don’t hear anything that one wouldn’t expect to find in a forest.”

Eva knelt down on the ground, poking at a spider-form Arachne. The poor spider demon had yet to recover from Zoe’s teleport. Eva had only just managed to push herself to her feet when she started looking around the place.

Having only made one trip, Zoe had yet to bring anyone else along with her. Juliana and the others were still back in Brakket City. Wayne had just about come along as well, but Zoe had insisted that he remain behind. Someone needed to bail them out if they were walking into a trap.

“So what do we do? Wait around until someone comes back?” Eva asked as she stepped over to one of the tents and unzipped the door.

Shalise’s tent. At least, her clothes were lying on the floor along with a healthy helping of dirt around a sleeping bag. A good portion of the dirt was stuck to the clothes as well. Just how much were they roughing it that they couldn’t stop by a laundromat in a nearby town? Lynn Cross could teleport just as well as Zoe could. There was no excuse.

Eva winced as she realized that the two of them must be smelling awfully foul. There were no showers set up around the camp.

And the latrine…

“This has to be child cruelty or something, right? We can’t leave Shalise here no matter what.”

“Though she is her mother, Cross is still kidnapping Shalise. She doesn’t have guardianship over her. That rests with the state.” Zoe rubbed her forehead. “Really, we should have done something about it a long time ago, but everything has just been piling up.”

“Well, it’s good that we’re getting her now then. This just isn’t proper living for anyone.”

“So long as we find her,” Zoe said as she moved to the other tent. She unzipped it while Eva stopped by Arachne.

The poor spider-demon was just now stretching out into her humanoid form. She still wobbled back and forth as she got to her feet.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, patting her on the shoulder before helping to steady her. “We’ll go back using my teleport.”

Zoe could teleport with Shalise. She would teleport back to one of her gate rooms on her own. Going through Zoe’s ‘Between’ was the epitome of distressing. It didn’t leave any lasting effects, quite unlike Eva’s teleportation on mortals, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to be shivering on the floor for a few minutes.

“Eva,” Zoe called out, waving her over to the other tent. “What do you make of this?”

Moving over and pushing the tent flap aside, Eva found herself frowning.

At first glance, there wasn’t anything wrong inside the tent. Just as with Shalise’s tent, there was a sleeping bag, a suitcase with clothing spilling out, and plenty of dirt that had been tracked in. Lynn Cross’ tent had a little broom and dustpan to one side and the floor looked as if she had made a few attempts at using it to no real success.

The tent was four-sided. Two angled panels making up the roof and two flat sides for the other two walls. The door was on one side and an unzippable window on the other.

Eva was about to dismiss the tent until she noticed the light coming through the window. Even fully zipped up, light still made it through the thin material of the tent. And the window—still zipped up—was casting a shadow to the side of the sleeping bag.

A circular shadow full of lines and designs that couldn’t be an accident. Some of the sigils and runes were easily recognizable as such.

“Well, it isn’t a summoning circle.” Eva stretched out a finger and pointed at a few of the lines along the edges. “There are elements of demonic shackles, but I don’t think it would work like this.”

She made sure to keep her distance. If it was some odd set of shackles that Lynn had come up with, Eva didn’t want to get stuck inside. Zoe would be able to slash away the window, thereby breaking the shackles, but the idea wasn’t appealing to Eva. The last time she had encountered nuns, they had taken Arachne’s head half off with a well placed lightning bolt.

The eyes connected them somehow. A sort of shared learning mind, according to Nel. If one nun learned something that advanced their own magical theory, the rest would know soon enough. While Sister Cross wasn’t a sister or part of the Elysium Order anymore, she still had her implanted eye.

“Any ideas?” Eva asked Arachne. The spider-demon had moved up, staring at the pattern from outside the tent.

“Devon might know,” she said with a disinterested shrug and shake of her head. “You would be more knowledgeable than me.”

Glancing up to Zoe, Eva said, “Arachne’s right. Take a picture and take it to Devon. Or send it to Catherine, you’ll probably get a faster response and she knows things about ritual circles.”

Popping out of the tent, Eva left Zoe to her cellphone as she checked Shalise’s tent. Doing a full circle around the outside, she didn’t find any unusual markings. Whatever the circle was, it was for Lynn only. Perhaps protections for or against something.

“Alright,” Zoe said, emerging from the tent. “Don’t have any cell service up here, but I’ve got a few pictures. I’ll take them to Catherine if we finish up here and haven’t found anything. And if she doesn’t know, I’ll head over and ask Devon.” She said his name with palpable distaste.

“So what do we do? Sit around for a while or go looking?”

“They could be anywhere. We could pick a direction—three if we split up—leading out of this camp and still have an entire forest to check through. That’s assuming that Lynn didn’t teleport them somewhere.”

“You’re saying we should stay then,” Eva said slowly.

“We have a better chance at finding them that way.”

“Unless something bad happened.”

“You have a better idea?”

Eva frowned, not quite sure what to say. No, she didn’t have a better idea. But sitting around just felt too much like she was doing nothing at all. There had to be something left around. A trail of breadcrumbs that Shalise left behind. Maybe a trail out into the woods.

With a shake of her head, Eva went out to the edge of the camp, looking for anything in the forest floor that might lead to some hint as to where Shalise went.

There were a few sets of footprints going out of the camp. Most of them ended at fallen trees or berry bushes that had been picked mostly clean.

One path led away from the camp. Eva followed it for a minute before realizing that it wasn’t going to stop anywhere soon. Blinking her way back to camp, she stopped just in front of Zoe.

“There’s a path over here. I’m going to follow it.”

“You’re going to get lost.”

Eva shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If I get lost, I’ll teleport away and have Wayne come tell you that I’m back at Brakket.”

At least, assuming that Lynn Cross hadn’t warded against banishment. But she probably hadn’t done so. The only reason to ward against banishment is if she wanted to fight demons. Physically fight them. Or to stop them from teleporting away.

“And what if you get into trouble?”

“I’ll have Arachne with me,” Eva said, placing a hand on Arachne’s arm.

“Because you’ve never found yourself in trouble with Arachne before.”

Eva shared a quick look with Arachne. “Well, things usually work out. Except that one time.”

“Not very reassuring.”

“Unless you have a better idea?” Eva asked with a half-grin. “Someone needs to stay behind in case they come back. Are you going to go pick up Wayne? Or Genoa and Juliana?”

Zoe shook her head, frowning. “We still haven’t ruled out the possibility of this being a trap. We definitely can’t bring Genoa into this.”

“She was all ready to fight earlier when that guild guy showed up. I’m sure she’s thought about ways to defend herself while in her wheelchair.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt about that. If Genoa doesn’t have backup plans and plots about how to avoid falling into traps, I’ll suspect that she has been replaced with a doppelganger. Especially traps related to demons,” Zoe added with only a slight glance towards Arachne. “But that’s just another reason why she should be backup and not in the thick of things if something does go down.”

“So unless you want to come with me and leave the camp unattended, I’m going to wander off for a time.”

“Just,” she started, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead. “Just be careful.”

“My middle name,” Eva said as she turned. “Come on Arachne. Let’s go on a walk.”

While the campsite was clear of most brush and forest debris, only having some trodden down grass and flowers as its foliage, the moment Eva walked away, she found her arms and legs being almost constantly scraped by bushes. It wasn’t walking through a completely untended path. Someone had walked this way before, but not often enough to make everything smooth and flat.

Luckily for Eva, her legs and part of her arms were covered in smooth chitin armor. It was enough to brush off the stray twigs without a second thought. Using her hands, Eva could knock away anything that was in the path of more vulnerable parts of her body. Her head, for example.

Ten minutes of following the pathway had Eva wondering just where it was headed. Maybe another grove of berry bushes or other fruit. Maybe a small garden. Somewhere Shalise or Lynn would have needed to visit regularly but not often.

At least, she thought that was the case until she reached the end of the path.

“There’s nothing here,” Arachne said.

A tree stood right in the center of the path that Eva had been following. Moving around it, Eva found herself stuck in thick brush. Not the kind of stuff that anyone would drudge through on a regular basis.

The path simply ended. No gardens. No extra paths. The tree had nothing special about it. Eva wasn’t a botanist, she couldn’t name the type of tree. It had bark, was tall, and had green needles higher up. Like almost every tree in the area.

“No, wait,” Eva said, just as she was beginning to think that she had mistaken a natural formation in the forest for a human-made pathway.

Lifting a hand, Eva brushed over a portion of the bark. There was a thin line in the wood that looked somewhat unnatural. Tracing a finger over it, she turned to Arachne. “Does this look like an arrow to you?”

Bending down, Arachne got up close. “Are you sure you’re not reading too much into an odd vein on the tree?”

“It looks scratched in. Like with a fingernail,” Eva said. Using her pointer finger, Eva traced an arrow into the tree just above the existing mark. Her scratching was much deeper, more prominent as it stood out against the rest of the tree. Frowning at her own hand, Eva shook her head. “A human fingernail,” she amended.

Stepping off to the side, Eva stared. Even with the arrow—or what she believed was an arrow—she couldn’t see anything in that direction. Just more forest, brush, and trees.

Arachne stepped forwards, reaching out to a stray branch.

A broken branch, bent in the direction the arrow was facing.

Arachne looked back to Eva without speaking a word. She gave a quick shrug of her shoulders before walking on.

Keeping an eye out for any other oddities, Eva followed after her.

Every few feet, Arachne would point out another broken branch or bit of brush that had been trampled down ever so slightly. A bit of grass that had been bent in almost a footprint or a bunch of leaves that had been knocked to the forest floor.

The trail of broken plants led straight to a wall of bushes almost as high as Eva was tall. Both she and Arachne paused in front of it.

“Over the top?” Eva asked.

Jumping halfway up a nearby tree, Arachne peered over the wall of shrubberies. “I don’t see anything that might be more trail,” she said after a moment.

Frowning, Eva glanced around. There was a bent tree branch just a few feet away, so someone running through the forest must have come at least this far.

A pale lavender leaf caught Eva’s attention. It stuck out with all the greenery surrounding it. At first she thought it was a flower of some sort, but getting closer, she noticed a floral pattern on it. Eva didn’t pay attention to flowers all that often, but she was reasonably confident that most flowers didn’t have pictures of flowers on them.

Plucking up the bit of cloth from where it had been draped over a twig, Eva held it up for Arachne to see as she scanned the area around where the cloth had been.

“Another broken branch,” Eva said. She took a few careful steps, watching for any other signs of someone having passed through.

Until she had found the scrap of torn cloth, she had been thinking that this path was her imagination. Perhaps an animal—a deer or something—had passed through. That would explain the broken branches without needing a human to be around. The arrow in the tree could have just been a natural mark. She could have been searching for nothing.

Now she was almost certain that either Shalise, Lynn Cross, or their agitator would be at the end of this path.

The path wasn’t such a straight line anymore. More than once, Arachne and Eva had to stop, gather their bearings, and look for anything that looked like a clue. Ten minutes of searching and Eva came across what they had been looking for.

Sitting on the forest floor, hunched over with her head to her knees and brown hair cloaking her face, Shalise stared off into the distance.

She didn’t stay sitting for long. A twig snapped underneath Arachne’s foot, sending a loud crack through the otherwise peaceful woods. Jumping to her feet, Shalise pointed her wand with one hand.

Two fingers on her other hand pressed together, sending a bolt of lightning straight towards Arachne.

Fear settling in as a chill in Eva’s stomach, she watched the bolt move through the air as if in slow motion. Not willing to lose Arachne so soon, Eva jumped. Unfortunately, she was moving in slow motion too. Her dive didn’t make it to Arachne in time.

Electricity crackled across Arachne’s carapace, focusing on her chest before darting down into the earth. A few loose leaves caught fire around her feet. Arachne had her mouth open, twisted into a frown as she glanced down at her chest.

Eva stood, blinking in surprise and shock. The lightning hadn’t even left a mark on the chitin. It was just as shiny and black as ever.

Whipping back around, Eva immediately recognized why. Shalise’s glove was covered in runework. The same runes that she had used back when she had first started on the glove. No alterations. Not surprising, Shalise wasn’t an expert or even mildly experienced in runes. The runes that did exist were not designed for seriously harming even a human, let alone a demon. The glove had essentially been solely to surprise Zoe during one of her training seminars.

