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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She might be replaced.

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

What a disaster.

Nel shook her head and stared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” “Him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for Ylva to say, “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here will suffice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we be expecting more?”

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

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

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

— — —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nel Stirling.”

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

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

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

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

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

Which hadn’t been fun either.

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

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

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

“You have no authority here, demon.”

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

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

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

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

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

Guess we’ll find out.


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

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

Maybe shoes would be a good investment.

Too late now.

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

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

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

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

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

Eva wasn’t holding out much hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty, but it really had to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That seemed to backfire a bit with the recent developments.

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

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

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

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

“What do you want to know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a manner of speaking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was clear that she needed to try something new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she paused and turned to face the two girls.

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

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

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

But… was that wise decision?

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

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

“Nope,” Eva said with a smile.

“Good. We’ll–What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t just–”

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

Both of the nuns took a step back.

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

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

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