Clutching at her chest and breathing out a small sigh of relief, Eva closed her eyes for just a moment. “You scared me,” she said.

I scared you?” Shalise clutched at her own chest as she leaned back against a tree. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

“You aren’t,” Eva said, voice flat. Being able to see into people’s bodies had greatly increased her ability to tell truth from lies. At least in relation to exaggerations like that. Shalise’s heart was beating, and fast, but nothing out of the ordinary. “But what are you doing out here?”

“Lynn told me to run. So I ran. We already decided on what I should do if something happened. I’m to run out here, pick a direction, run around, and essentially get myself lost.”

Shalise breathed a light, relief-filled sigh. “If you are all she was worried about, I suppose I can go back before she finds me. Unless you’re here to kill me.” She gave a weak chuckle, obviously—hopefully not believing that. “Or kidnap me. Actually, please kidnap me.” Turning her head to her shoulder, Shalise breathed in a few short breaths through her nose. “I haven’t had a proper shower in forever.”

Eva took a step away with a slight wince. The forest and a light breeze was keeping any scent from Shalise away, but no need to take chances.

“I hate to break it to you, but I have no idea where Lynn Cross is. She did something to you and herself to hide the two of you from Nel. We showed up and haven’t seen her.”

“What? Where–”

A crack echoed through the forest. Where it came from was almost impossible to tell by the sound alone. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many places where it could have come from.

“Zoe might be in trouble.” Eva took three steps before realizing that Shalise hadn’t moved. “Coming or not?”

“Lynn–”

“Might be in trouble too. Come on.”

Eva grabbed Shalise’s arm—carefully—and dashed through the woods. Going backwards was hard, the path through the forest was barely clear and twisted more than once.

A plume of smoke rising in the distance removed all need to navigate the thick brush.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Along with this chapter, the preview site for my writing should now be live. For those who have read the two chapters posted on my Patreon, there is a third now available. For those who haven’t read them, the site should be available to everyone. Unless I screwed up the permissions. I don’t know if comment moderation will carry over from this site or not, so your comments may not be immediately visible. If something looks wrong or you can’t access it at all, yell at me here or there or anywhere.

TL;DR: Preview of possibly new series available at towercuratorpreview.wordpress.com


008.002

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After hearing Anderson’s true plan—getting children to summon demons and either bind them within their bodies similar to what Shalise had done with Prax or contract with them—Eva was significantly less worried. If Anderson was trying to turn more humans into demons or even just amputating limbs to graft demon limbs on, she imagined that there would be no small amount of outrage from just about everyone. Parents, teachers, and plenty more would be rioting.

Not that summoning demons was much better. The two hunters who had attacked were not going to be the last ones. As soon as word spread just a bit more, Brakket would be under attack from all sides.

Anderson’s response to that had been to simply summon more demons. There were an infinite amount of demons and a limited amount of demon hunters. With a decent portion of the school summoning demons, they should be able to deter just about any attacks.

Eva had considered arguing against summoning so many demons. It hadn’t exactly worked out for Martina and that wasn’t even counting the Hell situation. They needed to summon Void without rending reality and bringing all of Hell with him.

However, Devon had been unable to summon demons since Arachne arrived. He had the carnivean and hadn’t sent the wax demon back—she was locked up in solitary confinement with several sets of shackles to keep her in place—but a few other attempts had produced nothing but enigmas.

So unless Anderson knew something Devon didn’t, she wasn’t too worried. He would fail a few times and give up as Devon had.

Genoa cleared her throat, breaking Eva out of her thoughts.

“Juliana?” she said as they traveled down the streets of Brakket City—Wally Redford had stayed behind to hash out details with the new dean.

“Yes mother?”

“You’re not allowed to participate. No more demons.” Genoa paused for just a moment before turning her head towards Eva and Arachne. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Eva said as Arachne gave a half-hearted shrug.

Juliana frowned, turning her head off to one side. For just a moment, Eva thought that she might argue. In the end, she nodded. “Alright.”

“Good. I’ll be checking in on you every now and again.”

“Moom,” Juliana said, exaggerating the word as she pushed her mother’s wheelchair. “I can take care of myself.”

“Honey?” Genoa reached a hand over her shoulder, putting it on Juliana’s hand near the wheelchair’s handles. “I love you, but I think we’ll have to wait and see whether or not you can. Your past choices haven’t exactly inspired confidence.”

Silence descended. An uncomfortable silence broken only by the sound of footsteps and wheels against the sidewalks.

“I know,” Juliana eventually said. “I will do better.”

“That’s all I can ask.” Genoa waved a hand through the air. “But enough of the heavy topics. What happened to your other friend? Is Shalise coming back to school?”

Juliana looked over towards Eva raising an eyebrow as well.

“I mentioned that she was in Switzerland the last time Nel checked in on her. Or was it Sweden?” Eva shook her head with a shrug. “I suppose Zoe could try contacting her, but given that it was her mother who kidnapped her, I doubt she’ll be back anytime soon. Lynn Cross doesn’t particularly like me, demons, or Brakket Academy. Or much of anything, really. She is kind of a grumpy woman.”

“Her sentiment is understandable. I have qualms about having Juliana here. While I’m far more willing to allow Juliana to make up her own mind than my husband and son, I can’t say that I did much to dissuade them from their mania. If it weren’t for Zagan, Juliana would be far from this school.”

Another silence fell over the group at the mention of Zagan. Juliana and Eva shared a look. Neither wanted to talk about him.

Or rather, Juliana didn’t want anyone to talk about him. Eva wasn’t quite so averse, but she was willing to respect her friend’s wishes.

No one had summoned Zagan back yet. Martina was as good as dead and either nobody else cared or nobody else was willing. Devon certainly wasn’t willing. Anderson might be, but if he hadn’t already tried, he probably wouldn’t ever. Assuming Zagan could be summoned without enigmas pouring through the portal instead.

Neither had Zagan come back himself—something Eva was certain he would do. Maybe he couldn’t, but he had somehow got back after Juliana had summoned him to Hell. Unless Martina had resummoned him, there had to be a way. Perhaps something that only the seventy-two knew about.

Juliana was getting nervous. Unless she had changed her mind from their last conversation, she was still worried about the lack of Zagan. The longer Zagan was gone, the greater the chance that her family would find out. If her family found out, they would probably force her away.

And if Zagan came back after that, something bad might happen. What, exactly, she was afraid of, Juliana had been vague about. Some agreement about staying at Brakket Academy. Whatever it was, it had her scared.

Clearing her throat, Eva decided to change the topic away from Zagan. “Maybe we should stop by with Nel. She can peek in on Shalise unless she threw away her hair. Maybe Shalise will be in great danger and we can go on a quick adventure to save her.”

“You shouldn’t hope that your friend is in danger,” Genoa said with a hint of admonishment in her tone.

Eva shrugged. “I don’t! However, trouble seems to follow us around. A lot. Unless it’s all Brakket Academy’s doing. My life never used to be this hectic.”

“Nor mine,” Juliana said.

“I doubt Shalise’s life was so crazy either. It’s settled then. We have to check in on her. For her sake.”

Turning around, Eva walked slowly until Juliana had turned her mother’s wheelchair around and caught up.

They had been walking aimlessly after meeting with Anderson. Just a nice walk around town to enjoy the fresh air and the warm summer day. Not so long ago, they had passed by the new home that housed Ylva and Zoe.

And Nel as well.

As such, it didn’t take long to return. A walk up a short path had them right at the door. The front porch wasn’t wheelchair accessible, but Arachne helped lift the chair up the two steps. As she did, Eva scanned the neighbors with her sense of blood. No one suspicious came up. No hunters living in the adjacent houses.

At least, none that she could see.

There hadn’t been any sign of the demon hunters returning so far. Nel hadn’t been able to get anything from the pieces of armor that the one hunter had left behind. Perhaps because they were broken or maybe because Juliana had used her ferrokinesis on them beforehand. Whatever the case, they weren’t tied closely enough to the hunters to get a lock on them.

With the aid of her sense of blood, Eva had been able to find blood from both hunters around the scenes of battle. Unfortunately, it had all been contaminated beyond use. Too much dirt and debris and not enough blood.

Zagan’s horn had worked out, or the blood on it. However, she kept saying that her vision just ‘slid off’ the demon hunters. Something happened that made her mind go fuzzy when she tried to look at them.

Nel had gone back to standard augur procedure when no fetters existed and checked around the city at random, but she hadn’t found anything. Of course, the last time that Eva had checked in had been nearly a week ago. Maybe something new had happened.

Probably not. Nel didn’t have a cellphone, but Zoe did. Living in the same house, she should have gotten a message out somehow.

Before knocking, Eva performed a quick check of the interior. She didn’t want to disturb people if they were busy, after all. The only person inside Ylva’s room was Alicia—who looked to be reading a book. Nel, Ylva, Zoe, and Wayne were all inside the living room, not far from the door.

At Eva’s knock, whatever conversation they were having ceased. Everyone’s muscles tensed; Zoe’s hands curled around what could only be her dagger while Wayne held up a book. At least, that was what Eva guessed by the movement of their circulatory systems. She couldn’t actually see the dagger or tome.

The only person who remained calm was Ylva. She said a few words, ‘Eva’ being one of them—Eva had been trying to learn to lip read through her blood, her own name had been fairly easy to figure out. As soon as Ylva finished speaking, the tension in the room died off.

Zoe stood, dagger still in hand, and approached the door. As she peeped through the peephole, Eva gave her a little wave.

Though she couldn’t see it with her own eyes, Eva didn’t miss the eye roll as Zoe unlatched and opened the door.

“Eva,” Zoe said by way of greeting. She blinked as she turned towards the rest of her guests. “Genoa, Juliana,” she said with a nod to each. There was a slight pause before she continued. “And Arachne. To what do I owe your visit?”

“Well,” Eva said, “we were actually hoping to talk with Nel. But with everyone all gathered together, what’s up? Nothing bad, I hope?”

Zoe shook her head, stepping out of the doorway to let everyone file into the room. “Not really. Or, at least nothing deadly. At the moment. Bad could be left up to interpretation. For example, you would probably think it is a good thing.”

Eva moved into the room. There wasn’t much room on the couch. Ylva had taken up a portion of it on her own. With Nel at her side and a vacant seat that Zoe had been in, there wasn’t any room unless Eva wanted to steal her spot. Wayne was leaning against one wall, glowering in Eva and Arachne’s direction as they shimmied around the room.

These apartments were really not made for six people, one of whom was in a wheelchair, and a demonic giant.

“We were discussing this upcoming school year. Dean Anderson’s idiotic plan, mostly.”

“Ah. That.”

Genoa folded her arms across her chest as Juliana found a spot for her at one end of the coffee table. “We just got out of our own meeting with Anderson. Wally was there, you remember him?”

“Director Redford? Haven’t seen him in years. It does make sense. If Anderson is going to enter Brakket into the guild’s contest, he’ll need approval from the director for these demons.”

“For the record,” Eva said, “I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing. Devon is going to throw a fit when he hears that the school is going to be summoning demons in droves. He was already quite displeased about the smaller summoning program of Martina’s.”

“He isn’t the only one,” Wayne grumbled from his corner of the room.

“We,” Zoe waved her hand towards the rest of the room as she retook her seat, “are actually more worried about the state of Hell. The whole reason Ylva closed down her domain was to help cut off ties between Earth and Hell.”

Eva shared a quick glance with Arachne. Neither had breathed a word of Arachne’s mission to anyone. Not Devon, not Zoe, not even Juliana. Even Eva, someone who was undoubtedly on Arachne’s side, wasn’t entirely enthused with the idea. While theoretically less destructive, Zoe and Wayne would vehemently—possibly violently—disagree with their summoning.

As it was, Eva was desperately hoping that Arachne was right and rumors of an apocalypse were grossly exaggerated.

Best just to change the subject.

“Not worried about a school full of children making contracts with demons?”

Zoe pressed her lips into thin lines, looking like she had licked a lemon. “That is an issue as well.” She glanced back towards Ylva and gave a shallow nod of her head. “I acknowledge that demons aren’t omnicidal.” Gripping her arm, she shivered. “But they aren’t angels. If a student wound up summoning something like those demons that assaulted me, everyone is going to have a problem.”

“Angels are not the benevolent creatures that humanity romanticizes them to be. We do not believe you would enjoy an encounter with one.”

Blinking her eyes, Zoe glanced towards Ylva. “Well… that’s… just great,” she said, kneading her forehead with both hands. “I just don’t know what we’re supposed to do about anything.”

“Unless you’re planning on a coup against Anderson…” Eva trailed off, leaving her suggestion hanging until Zoe shook her head. “Then there isn’t much you can do.”

Wayne shook his head, pushing off from the wall. “That’s not true,” he said, staring Zoe in the eyes. “Teach them yourself. Speak about your experiences, express caution. Talk to parents too.” He turned to face Genoa. “You as well. Some will still go through with it, but you might limit the damage.” He drew himself up, glancing around the room. With a short grunt, he said, “the rest of us will handle students or demons that step out of line.”

His eyes stopped at Eva. He stared for a moment before shaking his head. “It’s going to be like having a school full of Evas.”

“Hey!” Eva gave him a mock glare with her hands on her hips. After a minute, she chuckled.

Wayne didn’t seem to find the amusement, choosing instead to intensify his glower.

“But I hope it isn’t going to be like that. I’m well aware of just how much trouble finds me. Though I would like to point out that I only rarely go looking for trouble. I’m pretty sure that it is this school that causes all the problems. I just happen to go here.”

“It was peaceful before you showed up.”

Eva just shrugged. “Anyway,” she said, “Nel? Can you check up on Shalise for us?”

The augur jumped at being addressed. She blinked as she glanced up to Ylva. Giving her no response, verbal or otherwise, Nel nodded her head. “I suppose so,” she said with a half-hearted sigh. “Right now?”

“As much as I’d like to continue arguing just how much my presence has or hasn’t ruined Brakket Academy, I don’t really see the conversation going anywhere.”

Aside from that, Eva didn’t really want to argue over Anderson’s plot for the school.

Nel stood from the couch, smoothing out the front of her black robes before walking over to Eva. “Well, let’s get this over with.”

“You don’t sound so excited,” Eva said, following her out of the room. Arachne was right on her heels. Juliana was on her way as well, having left Genoa behind to continue speaking with the adults.

“I think I’m just a little bit depressed as of late. Sawyer… well, that wasn’t quite as satisfying as I was hoping it would be.” She lifted up one arm, still wrapped in a glove. “And we didn’t recover any of my eyes either. I can barely use it for anything. I’ve no grip strength. And there’s a constant dull pain. Nothing that has me screaming out at all hours of the day, but it’s there.”

Pushing open the door to Ylva’s room caused Alicia to perk up. She looked over the top of her book with a smile growing across her face. The moment she saw who was actually entering the room, the smile disappeared and she buried her nose back into her book.

Eva did her best to ignore the other nun. Though she had apparently accomplished her task of not letting anything bad happen to Juliana, Eva still didn’t like her.

“I don’t know how to help you with that,” Eva said as they slipped into the bedroom. “Although, Anderson is going to be summoning a lot of demons. I got my eyes from a demon, maybe you could shop around?”

Nel shook her head. “Eyes used by the Elysium Order aren’t just your everyday eyes. They’re rare foci, magical implements, and capable of generating their own magic. Grown, not found. Implanting one into a mundane human will allow them to use magic.”

Turning to a cabinet, Nel pulled out a small burner. Zoe had teleported the two of them back to Idaho shortly after the demon hunters had fled. They managed to recover all their belongings from the motel.

Well, most of their belongings. Devon’s truck was still out there.

Eva had no intention to return for it. Whatever vampires had survived could take it as a gift for all she cared.

“Augurs aren’t hunted down just because we can spy on just about anything—though that is part of it—the eyes implanted within my body are worth more than any other single artifact owned by the Order.”

“Your problem isn’t the eyes though. That’s the Elysium Order’s problem.”

Pausing with a small glass jar in her hand, Nel raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“You just want a working arm, right?” Eva held up her own hand, looking it over as she showed it off to Nel. “Arachne’s limbs have been quite handy. They don’t look human, but other demons do. Catherine’s arms look normal most of the time.”

So Eva said, but she doubted that Catherine would be willing to part with an arm. Even if she could regenerate it without much trouble.

Nel balked. Her face took on a sickly pallor. “You want me to cut off my arm?”

“You were just talking about putting eyes into your arm,” Eva said, voice flat. “Now you get all shocked?”

“Putting things in my arm is a far cry from chopping it off.”

Eva shook her head. Her own limb issue had been forced for her hands, but she had willingly taken on Arachne’s legs. Maybe her perspective was skewed.

“Your choice,” Eva eventually said with a shrug.

With a shake of her head, Nel knelt down next to an altar at the side of the room. She pulled a slightly curled brown hair from the jar and threw it up in front of her, letting it float in the air. With her gemstone focus, she sparked the frankincense.

It didn’t take long for the air to fill with piny-citrus scent that was so common around the augur.

As she settled down to perform her auguring, Eva double-checked her surroundings. She wasn’t paranoid, but if anyone had worse luck than Eva, it was Nel. Eva couldn’t dispute her claim that terrible things happened every time she left Ylva’s domain. Now that Ylva’s domain was gone, it was something of a shock that Nel hadn’t been found dead.

Everyone was still where they were supposed to be. Alicia in her half of the room and the rest in the living room. The neighbors were going about their regular business. A woman and a child playing with toys on one side. A man fixing a car out in the garage of another house. None seemed to be spying on Zoe’s house.

“Not sure what I’m seeing,” Nel said, eyes closed as she leaned over the frankincense burner. She took a few slow and careful breaths before leaning back. “Maybe nothing at all?”

“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?”

Nel opened her eyes, glancing over to Eva. “Probably not something to worry about. Sister Cross would often disappear for hours on end.”

“The same thing that Sawyer did?”

“No. Sawyer was like he didn’t exist. The only evidence of him was a shroud of darkness. Sister Cross exists—or rather, Shalise does—but I can’t see exactly where she is.”

“So what does that mean?” Juliana asked. “You used to be able to find her, right?”

Nel held out her hands, palms up.

“No. Try again. Shrugging this off isn’t going to help it.”

“I don’t–” Nel cut herself off with a sigh. Leaning over her altar, she breathed in a deep breath. “There’s just nothing. I see where they might have been several minutes ago. A sort of campsite out in a forest. Two tents, a fire pit, a wooden bench. Nobody around though.”

Lips curling into a frown, Nel tapped a finger against her altar. “There is one thing odd. What looks like canned food is sitting out. Not near the fire, but it had to have been at one point. I can see steam coming out of the can.”

“Like it had been abandoned recently?”

“Maybe.”

“Alright. Figure out where it is. I’m going to grab Zoe. If it is a false alarm, we can leave peacefully—maybe rekidnap Shalise if she wants—otherwise, better to be safe than sorry.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.031

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Shalise jumped to her feet, ready for another attack. Lynn was at her side in an instant.

It was somewhat off-putting. Lynn’s lightning and fire was far more effective at dealing with the enigmas than anything Shalise could put out. Sure, her muscles were strong and afforded her a certain level of toughness that she would otherwise lack, but not a single one of the creatures had actually made it within grappling range since Eva had brought along Lynn.

She shouldn’t be complaining, but Lynn just looked so exhausted. Dealing with the constant attacks kept her from having a proper sleep schedule.

This time, however, both women sagged in relief as they spotted just who it was approaching the alternate women’s ward.

Zoe and Eva were walking slowly, carrying something heavy between the two of them.

“She actually got it,” Lynn mused under her breath. “I half expected to never see her again.”

Shalise gave Lynn a frown, but didn’t respond. She threw open the door to the women’s ward and ran out across the closed trap doors to see if she could help out in any way. They were carrying her salvation, supposedly.

Salvation? You were not complaining while using me to escape from the prison.

Shaking her head with a frown, Shalise shot a mental glare at Prax. She was fairly certain that she had been complaining. Even before he had taken over her body.

That was entirely unintentional. I did not intend for us to become stuck this way.

“Sounds like you’re complaining about what might get us unstuck.”

There was an uncomfortable shift in the back of her mind. Between Zagan and the dolls, he started. Whatever he was going to say vanished with a spike of annoyance.

“Well, I can’t stay here. Even with Lynn here, those things will eventually kill me. Then you’ll be stuck dealing with Zagan and the dolls anyway.”

Brushing off the resignation from Prax, Shalise raised her voice to more conversational levels. “Is that the obelisk? Do you need help?”

“Just hold the door and show us where to put it.”

Eva’s words came out quick and strained, so Shalise wasn’t about to argue. She ran up to the door and kept it from swinging shut on them while Lynn directed them to the circle she had drawn.

“Set it down here,” Lynn said. “The corner needs to point towards the center of the circle.”

Zoe and Eva complied without complaint. Once the obelisk was in place, they both heaved out great sighs of relief. Eva collapsed into the couch that had been shoved against the far wall while Zoe just leaned against its armrests, sheathing her dagger as she panted.

Pathetic. Prax’s amusement was almost palpable. We could have lifted that with one hand.

“Shalise,” Lynn said, “strip down while I get everything set up.”

Feeling the heat in her face, Shalise almost protested. Zoe and Eva were still at the couch, now talking softly to one another while Zoe pointed at the ritual circle. Lynn had already moved on to the backpack that Eva had slung on the floor. She pulled a white feather out of the bag and placed it carefully within a small circle at the side of the larger circle.

No one was paying attention to her.

I am paying attention.

“Don’t be a creep,” Shalise hissed as she pulled off her shirt.

Despite his words, Shalise couldn’t feel a hint of interest towards herself from Prax. It was just him being annoying again. A way of protesting his imprisonment within her body without angering her too much.

Maybe he wanted her to summon him once they got out.

That wouldn’t happen, though Juliana had offered to summon him back at the prison. If Shalise never interacted with him again, she wouldn’t be too upset.

But he hadn’t been that bad. He did get both herself and Juliana out of the prison safely and with their souls intact.

And the conflicting combination of anxiety and eagerness towards the ritual had Shalise feeling just a little pity for him.

He would be back in his own body, but had Zagan and the dolls to worry about, as he had just mentioned a short while ago.

Setting her folded clothes neatly to the side of the room, Shalise sat at the edge of the circle, trying and failing to cover herself as much as possible.

Why bother? Everyone in this room has seen you in various states of undress.

“Not this undressed.”

Mortal sensibilities, he scoffed.

Shalise kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to encourage his antics. He was just as nervous as she was, but his way of relieving that tension did not agree with her.

“Center of the circle, Shal. Remain standing and face me.”

After jumping slightly at being addressed, Shalise stepped into the circle. She moved to her spot, making certain that she didn’t scuff any of the markings on the floor.

Facing Lynn meant facing the door. Her back was to the obelisk.

An assortment of items lay out in an array around her. Sigils and markings were covering the floor, all designed to direct the magic in certain patterns, to make them flow through the objects, and all sorts of things that Shalise didn’t pretend to understand.

Both Eva and Zoe moved to stand near Lynn at the front of the circle, though Lynn moved back as soon as they came near.

Taking a bag of white powder in her hands, Lynn moved around to the obelisk behind Shalise.

Craning her neck to see, Shalise watched as Lynn opened the top of the obelisk and started pouring the powder inside.

As she did, the markings and sigils on the obelisk started to glow. It was a pale, white light that sent a shiver of disgust through her body.

Once full, Lynn replaced the cap of the obelisk and returned to the head of the circle.

“We’re going to start now,” she said. “Try to remain standing. Everything will be alright.”

Shalise took a deep breath, nodding.

As she nodded, she caught sight of her shadow. The light of the obelisk filled most of the room, so it wasn’t unusual that she would have a shadow.

But the shadow looked like Prax. She could see his hooves, his horns, and his muscles. Concerning, as Shalise’s arms were currently her own. No Prax’s muscles bulging through her skin. It was also far taller than it should have been, given the angle of the light.

Glancing up, Shalise frowned.

Neither Sister Cross nor Zoe had any shadow to speak of, as if the light was passing straight through them.

“Huh,” Eva said, back turned to Shalise to look at her own shadow.

Things sprouted off the back of Eva’s shadow. Like oddly angled wings made of bones. Except they couldn’t be bones. They were far too fluid. Liquid dripped off the tips of the bones to rejoin the mass of shadow making up the rest of Eva’s body.

There was more to the shadow. Shalise couldn’t see it very well. Eva’s body stood in the way to obscure most of it.

Without a word or glance at the others, Eva walked out the door and disappeared around the side of the women’s ward. Shalise didn’t see her pass by the window, so either she was walking straight out or she had chosen to rest against the wall.

Zoe started to follow, but appeared to change her mind as she set her eyes on Shalise.

Lynn took a step back. She looked over the circle, double checking everything for the hundredth time. Once satisfied, her eyes lit up like they did anytime she used her powers. She started chanting.

Shalise didn’t recognize the words. They weren’t English. Probably–

Latin, Prax confirmed. She could feel an air of dread coming from the back of her mind. I do not think that either of us are going to enjoy this.

“What do–”

Shalise couldn’t get her question out before the pain started.

A tearing, ripping sensation pulled at her back. Prax’s dormant muscles spasmed. They grew under her skin, then shrank, then grew again. Every time, they seemed to be just a little less attached. Her natural muscles strained as they pulled against each other.

All the while, Shalise screamed. Like the rest of her body, her brain felt like it was being torn apart.

Prax’s screams faded in and out of the back of her mind. Unlike her, he needed no air to continue his screams. His vocal chords weren’t wearing and tearing from the stress. His screams came in a constant tone.

Shalise couldn’t say how long it lasted. She was fairly certain that her consciousness lapsed more than once, only to be brought back by the crescendo of pain.

It ended with a sudden thud and a hot, wet, and sticky sensation against her chest.

Shalise slumped forward. The ground was quickly approaching.

She stopped inches away as a pair of arms caught her and pulled her into a tight embrace.

“It’s alright,” Lynn’s voice came faint and distant. “Shal, you’re okay. It worked.”

Shalise blinked twice, trying to clear her mind of the lingering pain. She was pressed tight against Lynn’s body, her head resting on the older woman’s shoulder.

Behind her back, Prax–red skin, horns, bulking body and all–lay face down on the ground.

Eva stood over him, nudging him slightly with her foot while Zoe stood to the side with her dagger out. When Eva had reentered the room, Shalise couldn’t say. She had no idea how long that ritual had lasted. Her muscles screamed at her as if she had been running three marathons in a row, but it had only felt like a moment or two.

A splattering of red and black blood lay about between Shalise and Prax.

Seeing Prax, Shalise’s eyes felt heavy. She tried to keep them open. She wanted to stay awake.

After two more blinks, she found it too difficult to lift them again.

“We’ll let her rest for a few hours,” Lynn’s voice came, distant and quiet. “Then we can return.”

“Fine with me,” Eva said from even farther away. “Keep watching her and don’t worry. If any of the enigmas attack, I’ll deal with them.” A certain violence entered Eva’s voice, one that Shalise couldn’t recall hearing before. “I hope more of the enigmas attack.”

There was a sound not dissimilar to the cracking of knuckles.

“I could use a little cathartic release at the moment.”

Her voice trailed off into a deep silence as Shalise lost consciousness.

— — —

“It’s time.”

Nel jumped at Ylva’s words. She had been concentrating.

Sawyer was on the move. At least, she assumed that Sawyer was on the move.

It was just her luck that he would have noticed that his augur shield wasn’t working. After preparing the salt for Eva, she had immediately returned to watching him.

He had been in the middle of surgery on the little girl when Nel got to her altar. While the girl had torn off the violet-colored organ attached to his hand, there were still traces of it left. Veins, purpler than they should be on a person, bulged from his skin.

He didn’t seem to pay it much mind, choosing to focus on the surgery. In just a single half hour, he had done something that caused everything to go dark.

Likely by repairing whatever he had done with Nel’s eyes.

But all was not lost. After a few minutes of experimentation, Nel found them again. She couldn’t actually see them–anything within a few mile radius just vanished from her sight. But she could monitor that blotch of darkness. The edges of it moved around. Not much, it presumably moved as the little girl moved.

Still, it allowed Nel to track their general movements, if not their exact position.

Five days after Sawyer had repaired the girl, they had started moving north. Not quickly. They made frequent stops in areas that held tiny towns. Perhaps ones that were just large enough to have a motel or some other hostel.

After three days of travel, they had crossed the Nevada border into southern Idaho.

Nel had a feeling that she knew their final destination, even if they weren’t heading towards Brakket Academy in a straight line.

She had been hoping that Eva would be up to enact their revenge on Sawyer sometime before Ylva closed off her domain, but that didn’t seem to be all that likely anymore.

Nel glanced up at Lady Ylva and gave her a resigned nod.

“Shall I stay here? Or do you need me somewhere specific?”

Ylva stared. She didn’t blink or tilt her head to either side, she just stared in silence.

Anyone else might have missed it, but Nel knew her mannerisms well enough after a year and a half of being constantly in her presence.

Lady Ylva was confused.

“You wish to stay?”

Ice cold fear gripped Nel’s heart. This was it. She had allowed herself to grow complacent–comfortable even–as Lady Ylva’s aide.

Now she was being thrown away. Dismissed.

Killed?

Nel could feel her breath quickening.

No. Not killed. Sister Cross had tried to kill her. Discretely, true, but the evidence was plain to see from her position.

If Lady Ylva wanted her dead, she would be dead. There were no superiors to hold Lady Ylva accountable for the death of an augur. No one to complain about all the effort it took to replace an augur.

But Ylva was sending her back to Earth?

Nel wouldn’t miss it. She hadn’t stepped outside of Ylva’s domain more than three times in the past year and not a single one of those times had anything good happened. Generally, it was the exact opposite.

No. Nel wanted to stay.

Nel’s eyes flicked from Lady Ylva’s face to just over her shoulder.

Alicia stood a step behind Ylva, still wearing the dark robes that Nel wore. Her eyes were narrowed in Nel’s direction, but her face was otherwise impassive.

Had she been asked to stay in place of Nel? Or had she chosen to stay?

Was it a choice?

“I want to stay with you,” Nel blurted out.

Lady Ylva nodded. A faint smile touched just the very edges of her lips.

That had been the expected response? Or it was a test?

Nel sagged in her seat at the altar as the tension drained from her body. She spent a moment trying to get her hyperventilating under control.

“Very well,” Lady Ylva said, taking no apparent notice of Nel’s distress. “Gather everything that cannot be left behind. Join Us in the throne room after.”

Nel’s breath hitched in her throat. She glanced up with confusion in her eyes.

Lady Ylva had already turned. Her long platinum hair and low-cut dress swung in the air, trailing after her as she left the room.

Alicia shot a look before turning to follow. Nel wasn’t quite certain what to make of it. Amusement? Ire?

With every passing day, Nel found herself liking the other former nun less and less.

Maybe I misunderstood the question. She was suddenly extremely relieved that she hadn’t said that yes, she wanted to stay.

But she had been left with an order.

Nel did not have much. She came to Ylva with nothing but the tattered remains of her Elysium Order habit. Everything she had, everything she wore, everything she ate, all of it was provided by Lady Ylva.

Aside from a few spare changes of clothes, there was only one thing that she could think to take.

Her fetters.

Most had containers already. Only the one she had most recently been using, Sawyer’s hand, was out of its jar. Nel wasted no time in sealing it up and dropping it into a bag.

She glanced around, ensuring she had everything. Several strands of hair, Sawyer’s hand, the little girl’s friend’s blood. She hesitated in taking the brass sphere that the devil had given her, but decided that throwing away a fetter wouldn’t do anyone any good, even one as disturbing as that.

And that was everything Nel could think to bring. She headed out to the main throne room.

Lady Ylva stood near the exit doors alongside Alicia and one of the professors.

It took a moment to understand the reason for the professor’s presence. Her apartment had been connected to Ylva’s domain as well.

“Ready,” Nel said as she ran up to the group.

“Let Us proceed,” Ylva said, moving to leave her domain.

The two former nuns and the professor all followed her out, with the professor watching Ylva like a hawk.

Once everyone was outside, Ylva gripped the handle of the door and swung it shut. She held on for just a moment longer than necessary.

“It is done.”

“That’s it?” Zoe asked, her voice carrying a hint of disbelief.

Ylva gestured one arm towards the door.

Accepting the wordless invitation, Zoe stepped up and opened the door once again.

Gone was the gigantic room, the pit, the throne, and the storm clouds overhead. What lay behind the door was indistinguishable from any other cell block in the compound.

“What do you intend to do now?” Zoe asked without taking her eyes off the interior of the building.

“The necromancer is still at large. We would stay near your presence until his termination.”

“Because of the ring,” Zoe said, thumbing the black band on her finger. With a slight jump in her stance, she tore her eyes from the cell block and stared at Ylva. “Juliana still has hers. She’s been gone all this time.”

“Juliana has had Our personal attention for a time,” Ylva said, holding up one placating hand. “For the time, We may send Ali to watch over her. It would be preferable were she to return.”

Alicia opened her mouth just a hair. She snapped it shut in an instant.

Nel didn’t much care. She was too busy staring into what used to be Ylva’s domain.

There was something that she had forgotten.

She could almost feel the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.

With a heavy heart, Nel wondered if she would ever see Lady Ylva’s bath again.

— — —

Embarrassed.

That was the only word that Riley Cole could think of to describe her situation.

Perhaps not her situation, but the situation of the Elysium Order.

They were an upstanding organization that hunted down the evils that lurked in the night. Anything that threatened human life or livelihood. Vampires, undead, zombies, liches, ghosts, ghouls, revenants, wights, wraiths, and even mummies. All fell in the name of protecting the living.

And yet, they had wound up a laughing stock. The inquisitors had been decimated. The few survivors claiming that a literal god of Death had stripped them of their powers. Scattered incidents around the country involving demons had further hampered their efforts to keep the living alive.

They had tried to keep the theft of the Obelisk of the Pure Moon quiet. The thieves had the gall to return it. When they did, they ensured that everyone in the area knew it was there.

Luckily, a stone obelisk with a handful of fireworks going off around it down the road from the cathedral had been passed off as a simple curiosity. No one who saw understood the significance of the obelisk.

Riley recognized the demon that had perished in the cathedral. As had a number of the Charon Chapter nuns. It had been standing on the roof overlooking their warehouse the night of the riot.

It all stemmed from here. Prioress Cross–Former Prioress Cross had antagonized the wrong people at Brakket City. They had spent far too much time around the city itself when they should have been hunting the necromancer. Their augur had been tied up spying on students rather than searching through caves, warehouses, and other necromancer haunts.

Given the demon infestation in the area, Riley could see the logic behind it.

But they were not demon hunters. They were undead hunters. Former Prioress Cross had failed to follow regulations. If she had truly been concerned about the demons, she should have put out the word for hunters to find. Otherwise, they should have stuck to hunting the necromancer and left the demons well enough alone.

Riley had lost more than one good friend to Cross’ madness.

The demons were the ones embarrassing the Elysium Order as a whole, now.

That could no longer stand.

“The tip was right. I would call this a ‘cursed city.'”

One of her companions–Riley restrained a sneer at thinking the word–had his head tilted towards the sky.

She couldn’t actually see his face. His entire body was encased in an armor that was, frankly, medieval. There was nothing to see of his face, the thin slit for his eyes was not wide enough to let any usable amounts of light inside. Faint clouds of mist curled off his armored back in the light breeze.

“We could have found this place on our own,” the woman at his side commented in a sing-song voice. She arched her back in a long stretch, jutting out an indecent chest as she moved. “This sky will be the talk of the nation if it isn’t already. I doubt that even the mundane news will leave it alone.”

Riley frowned. The woman had hardly glanced at the sky. Her sole eye had focused on the town below them and nothing else.

“Shall I cancel the payment?”

“Clement!” She slapped his armored side with her bare hand, not even wincing despite the loud noise it made. “If we don’t pay those who tip us, word gets out and we don’t get more tips. It’s bad for business!”

“I require no payment,” Riley said.

“Not you,” the woman snapped. Her head turned to face a single green eye in Riley’s direction.

Riley was somewhat glad that a simple black eye patch was covering the other side of her face. The sole eye had more than enough ridicule aimed in her direction.

“We only pay the first one to tip us.” Her sing-song voice took on a mocking tone. “Shouldn’t have sat on the information for a year.”

Riley started. That last word had come out harsh and throaty.

“You should leave,” the armored man said. “Gertrude and I can handle this. You’ll only get in the way.”

Narrowing her eye at the man, Riley said, “I’m not about to–”

“Let her stay,” she said, back in her sing-song voice. “She can watch.” Gertrude shoved one hand through her light red hair. Her green eye leveled back at Riley, cold and hard. “Someone has to show them how it’s done.”

Clement’s armor failed to make a single noise as he shifted where he stood. “Plan?”

“Investigate, poke, and prod. Find weaknesses, find domains, poke harder. Disconnect domains. Draw them out. And exterminate every last one of the bastards.” She looked up at the armored helmet with a disgusting smile on her face–it came to a sharp point in the center of her face with the corners drawing up far too high on her cheeks. “The usual.”

“Usually there are far less demons around.”

That already disgusting smile twisted into a too-wide grin.

I know.

Riley shivered as the two went back to staring over the edge of the cliff. The woman’s eye held a dangerous glint that forced her to take a step back. The two were absolutely insane. She had warned them about the devil and the death god.

And these two were excited. At least the woman was.

Taking up the armored man’s offer of leaving wasn’t looking like such a bad idea any longer.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.030

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The tension in Irene’s muscles had to be reaching their peak. She felt like she had been exercising nonstop for the past two hours. Her body couldn’t possibly tense up any further.

Every impact against the shackles she had set up only caused her grip on her wand to tighten, proving that notion wrong. Every high-pitched whine had her arms shaking just a tiny bit more than they were before. Every cannon blast that followed the whine had her ears ringing and her vision blurring for a second or two afterwards.

Shelby, woken by one of the first cannon blast noises, had her own wand in her hand. Her free hand held Irene’s in a tight grip.

Jordan stood off to one side. His shadow curled around him on the ground and walls, ready to act at the first sign of trouble.

While the noises left Irene with a momentary headache, each seemed to do far worse to Jordan and Lucy. Jordan actually swayed in place for a few seconds. Lucy had given up any pretense of maintaining her human form. She was just a puddle of spaghetti on the ground between Irene and Eva’s room.

Early on, it hadn’t been so bad. The creatures in Eva’s room would make the occasional noise. They were loud enough that most of the Rickenbacker dormitory had woken up, but infrequent enough that the students felt they could wander past and gawk like Eva’s room was some sort of zoo.

That had ended rather quickly once the creatures started their attempts to escape.

Irene wanted to run with the other students. This wasn’t her mess. Lucy was here–though she didn’t look so reliable at the moment. Catherine had asked her to write out the shackles. She hadn’t spoken a word about sticking around and ensuring that nothing escaped.

The safety of everyone would probably be better assured if she just ran and found more of the security guards. Preferably ones that wouldn’t turn to spaghetti upon hearing the noises the creatures made.

But something kept Irene’s eyes glued to the shackles. Some otherworldly feeling that the moment she turned her back, the shackles would break and she would be caught, trampled, and possibly eaten.

Thus far, her shackles were holding admirably. They were a lot stronger than the ones she had set up to contain her first summon. Even the three beasts working together couldn’t break out. Irene might have taken a notion of pride in her work if she wasn’t so concerned about what might happen if they did fail.

One of those three beasts was actually on its side, face bloodied and raw from charging head on into the shackles repeatedly. The other two were more prodding at them than ramming themselves into them.

It was almost disturbing how intelligent they appeared.

“What’s taking so long?”

Irene jumped. Her sister’s voice came just as one of the creatures scraped a few tendrils around the barrier. For a moment, she had thought it shattered. It took her mind a second to process that she was hearing words for the first time in a long time.

“Taking so long?”

“Shouldn’t more security guards have shown up by now?” Shelby asked with a nervous glance at Lucy. “Or a professor? One of the others had to have told someone.”

“You saw the sky.” Irene bit back the tremble in her voice. She wanted to keep strong for her sister’s sake, if nothing else. A moot effort, in all likelihood. Shelby wasn’t so oblivious that she would miss how tense Irene was or the slight shakes in her arms.

Then again, Shelby wasn’t the epitome of steady at the moment either.

“Who knows what all is going on outside. They probably decided that Lucy could handle such a small thing on her own while they deal with other matters.”

“Well, I disagree. I can’t believe you knew about that,” she nodded towards the doorway. She might have been gesturing towards Lucy, but it was difficult to tell with just a nod.

Irene clamped her mouth shut. Shelby could make all the inferences she wanted, but Irene couldn’t offer up any response.

“We’ll be fine,” Jordan said, stepping up next to Shelby. “If anything happens, I can have the three of us at the stairwell in seconds. It won’t be hard to run.”

“Should we run?” Irene asked, grateful for the change in topic and not willing to let it slip away with just what he had said. “If these things escape, they could go on a rampage. Maybe some students haven’t got out of the dorms.”

She hated being contrary. Especially because the contrary position was to stay. But, as she had thought about earlier, she just couldn’t leave. It would be nice to be any other ignorant student, able to run off and bury their head under a pile of sand.

Her eyes had been opened to a larger world.

Could she run knowing that a single one of these creatures had held a being like Catherine for as long as it had, all while fighting off a number of older students?

Actually, Irene considered as she thought back, yes I can.

Even if they stayed, what could they do? The older students hadn’t done any good until they worked together to freeze the creature. She might have slowed it down by manipulating the tiles at its feet, but that had been with the assistance of Randal.

Irene had no idea what room or even which dormitory building Randal was housed in.

“Wait,” Irene said before either of the others could call her crazy. “We can’t fight them. But maybe we can trap them? More permanently than they are now, at least.”

The ice had been fairly permanent. Long lasting enough to get everyone away safely and Eva in to set up her shackles.

“You have a plan?”

No. “Maybe.”

None of them were water mages. Though none of them would be able to conjure up the water necessary anyway. Maybe they could have run the water in one of the dorm rooms.

A moot point without any of them being a water mage.

Irene’s mind immediately latched onto what she had done to the creature back in the diablery class. Turning the tiled floor into a sort of mud-like quicksand to hold them in place. It wouldn’t be easy. Tiles were just rock, but rock was far more difficult to manipulate than dirt and loose earth.

True, she had needed Randal’s help during class. This wasn’t class and the creatures were not already loose. She had the time to concentrate.

Her arm being properly set into her shoulder couldn’t hurt either.

She didn’t know how an air mage would help contribute, but Jordan could help. He was an earth mage.

Moving a few steps down the hall, Irene pointed her wand at the floor. “Step back, near me please. Jordan, help me out. I’m making quicksand.”

Once they complied, Irene set to pushing her magic into the floor. Lucy was left on the other side, still between the shackles and them, but Irene wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the demon. She didn’t exactly have a shovel to scrape her off the floor.

She’d probably be alright. She was a demon.

To protect them properly, the quicksand would need to stretch the entire width of the hallway as well as be a few feet long. She couldn’t risk them jumping over it. “Shelby, if you have any ideas on how to help, feel free to jump in.”

“Into the quicksand?”

Irene shot a glare at her sister. “You know what I meant.”

The quicksand wouldn’t be deep. Maybe an inch or two at most. That was the problem with working on a building. But, unlike regular quicksand, hers could be hardened as the monsters trampled over it. She should be able to stretch it up and trap them. At least for a short amount of time.

“Perhaps you could set up more shackles on this side,” Jordan said. He had his own wand out, pointing at the floor. “They’d get caught in the quicksand and then have a whole other set of shackles to break through. With all the trouble they’re having with the first one, it should buy plenty of time to find other solutions. Like grabbing a few teachers or security guards.”

With a slight groan, Irene slapped her forehead. She should have been doing that anyway. The entire hallway, lined with nonstop shackles. It would take these things days to escape had she done that instead of sitting around watching them.

But she kept her mouth clamped shut. After rubbing her forehead slightly, she went back to liquefying the tiles without so much as a nod.

In retrospect, she should have sent everyone away while drawing the initial shackles. It was somewhat surprising that she could. The contract specified spoken or written words, so sigils and circles must not have counted. Maybe she could use sign language to tell her friends what she had been up to.

Of course, that plan required learning sign language. Worse, it involved Shelby learning sign language. That was never going to happen.

Shelby gripped her arm. “Did you hear that?”

No, I was concentrating. Rather than listen further, Irene hastened her efforts with the floor. If it was nothing, then great, oh well. If it was something, then she didn’t want to pause to listen.

Manipulating the floor was going better than she had expected. Jordan was helping, but she could feel her own magic flowing much easier than it had when she had first failed at summoning the imp. Maybe because she had done this before? Or she was just getting noticeably better at magic in the two months since the previous incident.

“I’m serious,” Shelby said, tightening her grip. “Like glass cracking.”

The all too familiar sound of her shackles failing echoed through the hallway. Maybe it was because she had turned her back or because she had walked out of sight of the creatures. She couldn’t say for sure.

“They’re coming,” Irene whispered as the first creature rounded the corner of Eva’s room.

It had the unfortunate fate to tread on top of Lucy.

Her limp tentacles jumped like they had been electrocuted. As one, they lifted up and encircled the creature, mimicking the bulb of a tulip.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Shelby groaned.

Irene might have been as well, had she not noticed the second creature charging around the side of Lucy. It completely ignored the pig-like screams and pieces of violet-tinted flesh flying out of the mass of tentacles.

It reached the edge of her quicksand and jumped.

Gripping Shelby’s arm, Irene pulled her sister back. Her moat was nowhere near long enough to stop it.

Time seemed to slow down as its round face filled with sharp teeth flew towards them, its tentacles flailing around in the air.

Irene’s vision went black.

This is the end, she thought in a moment of tranquil despair. I’ve failed. And I’ve dragged Shelby down with me.

Shelby’s scream only compounded her despair tenfold.

Until, underneath Shelby’s scream, she heard a sound not unlike a hunk of meat being dropped on the floor.

The darkness passed over her and she could see again. Shelby at her side, eyes wide in horror. The walls and the floor.

And Jordan. He stood just in front of them. A wall of darkness stretching from one side of the hallway to the other.

The darkness collapsed after a moment with a gasp from Jordan, perspiration dripping from his face.

There was the creature, lying on its side in her moat of quicksand.

Suppressing the desire to let loose a hysterical laugh, Irene caught her wits in an instant. Gripping her wand, she hardened the tile as fast as she could. It was much easier than liquefying it in the first place.

Not all of the creature was stuck. At least half of the snake-like tendrils coming off its back were free. And they were not pleased.

The tiles cracked. Even with Irene repairing them as fast and as best as she was able to, it wouldn’t hold for long.

“Lucy!” Irene shouted. “Listen to the sound of my voice and come here. Crawl towards me please!”

Another crack in the tile. Irene tried to repair it as well, but a third crack.

Lucy spat out something from her bulb of tentacles. A violet-stained slab of meat.

“Hurry!”

The mass of tentacles stretched and inchwormed along the ground. Slowly. Too slowly.

A chunk of tile came off the creature. It clambered to its feet and glared at Irene.

That was the last thing it did.

Lucy’s tentacles came down on top of it. Unlike last time, there was no curtain of tentacles shielding them from the sight.

Thin strands of tentacles binded themselves together into thicker tendrils. They started with the creature’s own tentacles, to keep them from fighting back. Even after pulling a tentacle from its back–releasing a spray of blood as they did so–the tentacles tried to fight. Lucy was having none of it. She squeezed and crushed, pulled and rent until no single piece was larger than her thumb.

At a sudden gagging sound from Shelby, Irene slapped her hand over her sister’s eyes.

There was still one more creature, but it hadn’t shown up yet. Still incapacitated from ramming into the shackles over and over again, most likely. Irene needed to go and fix those before anything more came through.

But for now, she would stick by Shelby’s side and keep her comforted. At least until Lucy had finished with the creature.

As Lucy started on the creature’s legs, Irene held her sister tighter. She wished she had extra arms to cover Shelby’s ears. Yet, she never averted her own eyes.

For some reason, she just couldn’t bring herself to look away.

— — —

“Eva!”

Zoe caught the girl before she could collapse to the ground. As expected, she was shivering and seizing up, unable to put strength in her arms. Taking care not to bump her head, Zoe gently placed Eva against the floor of the women’s ward gate room.

With Eva on the floor, Zoe took a good look at her eyes behind her mask. While her pupils were still thin slits, her irises were no longer bright and burning, having returned to their usual red.

The blood coating Zoe’s arms and most of Eva had also stopped moving. It was still there, just inert.

Small mercies, Zoe thought. At least neither of them were in danger from… whatever Eva had been about to do.

“Wayne?” she called out before realizing her mistake.

Wayne wasn’t here. He wouldn’t be here and neither should she be here. In her panic to get them out of the cathedral, she had skipped past the meeting place entirely and went straight back to the women’s ward.

Cursing under her breath, Zoe pulled out her cellphone. Some of the black blood on her hands smeared over the screen. Zoe did not stop typing even for a second to wipe it away.

Out. @ women’s ward.

She sent the text away before anything else. If Wayne went back in thinking that she hadn’t escaped and something happened to him… Zoe doubted she would forgive herself.

Arachne dead?

She wasn’t entirely sure if dead was the right word to use.

Eva panicked, had to escape.

Setting the phone to the side, Zoe turned her attention back to the girl on the ground.

Even taking into account the effect that her teleportation had on Eva, she had been still for far too long.

“Are you alright, Eva? Can you–”

Zoe’s voice was cut off by her cellphone buzzing against the stone floor of the women’s ward.

Injuries?

Short and to the point.

Zoe considered the question for just a moment. She had a raking pain in her lower back from where Eva’s claws sunk into her skin. She didn’t think that the girl had intended to hurt her, but had simply done so as a reaction to Zoe unexpectedly tackling her.

Eva, on the other hand, was injured. Given that she was covered in Arachne’s blood and that her own blood looked almost exactly the same, it was a bit difficult to tell exactly where she was injured. The few shards of carapace sticking out of her chest were definite signs of injury, however.

Bits of Arachne’s head.

None looked too deep or too large, however. With how well she could heal minor cuts using blood magic, Zoe doubted that she was in any real danger.

Zoe shuddered at the thought as she sent a reply.

Minor wounds on both of us. Nothing life threatening. Bring a few potions anyway. Serena not keyed in, Eva in no shape to do so at the moment. Leave her behind.

“Eva,” Zoe said as she set her phone back down, “can you hear me?”

“I can.”

The answer was cold. No real emotion in it.

“Are you injured? Do you need anything.”

“Arachne,” she said in the same tone of voice.

“Is a demon,” Zoe said softly. She reached up and tried to remove her mask, wanting to look down and offer a reassuring smile to Eva. Only, she found it difficult to remove. Prying her fingers under the seam was almost impossible due to how closely it had been molded to fit her face.

Instead, she reached out and gave Eva’s shoulder a squeeze. “She’ll be fine. Right? Demons don’t die permanently.”

Eva shook her head side to side. Her long hair splayed out behind her own mask bunched up as it rubbed against the ground. “It will be years. At least. Maybe longer. I’ve never,” she choked over her words. “I’ve never seen her die. She hasn’t died for as long as I’ve known her.”

Before Zoe could offer any comforting words about how death was a natural part of life–though that might not be entirely applicable in this exact situation–Eva grit her teeth. She balled up a fist and sent up a scattering of dust as she rammed it into the floor.

“I’m not a stranger to death. I’ve seen people die. I’ve killed people. Ones who weren’t coming back. It’s just a shock. Seeing my friend’s head explode in front of me.” She shook her head again, further mussing up her hair. “Not something you prepare for.

“And now she’s gone. Floating in a void–in Void until she manages to put her head back together.” Eva shuddered. “I can’t–I don’t want to imagine what it is like. Will she even come back? Demons without purpose and drive lose their minds when they die, stuck in the abyss of their own heads.” Eva gave a dark chuckle. “At least, that’s what Arachne said once.”

Zoe pressed her lips together. She wasn’t enthusiastic about Arachne, but she had to say something.

“She has you,” she said, lightly flicking the forehead of Eva’s mask while idly wondering if the girl was ever going to get rid of them. “If she cares for you half as much as she says she does, she’ll pull through. You just need to be ready to receive her when she gets back.”

Eva was smiling. Zoe couldn’t see it through her mask, but the mask did have holes for her eyes. Her eyes crinkled the slightest bit. It wasn’t a bright, tooth filled smile. But maybe just enough to make her feel better.

At least, that is what Zoe thought until the crinkles around Eva’s eyes vanished.

“Void is being attacked. We’re ceasing all summoning. Even Ylva is cutting off ties between the mortal realm and Hell. Even if Arachne does pull herself back together in record time, she may be stranded on the other side.”

“I accepted a beacon from her,” Zoe said slowly. “Did she use it without renewing it with me?”

Zoe could hear Eva’s mouth opening, but it was a moment before she said anything. When she did speak, her voice had the smallest hints of hope. “I don’t think so. As far as I know, she has been in her room for months barring tonight and when Lynn Cross attacked.”

“See?” Zoe said with a small smile. “She’ll be back. And I highly doubt that she’ll bother with staying in Hell even if everyone told her not to come back.”

Eva opened her mouth, only to jump slightly as Wayne appeared in the gate room. He held his emergency sack of potions in one arm and a smaller vial of dark liquid.

Probably far too many potions. Zoe’s text had asked for a few potions. Not all of them.

For a moment, he just looked between the two. Eva, lying flat on her back and Zoe sitting over her.

Zoe did not miss his eyes darting to the wound on her back. She couldn’t actually read his expression as he still had his mask on as well, but what she could see of his eyes did not look pleasant.

She hadn’t actually seen her wound for herself, choosing instead to focus on Eva. Following his eyes, she found four thin lines of red along with her clothing torn around the area.

The actual part where Eva’s claws had first hit her back would have required a mirror or far too much twisting. As it was, just moving to look sent a sharp pain through her side.

Nothing near as bad as when she had been hit by lightning from the inquisitors, and even further from the agony she endured at the hands of the jezebeth and carnivean.

Shaking the pain off, Zoe met Wayne’s eyes. “Just a scratch,” she said, voice firm and leaving no room for argument.

Eva didn’t need to be shouted at by Wayne at the moment.

Without a word, he reached into the sack and withdrew two vials. He tossed both to Zoe. He dropped the dark vial right on Eva’s chest.

“Serena’s blood,” he said. “Add it to your wards. I’d rather have her here than back at home. If they do find a way to follow us, proximity to Ylva should discourage any ideas they might get. So long as she is around, that is.”

Eva held up the vial, her first real movement since arriving, and turned it over in front of her eyes. “Will it work? This blood is… dead. I think.”

“You’re the blood mage.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never met a vampire before. I mean, I can try. I’ve no real objections to her being here. Just, maybe start her outside the prison and walk her in slowly. Any tingling or pain and she should stop immediately. Do vampires even feel pain?”

Wayne just shrugged.

“Maybe have her walk with her arm out. If her arm explodes, don’t go in any further.”

“That works.”

Wayne took a moment to glance around the room. “You did get that thing we went for, right?”

Eva started, jumping a hair into the air.

Placing a hand on her chest, Zoe shook her head. “It’s alright. I got it before we left.”

Taking out her dagger and pointing at the ground, Zoe pulled the obelisk out of its storage. It appeared an inch above the ground. The loud thud that it made as it hit the cement floor was enough to send a few cracks through the ground.

Thankfully, the obelisk itself was undamaged.

“Hope this was worth it,” he said. “Time to lay low for the next ten years again.”

Eva pushed herself up into a sitting position. “Yeah,” she said. “I hope it works.”

For a moment, a silence fell over the three. Until a grunt from Wayne shattered the peace.

“Now quit moping around, Spencer. Get these damn masks off us and go get Ward out of Hell.”

Eva jumped at his voice. She shot him a glare, but nodded. Both of their masks melted off their faces after Eva fingered her dagger.

“I’ll add Serena’s blood to the wards before,” she trailed off as she glanced at the obelisk. Her eyes flicked up to meet with Zoe’s. “It’s heavy. Even for me. I might need help.”

“I can levitate it, at least partially.” Zoe didn’t hesitate in her response. She could almost imagine the thoughts going through Eva’s mind. Arachne could have lifted it without breaking a sweat. “Landing in your domain might be awkward, but we can manage.”

“Great,” Wayne said. His tone was almost sarcastic and he spoke with a frown, but he didn’t say anything more about her going to Hell again.

Maybe this time, I’ll have a chance to look around and inspect some things, Zoe thought. Her tutoring sessions with Shalise were just that, tutoring. All of Shalise’s classes compressed into the span of an hour or two every other week left no time to really get a thorough understanding of how Hell worked. I’ll need to grab a notebook.

“I’ll bring Serena in five minutes. Be finished by then.” Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Wayne vanished with a burst of cold air.

“Better get started,” Eva said with a sigh as she climbed to her feet. “I hope Nel finished with that salt.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


006.029

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Zoe dove to the side, ducking into the white room while narrowly avoiding the returned lightning from the stairwell.

While her own lightning might not have been the most powerful thing she could have thrown, she had serious misgivings about killing people who were just doing their jobs. Especially when she was the one breaking and entering with the intent to steal priceless artifacts.

The Elysium Order was under no such hesitations. White lightning that only narrowly missed colliding with Zoe hit the ground a short distance behind her.

A resounding thunder sent Zoe’s head ringing. Enhancing her ears to hear the approaching guards worked against her. She couldn’t hear a thing aside from a high-pitched whine. Zoe wasted no time in retuning her hearing to normal levels. It would take a minute or two, but she needed a clear head and the ability to hear.

For the moment, she could still see. It would have to do.

Lightning crackled against the stone bricks making up the floor. There was a brief instant where nothing happened.

Dust filled the hallway as the stones exploded. Chunks of stone that had not been obliterated or pulverized into dust flew through the air. A few pieces impacted the outside wall of the room, sending cracks through the pure white of the inside. The ward keeping the walls white flickered twice before failing.

One brick struck Serena in the stomach, forcing the air out of her lungs as it carried her back into the growing cloud of dust.

Probably for the best. The vampire wouldn’t die from a rock to the stomach, and the dust would help keep her hidden from the nuns.

Her invisibility trick wouldn’t work while their eyes were aglow.

Of course, Zoe thought as two less powerful bolts careened down the hallway, they don’t really need to see if they flood the hallway with lightning.

The lightning sparked a hint of fear in Zoe. Before anything else, she sent a breeze through the air to clear a good portion of the dust. Enough was left for some cover, mostly for Serena, but they shouldn’t have to worry about a spark setting off a dust explosion.

Air partially cleared, Zoe immediately set to returning fire–or lightning, as the case was. They couldn’t be allowed to advance down the hallway. She barely angled her arm around one of the stone doors to attack.

A lightning bolt struck the door frame just as she pulled her hand back. Unlike the floor, the door took the lightning without complaint. In fact, it was more like the door absorbed the lightning.

The hallway wasn’t that large. Randomly firing bolts downrange would end up hitting one of them sooner or later once they stepped out of the room.

A far more effective tactic would be to simply flood the hallway with fire. Perhaps they were simply attempting less destructive tactics to start with.

Or Wayne is keeping the fire down, Zoe thought with a glance towards her colleague. He was right at the door frame of the stone doors, tome out and eyes shut in concentration. Since there were none of his flames cropping up, he must be keeping their flames dampened.

“–need you off of the nun. I’ll keep her from doing anything.”

Eva’s voice was muted. Muffled slightly by some lingering damage to Zoe’s hearing. It would have to work well enough for the moment.

By the time Zoe turned to her student, Arachne was back to her human size. Eva knelt on the ground with a short stone obelisk standing next to her. She was in the process of smearing something black across the captive augur’s face.

“Lie down,” Eva said, “face down. So much as move and you won’t have much of a face. Probably not much of a head in general. And rest assured, I’ll know if you move. Even while on the second floor, I’ll know.”

Zoe might have had something to say about Eva’s callous threat to the obviously terrified augur had she not been engaged in slinging more bolts of lightning blindly down the hall.

“We can’t teleport out,” Wayne said with a slight grunt. His eyes were still closed, but he had moved up closer to Zoe. “We’ll need to get to the main floor at the very least, if not entirely out of the cathedral itself.”

“Any plans?” Zoe called out between bolts.

“Working on it,” Eva said as she slung her backpack off. “Just keep them busy for a moment.”

Zoe’s question had been directed more towards Wayne. Or, she had expected a response from Wayne more than Eva. The girl had been insistent that she could do this on her own. Failing at the first sign of resistance would definitely hurt her pride.

If she did fail, Wayne would have to step up. Escaping situations like this was basically his job–his old job. Though he hadn’t ever done such a thing with so many people to her knowledge.

So Zoe focused on doing what she could to help out. Namely, redoubling her efforts in holding back the Elysium Order.

She slipped in a few slashes of razor wind between the lightning. The dust in the air curled around them, making them partially visible. Still, the first few came as a surprise if the startled shouts were any indication.

Zoe wasn’t sure how to feel about that and she didn’t really have the time to put into thinking about it.

The brief worry did remind Zoe that the Elysium Order had powerful shields. Better than anything Zoe had created through thaumaturgy over the course of her career. They were probably unharmed.

With that in mind, she ramped up the power of all of her attacks.

“You know what you’re doing?”

Zoe turned to Wayne as he spoke. He was no longer concentrating, but rather moving as far away from Eva as he could get without pressing up against the wall.

“Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

Zoe fired off another two bolts into the dust before turning to find out just what Eva was doing.

One look and Zoe promptly took three steps away from the girl, pressing herself against the heavy stone door.

Eva had Genoa’s snake golem on the floor in front of her and was in the process of pouring a dark orange potion over the top of it. She was being careful not to let a single drop fall to the floor, something that was becoming easier and easier as she continued.

Once she finished upending the vial, she knelt down and picked up the obelisk before taking a few steps back herself. There was a short strain in lifting the stone structure, but Arachne caught and steadied her until Eva managed to get herself under control.

The stone carving swelled. It stretched out, quickly becoming large enough to fill out the entire width of the hallway. The tail thrashed, sending the wooden center door flying back into the room it once guarded. With the added room for its tail, the snake appeared to relax.

For a moment, at least. Once the snake’s width grew enough for its scales to reach both ends of the door frame, it started squirming again.

The walls were giving way more than the blackish scales.

“E,” Zoe said, warning in her voice. At least, as much warning as she could cram into a single letter.

The snake whipped its head to Zoe at the sound. Its silver and black eyes bored into her.

Zoe took another three steps back, extremely grateful that the creature was stone and not turning her to stone. A fact that the basilisk seemed to realize as well.

“Stop!” Eva commanded as the sculpture started slithering towards Zoe. It continued forwards for a second–growing all the while–before an unnatural stillness overcame it. “Holding it with the blood inside,” Eva said without a hint of concern in her voice, though there was a bit of strain as she shifted the obelisk in her arms. “Too much growth potion?”

“Get it out of here before it crushes us,” Wayne shouted.

“Right. Down the hall,” Eva said, pointing her arm. “Don’t try to bite or stare. Just crush everything.”

The head of the snake was forcibly dragged away from Zoe. Eva set it to looking out the stone doors.

“Is it going to follow your orders?” Zoe asked.

Eva tried to shrug. The effort was there, but her shoulders barely moved. “Doubt it. She hasn’t followed anything else I’ve said. I don’t think it was designed for that. Maybe I will take golemancy next year,” she mused under her breath.

“Will it attack us?”

“No. She is full of blood that I can manipulate. Just stay behind her as she charges out of here. I think she should take at least a few bolts of lightning before anything bad happens to her.”

“Maybe more than that,” Zoe murmured. She wouldn’t be able to say for certain without seeing it in action, but it was doubtful that they would be able to ‘kill’ it unless they hit the golem animation core. The main body was carved from stone which should be somewhat hardy.

Of course, if they hit it a few times with blasts as powerful as the initial lightning that created the dust cloud, it might not matter all that much in the long run. Half of the thing could turn to dust before the actual core was exposed.

“Get it moving,” Wayne ordered, still backing away as the snake grew larger.

Eva didn’t argue. The snake’s unnatural stillness ended after a slight nudge out into the hallway. It slithered out, body winding back and forth as it pushed its scales against the ground.

Arachne moved up to Eva’s side, using her body to help cover Eva from any enemy fire while helped to hold the obelisk. The two of them charged out in a slight crouch so as to keep behind the snake’s bulk. Eva paused for just one moment to vaguely gesture with a nod of her head into the still settling cover of dust.

“Serena is lying there, if anyone cares. Can’t tell if she’s alive or not.”

Keeping herself low to the ground, Zoe sent out another dust clearing gust of wind. She was careful to keep a wall of the dust between them and the stairwell. No need to make it easy on the nuns.

Serena had a brick-sized hole in her stomach. One bloodied brick was stuck half in her side along with several smaller shards of stone.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” the vampire said with ragged breath.

“No time to argue,” Zoe said. She flicked her dagger towards Serena, levitating her just above the ground.

Wayne appeared at her side. Without a word, he incinerated the ground that Serena had been lying and bleeding on.

As one, they turned and ran to catch up to Eva, Arachne, and the snake.

They emerged from the cover of the lingering dust between the room and the stairwell. There was a sharp cry of “Basilisk,” from one of the nuns. The lightning cut off almost instantly. The few bolts that hit the snake did only marginal damage to the stone scales.

Tuning her ears’ sensitivity ever so slightly, Zoe heard the rustling of clothes moving farther away. They were retreating up the stairwell. Probably to set up an ambush that could take out a basilisk without exposing themselves to its gaze.

The nuns were obviously not yet aware that its gaze was entirely impotent.

“Don’t dawdle,” Wayne grunted. “There aren’t many here, but if they call for backup, escaping will be problematic.”

Zoe had no intention of slowing down. Neither did the snake. It crashed its bulk into the closed stairwell door, turning it to wood pulp as it started its scramble up the stairs.

The second floor wouldn’t be so bad. While there were plenty of augur rooms to set up ambushes in, Eva should be able to spot anyone inside with her blood sight. Wayne would be able to seal the doors by melting the handles. Zoe could toss up a few barriers of solid air around the doors for good measure. It wouldn’t stop anyone permanently, but it would delay them.

And delaying them was all they really needed. Once they arrived at the top floor, they should be home free according to Wayne.

At the staircase’s landing, the stairs looped back. The basilisk turned with the stairs, offering Zoe her first good look at the front of it.

She did not like what she saw.

What she had originally thought to be only marginal damage–judged by the lack of debris coming off the basilisk when it got hit–looked far worse now that she got a better view.

The scales that had been hit looked like a slab of meat being pulled apart. Each spot was roughly the size of her head. Not what she would have expected from a stone carving.

Both spots that had been hit looked like they were trying to repair themselves. As Zoe watched, one thin strand of meat latched on to the opposite side of the wound and started growing. It didn’t make it very far before disintegrating into dust.

The anti-magic qualities of the Elysium Order’s lightning at work, no doubt.

Whatever Eva had done to the snake was too far out of Zoe’s expectations to accurately predict anything.

Though, Zoe thought as they came up to the first basement level’s landing, Eva’s plan appears to be working well so far.

Just before exiting the door–or making a new exit as the case may be–the basilisk was overcome by the same unnatural stillness that it had when Eva stopped it earlier.

“Four hiding in the room immediately on our right. Another three in the room after that. They’ll probably wait for us to pass before pinching us against whatever lies at the end of the hallway.”

“Wayne and I will take care of that.”

“You concentrate on keeping your monstrosities from murdering us,” Wayne added with a disgruntled grunt.

Eva didn’t rise to his comment. She might not have had the energy to. There were small beads of sweat forming on her forehead.

Zoe almost asked why she hadn’t just handed the obelisk off to Arachne when the answer became obvious. Arachne was a front line fighter. If and when the basilisk fell, Arachne would need to rush in to take its place. Doing so with an obviously weighty obelisk wouldn’t be easy. Probably. That would have been Zoe’s plan, anyway.

With a short nod towards Wayne, Eva released her hold over her basilisk.

It didn’t hesitate to charge straight through the door, taking part of the wall with it.

Lightning rained down the hallway. The majority of it sunk into the semi-organic scales of the sculpture. A few bolts did get past, but they were ones that had been angled upwards. Though she kept low anyway, Zoe doubted she needed to duck to avoid anything. The snake’s bulk was simply that massive.

Purposeful or not, the few bolts that missed the snake did impact the ceiling. Most only left scorch marks.

Zoe and Wayne had to pause their blocking of the side rooms to erect quick thaumaturgical shields around themselves. Almost as an afterthought, Zoe tossed a quick shield around Serena as well.

The vampire was visibly looking better than she had only a minute ago, but it didn’t look like she was quite ready to walk just yet.

After shielding Serena, Zoe thought to put up a shield around Eva as well. Her spell stopped mid-cast.

Arachne, ducking low at Eva’s side just behind the basilisk, plucked a stray brick right out of the air without so much as glancing in its direction. It would have struck Eva in the shoulder otherwise.

Pulling herself up to her full height, Arachne reared back and pitched the brick like it was a baseball.

It zipped through the air before coming to a stop with a meaty thud. Zoe’s enhanced ears picked up a masculine groan.

A monk perhaps?

The lightning stopped a moment later–nuns rushing to his aid?–but not before a stray bolt struck the still standing Arachne square in her chest.

Shards of carapace exploded off her front and back.

Wayne was on point in incinerating every piece that detached from the demon. They didn’t have time to land before an orb of intense heat enveloped each individual shard. Several of them were flying towards the two of them, but they wouldn’t be anything a shield couldn’t handle. It was more likely that he was incinerating them to keep them out of the hands of the Elysium Order’s augurs.

Zoe couldn’t begin to calculate how hot the flames had to be to disintegrate Arachne’s carapace, but it obviously was not inconsiderable. She caught sight of more than a few pages of his tome going up in flames as his eyes twitched back and forth between each piece. Judging by the twitches of his eyes, he had altered his mental perceptions as fast as he could go.

“Arachne!”

Eva set the obelisk down on the floor, making sure not to damage the structure. The second it was down, she had her dagger out and aimed at Arachne’s chest. The demon caught her hand just before she could plunge it in.

“I’m fine,” Arachne growled. She was clutching at her chest, black ichor dripping from between her fingers.

Wayne was incinerating the drops that touched fell through the air as well, though it was taking far less effort than the chitin.

“Focus on your snake. I can heal.”

Eva shook her head. “Have to stop your bleeding.” With a flick of her wrist, Eva’s dagger crossed the short distance between where her hand was caught and Arachne’s chest. Her other hand caught the dagger and pressed the flat of the blade against the wound.

In seconds, Eva had formed a plate wrapping around Arachne’s torso. It was the same type of blood hardening that went into making their masks. While it meshed surprisingly well with Arachne’s natural carapace, Zoe doubted it would provide even half as much armor.

“Keep your head down,” Eva said as she finished. “That’s why we have Basila.”

“I can take a hit from those pathetic creatures.”

“Obviously not,” Eva tapped the plate. “Were you not paying attention when we picked up Sister Abbey? At least that one nun has prepared for demons. Probably her whole chapter. Maybe the whole of the Elysium Order.”

Eva turned from Arachne to pick up the obelisk again. “Just be careful.” That said, Eva hefted up the obelisk and started walking the short distance between where Arachne had been hit and where her basilisk had charged off during the brief lightning intermission.

By the time they made it a good three-quarters of the way down the hall, the lightning had started up again. This time, however, they seemed to be much more careful in not missing the basilisk.

The basilisk was obviously slowing down. Zoe had a feeling that Eva was doing a lot to help push it forward and keep it going through her blood magics. Its slithering side to side had all but stopped. At this rate, they’d be stuck behind it before getting to the top of the stairs.

Zoe was tossing the occasional lightning and razor wind of her own while Wayne was doing the same with fireballs. But after seeing Arachne nearly finished off by a single bolt, she was far more hesitant about sticking her arm around the basilisk’s bulk.

She had taken a hit from the Elysium Order’s lightning before and it had not been pleasant then. If Eva was correct in that they had been adapting their magic to combat demons, then it was entirely possible that the lightning wouldn’t do anything unusual to her, as she wasn’t a demon.

Taking the chance did not seem wise.

With her attacks not doing much, Zoe kicked her mind into motion.

If their eyes are closed, how are they aiming?

It was entirely possible that they had realized the deception of the basilisk. Or perhaps thought that the nun that had originally called that out had simply been mistaken. Alternatively, all the nuns could have blindfolds on while following the directions of an augur. The augur wouldn’t need to see it directly and thus, would have no danger of looking in the basilisk’s eyes.

Neither of the two options were easily interruptible.

“Serena, any cover or distractions you can provide would be most welcome.”

“Are their eyes glowing?”

“Most likely,” Zoe said.

“Then I can’t–”

“Serena,” Wayne interrupted. “We are taking over.”

The vampire stilled as she met Wayne’s eyes. He gave her a brief nod.

“Fiine,” she said with a sigh. “If I die, I’m haunting you forever.”

“Sounds annoying. Try not to die.”

“Aww, you do care!” Serena cooed. “Set me down.” When Zoe hesitated, Serena pointed at her stomach. “This is just a flesh wound. I’ll heal it up as soon as I get some blood in me.”

Zoe put an arm on the shorter vampire’s shoulder to help steady her as she regained her balance. “What are you going to do?”

“I hate getting my hands dirty, but I am a vampire. And a hungry one at that. Smelling this mask,” she took a deep breath, “I just want to bite into it. Gobble it all up. Like a potato chip!”

Her voice took on a slightly more dangerous tone than her normal frivolous cadence. “I’ll just have to sate my appetites on something else for now.”

“Grab Spencer and get ready to run,” Wayne said, looking towards Zoe.

Wayne and Serena took off in a sprint. Serena vaulted onto the basilisk’s back while Wayne just went around its side. The moment they cleared its head, a wall of flame erupted in front of Wayne. It stretched from wall to wall, floor to ceiling.

It took off. With the sound of a jet engine, it moved from the tips of Wayne’s shoes down the hallway, growing faster and louder the more it moved.

Once enough space had cleared between the fire wall and Wayne, Serena vaulted off the back of the snake over Wayne’s head. She took off in a sprint fast enough that she was hard to track with Zoe’s enhanced eyes.

Leaving them to their own devices, Zoe ran up to a slightly shocked Eva.

“What are they doing?”

“Clearing the area, I assume. We’re following.” Taking Eva’s arm in hand, Zoe started to move after the other two.

But Eva did not budge.

“I can’t leave Basila,” she said, handing the obelisk off to Arachne.

The demon took it easily, not even shifting her stance despite the added weight.

Reaching into her backpack, Eva started digging around. She pulled out vial after vial, checking each one.

If they had the time, Zoe would have loved to have let her finish. They didn’t have any time. Wayne was getting farther away with every passing moment and they couldn’t afford to fall too far behind. If the nuns back in the sealed off rooms managed to escape, the situation would turn quite sticky.

“It was an admirable attempt and worked surprisingly well. I’m sure Genoa would be happy to know that her toy played such a significant role in saving Shalise. But we must go.”

“I can’t leave Basila. She’s full of my blood. I could try pulling it out, but a good deal would be left behind because it is too ruined from contact with the basilisk and the lightning,” Eva said as she dumped a vial of red liquid over the sculpted basilisk. “I’d rather not have it fall into the hands of the augurs.”

Zoe mistook the vial for more blood for a moment before noticing that the basilisk was slowly losing inches off its length. A shrinking potion to counteract the growth.

But it was taking too long.

“Can you use your blood to push it forward?”

“Holding it still is one thing, helping it move is another, moving it on my own is another entirely.” Eva frowned at it. “I don’t know that it will move on its own again. Once it is small enough, I can handle it.”

Zoe could understand that. From the front, it looked less like a snake and more of pulped meat. She found it mildly disturbing just how organic appearing something that she knew had been carved from stone was.

“We’ll move it,” Arachne said. She started growing a bulbous behind and several extra legs. “The professor’s air magic, Eva’s blood, and my strength.”

As she grew, Arachne handed the obelisk back to Eva. The younger girl stumbled for just a moment before Arachne stabilized her with something resembling a hug. The two stayed together, neither moving save for Arachne’s continued growth.

After reaching her full height, the full-bodied Arachne positioned herself directly over the front of the snake. She hefted the front in the air, using her arms and two of her legs to hold it against her body.

Zoe hoped that the potion had already been fully absorbed into the basilisk. As Wayne had said, it wasn’t designed for living creatures.

Still, if anyone could handle parts of themselves shrinking, it would be Arachne. Zoe concentrated on levitating the tail of the sculpture. They could worry about side effects for Arachne later.

With Eva taking care of most of the mid-section through her blood magic, they started off towards the staircase, Wayne, and Serena.

It was somewhat of an awkward situation, moving as they were. Though Arachne had the worst of it by far. The basilisk was constantly shrinking. Though it wasn’t fast, Arachne occasionally had to stop to get a better grip on the front of the snake. Combined with her walking on only six of eight legs, using the other two to help lift the basilisk, their group wasn’t moving all that fast.

But they were moving.

Zoe just hoped that Wayne and Serena could hold out up ahead for a few more minutes.

The very stone itself was on fire in some places. The occasional tapestries that Zoe had taken note of on the way down were gone entirely. No corpses, though one nun had fallen into a torpor with blood dribbling down her neck.

Zoe doubted that she had been left alive out of the goodness of Serena’s heart. More likely that someone had interrupted her feeding, or she simply decided that moving on to her next target was needed more than killing the nun.

By the time they reached the base of the staircase, the snake had shrunk by half. Still too large to carry on any one of their owns, but it was becoming far more manageable for Eva and Zoe.

They started climbing the stairs with Arachne still readjusting her grip every few steps.

“When we get to the top, we shouldn’t have much farther to go. Once Wayne gives the signal, we’re going to teleport.”

“If they haven’t set up more wards,” Eva grumbled.

“Hopefully they have been too busy dealing with us to set up wards. There aren’t many of them and several are still locked up in the rooms below us.”

“They won’t have warded against banishment. Probably. If your teleport is broken, I can get us out. It won’t be pleasant. At all. Though, judging by how the vampire reacted to your teleport, she might find it more agreeable than your teleports.”

Zoe had a picture of the mostly mutilated Sister Cross suddenly surface in her mind. She shook it out of her head as Eva continued talking.

“It is how I intended to escape before you all insisted on coming,” Eva continued. “Even downstairs, I don’t think they would have warded for banishment.”

“Can’t take Serena to your prison without adding her to your wards,” Zoe commented as she considered what Eva had said.

With how well her basilisk had performed, she might have actually been able to do this entirely on her own. She supposed it depended on the stone door and how well it held up to a basilisk ramming into it a few times. Arachne would have been able to help.

It certainly would have skipped over this portion of their theft. But, had Eva followed through with her plan to remove the two guards outside the first staircase, she would have alerted everyone much sooner. It was entirely possible that she would have been forced to retreat before even making it to the second basement.

As they reached the top of the staircase, Wayne and Serena once again came into view.

And fire. Lots of fire.

Unlike the basement levels, the cathedral had been constructed with plenty of wood in addition to stone.

And all of it was on fire.

Serena bounced around the hallway like some hyperactive child while Wayne stood his ground, unleashing powerful bursts of flame to keep the Elysium Order from moving from where they had taken cover. He only made minute movements when an attack came his way. Just enough to dodge.

Zoe used her magic to clear the smoke from the air. The snake was small enough now that Eva could handle it on her own, though Arachne continued to help out.

Catching sight of them at the top of the stairs, Wayne called out, “final push then be ready to get out.”

“Okaay,” Serena replied as she landed on top of a screaming monk. No shield appeared around him. There was nothing to keep her off or to prevent her fangs from tearing a hole in his neck.

“I can handle Basila. Arachne, latch on to me.”

Arachne stayed where she was, interposing herself between Eva and the Elysium Order. “You won’t have anything to block lightning without the snake or me.”

“You’re going to get left behind,” Eva said, exasperation clear in her voice. “Maybe if you’d learn to teleport yourself.” She glanced over to Zoe, “If Arachne continues to be stubborn, I can teleport us out as soon as you guys leave.”

Though she didn’t take her eyes off the combat ahead of her, Zoe shook her head. “I’m not leaving before you.”

Eva just sighed.

The basilisk, which had been as long as a van when they got to the top floor, was shrinking ever more rapidly as it grew smaller. It was down to the size of her arm. Before long, it would be back to its original length, able to easily wind itself around a set of fingers. Probably. Would it stop at the original size? Smaller? How would the potion know? She would have to double-check with Wayne.

Her own potion theory was lacking.

Shaking her head, Zoe decided that now was probably not the best place to worry about such things.

Instead, Zoe pressed forward with Eva and Arachne–still in her largest form. They were so close to getting away. The end of the hallway would be the end of the wards.

Should be the end.

Wayne and Serena were doing a perfect job of pushing back the Elysium Order despite their increased desperation. It helped that there were not many of them. Zoe only counted six nuns and the sole monk. A few of which were no longer able to fight back.

Zoe added her own attacks to the mix now that she was close enough to the fight. A number of Eva’s orbs of blood fired off, splattering against the nuns’ shields before exploding violently.

Now that she could clearly see her enemy, Zoe felt a pang of regret. Only one of the six here was in the proper Elysium Order attire. Her habit was rumpled and coated in blood–probably the monk’s blood. Everyone else looked to be dressed in sleepware of various sorts. One even had pink bunny slippers.

Zoe shook her head and pressed forward.

They were almost out. Only a few feet more to go.

Without a word of communication between them, Wayne and Serena found themselves with their backs against each other. He wrapped an arm around her waist. After a brief nod towards Zoe, they both disappeared. All that was left behind was a blast of cold air followed by a heat wave as a wall of fire sprung up between Zoe and the nuns.

That answers that question, Zoe thought.

“Arachne,” Eva shouted as she wrapped the basilisk around her arm, “shrink down!”

The spider-demon was already shrinking back into her human form when Eva shouted.

At Eva’s shout, Arachne dove over just in time to catch a bolt of lightning that had been aimed at Eva.

She caught it against the side of her face.

Shards of carapace exploded outwards, some cutting into Eva.

The girl didn’t move in the slightest. She stared onwards as the bright glow in Arachne’s four remaining eyes dimmed slightly.

The demon slumped over, crashing into the ground just as a dark portal opened up beneath her.

“No!” Eva dove to the ground, dropping the obelisk at her feet and narrowly avoiding a second bolt of lighting. The obelisk landed on its side with a heavy thud.

Thankfully, the stone hadn’t cracked.

Eva gripped Arachne’s limp arm and pulled. “You can heal damn it.”

In spite of Eva’s grip on Arachne’s arm, the spider demon was still sinking into the portal. Eva’s hands were inching closer and closer to it.

“Eva, let go!”

Zoe dove and tackled Eva, pulling her away from the portal. She didn’t know if Eva could get sucked into it, but she wasn’t willing to take the chance. Recovering Shalise and Juliana had been trying enough. She did not want a repeat of that incident.

“Arachne,” Eva cried out. Her outstretched claw dug into Zoe’s back.

Biting down on her own cry of pain, Zoe rolled twice with Eva before coming to a stop. They were dodging enough lightning as it was. Wayne’s flame wall wouldn’t last forever.

Gripping her dagger in hand, Zoe reached out and touched the obelisk. Wayne had undoubtedly already tried to place the heavy object in storage. The wards would have prevented his action. Here, she had already seen Wayne and Serena disappear. There were obviously no wards in place at the moment.

As soon as it was safe and sound, Zoe started to turn the teleportation on herself and Eva.

The sound of glass shattering stopped her cold as much as the color of Eva’s luminescent eyes. The slits of her eyes were drawn so tight that it was almost as if there wasn’t a pupil at all. The normally blood-red iris was glowing as if someone had shoved two dying suns into her face.

A fountain of black blood erupted from Eva’s backpack. The jar must have broken.

Except, this was far too much blood.

It just kept spewing forth like a bad cartoon. The liquid flowed up and down Eva and Zoe’s arms. A good portion of it started forming a wire frame ball around the two of them.

Zoe didn’t stand by to see what would happen. Her teleport would incapacitate Eva for a minute or two, hopefully giving the girl a chance to calm down.

She gripped her dagger in one hand and hugged Eva with the other before allowing the world to fall away as the cold white of Between replaced it.

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